Jim Solum
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The S4 training system is a method to train American athletes in throwing to reach the Eastern European standard.  As such, it requires the American coach and players to completely revise the way they look at throwing a water polo ball.  For Americans these concepts are considered revolutionary but for the Serb or Hungarian these ideas and drills are commonplace and logical.   Since this European training system has been in place since the 1950’s, the question arises, how did we miss it?

The question is answered by our submersion in swim coach ideology: The arms are everything and the legs are nothing.  The swim coach/water polo coach transferred his or her knowledge of horizontal swimming over to vertical shooting in water polo with terrible results.  Swimming is not water polo throwing.  Swimming is just swimming.  That is all swimming is good for—swimming. When one looks at another American sport, baseball, baseball pitching is highly advanced in its technique and training.  In fact, baseball even has a separate pitching coach to teach throwing technique and mechanics. Why have American water polo coaches not borrowed from baseball?

The American water polo coaches that base his or her water polo throwing technique on swimming principles fails to create great shooters.   Most high school coaches only have a rudimentary knowledge of throwing theory.  Whatever their high school coach taught them how to shoot 15-years ago is all they know when coaching today.  Imagine if a brilliant student scientist graduated only from high school.  He or she would not progress to college or graduate school to become knowledgeable.  There many water polo players who never reached their potential because their coach did not know how to teach shooting.

The S4 system was invented so the water polo coach can develop players at all levels.  It is no longer enough for the player to fall over on the back and throw every shot at the goalie’s belly or lob the ball out of the pool. S4 stands for Strong Legs, Sustaining Legs, Smart Legs and Smart Hands.  Using the S4 system develops well-trained shooters.  The average water polo coach, however, may only develop the first part of the system–strong legs.  Or the coach may decide to develop “No Legs” and move on to swimming laps and scrimmaging. They have never heard of the concept that “the legs are the shot.”  The coach of a great player may literally have no idea why he or she developed a great player.  The coach’s comment is its “natural” does not answer the question.  Great players are made and are not “natural.” Coaching makes great players.  The S4 training system makes great players.

The first three parts of S4 are strong legs, sustaining legs and smart legs (well positioned legs).   Only the fourth part, smart hands involves the right hand AND the left hand of the shooter.  The right hand releases the ball it does not throw the ball.  The legs throw the ball.                                                     


          Strong Legs           Strong explosive legs

          Sustaining Legs     Sustain height out of the water

          Smart Legs             Right leg balances out and Left leg points and pivots

          Smart Hands          Right hand touch and Left hand stabilizes

As one can see in the table above, the last item listed is the right hand.  And, since the right arm and right hand are the last part of the body to move, it should be placed last and not first in order to importance.  The right hand is not the shot—the legs are.

Strong legs make the shot possible—no legs equal no shot.

Sustaining legs provides the stability to remain vertical while passing, faking or shooting.

Smart legs involve the left leg and the right leg, which have separate duties.  Smart left leg aims the ball and acts as a pivot point for the shooter rotate back to cock the ball.  Smart right leg is mobile, balances out the shooter’s body when catching the ball, and throwing the ball. 

Smart hands are the right hand and left hand.  Each hand has separate duties.  The right hand has touch and releases the ball. The left hand does everything else.


Each one of these four elements has specific drills associated with it to develop that part of the throwing motion.  However, the over-riding principle is that these drills must be done quickly. It is not enough for the coach to say, “Eggbeater 6-laps,” and that takes care of building the team’s legs for the day. There has to be specificity behind the leg drills. For example, there are fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers.  Does eggbeatering slowly for 6-laps build quick explosive legs that can jump up for a quick shot?  It does not!

The shot is over in a second. The drill must duplicate the speed of the throwing motion.  The coach needs to perform fast twitch muscle fiber drills such as eggbeatering with a weight for 10 seconds or explosive jumps out of the water called slam-dunks to recruit fast twitch muscle fibers and to teach leg speed to the player to match the speed of the shot motion.

The swimming ideology of: “Train slow, be slow” should not be the rule for the shooter who has to shoot the ball in less than a second.  The water polo player is not swimming 5,000 meters where one arm stroke does not matter.  In water polo, one arm stroke is the shot. For example, a 100-meter track sprinter does not train with marathon runners.  The water polo player has to get away from the swimming ideology that more (laps) is better and quality (speed) does not matter. Shooting is speed training. The goal of S4 is to develop quickness.


Every coach is told to develop strong legs and everything else will take care of itself.  What exactly are strong legs is never quite defined?  For that matter what is a strong eggbeater kick? The great player has great legs and the weak player has weak legs.  What is the theory for developing strong legs and the drills?  For the average coach it is slow endurance lap after lap slow leg speed eggbeater kick without weight and without height out of the water (jumps).  The water polo shot is not a slow endurance event.  The shooter’s body is out to his or her belly button.  Slowness and lowness training is of little use for real-world shooting

Endurance leg training while it is necessary to develop slow muscle fiber endurance and the proper eggbeating technique, it is not enough for complete leg training.  Leg speed training and jumping has to be taught in conjunction with endurance leg training. Since fast twitch muscles live on sugar (glycogen), they exhaust quickly so drills should be 10-seconds to 20-seconds in length with adequate rest for recovery.  This is an all-out effort drill and should not be confused with slow twitch muscle endurance training drills of eggbeatering.

Strong Leg Drills

Hands out of the water drill

The coach has the player eggbeater with the hands out of the water.  This is a difficult concept for new players but easy one for older players.  It is a low effort drill and is done for 30-60-sconds. This drill is done at a medium effort with medium leg speed with the forearms half way out of the water.  A more difficult drill is to have the elbows out of the water.  The elbows out of the water drill require more effort from the player and a higher leg speed activity and more rest.

