Dante Dettamanti
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WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO CHANGE THE GAME OF WATER POLO?
RULE CHANGES OR CHANGING COACHES ATTITUDES?

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

Volume 3 Number 8
April 1, 2015

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

I believe that many people around the world that are involved in water polo will agree that the game has to be changed, if we are to become a sport that belongs in the higher echelon of international sports in terms of popularity. It is the opinion of many administrators and coaches that we are in danger of losing water polo as an Olympic sport, if something is not done to make the game more exciting and fun to watch. A lot of people feel that the game has become too static, and that we have to create more of a fast moving style of game, especially in the frontcourt attack part of the game.

The question is— how do we go about doing this? How do we change the game to make it more attractive to the sport fans of the world? Can we do this by changing some of the rules of the game, and is changing the rules the only way to change the game? Or can we do this by having coaches develop different tactics in the way that they play the game? The answer is both.

This method of changing the game has been going on for years. Changes in the game comes about when rules are changed, then coaches adapt to the new rules by employing new tactics, then rules are changed again in reaction to what coaches have done, then coaches adapt to the changes and again come up with new tactics, and so on and so on. This procedure has been followed throughout the history of water polo; sometimes for the good of the sport, and sometimes not so good for the sport. In the end, a game style evolves that is accepted by the water polo community around the world. The game that we have today is a result of many years and eras of rules changes and changing game tactics.

If people want to see how changing rules and coaches changing tactics has worked to arrive at the game that we have today, they should read the excellent article written by coaches and administrators from the Croatian Water Polo Federation, Milivoj Bebic, Ratko Rudic, and Mladen Hraste. The article is titled Where is Today’s Water Polo Heading? An Analysis of the Stages of Development of the Game of Water Polo. Everyone interested in the history of the sport of water polo, and what we can do to make it better, should read this article.

Look up the title and the authors of the article, or simply look up “water polo history” on goggle. You should be able to find this excellent synopsis of how rule changes throughout the history of the game, and how coaches adapting to the rules has changed the game, for better or for worse. In this article, the authors do an excellent job of describing the many rule changes that have been made since the early 1900’s, the reason for making those changes, and the affects that they have had on the playing of game. In the last part of the article they also talk about the way the game is being played today, what changes need to be made to make the game better, and finally what they feel is the best way to go about doing this.

Basically, the game has gone from a brutal static fighting and wrestling game in the early 1900’s, to the more fluid and moving game that we see today. Some will say that we have gone full-circle in the wrestling style game, especially with the grappling that goes on in today’s game at the 2-meter position in front of the goal. It is interesting to follow this transition of the game from static to moving, and how the goal of many of the rules that were introduced was to speed up the game.

Examples of rule changes to speed up the game were rules such as: allowing players to move after a foul was called, players could not take the ball under water and hold it there, a rubber ball instead of a leather ball was introduced, allowing the goalkeeper to throw the ball past half-court, introduction of a shot clock, reduction of shot clock from 45 to 35 to 30 seconds, introduction of quarters and halves, reduction of exclusion time on an ejected player from one minute to 35 to 20 seconds, an excluded player could come back in if a goal was scored or his team retained possession of the ball, free throw could be taken by closest player to the ball, and a defensive team knocking the ball out the end of the pool got possession of the ball.

As the authors point out in the article, the result of many of the rules cited above was that the game gradually involved more swimming and skill, especially in the movement of the ball from one end of the pool to the other, and in the frontcourt attack. Players become quicker and faster and swimming was just as important, if not more important, than brute strength in the playing of the game.

The most interesting aspect of the changing game throughout the years, to me, is to follow the transition of the center-forward’s role in the game. The center (2-meter player) has gone from a big player who simply took up space in front of the goal, to a shooter, and then to a ball distributer. Now the center is neither a shooter nor a ball distributor; but is a player whose main role is to draw exclusions.

The role of the center has closely paralleled the role of the driving game in water polo. The time period when the center was a distributor of the ball was when the driving game reached it’s peak in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. That was because it was the center who “distributed” the ball to drivers. Once again it seems that we have gone full circle in the game from static play, to movement, and now once again back to static play in the frontcourt and in the extra-man attack. The only swim movement in today’s game is during the counterattack.

What is even more interesting is that the authors of the article, all from a Balkan country of huge water polo players that won the Olympic gold in London, readily admit that this style of game is not pleasing to watch, and that they would like to see a game that relies on player’s quickness, speed, skills and movement, and not on size. They even go so far as to give credit to the colleges and universities in the United States for playing this fast moving style of game while the rest of the world was playing the static European style.

Even though the authors admit that the static game is a problem in our sport, they do not really give us any solutions to help resolve this specific problem. They do present solutions to other parts of the game that they feel need to be changed; but to me they do not go far enough to really make fundamental changes to the game that will increase movement and make it more pleasing to the general public. They identify the problems of the sport as

  1. static water polo with very little movement
  2. too many ordinary fouls (120 whistles/game) without a significant penalty for each foul, and
  3. the “annoying” phase of transition (their word, not mine).

Let’s look at these problems that the authors have identified, starting with too many ordinary fouls. I agree that 120 ordinary fouls during a game is way too much. The result is too many whistles that the general public does not understand or identify with. Finding a solution to this problem means changing one of the basic concepts of the game; and that is the rewarding of a free throw for an ordinary foul, without any penalty going against the person who commits the foul.

