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

Volume 3 Number 11

September 1, 2015

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

We are not talking “outer-space” here, but space in front of the goal. Simply put, there is not enough of it; at least not enough to run the kind of attack that I have in mind for the sport of water polo. In trying to come up with ideas and ways to improve our sport, I look at possible problem areas in the sport; and then try to come up with a way to solve these problems, and at the same time make the game more enjoyable to watch.

To me, the biggest problem in water polo, and the main reason we are not gaining in popularity around the world is the static nature of the sport. It didn’t used to be that way. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the sport used to be much more dynamic and fast moving, especially on the counterattack and in the frontcourt attack. For many reasons that are too numerous to mention, we have gotten away from a fast-paced kind of game to a more static type of game. We have gone from a mostly swimming horizontal game to a mostly vertical zone style game; especially in the frontcourt attack.

The answer to this problem is simple—we need more movement in the game. We need more driving. That’s easy to say; but not so easy to implement. I had to ask myself—what is keeping us from driving and moving more (besides stubborn coaches)? One answer is that the drive has to have a good chance of succeeding, and the driver has to have a good chance of scoring. We need to give coaches a reason to make driving a part of their offense; a reason to wean them away from their static center-forward style of game. If coaches think that they can win by driving; they will jump on it in a second.

So, how do we do this and make it successful? To answer this question, I watched many games and game films to see why teams were having very little success with the driving game. The conclusion that I came to is that there is simply very little room for the driver to maneuver in front of the goal. The very limited space that is in front of the goal is taken up by the two biggest bodies in the pool, the 2-meter player and the 2-meter defender. Not only is there little room to maneuver, but it is a very difficult to make a pass over these two big bodies in order to just get the ball to the driver in the first place, especially if the driver gains inside-water position and requires a pass on the water.

In analyzing games films, I noticed another problem with the crowded space in front of the goal. Adding three zone defenders with their arms up, in addition to the goalie and the two 2-meter players, makes the area in front of the goal even more crowded. So, not only is it difficult to maneuver through this traffic; but it also makes it extremely difficult to shoot the ball through this mass of humanity.

Remember that the shooter only has a three-foot high by ten-foot wide space to shoot the ball; and when we take up most of that space with both offensive and defensive players, it’s no wonder that shooting percentages are way below 20 percent for most water polo games.

The diagram below shows the crowded conditions from a top view of the frontcourt

2-meter offense that shows six players (including the goalie) inside the dotted area that a driver or shooter must negotiate their way through to reach the goal.

Below is a picture (A) of what it looks like to the shooter in the above situation. See if you can find a lane somewhere where the shooter can possibly shoot the ball; or a lane where a player can drive to open water.

Photo 1

Picture A

Even with an extra-man, the lack of space in front of the goal makes it more difficult to score. The typical 4-2 extra-man attack is even more crowded than the frontcourt 2-meter attack. Not only does the offense station two of it’s own players in front of the goal; but the defense has six of their own; making a total of 8 bodies (count them yourself) that a player must shoot through in order for the ball to reach the goal. The diagram below of a 4-2 attack shows one possible shooting lane for an outside shooter, and possibly one shooting lane for a corner shooter. Needless to say, it is very crowded in front of the goal for either kind of shot.

Diagram 2

The picture (B) below of a 4-2 extra-man attack is the picture that really got me thinking about the concept of space in front of the goal; and it doesn’t even show one of the post players. Where are you going to shoot the ball? The second picture (C) below is another example of the crowded conditions in front of the goal on the

4-2 extra-man attack.

Photo 2

Picture B

hoto 3

Picture C

Do you think that it might be easier to score from the corner 1 or 6 positions on the extra-man; because perhaps there are not as many people in the way of the shot? Guess again! The picture (D) below and the extra-man diagram above show that a ball shot from the corners must also negotiate a lot of bodies in order to reach the goal.