Medicine ball toss drill

Two player toss a medicine ball back and forth in the water. To develop the greatest leg speed, have the partner underarm toss the ball from the deck to the player in the water and have him or her two-hand toss the ball back to the passer. Do from 5 to 10 medicine ball tosses with the legs churning.  When the catcher tires he or she will slam the water with the hands and the drill is immediately stopped.  The next toss will hit the catcher in the face.  Use rubber medicine balls of 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 or 10 pounds.  Girls shoulder use 2, 4 or 5-pounds.  Boys can double the weight.  The drill takes the player to total leg exhaustion and the player must rest for 30-seconds to recover.  Depending on leg strength, the player can do 3 to 5 sets.  This is one of the best drills.

Water bottle holding drill

The players use empty 5-gallon water bottles and fill them up enough so they can hold the bottle over their head for 30-seconds or 45-seconds while it empties out.  This exercise builds medium leg speed and endurance.  It is a popular drill among coaches.

Medicine ball holding drill

The player holds a medicine ball over his or her head and eggbeaters for a specific time.  The time can be long for developing endurance and slow legs, medium for faster legs and a short time for developing explosive legs.  A combination of slow and fast is the best.  Care must be taken when adding weight that the player’s knees are not injured.  Any pain in the knee is an indicator that the player is damaging his or her knee.  Pain in the knee is more likely in female athletes due to the leg bones angling inward.

Slam-dunk drill  

This is a critical elevation drill. The player takes four strokes and places the hand on top of the ball and leaps straight up in the air and then slams the ball down on the water and does four slams in a lap.  This drill teaches explosive legs and height out of the water.  Since the shooter is airborne with half of his or her body, it is necessary to teach in-the-air mechanics.  There are no chin-in-the-water shots. The slam-dunk drill requires maximum recruitment of fast twitch muscles fibers, explosive legs and maximum height out of the water.  Players with weak legs are immediately spotted; players with low-effort are instantly seen.

For more information on slam-dunk drills see Water {Polo Planet: Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Teaching Shooting Part 5.

SUSTAINING LEGS                           

Sustaining legs are legs that have the player airborne for 3-seconds or more.  The purpose of sustaining legs is to develop stability when high out of the water so the shooter can fake, change direction in mid-air (side arm or lean-over shots) and have a stable base from which to throw the ball. It is not enough to get maximum height out of the water if the shooter falls over.  Height with sustained stability is the goal.  For high school, 5-seconds are about the maximum airtime for boys and girls. Drills to develop sustaining legs start with slam-dunk drills that have more time added in the air by extra movement

Sustaining Leg Drills

Slam-dunk drill with a left turn of 90-degrees to a slam

This drill adds 2-seconds of airtime and forces the player to move.  The standard slam-dunk only requires the legs to scissor together and explode upward.   Turning in the air adds seconds to slam-dunk and forces the player to be stable while stressed.

Slam-dunk with two left turns.

Adding two 90-degree left turns to a slam-dunk adds an additional 2-seconds to the airtime out of the water.  Many players can scissor kick the legs together for a standard slam-dunk.  However, being able to stay up out of the water, be stable and move increases the degree of difficulty.

Freeze Hesie

The player picks up the ball, elevates, and holds it overhead for 5-seconds.  This develops churning legs as the player learns to remain stable while high in the air.  In high school, a shooter does not need to fake but only stay up for a few seconds before the goalie sinks.  The ball is shot at the high corner of the goal as the goalie sinks into the water. It is an elevation body fake and not an arm fake.  It is the best sustaining legs drill.


          Left Leg:     Fixed

          Right Leg:   Mobile

          Left Hand:  3rd leg of shooter



                             Left Leg:     Fixed, points, pivots, aims left foot at corner

                             Right Leg:   Mobile, balances out, shoots, moves in 4 directions

                             Left Hand:  Mobile, balances out, elevates, rotates hips

Smart Left Leg Duties

Smart legs divides into two separate duties for the player’s left and right leg.  The player’s left leg is fixed, points (aims the ball) and pivots (body rotates around the left foot).  The shooter has to realize that the left foot aims the ball and not the right hand.  Wherever the left foot points, the ball follows.  The body can only rotate around the fixed leg foot if the legs are split with the left leg forward and the right leg straight back and slightly bent at the knee with the torso angled forward at 30-degrees.  A square shooter, usually a girl, has the feet, hips and shoulders parallel to the goal cannot rotate her body.  Once the player splits the legs, aims the left foot, all of the actions of the left leg are automatic.  The player’s left hand also acts as a third leg to balance out the shooter, The left hand and it duties should also be considered whenever one is discussing smart legs.

Smart left leg drills

The drills to develop a smart left leg are to point the left foot at the corner and then throw the ball.  The ball follows wherever the left foot points.  Then do a drill and point the left foot at the left corner and fake, then move the left foot to point at the right corner and shoot at the right corner—a left to right hesie shot.  The player must be conscious that the left foot aims the ball.

The demonstration in the water to prove this point is to have the player point the left foot at the right corner and then tries to shoot at the left corner—it cannot be done.  The shooter’s right hand cannot cross the left foot.  There is not enough torso rotation (35-degrees) to move the right arm to point at the left corner of the goal.  Another demonstration is to freeze the shooter’s right hand as it hits the water and have the shooter see that the right hand is above the left .

Smart Right Leg Duties

Smart legs is the ability of the  player’s right leg to reposition itself repeatedly so the shooter’s body can be cocked, catch the ball cock the arm and shoot the ball.  Mastery of ball handling, for example, is using the player’s right leg to position the right hand to catch the ball and move with the ball.  One can say that almost all mistakes are right leg positioning mistakes.  The coach and the player must know that the right leg controls the throwing motion—not the right arm

Even though the shooter is high out of the water and sustains that height he or she needs to move the body to catch the ball or shoot the ball around the guard’s upraised arm.  The shooter moves by using the right leg to balance out the body.  The right arm does not balance out the body. The player’s right leg moves the body so the right arm can catch the ball and swing it backward into an arm cock.