The author’s solution to the problem is to reduce ordinary fouls by counting each one as a “team foul”; and after so many team fouls, a 6-meter penalty shot is assessed against the fouling team. Been there, done that! This is what we did at the college level here in the US back in the mid 70’s. It didn’t work then and it will not work now. It was a logistical nightmare and resulted in an even more static game than we play now.

This sort of “team foul/penalty-shot” game that was played in the colleges and universities in the 70’s resulted in 8-12 penalty-shots per game. It made for some close games; but the team that could score 4-meter penalty-shots and had a goalie that could block the other team’s penalty shots usually won the game. This penalty-shot style was very similar to the International game at the 1968 Olympics, where penalty-shots were awarded for every three “hard” fouls committed by a team. Many in the water polo world consider this the low point of International water polo, resulting in wholesale changes in the rules to “save the game” in 1969.

What is the answer to too many whistles and ordinary fouls? I don’t really know; but I would rather go back to five personal fouls, than go the team foul/penalty-shot route again. The authors even go so far as to say that reducing personal fouls by imposing “team fouls” will help to solve the annoying transition problem. I’m not sure what annoying transition problem they are talking about, because the counterattack can be an exciting part of the game. The problem they say is that because of the water medium that slows down movement, we spend too much time in transition from one end of the pool to the other. Over a third of the time on the shot clock is spent in transition.

They also say that ordinary fouls called during the transition just add to the time it takes to get the ball down the pool. The authors are way off base on this aspect of the game. First of all, there is more than enough time left at the end of the counterattack for most teams to run a frontcourt offense. Very rarely do you even see teams run out the full 30-second shot clock. If running out of time is a problem, then increase the time on the shot clock (one of their solutions), or shorten the pool (FINA solution). Personally I don’t feel that this is a problem.

Do the authors really think that giving teams more time to run their frontcourt attack by adding 5 seconds to the shot clock, or adding 2-3 seconds to the attack by reducing the size of the pool, or by reducing the number of ordinary fouls by imposing team fouls, will do anything to speed up the game; then they are mistaken. They have misidentified the real problem. It is not how much time it takes to move the ball down the pool, or how much time a team has to run their frontcourt attack. Coaches are going to run the same center-oriented static attack, no matter how much time they have left on the clock.

This is because coaches will do what the rules allow them to do in order to win water polo games. As long as the rules reward the center 2-meter player with an exclusion foul (Advantage rule 7.3) and the resultant man-up situation, coaches will continue to make this style of game a priority in their offense. This is because most coaches feel that this is the best way to score goals in water polo. The statistics bear them out (perhaps Coach Graham could enlighten us on the percentages). A very high percentage of goals scored in a game are scored from the extra-man attack as a result of an exclusion foul at 2-meters.

To me this perception by coaches of the easiest way to score goals is misguided. Because they feel that they can more readily score with the extra-man, they continue to utilize the center-oriented system that draws exclusions, even though it has outlived its usefulness as an exciting part of the game. Most of them are not even willing to try any other system of play, because they feel that the extra-man is the easiest way to score, and the best way for them to win water polo games. The problem with this style of play (which the authors have identified as a problem in the sport) is that there is no movement, except during their so-called “annoying” counterattack. Fans want to see athletes moving; not watch a slow, boring zone and extra-man attack.

Now don’t get me wrong. I really like this article. The authors do a great job of showing the history of the rules and their affects on the sport. They even identify some of the problems with the game and give solutions to the problems. However, the way to solve the biggest problem in the sport, the lack of movement and reliance on the 2-meter vertical zone game, is not addressed by the authors at all. I’m not sure how they can continue to ignore this problem.

I’m sorry, but their suggestions of changing the shot clock to 35 seconds, going back to a 4-meter penalty shot, no new shot clock when a player is ejected, and counting ordinary fouls as team fouls is not going to solve the major problems of the game. Think about it! The major emphasis in our sport is to put our biggest athlete in front of the goal and let him wrestle with another big player while everyone else on the team waits around for him to gain position, all with the idea that when he receives the ball his defender is excluded from the game. All this so that the team can play a boring vertical extra-man attack that accounts for a majority of the goals scored in a game. If this is what our game has become, then the sport is in trouble.

Even though I enjoyed the article, I would rather have Mr. Rudic, the top coach in the world, and his fellow authors, come up with some ideas on how to solve the problems that they themselves have identified as putting our Olympic status in jeopardy. Instead of worrying about the “annoying” transition game, they should be more worried about the vertical and static 2-meter zone game that we are now playing around the world. Simply changing a few rules is not going to be enough to save the game. It is going to take a change of attitude from coaches, administrators, and leaders of the sport to really change the game. Believe me, if Coach Rudic decides to utilize some sort of a movement game for his teams, the rest of the world will follow.

What will it actually take to change the game of water polo? The answer is 1) rule changes that will speed up the game, and 2) coaches who are willing to make tactical changes that will create more movement to speed up the game. The solution is rather simple really. If coaches and administrators really want to make necessary changes in the game, and are willing to change some of the rules that slow or delay the game (like 8 time-outs, and playing with a small ball that will result in fifty restarts of the game), are willing to wean themselves off the predominate 2-meter style game, and are willing to try a movement style of game, then in the end we can create a game that is exciting and fun to play and watch; and that will be accepted by fans of sport around the world.

It has gotten to the point where these changes have to be made in our sport sooner than later. Only then will water polo take its place among the elite sports of the world.