Dante Dettamanti
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Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships

Volume 2 Number 12
September 15, 2014

Water Polo Doesn’t Come with an Instruction Book – That’s Why We Have Coaches.

This is a continuation of recent articles on the drive-first offense. We will begin to focus on some of the individual skills necessary for players to perform in order to make the drive-first attack successful. The most obvious individual skill, ONE-ON-ONE DRIVING, will be covered in this article; while another necessary skill, PICKS AND SCREENS, will be covered in a future article.

Driving one-on-one against a defender is the most obvious individual skill in a drive-style attack. This skill was taught extensively in the United States during the 50’s and through the early 80’s; but has now become a “lost art” among water polo players. We have gone from performing driving every day in practice, to never practicing it at all. If coaches want to install any kind of driving attack to their offense, then we have to go back to performing this skill again in daily practices.


For a drive to succeed, it is necessary for an attacking player to correctly execute the individual fundamental movements, and then put them together to complete the final drive. As in most water polo skills, the drive must start with the correct body position; that is facing the defender with hips and legs near the surface of the water; ready to move forward towards the defender and the goal. The primary objective of the drive is to beat the defender and achieve “ball side”  or inside position in front of the goal.

For a right-handed driver, and the ball on the right side of the pool, a good ball-side drive finishes in front of the goal with the defender ending up on the driver’s left shoulder, and with the driver’s right shoulder and hand free to receive the pass. A secondary finish position for the driver is to get completely past the defender and achieve “inside” position in front of the goal, with the defender ending up on the driver’s back. This is called gaining “inside water”.


The position of the defender in front of the driver has a lot to do with what kind of final position the driver ends up with. The easiest way to achieve a ball-side drive is against a defender who is playing on the wrong side (left) of the driver, or directly in front of the driver; as shown below. With an explosive start, propelled with a quick stroke and a hard breaststroke-scissor kick, the driver can easily get ball-side on the defender who is out of position to defend the ball-side drive.

Diagram 1


The most difficult defender to drive against is one who is positioned to take the ball-side position on the right; and also has his hips up in a good defensive posture. The driver can still gain ball-side on the driver; but it requires more than one move to do so. In order to gain ball-side position, the driver must first make a hard two-stroke move to the side the defender is giving him; as if he were going to drive to that side (the driver’s left). In other words, he must “sell” the defender into thinking that he wants to drive to the left.

The objective here is to get the defender to counter the first move by turning onto his stomach and swimming to stay in front of the driver. Once the driver gets the defender in a swimming position on his stomach, he abruptly stops and changes direction by crossing over the defenders feet and then to the right (ball-side). See diagram below.


The driver has several options here depending on what the ball-side defender does. If the defender does not “bite” on the first move to the left, and simply stays put; the driver can continue to the left and try to get past the defender by driving for “inside-water”. Of course, the inside water drive is much easier if the defender is in a poor defensive vertical hips-down position. An explosive move can get the driver all of the way past the defender, who must go from vertical to horizontal before he can even start to defend the drive.

Once the driver gets his head and shoulders past the defender, he must slide in front of him with the right shoulder, keeping the defender on his back while maintaining inside position. Achieving this, the driver must then stop and keep the defender behind him by keeping his hips up and arms wide. Protecting the space in front of him, and not getting too close to the goalkeeper will allow a safe pass to be made inside to the driver’s right hand for a good shot on goal. See diagram below.

Diagram 3


If the defender cannot get past the defender because the defender does a good job of maintaining ball-side position on the right, the driver should swim (force) the defender towards the center of the goal, and then make a 90 degree left hand turn ON HIS STOMACH, away from the defender and towards the 2-post. If he has beaten the defender to the post position, he simply brings his legs under him and goes up into a vertical position to receive the cross-pass for a shot on goal. See diagram below.

Diagram 4


Coaches will sometimes coach their defensive players, “don’t let the driver get past you” or “don’t give up inside water”. In this situation, the defender who is afraid of the inside water drive may create a space between himself and the driver by backing away before the drive starts.

If the defender backs away, there is no need to drive at all. He is esentially giving the driver an outside shot because he is afraid of the driver getting past him. If the driver is within 5-6 meters of the goal, he only has to take one stroke, bring his legs under him, and then pop up high in a vertical position to receive the cross-pass for the “catch and shoot” shot on the goal. The defender will not have time to get to him and stop the shot.

The defender may also get right up on top of the driver and just hold him to keep him from moving at all. In the scenario where the driver is being held, he must show the referee that he is being held without trying to push away from the defender. Any aggressive movement to break free from the defender will usually result in an offensive foul on the driver. The best way to draw the foul (under new rules it should be called as an exclusion), is to use the legs and eggbeater-up so that the shoulders are out of the water; and at the same time shake the shoulders to show that he is being held.

If the defender is being held by the arms, the driver can try to raise his arm(s) above the water, and then struggle to show the referee that he is being held. Simply sitting still and letting the defender hold the driver will not show the referree anything. The driver must struggle to get the call.