A simple demonstration shows the players that the positioning of the right leg rules the body and not the right arm.  The player stands on the deck with the feet together and moves the right arm to reposition the legs—nothing happens.  Then the player takes a large step backward with the right leg and a sharp left shoulder point appears, the left leg is suddenly in a forward position, the right arm is then extended backward with the right hip cocked back.  The right leg is supreme

The coach has to differentiate between cause and effect.  The first part of the body to move during the throwing motion is the right leg; the last part of the body to move is the right arm.  Effects, while visible, are not the cause of the bad shot.  The cause the underwater positioning of the right leg is not visible.  The ball slipping out the shooter’s hand or the ball flying 3-meters over the top of the goal is not the right hand’s fault.  The right hand is the last part of the chain of links to move.  Over 99-percent of the throwing motion has taken place before the right hand begins to release the ball.  Did the last hundred of a second at the release make the bad shot? No,bad right leg positioning did?

Similarly, throwing the ball 3-meters over the top of the goal is the result of imbalance; the right leg was not straight back to balance out the body.  The result of having both legs under the hips is the shooter falls over when he or she brings the arm back to cock the ball. The right foot has to be under the ball to support it.  No baseball pitcher is ever going to have his legs together when cocking the ball.  His right leg will be straight back to support the extended right arm.

Smart right leg drills

There are a number of different drills that are going to develop different parts of the of the right leg motion.  The coach want to develop a full range of right leg movement so the player can adapt to the bad pass, the attacking guard or a new shooting opportunity.  The average player has stone legs with concrete feet.  He or she is unable to move upward, forward, to the right or the left.  The average player cannot “adjust to the ball” due to paralyzed legs.  He or she must receive the perfect  pass at the point (3-spot) to be able to catch the ball. The player with smart legs can catch the ball anywhere.

Boyer drill                                                                        

The player must be able to move sideways to the right to pass or shoot around the guard’s upraised arm or the goaltender.  The Boyer shot allows the player to move to the right by having the right leg “step-out” to the right to move the player about 1-meter.  The first drill has the player lean into the wall with the left forearm, the right knee high, with the right arm above the head.  Step-out and push off, as the right arm moves from above the head out to a 45-degree angle.  Add a ball and repeat.  The right knee must be high on the step-out or the legs will cross and the player will drop the elbow.  Move the player away from the wall and repeat the drill with the left hand pushing water to the left from the hip.  Next, have a guard stick up his or her arm and force the player to move to the right to be able to pass the ball.  The guard’s arm is not allowed to move.  Finish the drill by shooting at the goal with or without a guard.

For more information on Boyer shots read Water Polo Planet: Polo Articles: Women’s Shooting Part 5.

180-slam drill

Since hip speed is ball speed, the faster the shooter’s hip rotate, the faster the shot.  Rotation is the major force in generating power for the shot.  The static 180-degree slam starts with the ball in the water with the player reaching back to grab the ball on top, spins and slams the ball in front of the player’s body.  Do not kick up. The right arm must be straight and above the shoulder.  No side arm motion is allowed. The movement can be timed to see how fast the ball is picked up and slammed on the water.  The top shooters have the quickest times

180-degree slam-dunk

The slam drill can also be done as a moving slam-dunk exercise but with the player rotating 180-degrees high in the air.  The legs and left hand move the player in a half circle..

Serbian 4-step drill


The Serbs believe that the player must be able to move in a balanced manner in all four directions.  The player moves forward, to the right, back and to the left with or without the ball.  This is one of the foundation drills of Serbia.  The drill teaches the player to be balanced in all directions and to move the right leg to support the ball and the player’s body.


Smart hands will be discussed in next month’s article.  The reader should read the back articles in Water Polo Planet: Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Smart Hands Part 1-5 for further information.  It is recommended for the coach to be fully informed on S4 training he should buy the S4 PowerPoint Presentation from the author at [email protected].


The legs are the shot.  The American fixation on the right hand and arm must be eliminated. The right arm is an effect and not the cause of the poor shot.  Knowledge in horizontal swimming does not transfer over to vertical shooting in water polo.  The coach focusses on developing the legs to be strong, explosive, and capable of great height out of the water. Sustaining legs keep the airborne shooter stable during the fake and the shot. Smart legs that are educated in aiming the ball (left foot). And in balancing out the player’s body (right leg).  When the shooter is trained correctly, he or she has a stable base, great height, lateral movement and tremendous power to throw the ball.


Due to space limitations, the last part of S4 Part I—Smart Hands, was not completed last month. This article will be a brief explanation of smart hands that concentrates on touch and the catch.  For a more thorough examination of smart hands, please read the five Water Polo Planet articles at Polo Articles: The Shot Doctor: Part 1-5. 

The S4 training system is a combination of all of the articles written in Water Polo Planet over the last seven and half years.  It synthesizes all of the drills necessary for the young or old coach to be successful in teaching shooting. S4 has the catching and shooting techniques and the drills necessary to make a well-trained water polo player. The coach has to reconceptualize his or her view of training and concentrate on the legs and left hand not the right arm.  Both in the water and in the weight room—leg training over arm training.  The catch is a complex technique.  The player cannot learn by the coach “just throwing out the balls in the pool.”

This is a major shift in how the coach looks at the athlete.  But it is the correct one.  The legs are the catch and the shot.  Most mistakes are leg mistakes and not right hand mistakes.  The coach no longer looks at the shooter’s right hand to see why the ball fell out, the ball went over the cage or hit the goalie in the stomach.  The concept that the legs are the shot takes a while for the coach adopt.  It is no longer a right arm world but a leg dominated world.  The coach must come to an understanding that the legs catch and throw the ball.  This is a major change in the way that the coach sees water polo.  The coach must realize that the right arm is only an extension of the legs. This being said, the player’s right hand has to be developed to its highest level so when it does comes into play, in the last stage of the shot, it is effective.



