Terry Schroeder

Protecting the Ball in Water Polo

Volume 1 Number 3
December 15, 2007

The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

Another very important fundamental skill is protecting the ball.  This skill applies to all areas of the game.  It is critical to be able to protect the ball whether you are at 2 meters, on the perimeter or releasing for the ball on the counter attack.  You have to be able to protect the ball to be able to make the next pass or advance the ball.  Therefore, as coaches this should be another fundamental skill that we spend time in practice refining with our athletes.

In order to protect the ball properly, you have to use your body properly and think about the angles.  Basically, when you have the ball you want to get as much of your body in between the defender and the ball.  When you are protecting the ball you should use your entire body as much as you can.  Your legs, torso, head, shoulder, arm, elbow, hand are all involved in the process. You should try to keep the ball as far away from the defender as you can while still maintaining control of the ball an arm’s length away. If the ball gets too close the defender may be able to knock it away and if the ball gets too far away then we lose control and have to re set our legs. As you keep the ball at an arm’s length you can put a little back spin to keep the ball where you want it and keep the ball from floating away.

Let’s talk about the angles for a second.  At the 2 meter position when the ball comes in you need to turn your body to about a 45 degree angle and use the entire length of your body and arm to keep the ball away from the defender.  If you stayed with your back to the defender’s chest you would not be able to create as much distance between the ball and the defender.  However, when you turn your body 45 degrees you create a larger space and by using more body between the defender and the ball.  Also, if you stay in a good split egg beater position you will be totally balanced and strong in the water in this angle.  You also have to consider which side the guard is on.  If the defender is on your left shoulder you are going to turn your left shoulder into him/her and try to seal him/her off away from the ball with your left elbow and forearm.  If the defender jumps to the right side then you must rotate over your hips and use your right arm/elbow and forearm to seal the defender away from the ball.  One side of your body is focused on sealing the defender away from the ball while the other side is keeping the ball away from the defender and controlling the ball.  So if the defender is on your right side you are sealing with your right and controlling the ball with your left.  In this situation your left arm will be outstretched and you will try to keep the ball at arm’s length away from your body to create as much space as possible between the ball and the defender.  It is important to keep your head up out of the water.  The offensive players head is a very important part of the body to help protect the ball from the defender.  If your head is up and you are in the proper positioning then the defender must try to go over your head to get to the ball which will usually result in a kick out.  

One of my favorite drills for teaching your 2 meter players this concept is called the “keep away” drill. It is a simple but a great fundamental drill.  It is simple primarily because it is a drill that can be performed with two athletes (one on offense and one on defense). It is a great drill to help athletes learn how to protect the ball and feel where the defender is in order to adjust and keep their body and head in between the defender and the ball.  Basically, when you are protecting the ball you are “keeping the ball away” from the defender and learning how to use your body and the angles to do this.  To begin the drill you will have one player begin with the ball and the second player is defending on his back.  On the coaches “go” or whistle play begins and the defender tries to get the ball.  The offensive player does everything he can to keep the ball away from the defender.  The drill lasts for 20 seconds or until the defender gets the ball.  Start out with medium pressure on defense and advance to game situation intensity. There is one other tip to think about in this drill.  While playing “keep away” try to maintain your position in the water.  In other words do not get pushed out as you do the drill.  If you are a 2 meter player you want to maintain your position on the 2 meter line.

There are slightly different fundamentals involved while protecting the ball on the perimeter. While you are on the perimeter you will need to keep your eyes on what is happening behind you at the 2 meter position.  You want to know this because when it is time to make the pass to 2 meters you need to be aware of it.  While some perimeter players will prefer to use the 2 meter technique and stay at a 45 degree angle with their side to the opponent’s chest.  It is a bit more difficult to turn your head and watch what is going on behind you in this position. Most of the time while playing the perimeter you will need to play in more of a “face to face” position.  If you are protecting the ball with your right hand and you are facing the defender then most of the time you will use your left arm to control the rightarm/elbow and body of the defender. As you are in this “face to face” position you are trying to keep the ball between the defender and your body, head and arm with the arm that is behind you while the other arm is protecting the defender and keeping him/her away from the ball.  Obviously, the protecting arm must do its work under the water to avoid being called for an offensive foul.  You can watch 2 meters in this position and step out to make the pass when 2 meters is available.  Occasionally, you may be able to get to a more advantageous position when you actually can slide to the outside of the defender and your left arm is protecting and controlling the defender on his/her left.  In this position you are set up better to step out over your legs (using your split egg beater) and separating out to your right to make a clean pass to 2 meters.  You are stepping out into free water and making a pass with no defense in front of you in this position.  However, a good defender will rarely allow you to obtain this advantageous position.  We as coaches should help our athletes understand and work on all three scenarios so that our athletes can utilize the best possible positioning that works for him/her.  It is also imperative that we teach our young athletes to be able to make a pass using the left and the right hand in all of these positions.  Teaching the young to use both hands for simple short passes will make that athlete a more fundamentally sound and better water polo player.

