Person to Person Defense Is Not Always Person to Person

Richard Hunkler, Ph. D.
Slippery Rock University

Some times when a team is playing a person to person defense, a player thinks this means that a player is to pick an offensive player and stay with that offensive person the entire defensive part of the game. Remember when the White Sox baseball team was suspected of throwing the 1919 World Series, the young baseball fans would moan, “Say it ain’t so Joe!” Shoeless Joe Jackson at that time was to baseball what Michael Jordan was to basketball a few years ago. Well Joe, it is not so in water polo. The chances are that during one offensive set of plays a defensive player may end up guarding two or three different offensive players. By the way, I never heard the young fans moan either – I am old but not that old!

Maybe it should be called person to persons defense or possibly position to position defense. It is much easier in basketball for a player running fast on a hard wood floor to stay with one player than it is in water polo for a player swimming through rough water to stay with one person. In water polo, the transitional part of the game which is known as the counter attack is extremely important. If a player was to stay with just one offensive player, then that offensive player (if he or she were smart) would do a flare or a square-out to the side of the pool at mid-court to take that player out of the defensive counter attack. This would very easily free up another offensive player who was behind these two players not yet guarded by anyone – maybe even a second wave break away.

The best way to defend the counter attack is not to make a foolish turnover, and the second best way is for all players on defense to jam back to the strike or red zone. After every offensive player in the red zone is covered, then the rest of the defensive players are to press out and defend the remaining offensive players. Once defensive players are in the strike zone, the jamming-back principle comes into play. The jamming-back principle is: first cover all the offensive players with the best percentage chance of making a score, and last cover the offensive players with the worst percentage chance of making a score. This means that the defensive players who are the closest to the goal in the red zone are to cover the offensive players who are the closest to the goal, and the next furthest away defensive players from the goal are to guard the next furthest away offensive players from the goal and so on and so forth until every offensive player is covered.

Some times there are not enough defensive players to cover all of the offensive players in the red zone. The jamming-back principle still holds: first cover the offensive players who have the greatest percentage chance of making a score, and last leave the offensive players who have the least percentage chance of making a score as the one or more players that are unguarded. Since the offensive players left unguarded are usually the furthest from the goal, this makes it easier for the slower swimming defensive players to pick them up.

Also a defensive player, instead of picking up the offensive player closest to his or her goal, will pick up the first player he or she swims by, and many times that defensive player will be thinking, “I have my person; you get yours.” But that person is wrong because he or she should have kept swimming and picked up the unguarded person closest to his or her goal – always take the unguarded person who is in the position to take the best percentage shot. At that moment in time, the unguarded person closest to the goal was that defensive player’s person to guard not the one he or she actually guarded. This defense is not an “I’ll get my person, you get your person type of defense”. It is not an individual defense but rather a team defense. A player has to think about an offensive person’s position and how it might play to the advantage of that person’s team.

The position in which an offensive player is playing is many times more important than who the player is, and it is a lot more dangerous to the score of the game. If the defensive player closest to the goal and to its center leaves his offensive player to go after the player with the ball or after his or her so-called-person-to-guard, then he or she is dumber than I look because I promise you, eight out of ten times the ball will get to that person he or she left allowing a quick and easy score. Never leave a person who is in position to make a high percentage shot for a player who is in a position to make a lesser percentage shot.

Using this defense on the counter attack can cause a defensive player to have a different offensive player every time the ball is turned over. This defense can also cause a mismatch on the two meter player. A mismatch is when the two meter player is much larger and stronger than the player who is guarding him. When a mismatch on the two meter player occurs, then an immediate switch has to happen because a mismatch on the two meter player almost always causes an ejection, or maybe even a score. A switch is not the same thing as leaving your player alone. Granted it is a gamble, but in this case it is a lesser gamble than leaving a mismatch on the two meter player. Always play the good percentages and good things will happen for your team.

Does this mean that after the counter attack when every offensive player is guarded that the defensive player now has only this one player to guard? Not necessarily so! There are still situations when the defensive player has to switch to another player to avoid an easy ejection or score by the offense. For example, suppose a defensive player is guarding the left wing, the 1 spot, and the offensive player on the left flat, the 2 spot, or the point, the 3 spot, drives and wins inside water, then the defensive player guarding the player at the 1 spot should switch with the defensive player who has been beat by the driver. As soon as the defensive player is beaten by the driver he or she should be looking and calling for the switch. A good pick can also cause a switch; however, the best way to defend against a pick is to swim through it, and the second best way is to switch. Always try to cover the player that is in the best position to score.

When you come up against a great counter attacking team, then many times jamming-back is not enough to stop that team from scoring on the counter attack. Since turnovers and poor shots feed the opposing team’s counter attacks your team should try to avoid them as if they were the plague. As mentioned earlier, ball control and team discipline are two of the best ways to defend against the counter attack. It is better for the player to eat the ball than to throw the ball away or to throw the ball to a defensive player, and the player had better have a 75 percent or more chance of scoring when he or she shoots the ball, otherwise the good counter attacking team will swim and gun you to a defeat. Ball control with discipline is the way to go because keeping the ball in your teams’ possession until a high percentage shot can be taken, or until the time of possession runs out and your team can dump the ball in the corner of the pool, will help eliminate the other teams super counter attack.

Also against the good counter attacking team, the player that does not have the ball or is not driving on offense had better be thinking about defense as well as offense. When a defensive player moves to one of the offensive player’s sides, the offensive player should move over as well; thus, denying the defensive player the chance to initiate the counter attack in an open lane. The Counter attacks maybe the only way this team can score, so if you stop there counter attack you will have an excellent chance of winning the game. Remember the team that lives by one sword can be easily defeated without it.

Once the counter attack is over and the offensive perimeter is set, every defensive player except the two meter defender must play the passing lanes. A passing lane is defined by drawing a straight line segment from the offensive player with the ball to the offensive player a defender is guarding. If a defender is playing in the passing lane then it makes it difficult for the offensive player with the ball to pass to the defender’s offensive player, and if the pass is thrown short the defender can intercept the ball and start his or her team’s counter attack. Remember if the offensive team is able to pass the ball to players around the perimeter then the passing lane changes each time a new offensive player receives the ball.

Also, the defending team may have the two meter guard front the two meter person. If this is the defense chosen then the two meter guard must play in the passing lane in front of the two meter player. In this defense, the two meter guard has his back to the offensive player with the ball making it imperative for the goalie to tell the two meter guard where the ball is so the two meter guard can get in the proper passing lane. The goalie is to yell out the number of the offensive player who has the ball. Say the offensive player in the 4 spot has the ball then the goalie yells four, four ., and if the ball is passed to the 1 spot the goalie yells one, one .

Finally, for a person to person defense to work correctly, each field player has to do his or her part by quickly picking up the players in the best position to score on the counter attack. If there is no score on the counter attack, then a player has to play tight on his or her offensive player, play in the passing lanes, and play for the logical switch. When guarding the player with the ball it should be the defender’s intent not to stop the pass, but rather to make the pass fall short into one of his or her teammate’s hands – a first pass to the start of your teams counter attack. In one of the presidential elections one of the political parties had as their slogan, “It’s the economy stupid!” In a person to person defense the mantra should be, “It’s the position stupid!”

(The topic of this article and some corrections were suggested by Robbie Larson-Bova who played for me when we won the National Women’s Collegiate Water Polo Championships in 1995. She was selected as the MVP at that National Championship, and currently she is coaching club and high school teams in New Mexico. Also she has coached a team in the Top 40’s Festival for the last several years.)