The Catch

Smart hands consists of a right hand with great sensitivity that are able to use many finger releases and can create five different ball spins using four different types of grips or hand positions on the ball. A shooter with a “dumb hand” can only use the standard 3-finger release and place backspin on the ball. The average shooter when compared to the multi-talented smart hand shooter is severely limited in what he or she can do with catching the ball and shooting the ball. The average shooter can throw a power shot and maybe a skip shot at the goal.  This is the extent of the average shooter’s repertoire of shots.  The ability of the average shooter to use five different releases, five different ball spins, four different grips to throw power, lobs, and curve or off speed shots is nonexistent.  In this article, we will only cover catching the ball with the whole body touch. Later articles will cover the other parts of smart hands and also the left hand.


            Touch is not only the hand

The question of touch arises with every catch, pass dropped or the ball thrown away.  Why does one player have “soft hands” and another player have “stone hands?”  All hands look the same, yet the ability to “feel the ball” varies greatly from player to player.  Is touch solely a hand activity or does touch involves of the whole body of the player?  The author believes that touch is a whole body activity that requires strong legs for a stable base.  With the left hand and the right leg moving the body so the right hand can be positioned to catch the ball.

The right hand is limited it its range of motion.  The right hand can move very little sideways, or up, and down.  Even twisting the wrist is limited to about 5-inches.  A ball thrown a foot (30-cm) behind the hand cannot be caught without massive body rotation.  Just look at any age group player learning to catch the ball.  The right arm must be moved, but the range of motion of the right arm is limited.  The right arm is not made of rubber as everyone thinks. The right arm held straight up above the shoulder only moves a few inches (centimeters) backward.  The player’s right arm cannot move back fully 18-inches (45-cm) to catch the ball.  Only the player’s left hand and right leg have the ability to move the player’s body and reposition the right arm back 18-inches (45-cm).

The fact that the right arm is not made of rubber and the left hand and right leg are critical to right arm positioning for the catch is new information for the average player.  No one had ever told the player that the whole body catches the ball. No one has mentioned that the left hand and the right leg rotate the body so the right arm is in position to catch the ball.  In teaching catching at this level, the young player is just told to “catch the balland “swing the right arm back.”  Most of the right leg motion the player figures out intuitively.  That is he or she has to swing the right leg back and sweep with the left hand to rotate the body so the right hand can catch the ball.

Catching the ball is a very complex task involving the whole body of the player. The coach must know the mechanics of how the body catches the ball.  But very few know.  The catch is a whole body activity lead by the player’s left hand and the right leg. Players need to be taught correctly how to develop touch in the hands (and body) so they can catch the ball.


            Touch involves the whole body

The game of water polo requires that the player catch the ball.  If the player cannot catch the ball, he or she cannot play water polo.  This is a critical fundamental point in the development of the player.  Either the player figures out how to catch the ball or he quits.   Knowing the importance of catching the ball, one would assume that catching the ball would be extensively studied.  The coach should know the mechanics of catching the ball.  This is not the case, the coach does not know.  The player ether intuitively figures out the catching mechanics or he or she quits the sport.

The coach has a rather simple explanation for players that cannot catch the ball—they have stone hands.  Players that can catch the ball have “good hands.”  Apparently, a player is born with an insensitive hand and cannot “feel the ball.”

This explanation ignores the fact that sensitive hands have little to do with catching the ball! Catching the ball is a whole body mechanical movement.  When the player has stone hands, he or she does not use the left hand nor swings the right leg back to catch the ball.  Players with” good hands” use the left hand and right leg to reposition the right arm to catch the ball. Stone hands concept is not true    Amazingly, out of the pool, the player with stone hands is able to grasp objects and catch balls without dropping them.  Simply, the stone hands concept is a myth.


            The right hand does not catch the ball—the legs do

The player’s whole body catches the ball, not the right hand.  The right hand of the player is the last part of the catching motion to occur.  The ball flies out of the pool, ball drops out of the hand—and the shooter looks at his right hand.  The player’s right hand must have dropped the ball—the right hand touched the ball last.  Seems simple and obvious and yet, it is completely wrong. The legs and the left hand catch the ball.  The right hand is an effect and not the cause of the dropped ball.  Mispositioning of the right leg and left hand causes the unstable player’s right hand to drop the ball.

The concept that “bad feet make bad hands” and “you catch the ball with your right leg” all seem like counterintuitive ideas.  However, both are true.  For example, a player with a weak right leg positioning, falls over and drops the ball.  No matter how “good” are the hands of the player, falling over causes the player to drop the ball. The well-positioned legs are the catch.


            The rotation is the major motion of the body

            The catch is all rotation

 The catch is body rotation, the pass is body rotation, and the shot is body rotation.  Rotation is the major motion of the player catching the ball and throwing the ball.  Anything that interferes or restricts rotation destroys the catch and the throwing motion.  No rotation = no catch.  Since the right arm is not made of rubber, it has a very limited range of motion.  The right arm is not involved in body rotation. The right arm does not move the player’s hips or the right leg.  The right arm is simply hanging up in the air.  The player’s left hand sweeps to the left with the right leg rotating and extending backward are what rotates the body and repositions the right arm. The best example of this is to sit in a chair that has wheels on it and push off the table with the left hand and at the same time swing the right leg back.  The player rotates 150-180-degrees.  Now the player is perfectly positioned with the legs split, the right arm back and cocked.  If the player wants, he or she can wave the right arm up and down to see if it rotates the body into a cocked position. It does not.

The Catch Cocks the Ball

            No catch = no cocking for the shot

The catch sets up the shot

The catch cocks the player’s body and right arm and sets up the pass and shot.  A square player has a difficult time catching the ball.  Because the legs are together, the right arm cock is short and there is little power in the shot.  A long arm cock creates a powerful shot; a short arm cock creates a slow shot.  The length of the arm cock determines the speed of the ball.  The left hand sweeping motion and the extension of the right leg backward determine the length of the right arm cock.  The right arm is controlled by right leg.  The length of the right leg extension determines the length of the right arm cock.  The ball has to be supported with the right foot under it or else the player falls over. Look at a baseball pitcher and one can see the right foot under the baseball when his arm is cocked.  No baseball pitcher ever cocks his arm back with his feet together.