A simple way to learn this skill and work on the positioning for perimeter passing and protecting the ball is to begin with three athletes.  One player will be the target or 2 meter player.  The other two are on the perimeter with one on offense and one on defense.  Begin with the ball under light pressure and have the offensive player work on the various possible positions.  More back to chest (like playing 2 meters) and more “face to face” like a traditional perimeter position.  On the coaches “go” or whistle have the offensive player try to protect the ball and step out to make a good pass to the target at 2 meters.  After about 5 passes rotate so each player plays each position.  Make sure each player is working on the different scenarios and trying to make right and left hand passes.  After the players are feeling more comfortable with technique then it is time to bump up the defensive intensity and make the drill more game like.

A more advanced drill for the perimeter is to have two players on the perimeter and one player at 2 meters.  All players are guarded by a defender.  Start the ball with one player on the perimeter and both players are under pressure.  One pass must be made on the perimeter before passing the ball into 2 meters.  All players are trying to protect the ball and make good passes.  Make the drill as game situation as possible.  Practice like you are going to play in a game as much as possible.   This is a good drill for the perimeter players as well as the 2 meter player.  All players are focusing on protecting the ball.

Another great drill for the perimeter and the 2 meter players is called the “animal drill”.
This is a 6 on 6 ball control drill.  2 meters is working hard to hold position and protect the ball on each pass into him/her.  The perimeter is working hard to move the ball and get the ball into 2 meters.  Run this drill with a coach blowing a whistle on all fouls and players learning to work together to advance the ball to the next player on the perimeter or to 2 meters whatever is appropriate.  The drill can be run until the offense is able to make 5 or even 10 good passes to 2 meters.  This drill will require perimeter players to release for the ball (another lost fundamental skill that will be discussed at a later date).

Remember the body mechanics of protecting the ball.  A player should use his entire body to protect the ball.  Your legs, torso, head, shoulder, arm, elbow, hand are all involved.  When it comes down to it protecting the ball it is simply a game of “keep away”.  Usually in our sport the team that does a better job of keeping the ball in their hands and out of the opponents hands will win the game.  It ALL begins with the fundamental skills.   


In and Out Skill for Water Polo

Volume 1 Number 8May 15, 2008

The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

This skill is perhaps the most important defensive skill in the game.  During the course of a normal game almost every defensive front court series involves at least one defender executing the in and out skill.  Mastering this skill will help you to become a defensive specialist.  The skill occurs in two different situations during the course of a game.  The first area that you will see this skill being executed is on the perimeter.  On the perimeter the skill begins in the head out feet in ready position.  In this position you are guarding your opponent on the perimeter.  You are ready to jump out to your perimeter opponent with one big breaststroke kick or you are ready to scull backwards (push water with your hands) and initiative the skill.  The in and out skill on the perimeter is used to crash to the 2 meter man to try to steal the ball or protect 2 meters and then jump back out to the perimeter to shot block or put pressure back on your perimeter opponent. The idea is to use your legs to jump in towards 2 meters and then to be able to recover and use your legs again to jump out towards the perimeter.  A skilled player is able to do this without swimming.  Swimming into to 2 meters and then swimming out to the perimeter takes a great deal more time and is much less effective. The “In and Out” skill is all about using your legs to create space.

Steps of the “In and Out” skill on the perimeter

  1. Head out/feet in “ready” position;
  2. Scull backwards (push water with your hands) and pull/gather water with your legs;
  3. Coil your legs under your body;
  4. Rotate over your hips;
  5. Spring towards  2 meters with a big breaststroke kick;
  6. A lateral jump with another breaststroke kick  – 1 – 2 freestyle strokes may be necessary when you are learning the skill;
  7. Push water with your hands and pull/gather water with your legs;
  8. Coil your legs under your body;
  9. Rotate over your hips;
  10. Find the perimeter player and spring towards him or into his shooting angle using a big breaststroke kick;
  11. 1 – 2 freestyle strokes (not necessary but may be needed)a another breaststroke kick into the shot blocking position and do not get vertical;
  12. Continue to move towards the shooter with a split eggbeater in a 30 – 45 degree angle checking him if possible with your sculling hand to knock him off balance and you may have to leg up and become more vertical if the shooter is really getting up high preparing to shoot;
  13. Be ready to return to 2 meters if necessary.

As you progress and get better with this skill you will be able to eliminate the freestyle strokes.  The goal is to create as much distance as possible moving in and out by using your legs and sculling motion under the water.

