Questionable Tactics in Today's Water Polo Game

Dante Dettamanti
Water Polo Planet

Since my retirement from coaching seven years ago, I have watched many water polo games, both at home and abroad. The game has changed a lot since I first became involved in the sport fifty-two years ago; mainly because of rules changes over the years. Some of the basic fundamentals of the game, by and large, have remained the same. The changes in the game, however, have led to an erosion of the fundamentals and the necessity of teaching these fundamentals. We used to teach defensive positioning and guarding a player with the ball; now we teach fouling. We used to teach driving towards the goal and shooting after receiving the ball. Now we teach holding the ball in one place for a period of time and then taking the shot. Some of the tactics used by many of today’s teams are questionable at best. I constantly scratch my head and question “Why did that player do that?” or “Why is this team doing this?”  Following are examples of questionable execution of basic fundamentals and tactics that I have observed during the past few years:


This probably annoys and perplexes me more than any other aspect of the game. Players who don’t have to foul; but purposely commit the foul anyway.  I don’t understand?  Why are you fouling when you don’t have to? Did you forget that there is a shot clock in the game, and every time you foul you stop the clock? Not only are you giving the team on offense extra time to move the ball into the scoring area, but you are giving them more of an opportunity to score a goal. You are actually awarding a free pass to the player with the ball, instead of forcing the player to pass the ball under pressure. Don’t blame the referee for calling this foul. If you have a hand underwater and the player with the ball struggles a little, the referee has to make the call. Learn how to press and avoid the foul by showing both hands, and using your legs in order to maintain pressure on the player with the ball. The referee will not call the foul when you do that. 

I have seen games in which every player who has possession of the ball is deliberately fouled. What an ugly game to watch! Whistle after whistle! The only time you should deliberately foul is to prevent a goal from inside 5-meters; or foul the wing player so that you can drop back and help on the center-forward.

In a game that I observed several weeks ago, a team in possession of the ball was running out of time; and the player with the ball was in trouble, pinned against the lane line at the side of the pool. Instead of letting the clock run out, the defender deliberately fouled the player with the ball, stopping the clock. The awarded free pass went directly into 2-meters; resulting in an exclusion and goal, by the team that only a few moments before that was in danger of losing the ball.


This leads me to another questionable move on defense. A defender guarding the 2-meter player, playing directly behind him, and with one or both arms draped over the shoulder(s); rather than position himself correctly on the side of the shoulder. When the ball arrives in front of the 2-meter player, and the defender is playing directly behind him; it can’t help but be called an exclusion. If the defender plays around to the side of the 2-meter player, the same side that the ball is on; he has a chance of making the steal instead of committing the exclusion foul.  Reach around the side instead of over the shoulder.

Playing on the side of the ball may also discourage the passer from passing the ball to that side; or from making the pass at all. Getting a “piece of the ball” may even help to avoid the exclusion foul. It is easier to switch from side to side when behind the defender, if the player is playing low in the water, and not up on top of the center-forward. Use your hands to pull yourself back and forth behind the center-forward.


When the outside defender is about to steal the ball from the 2-meter player, the 2-meter defender has to immediately put both hands in the air so that he is not called for the exclusion. How many times have you seen the “sure” steal taken away because the 2-meter defender doesn’t put his hands up? The only team, this season, that I have seen effectively hold up two hands to avoid the foul when the steal was being made by a teammate, was the UCLA women’s team. Good coaching Adam!


I have observed this situation over and over again, and I don’t understand why it happens? A player receives the ball inside the 5-meter line and facing the goal. The defender behind the player with the ball reaches over the shoulder and is called for a 5-meter penalty shot. Why is it necessary to commit the 5-meter penalty, when you have the shooter covered and in a very poor shooting position? Think about it! You are playing directly behind the shooter; so he can’t pick the ball up. He has to shoot the ball off of the water with the goalie directly in front and towering above him. He is trapped into taking the lowest percentage shot in water polo!  Why commit the deliberate foul and give up the “for sure” much higher percentage penalty shot? Let’s see now? You deliberately foul a player who has less than a 25% chance of scoring the “off-the-water” shot; and give up a penalty shot, which has a 90% chance of scoring. Makes perfect sense to me!


At the Irvine tourney several weeks ago, I watched about twelve water polo games between many of the best college teams in the country. In 48 quarters of water polo, I saw only a total of six shots attempted after a player was fouled at 5-meters. In some games I didn’t see any attempts at all.  Why not? You are not going to get a better shot than a free shot on goal from five meters from the goal. You only have to beat one arm up and the goalie. I can understand not attempting the shot if you don’t have good body position to take the shot; or if the opportunity occurs very early in the 30-second possession, when you are still trying to work the ball into 2-meters.