The right arm based coach wonders what does the right leg have to do with anything?  The right leg (motion) is the catch—it is the body rotation.  A demonstration to illustrate the dominance of the right leg over the right arm is for the player to stand on the deck with the legs together and wiggle the right arm—nothing moves. Next, have the player swings the right leg back, a sharp left shoulder point appears, the torso is rotated and a long arm cock appears. The right arm can only extend back as far as the length of the right leg extension.  Without a good catch, the ball cannot be cocked into a long arm cock because the right leg did not move from its “knees in front of the hips” eggbeating position, which results in a poor shot due to the square catch and a square shot with almost no arm cock extension and no hip rotation.  Women players who throw all of their shots without hip rotation will create a shoulder injury.

Preparatory Stage

                Before the ball ever hits the hand of the player, the ball is dropped

If the player does not perform the preparatory stage, correctly the ball is dropped or the player’s body does not properly cocked the right arm for the shot. Bad catch = bad cocking = leads to bad shot.  The ball must be caught and it must be cocked before the ball can be shot.  The analogy of the bowman not pulling back the arrow all the way on the bowstring can be applied here.

The prep stage is the time before the ball hits the player’s hand.  The square eggbeating player that has been resting, rotates to the half way position with the body to be ready to catch the ball.  The left shoulder is mildly pointed but not by a lot.  The right leg is half way back with the torso slightly turned to the right.  Half of the motion to catch the ball is already completed.  In this whole body set up, it is simple for the player to rotate backward and catch the ball.  Instead of the arm moving from in front of the face to catch the ball, the arm is behind the head.  Rather than have the right leg move from a square position (knees together) the right leg only has to move a short distance to be straight back and slightly bent at the knee.  The preparatory stage cuts half of the movement for catching the ball.  The non-prep player, on the other hand, is square and is knocked over by the ball.  Almost all of the mistakes in dropping the ball happen because the prep stage was not performed.

Left Hand and Arm

            The left arm is the third leg of the player


Photograph by Allan Lorentz at mywaterpolopics.com

The player’s left hand is the third leg of the player.  Most coaches totally ignore the left hand and its effect on rotating the player’s body so he can catch the ball.  The left hand is the forgotten hand in water polo.  When the player does not use the left hand, the body cannot be fully rotated nor the right leg fully extended.  The player’s left hand sweeps from in front of the hip towards the left, which causes the body to rotate to the right.  Please read Water Polo Planet: Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Left Hand Part I, II, III. 

The Right Leg

 The right leg controls the catch and arm cock length

The player’s right leg is positioned in the prep stage behind the hip about half way from a full right leg extension.  The right leg is not under the hips.  In fact, the right leg has never been under the player’s hips.  When the player is eggbeating, the legs are in front of the hips.  When shooting the left leg is forward and the right leg is straight back.

The right leg needs a power assist from the left hand sweep to be able to extend backward.  Once the right leg is moving, it moves to a straight back position with the right knee slightly bent.  When the right leg moves back, the left foot is forward and a sharp left shoulder point is created.  The player’s right leg controls the catch.  The right arm does nothing to balance out the player’s body position. In the illustrations below, the proper catching technique leads to a vertical back with the ball

Right Arm

            Useful for holding the ball

The player’s right arm is vertical and relaxed and positioned behind the head.  The player waits for the ball to hit the right hand and then sweeps the left hand to the left and swings the right leg backward as the arm swing back.  The player does not try to grab a 15 mph (25 km/h) ball.  By reaching forward, he or she moves the right leg forward and the posture becomes square. The player lets the ball settle into the fingertips.  The relaxed arm swings backward following the right leg and moves into a cocked arm position.

The Catch Technique

Incorrect Catch Technique


No hip rotation

Left hand not used

Right leg does not swing back

Player falls backward

Ball dropped

Ball caught but shot thrown over the goal

Square player extends his or her arm forward and catches the ball.  The force of the pass knocks the player on the back.  The hips cannot rotate nor can the right leg be swung back to rotate the body.  The left hand cannot be used to assist in body rotation when the player’s legs are together (square).  The body and right arm cannot be cocked properly and the ball is aimed over the top of the goal.  The catch sets up the vertical posture and the shot.

Correct Catch Technique

Prep stage

Left hand sweep

Right leg swings back

Relaxed right arm catches the ball and moves backward

Body is now vertical, cocked and ready to shoot

The player moves into the prep stage as the ball is in the air.  Do not sharply point the left shoulder or swing the right leg all of the way back.  There must be some slack in the body so it can rotate back and absorb the force of the ball.  The catcher waits for the ball.  He or she does not extend the right arm forward because the right leg will move under the hips and square the catcher.  The catcher notices the ball coming but does not turn the head to see if the right hand catches the ball.  The player cannot take his eyes off the goal or the defender guarding him for a second.

As the ball hits the catcher’s right hand, the left hand sweeps to the left and the right leg swings back and the ball is caught with the back vertical.  Stone hands become good hands when the catching fundamentals are correct. The catch is effortless.  The player is relaxed throughout the catching process.  Once the player masters the basics of catching the ball, the catch becomes an easy activity.


Pool Side Drill

The best catching drill for players where the coach can actually see the mistake(s) made is the pool side drill.  When the players are in the middle of the pool, it is difficult for the coach to see the mechanical errors in the catching motion. In the pool side drill, the player is 1-meter away from the wall and all of the player’s left hand, left shoulder point and right leg movement can be seen.  The pool side drill has one player on the deck and one player in the water catching the ball.  The ball is thrown softly underhand to the catcher.  The catcher sweeps the left hand to the left and swings the right leg back so it is straight back and slightly bent at the knee.  The catcher’s body elevates, the sharp left shoulder point appears, and the right leg disappears from it in front of the hips position.  Where the right leg used to be only clear blue water appears.  The player’s right leg is behind the player’s buttocks and more difficult to see.