1. The driver shoul start the drive far enough away from the goal so that he has enough room to operate, and doesn’t end up on the two, right on top of the goalie.

2.  Getting free on a drive and not receiving the ball is essentially a wasted drive. Correct timing is essential for a successful drive. If the driver wants the ball, he must start the drive immediately on hearing a whistle; or when he knows that his teammate can get him the ball.

3. The start of the drive must be explosive, with a quick and rapid arm stroke and a hard breaststroke kick. A “stop and start” or “double” move can be very effective in that it allows the driver to see how the defender reacts to his first move. Then he can make a secondary move to get free.

4. The driver must keep his head up at all times; so that he can see where the defender is, and how the defender reacts to the intitial move. Another reason to keep the head-up is to know where the ball is, and when it is being passed. The driver should be ready to receive the ball at any point during the drive.

5. The driver must never drive directly at the defender. The result could be an offensive foul; or it will allow the defender to easily hold him and stop the drive. The driver must make his first move before he gets to the defender, and at a slight angle to the right or left of the defender; depending on which side the defender is giving him. The goal of the driver is to drive around the defender, not through him!

6. Learn to “read” the defender’s head and body position. Take advantage of a defender who turns his head and looks away from him; or turns his body away from the driver with an outside spin move. Anytime the defender shows his back to the driver means that the defender is not in position to defend any move that the driver might make.

7. The driver has to learn how to maintain and hold inside water position, and to maintain the space between him and the goalie. It is essential that there is room for the ball to land. The ball does not not have to passed precisely in front of the driver; but only to the open space slightly in front of the shoulder, and to the right side near the shooting hand. The ball can also be passed dry, above and in front of the drivers head.

8. The driver must learn how to shoot the ball “off the water”. More times than not, he will gain inside water on a drive, and the ball will be on the water in front of him. With the goalie in front, and the defender behind him, this is an important skill to learn that could result in goals, or even 5-meter penalty shots.

9. The driver must be careful in making any movements away from the defender that can be construed as a “push-off” by the referee. A swimming movement must be on the stomach, and a vertical movement to catch the ball dry must be just that—-vertical, as in straight up.


A great way to utilize drivers and to create another wrinkle in your offense is to “post-up” one of your drivers; or your second 2-meter player. Start by clearing out your primary 2-meter player to one of the post positions; and then using the techniques described above, drive your best “post-up” driver (or your second 2-meter player) into the opposite post position.

This actually works very well; because a mismatch can be created with a smaller defender who is guarding the player driving into the post position. Usually the biggest defender is guarding the primary 2-meter player, and not guarding a driver. The designated post-up player swims ball-side into the post position, turns and receives the ball, picks up the ball, and either steps out and turns and shoot; or turns inside and faces the goalie for a shot or 5-meter penalty call.

Because the post is still considered a 2-meter position directly in front of the goal, the overmatched defender in this case has to allow the shot; or get excluded while trying to prevent the shot. Either way, it is a win-win situation for the offense. This can be a very effective way to score a goal, or draw an exclusion; and can also be used as a after-time-out play.


Because playing an offense without a 2-meter player is so foreign to most water polo teams, players need to be taught how to to this. First, I would use various drills to teach the players all of the necessary driving, shooting, and passing skills described above, including post-up moves.

One of the best individual drills for teaching driving is called “beat your man”. It is simply a one-on-one drill in which a driver tries to beat the defender to a position in front of the goal, from where he can get off a good shot. The coach can change the defensive tactics throughout the drill (without telling the driver); so that the driver has to “read” the defender’s position, and then react according to what the defender is giving him. E.g. Change defender position from left, right and directly in front.

Once the players have mastered the fundamental skills, it is time to put them together into a six-man front court attack. The best drill that I have found is to simply play 6-on-6 without a 2-meter player. In this drill everyone is a driver. This can be done in a half court set; or at the end of a counterattack, or both. The players make a semi-circle in front of the goal, and simply run a “driving only” offense without including a 2-meter player.

4-on-4 full court scrimmage, with players divide into teams; and in which goals can only come from counterattack or driving, is also a fun way to create competition; and also learn the driving game. A reward for the winning team, like getting out of practice early, can create a very intense and competitive game-like environment. All that the perimeter players are allowed to do is to drive individually toward the goal, or run screens to try and spring someone open in front of the goal.

If the person who drives does not receive the ball, or fails to get a shot off, he must swim to a wing opposite the ball; and a new drive or screen is run. He cannot sit in front of the goal. Emphasis should be on “ball-side” drives and screens, correct timing, maintaining balance, and correct passing and shooting. In these drills, players have to make DECISIONS on when and where to drive, when and where to pass the ball, and when and where to shoot the ball. These moves have to be rehearsed over and over again, and in many different game situations.

In the drive-first offense, an obvious situation that must be practiced is clearing out the area in front of the goal, driving first, and then driving again; or bringing in the 2-meter player. When driving into 2-meters, the center must use the same driving techniques as described above to gain good front (ball-side) position. Only when the players learn to execute their drives in different situations that they will encounter in a game will the drive game become an effective offensive weapon.