Photo 4

Picture D

So how do we go about creating more space in front of the goal for shooting and driving? This really is not that difficult to accomplish. It simply boils down to reducing the number of players in front of the goal for both the frontcourt and extra-man attacks. We have already seen the affects of reducing numbers of players in front of the goal. Several countries (Australia and Canada) that have experimented with new rules at their National Junior Championships; as well as the recent Junior Women’s World Championships that have tried the new rules, have found that reducing the frontcourt to 5 on 5, rather than 6 on 6, and reducing the extra-man to 5 on 4 from 6 on 5 has resulted in an increase in shooting percentage, especially in the extra man attack.

Simply by eliminating two players from the field of play and making it less crowded in front of the goal, shooting percentage on the extra-man has increased from 25-35 percent for the 6 on 5 to figures that are well above 50 percent for the 5 on 4. The affect has not been as dramatic for even-up 6 on 6 play, probably because the teams are even rather than a man up or a man down.

Several countries in the world are catching on to the “space” concept and are trying to come up with ways to clear the area in front of the goal, and still maintain the integrity of their 2-meter attack. Serbia’s men’s team recently won the FINA World Championships, at times moving their 2-meter player to a post-position instead of the center of the goal, as most teams do.

This is not a new concept. Teams did this a lot in the 60’s and 70’s in order to clear an open area for drivers. The idea was that since most players are right-handed, they could drive toward the open area in front of the 2-post, and receive a pass from the 2-meter player who was situated on the 3-post position on the other side of the goal. This style was abandoned when the 2-meter player’s role changed from being a passer and facilitator to a player who only draws exclusions. I have recently tried to bring back this concept in relation to creating a more effective motion system. The diagram below shows how it works in the “First Wave” motion system.

The 2-meter player moves to the 3-post position, effectively opening up a space (shown by the dotted circle) in front of the goal that allows drivers to move into, and an open area where players can shoot the ball. When they take the shot, they only have to beat the goalie and the one defender in front of them. This is shown in the diagram by the shooting arrows from position 2 in the frontcourt attack.

I don’t have pictures of this particular situation; but if you will look at Picture (A) above, and imagine the view of the shooter if you take the 2-meter player and his defender out of the picture. The 2-meter player can also play on the 2-post position as well; although playing at the 3-post might be a little more effective at receiving back door passes from the left-handed wing.

iagram 3

Diagram- Placing the center on the post opens up the other side for driving and shooting.

In the “First Wave” motion system that I have recently introduced, I take this concept even further by eliminating the 2-meter player completely. What we are left with is a complete open area in front of the goal where anyone of the six perimeter players can drive or shoot into; depending on whether the defense is in a press or a zone. See diagram below.

Diagram 4

Diagram- Eliminating the 2-meter player completely opens up the area in front of the goal.


So, how do we open up space in front of the goal for the extra-man attack? Since we have not yet changed the rules so that we play a 5 on 4 instead of 6 on 5, we will have to come up with another plan. The first thing we need to do is eliminate one of the offensive post players from the front of the goal. To do this we need to abandon the 4-2 system and play a 3-3 extra-man instead. As you can see from the diagram below, eliminating one player from a post and playing a 3-3 immediately opens up new shooting lanes for the offense.

Again, in the “First Wave” system, I would take this one step farther and move the center to a post-position. The next two diagrams show the center on both the 2-post and 3-post positions. Both can be utilized, and both will open up all kinds of new options for shooting the ball, including passes to the post player. Once again a completely new area has been opened up in front of the goal for shooting (dotted circle).

In the first diagram the center has moved to the 2-post, creating open shots from the outside position. Moving out of the way also creates more open shots from the left-handers wing, as well as passes to the post-player from that wing position. In the second diagram, the center is on the 3-post, opening up shots from the perimeter as well as shots and passes from the right-handers wing. Creative coaches can also use the open area on the opposite post for players from the outside positions to drive into.

Diagram 6

Diagram above: 3-3 extra-man with center at 2-post opens up right side of the goal.

Diagram below: 3-3 extra-man with center at 3-post opens up left side of the goal

Diagram 7

The frontcourt and extra-man systems presented here employ the concept of opening space in front of the goal for driving and shooting. They are meant to be used as part of or to completely replace current frontcourt 2-meter oriented and extra-man 4-2 systems. It is up to coaches to figure out how and when they want to utilize these systems of play as part of their overall offensive attack.