Common mistakes are for the catcher to not to have a sharp left shoulder point.  This indicates the right leg did not move back fully.  The next mistake is to look to see if the right leg “disappeared.”  Many players will only swing the right leg half way back so it is in line with the hip.  This mistake results from not using the left hand sweep to assist in rotation of the body and a lazy right leg. To the passer on the deck it is clearly visible that the right leg did not move very far.  In particular, girls do not like to rotate their hips and fall back, move to the side and bent the back in half.  They do this to avoid moving the right leg back and rotating the hips.  The last problem is the player will begin to move 2-meters to 3-menters away from the wall and the passer on the deck cannot see anything.

Ballerina Drill

The ballerina drill has the player with the ball in front of both hands resting on the water.  Then the ball is picked up underneath, the left hand sweeps to the left and the right leg swings back.  This allows the right arm to swing back fully for a long arm cock (extension).

The player’s right arm cannot move backwards unless the right leg swings completely back.  The emphasis on the drill is to have the player “feel” right leg movement and not the right arm movement.

Bouncing the Ball off the Wall Drill

This is the century old drill for throwing the ball against the wall and catching it.  However, there is a major change added where the player only throws and catches the ball with the right hand and swings the right leg completely back.  This teaches dry land right leg motion.  Girls and goalies have a difficult time being square (right leg in front of hips) and this drill forces them to move the right leg back for a split leg position.


The hardest thing to do in water polo is to catch the ball.  Catching the water polo ball may be the most difficult activity in all sports.  With proper training, however, it is one of the easiest technique to learn.  The elements of catching the ball are to set up in the preparatory stage as the ball arrives, using the left hand to sweep, swing the right leg back and let the arm carry the ball backward.

The reader can turn to Dr. Solum’s book the “Science of Shooting Water Polo Fundamentals” by Lulu Press.com and read the chapters on the “Preparatory Stage,” the “Catch” and the “Pass” for a more complete understanding of the technique for catching the ball.


SPAIN vs RUSSIA 2015 World Championships- Photo credit: Giorgio Scala Deepbluemedia

Anyone can catch a pass when static and calmly sitting in the water.  However, few can catch and shoot when they are moving or attacked.  Since half of all catches and passes involve heavy guard pressure and require movement, this is a subject that needs skill training.  The player must be able to move, catch the ball and to be able to shoot the ball while in motion.  The player rarely has an unguarded moment when he or she is wide open and unguarded.  The player has to be able to catch the ball while moving to be effective during the game.  For example, driving and catching the ball; or moving with the ball after the catch; or improving position from the deep right wing to the 4-spot (EU 2-spot) above the right post for a better angle and shot at the goal or, shooting the one-on-nobody shot.  These examples and many more are examined in this article.

The S4 training system on mobile passes requires smart legs that are able to reposition the right  leg to catch the ball.  The education of the right leg to reposition the catcher or shooter is a prime requirement of the S4 training system.  The right leg is the catch and the shot.  Having an intelligent right leg that can reposition itself to catch the ball no matter how bad the pass is, is a must.  Bad passes are common in the age group and high school levels and the player has to learn to “adjust to the ball” to be able to catch the pass.

Readjusting to the pass is basically repositioning the smart right leg to move the player’s body so it is in a position to catch the ball. The ball does not adjust to the player. This article also includes moving with the ball for the shot.

The following drills are necessary for the coach to teach the player how to pass and catch the ball while in motion.  Water polo is a game of movement and most of dynamic passes thrown are movement passes.  Most of the catches to a shot require the player to drive to specific spot to receive the pass.  The team must practice both static passing and mobile passing.


The players are in two lines a goal post away and dribble with the ball and throwing wet passes to each other as they drive down the tank.  The ball is dribbled in the center between the two arms of the driver. The ball is passed to the driver’s right hand with a sweep shot like passing motion.  Never allow girls to flip the all from the left hand to the right hand to reach the ball.  This type of pass teaches left foot forward positioning.  Without a smart left leg the pass is inaccurate.  When the ball is on the left side, however, the glide, roll and point technique is done with the right foot forward and the left hand sweep motion.


The ball flip eliminates the driver rolling on the side to cock the ball and prevents the left foot from moving forward, which prevents the glide, roll and point passing and shooting technique. The driver’s left foot must be forward to pass the ball accurately.  It is impossible to pass well with both legs flutter kicking.

This drill combines conditioning, dribbling and passing in one drill.  This is a basic drill that everyone on the team should master before moving on to more difficult dynamic catches and passes. The first part of the technique requires the player to be able to dribble correctly (see Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Driving Part 1-4).


The player counterattacks to half tank and the goalkeeper throws a wet pass in front of the counterattacked.  The goalkeeper leads the driver so the ball is 5-feet (1.5-meters) in front of the driver’s face.  The driver is moving a 2 mph (3.2 km/h) and the goalkeeper has to take this into consideration because the ball will take 1.5 seconds to reach the counterattacker.  Throwing the ball where the counterattacked was 1.5 seconds ago is an underthrow.  Sometimes, the ball even bounces off the counterattacker’s head!  The goalkeeper’s pass is a leading pass thrown directly over the head of the counterattacker to a spot in the water in front of his head.  Many times the ball is throw to the left because the goalkeeper inadvertently placed a curve on the ball.  A pass thrown to the extreme left causes the driver to veer to the left to recover the ball. The goalkeeper must be trained in how to pass the ball accurately.  It is not enough for the goalie to block shots; the goalie must also be the passer.


Two players are in a line with the lead player backstroking and the trailing driver passing the ball to the backstroking player.  The players reverse positions with the former passer now backstroking and the other driver passes the ball.  The distance is short and the drill continues for a few minutes back and forth.