But, not attempting the shot at all!  I don’t understand the reason for this? I recently saw a player fouled at 5-meters and directly in front of the goal, with three seconds left on the shot clock; pick up the ball and dump it in the corner rather than attempt the free shot on goal. Shouldn’t her coach be questioning her about why she didn’t attempt that shot? 

I have several times observed another situation that is even more questionable. The player with the ball is fouled just outside 5-meters and doesn’t even look at the goal; but instead looks at her teammate, asking her to release and pass the ball back to her so she can get “live”. She passes the ball to her teammate and receives the pass back. Only then does she turn towards the goal and look for her shot. Why go to all the trouble to get “live”, when she had a better chance to score right after she was fouled. Players should be coached to take a shot when a good opportunity presents itself. It shouldn’t matter whether it is early or late in the shot clock.


Whatever happened to “shooting off the pass”? With a preponderance of front-court and extra-man zone defenses being played, the opportunities to take an outside shot are many. However, it is difficult enough to score against a zone without decreasing your chances even more. I constantly see players catch the ball, wave it for about five seconds, allow the goalie and defenders to position themselves in front of the shooter, and then attempt the shot right into the defender and goalie arms. Result? A blocked shot! The chances of scoring against a zone are greatly increased if the player shoots immediately upon receiving the ball, before the defender and goalie can set themselves; rather than holding the ball, and holding the ball, and then shooting. The longer you hold the ball, the less chance you have of scoring a goal and the greater chance of someone blocking the shot.


We invented the press defense in this country. We probably got it from basketball. Now I see the Europeans press and teams in the USA playing nothing but zone defenses. Don’t get me wrong, a zone defense is fine at the appropriate time; and I understand why teams are playing a zone. Most teams are trying to avoid the 5-meter foul and shoot rule, and they want to be in position to crash back on the 2-meter player; so they play a zone. What kills me is that most teams don’t attempt a press at all. They just turn around and swim down the pool, stop in front of their own goal, turn around and put their arms up. Come on! You are allowing the attacking team to easily move the ball down the pool, and giving them all kinds of time to run their front-court offense.

At least make it a little more difficult for the attacking team to move the ball down the pool, by initially pressing on the counterattack. Then, after you press, you can turn around and go into a zone if you want to. It is not that hard to accomplish; press early and then come back into your zone. It may be a little more difficult in a 30-meter pool; because you have to cover a greater distance to come back into your zone. But in a 25-yard or 25-meter pool, there is no excuse for not pressing initially. When you are pressing, get you hands up and don’t foul! You are just helping the ball get down the pool. When you foul, you are defeating the purpose of the press; namely, to delay the ball down the pool and to create turnovers.


Teams seem to have no clue on what to do at the end of the game, when they are losing by a few goals. Don’t teams ever work on this situation in practice? I will give you a few hints. First, you need to get the ball back in your possession; because you need to have the ball if you want to score. You cannot allow the team that is leading to retain possession of the ball and just run the clock out.

Secondly, you need to stop the clock? I have seen teams who are losing simply come back into their zone; or play a very soft press. All this does is to allow the clock to just keep running down; which is exactly what the team that is leading wants to accomplish.
This is the one time in the game where you need to press hard and deliberately commit the foul to stop the clock! A player guarding the ball should go for the steal every time by going for the ball. I don’t mean once in a while; I mean EVERYTIME! Then if you don’t
get the ball, you have to foul, EVERYTIME! 

The rest of the defense should be playing in the passing lanes and fronting the hole-man in hopes of intercepting the pass. If you allow the ball to go into 2-meters while your team is pressing and spread out around the pool; you will not be in position to help back at two-meters. An exclusion is likely to happen if the ball is allowed into 2-meters. Not what you need in that situation. Learn to front the hole-man; or at the very least overplay the shoulder on the side that the ball is coming in from. Teams with the lead are not likely to force the pass into the hole-man when the defender is overplaying the ball-side. If they do force that pass, the defender will be in position to make the steal.


These are some of the situations that I have observed numerous times in games; and that have really bothered me. What I don’t understand is why players are doing these things? Are coaches not teaching the fundamentals of the game, letting players get away with playing incorrectly; or are players just not listening to the coaches, and playing the way that they want to? Perhaps it is laziness on the player’s part?  It is easier to foul rather than have to work hard not to commit a foul. It is also a lot easier to play a zone, rather than press all over the pool. If laziness is the reason for players playing this way, then ultimately is it up to the coaches to insure that their players are not taking the “easy way” out; but are playing the game correctly and fundamentally sound.