Another very important use of the in and out skill occurs on the 5 on 6 defense.  In this situation the skill is essentially reversed.  The defender would start in the head in and feet out ready position protecting the post.  Often times the defender will have a hand on the post man.  This is a good thing because you will be protecting the post and you will also have more leverage when you want to spring out.  The defenders legs should be angled towards the perimeter player that he/she is shot blocking or to the spot where he/she needs to be to protect the angle that the shooter has towards the cage (especially at the x1 and x3 spot).  The defender is guarding the post and needs to anticipate the pass to their particular perimeter player.  When the ball is in the air towards their opponent they need to push off of the post player jump into the shooters lane.  Then as soon as the shooter passes the ball the defender must be able to jump back to the post player and protect the post.  The in and out skill during the 5 on 6 defense is essential because each defender is responsible for at least two offensive players.  Once again swimming should be minimized.  The more you can jump out over your legs and jump back over your legs the more effective you will be at defending on the 5 on 6.

Steps for the “In and Out” skill on a 5 on 6

  1. Head in and feet out with a hand on the post man;
  2. Legs angled out to cut down shooting lane;
  3. As ball is in the air to your perimeter player push off/release form your post man and gather water with your outstretched leg to spring out to cut down shooting lane;
  4. Shot block and be careful not to get yourself in a full vertical position;
  5. When your perimeter player passes the ball – push water with your hands, gather water with your legs;
  6. Coil your legs under your body;
  7. Rotate over your hips;
  8. Spring back towards the post player with a big breaststroke kick;
  9. 1-2 freestyle strokes to get back to hand on the post man, head in and feet out ready position.

Once again, as you get better with this skill you can eliminate the freestyle strokes and use your legs only to cover the distance.

The basic level of the in and out skill can be practiced with two offensive players closer together and will end up utilizing more freestyle strokes to cover the distance between offensive players. The advanced players will be able to move greater distances using only their legs. See drills below for basic and advanced skill work.

Game applications/drills to work on

Perimeter play – 3 player drill.  One player the ball up and is the perimeter player ready to shoot. Another player has the ball and is the 2 meter player (he/she can sit with 2 hands on the ball in front of them).  Begin this drill with these two players about 3 meters apart.  The defender begins in the ready position with his/her head out towards the perimeter player with the ball and feet in towards the 2 meter player with the ball. On the whistle the defender will coil and spring towards 2 meters , executing a lateral jump to the ball at 2 meters, then immediately try to coil and spring back towards the perimeter and get into a shot blocking position.

Variation of the drill – spread the two offensive players out to 4 meters or even more, the perimeter player (shooter) can move laterally once the defender has jumped towards 2 meters, the shooter legs up as if to shoot the ball and the defender must leg up with him/her, repeat the drill two times – so that the defender executes the in and out skill twice.

Advanced perimeter drill – requires 6 players – offense and defense at the 3 spot, the 4 spot and 2 meters.  Run a 3, 4 drop.  You can do this drill very controlled with the 4 man putting the ball to 2 meters and the 3 man crashing in and then moving back out when 2 meters kicks the ball out to the perimeter player.  Than the 3 man puts the ball to set and 4 crashes and moves back out when 2 meters kicks the ball out to the perimeter.
The next phase of this drill would be to begin with and entry pass and than play it out live.  Defense is really focusing on moving in and out.  The final phase of this drill is to play it out live from the start.

5 on 6 – 3 player drill.  One offensive player is the post on the 6 on 5 and one offensive player is the perimeter player (1, 4, 5, or 6).  The offensive players are positioned about 3 meters apart to make it realistic. The defender begins on the post (with a hand on the post player.  On the whistle the defender springs out over his/her legs and assumes the shot blocking position, then after two to three seconds coils and springs back to the post.

Variations of the drill – allow the perimeter 6 on 5 player to move laterally so the defender player needs to adjust, repeat the drill 2 – 3 times so the defender needs to execute the in and out skill 2 – 3 times in row.

Other drills – In and out to the driver drill.  3 player – defending 1 or 5 and driver drives behind you. The defender is head out feet in.  He jumps back to the driver and then back out to the perimeter.

Need to be able to pivot over either hip!

When I watched the Hungarian team play a game in the 2004 Olympics I said to my friend that was watching with me “The Hungarians will win the gold because they are so good at the in and out skill”.  This allowed them to have the best 5 man defense in the Olympic Games and sure enough they won the gold medal because of it.

Team USA is spending a great deal of time practicing this skill.  We are becoming better at it but we have a long ways to go to approach the skill level of the Hungarians.  We are going to keep working at it.  No matter what level of water polo you play this is a skill that you should work on consistently.  As you get better at the in and out skill you will notice that your defensive game improves dramatically.  Have fun and good luck with it.