The counterattacker rolls on his or her back, backstrokes down court, and receives a dry pass in stroke to the right hand from the goalkeeper.  The goalkeeper’s ball does not arrive after the counterattacker’s right hand is in the water.  The goalkeeper has to time the pass so he or she hits the upraised backstroking right hand with the ball.  The goalkeeper throws the ball when the driver’s right arm hits the water.  It takes 7-tenths of a second for the right backstroking hand to get out of the water, which is about the time it takes for a pass to reach half tank.  This is much more difficult pass than it appears.  Start the goalkeeper with short passes so he or she gets the timing of the pass down. Throwing the ball ahead of time, when the backstroker’s hand is not visible is a new passing concept to the goalkeeper.


This is a simple catch for the left post counterattacker from a pass from the right post counterattacker from a 2-on-1 man-up.


The 2-on-1 shot on the counterattack requires the two players to move in synch with each other to pass the ball and to catch the ball.  The players have to be in line with each other with both players on the same meter line.  One player cannot be ahead of the other.  In addition, the two players have to confront a single guard that is playing defense between them.  In age group and high school, this rather simple situation often results in the passer throwing the ball away to the guard, overthrowing the freeman or simply shooting the ball with the guard and the goalkeeper focused on him.

Passing the ball from the right side of the pool to the left side of the pool is a complex set of skills.  It is not automatic that the pass is thrown correctly by the passer.  The coach has to train the passer in the right foot forward mechanics to be successful in the 2-on-1 pass.  Many of the boys, for unknown reasons will have the left foot forward and alley-oop the ball over their head with a straight arm lateral pass over the head.  This highly inaccurate pass is usually intercepted by the guard or underthrown to the freeman.

If the coach does not teach right foot passing fundamentals, the player is left on his or her self to figure an advanced pass without instruction.  The problem with the 2-on-1 right to left pass is the passer must change their leg position to be able to complete the pass.  The passer stops his or her drive by placing the hand on top of the ball (its OK coach) and moving the right leg forward to stop.  Then the passer turns to the left using the widely spaced left hand to sweep to the right.  The player kicks up, faces the freeman and passes the ball.

A more advanced leg positioning left 2-on-1 pass is used in college.  The passer is on the left post stops with the left foot forward and the hand pushing down on the ball. He or she moves the left leg 90-degrees so it is no longer facing the goal but is now pointing at the freeman on the left.  Then the ball is successfully passed.  These advanced right foot or left foot 2-on-1 catching and passing styles should be taught at the age group and high school levels.


            Right Foot Catch

            Left Foot Catch           


The passer is on the left goal post and passes the ball to the catcher on the right goal post.  This is an across the face catch that is difficult to do without training. Most of the time, the across the face pass catch is dropped by the shooter who is square to the goal. The two seconds it takes the fumbling freeman to reset his or her legs and get ready to shoot allows the goalkeeper time to recover and block the open shot.  The catch is the shot in this instance.  A bad catch creates a blocked shot

The right foot forward catch solves the bad across the face catch.  The catcher on the right side moves the right leg forward and partially turns to face the passer.  Once the ball is caught, the catcher moves the forward right leg back 270-degrees so the freeman’s left foot is pointing at the right corner of the goal.  The common mistake is for the catcher to move the right leg to the side,  not straight back.  This right leg position points the left foot and left shoulder at the left corner of the goal where the out of position goalkeeper is sitting and results in a block shot. The left shoulder follows wherever the left foot points.

The coaches get hysterical when someone throws the ball at the out of position goalie for a sure block in the left corner of the goal!  The author, watching the National Youth Team tryouts, saw this happen repeatedly.  An across the face catch should result in a cross-cage shot at the right corner.  Players have to be taught that the left shoulder point is controlled by the left foot.


The other method that is taught by ODP and the USA National Team is the left foot forward across the face catch technique.  This is a more advanced catching the ball technique than the right foot forward technique and results in a quicker catch and shot.  The freeman on the right side of the goal turns the upper body to face the passer by using a left hand sweep and swinging the right leg back to “steer” the body.  Once the ball is caught, the left hand sweeps to the left as the right leg swings back a little.  The catcher is now able to take an instantaneous shot at the right corner of the goal without resetting the legs.  This action requires a smart left foot.

The coach should start with teaching the right foot forward catch to beginners.  After a while, add the left foot forward across the face catch.  Some of the players will be not be able to use the left foot technique.  Sometimes, new technology does not work for the non-elite player.  The coach lets the players decide what  across the face catch technique to use. Boys and girls are equally good at the left foot across the face catch.


The Boyer shot is a motion leg shot where the shooter moves laterally to release the ball.  The player already has the ball in his or her hand and steps-out with the right leg to move around the guard’s out-stretched arm or to improve the shooting angle to the goal.  This is a mobile move to a shot.  In the overhand shot the shooter moves upward; in the Boyer shot he moves sideways  The Boyer shot positions the body in a square to the goal leg position.  The shooter’s feet, hips and shoulders are parallel the goal.  This is not a mistake as in the overhand shot where the shooter must be angled with the left leg forward and the right leg straight back.  For the shooter to move sideways he or she must be square to the goal.

The Boyer shooter steps-out about 12-16-inches (30-40-cm) with a high right knee At peak elevation produced by the step-out, the ball is released.  When the Boyer shooter has a low right knee, the right leg drops and the legs cross.  The effect of a crossed leg position is to drop the shooter’s elbow, make the right arm vertical instead of angled at 45-degrees and to aim the ball at the goalie’s stomach and not at the right corner of the goal.  The player needs to have an educated smart right leg to be able to step-out correctly.

The main drill for the Boyer shot is to lean against the wall with the left forearm.  The player lifts the right knee high in the water and then steps to the side with the right leg.  The right arm is held over the head.  At the middle of the step-out, the player moves the arm laterally and twists the wrist for the release.  Next, move the player away from the wall and practice Boyer passes.  Any player that sinks and drops their elbow indicates that the right leg step-out was not high enough and the legs crossed. It will take a while for the players to understand step-out passing (see Polo Articles: Shot Doc: Women Shooting Part 5).

