Where Have All the Individual Water Polo Skills Gone?

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

Butchering the lyrics from a song made popular by the old folk singers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, I sing, “Where have all the individual water polo skills gone; long time passing incorrectly.” Today many coaches during their practices use passing as a warm up drill. Consequently, they let their players pass helter-skelter-like while they attend other coaching duties. I think that is a major mistake because passing is one of the most important skills in all of water polo. I truly believe that players are going to play in games the way they play in practice. If a player practices poorly and without any intensity in practice then he or she will play poorly and without intensity in games. Thus, if you want your players to pass correctly in games then you had better make them pass correctly in practice.

When players are passing the ball dry in practice, there are two simple things you can watch for and they are 1) a player’s passing arm is completely out of the water when he or she passes, and 2) the ball is leaving the passer’s middle finger because if it is coming off the thumb or little finger it will be spinning. A spinning ball is much more difficult to catch. I really believe that anyone can catch a water polo ball if it is thrown correctly. Also at least twice a week or more you should have your players practice passing the ball wet to a two meter player. First, have the player pass the ball wet to the hole without a defender and then, next, have him or her pass the ball wet to the hole with a defender using layout passes. Finally, dry passes in practice must be thrown hard because dry soft passes do not help anyone including beginners.

There are two simple things you can watch for while your players are catching the ball as well, and they are as follows 1) the player catching the ball is reaching for the ball with his or her catching hand, and the hand on contact with the ball gives with the ball. This places the catching arm in a position to pass, shoot, or control the ball. If the catching hand does not give with the ball then similar to the ball striking any other immovable object, it will bounce off of the hand; and 2) when the pass is thrown too high that the player doesn’t over reach for the ball, because over extending for the ball allows the defender to swim around the player and retrieve the loose ball. When the ball is thrown too high the player needs to turn around quickly and swim for the ball. The player should protect the ball at all times when they are in possession or about to be in possession of it. Intensity is needed around the ball – you can rest some when you are off ball and are not driving.

In addition there are two simple things the coach can pay attention to when the player is shooting the ball. Watch for the following: 1) a player’s shooting arm is completely, and I mean completely, out of the water when he or she is shooting a dry shot. When I played water polo sometimes during the Stone Age, I was taught that the shooter was to get as high out of the water as possible before shooting. Many physiologists today believe that getting as high as you can before shooting is simply a waste of time and energy. You need only get as high as to allow your arm and shoulders to move unimpeded through the air. In other words save the spent energy for the shot and not for the kick-up before the shot; 2) the shooter’s hand is following through after the shot, and that the hand is pointing to the place the shooter wants the ball to go. Shooting in water polo is different than most any other sport in which a ball is used, because there is no solid foundation for the player to stand when shooting. No solid foundation and no follow through causes the ball to travel much higher than the shooter anticipates. That’s one of the reasons why there are so many air balls in water polo. This is also the reason your players should have strong legs and a good eggbeater kick.

In 1983 after my men’s team played in our first NCAA Water Polo Championship, I wrote a white paper explaining why I thought teams in California played water polo better than teams from the East Coast did, and I sent the paper to all the varsity college coachers on the East Coast. That was a long time ago, but three of the things I reported in that paper may still hold true today. 1) The playing ability between opposing teams in California are much less – a good team in California may have only two are three blowout games in a season whereas a good team on the East Coast may have eight to ten blowout games in a season. In 1995 when my women’s team won the Collegiate National Championship we had about 15 blowout games and our only really close games that counted were the four or five games we played at Nationals. 2) On the whole California players have better fundamental skills than East Coast players; however, I have had several California players on my teams in which this was not true. 3) Many players from California play with a great deal more intensity than players from the East Coast.

I would care to add one more reason to the above list, and it is 4) California has more regulation sized water polo pools than any other state in the country. It greatly helps both players and teams to be able to practice in a regulation sized pool rather than in a 25 yard, shallow to deep pool. Remember regardless of the size of the pool in which you coach, you can still eliminate many of the weaknesses in a water polo player’s individual skills; simply, by reviewing and correcting the player’s individual skills during practices and by making your players “Play in practice” like you want them to “Play in games”.