1-on-0 SHOT

The one-on-nobody shot involves the player moving with the ball towards the goalkeeper, faking and shooting the ball.  In age group and high school, it is problematic whether or not the shooter will score on the defenseless goalkeeper.  The ability to advance the ball forward, reset the legs, fake and score are the requirements for the successful one-on-nobody shot.  Why the shooter cannot score what would seem to be an easy shot always causes the coach to pull the hair out of his head.  On the surface, this appears to be a simple shot—it is not.  One-on-nobody shots are never practiced during shooting practice.  It is a new situation for the player.  The coach does not seem to understand that a never practiced shot has a low probability of scoring (see Fig. 12).

The shooter advances forward with the ball by leaning forward and pulling water with the left hand.  When the shooter is on the 3-meter line, he or she fakes the ball until the goalie sinks in the goal and the ball is placed over the goalie’s head or in the high corner.  The rule is to fake, sink the goalie and shoot. Do not shoot quickly as the goalie’s legs have not yet tired.  Do not shoot at the low corner of the goal because that is where the goalie has sunk.  The 1-on-nobody shot combines motion, a vertical shot and patience.  The 1-on-nobdy shooter has 3-seconds to shoot the ball and does not have to rush the shot (see Fig. 13).


This is an “old shot” (circa 1980) that has been rediscovered and changed for improving the angle of the shooter on the right wing at the 5-spot (EU 1-spot).  The right wing shooter (US-5, EU-1), moves up to the 4-spot (EU 2-spot) above the right goal post using a dolphin kick.  Usually the player has the ball and dolphin kicks as he or she moves sideways.  The dolphin kick is a stable kick providing a stable on-the-side base to shoot from. Usually the right wing Charlie Turner shot is thrown cross-cage at the left corner of the goal.

The player may use the Charlie Turner dolphin kick to improve the angle and then drop the legs to the vertical for a vertical overhand shot or did a rollout type shot (see Polo Articles: Shot Doctor: Charlie Turner Shot). 


This is a college level drill.  The high school players are usually poor passers that do not understand how to time the pass.  Men in college have a difficult time mastering this catch to a shot; high school players are unable to master this shot.The driver drives from above the left post and the passer on the 2-meter line passes the ball in stroke with perfect timing so the driver can reach up and catch and shoot the ball in the correct stroke rhythm.  The ball is passed across the 2-meter line about 20-inches (50-cm) above the water to a spot in the air.  The ball is thrown as the driver’s right hand is just entering the water.  The driver cannot hesitate or stop and try to “read the pass.”  The driver drives at full speed and the ball should be there for him to shoot. The driver should not upset the passer’s timing by stopping and restarting (see Fig. 16).


The woman water polo player drives to the 2-meter line, stops, holds position, resets the legs and moves to the vertical with the guard on her back and waits for the cross pass to come at 30-inchess (75-cm) above the water.  Then, she slaps the ball into the goal.  This pass to a shot system works very well.  The passer only has to throw a high dry pass to the stationary shooter without having to time the pass.  The shooter does not catch the ball and control it, but slaps the ball into the goal.  If the guard attacks the shooter, a penalty shot is called.  A win-win situation.


            Straight ahead drive

            Diagonal drive


The driver drives straight ahead from the point and the center passes him or her the ball either wet or dry.  If the pass is wet, the ball should be placed on the water the near driver’s right hand.  This ball placement allows the driver to pick up the ball and shoot it without resetting the legs.  The dry pass requires coordination between the driver and the passer.  The passer has to know the tendencies of the driver as to when they are going to pop up out of the water to receive an R.B. pass (rear back pass).  The timing of the pass is critical.  The ball cannot be thrown early before the driver has moved to vertical or reached his greatest height out of the water; the pass cannot be thrown late as the R.B. driver is sinking.  The passer has to know his or her players and where they want the ball.  The R.B. catch is all about a timing.  The pass is the shot.  The R.B. shooter quickly catches the ball and wrists the ball into the goal using a short extension arm cock.  The R.B. driver cannot use a long arm cock nor fake the ball while in the air.


The human mind and vision is set up for accurately throwing the ball to another player in a straight line.  When the player is driving at an angle to the goal, the passer has to make an adjustment in timing and also in focus.  Most of the time, a diagonal drive from the right toward the left post by the driver is overthrown.  The pass is too high for the driver to catch the ball and it sails into lane line.  The correct catching technique is for the driver to stop, lie on the side, and wait for the ball to arrive.  The driver does not have time to drop the legs to the vertical and pop up to catch the badly thrown ball. The pass is the shot in this case, as the ball has to hit the driver’s upraised hand.  A horizontal driver cannot adjust to the (badly thrown) ball.  The trouble with the pass is it has to have speed and a slight lob arc on the ball’s trajectory—a hard and yet a soft pass.

The diagonal drive is a great drive to a shot as it splits the seams of the defense.  However, it takes repeated practice over the years to master this type of pass.  Women seem to have a more difficult time making this pass.  Strangely enough, if diagonal pass training is started early, high school players of either gender can master this pass while college players may not. 


Dynamic catching and the mobile catch to a shot is half of the passing game in water polo.  Both static passing as found on the 6-on-5 and frontcourt offense and dynamic passing as found in the counterattack and drives must be taught.  The motion game requires the pass to be thrown accurately to the moving player.  Throwing to a target that is moving is much more difficult than throwing at a static target.  The passer needs to understand where the driver’s spot is. And where the driver is going to pop up when the ball is passed.   There must the correct timing so the ball hits the driver’s  dry right hand.  Mobile catching is a right leg repositioning activity that requires a smart right leg to adjust to the ball. The coach must always remember that the ball does not adjust to the player.


© Copyright 2015 Jim Solum

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