How do we train for water polo?

For the last several years we have been hearing about new and improved water polo training ideas. Ideas that we should be training just the way we play. So there's no long distance swimming and no head down freestyle, short and quick sprints of no more than 25 m. Goggles are forbidden for water polo players with some of these visionary coaches. And this kind of training was supposed to be done throughout the year.

For some reason I just couldn't agree with this notion. All of my life I have worked with the coaches that had different view and it worked. You had to put in the yardage, long yardage, to build the base before the season and maintain that form through the season. Now, looking back to all of those years of swimming, it was the art what they were doing. Even thou I would sometimes feel sluggish and weak somehow I would feel my best at the end of the season when we really needed the results.

Recently I have stumbled on the article posted in the "Journal of Sports Science" and that article proved my hunch. Swimming, and especially long distance swimming, is very important in water polo training. The study(1) was done on Repeat Sprint Ability, which is, I would think, very important in water polo. After all we are trying to sprint to offense to score the goal and sprint to defense to prevent the goal. So if you can do more sprints than your opponent you will probably score more goals than they will.

In the 80's the great coach Monte Nitzkowski understood that the easiest way to score in water polo is counterattack. And many of the Olympians from that era were great swimmers as well. It was not coincidence that they were able to battle with the technically superior team of Yugoslavia. I would say that those games were battle between horizontal and vertical game. Unfortunately, USA lost both times by a very slim margin. But European teams quickly learned how much swimming is important in water polo. That is why now most of the club teams in Europe have professional swim coaches working with their players.

However, it seems that USA coaches have abandoned swimming and now they are just working on vertical game. We can see more and more players that have great vertical elevation but no fluidity in their movement through the water. The art of swimming is dying in the US water polo community.

So let's go back to that study. They have tested water polo players and swimmers to see who has better Repeat Sprint Ability. You would think that water polo players would do good in this test since they have to sprint up and down the court the whole game. Not only that they have to sprint, but they have to joust as well. Well if that is what you think then you are wrong.

Swimmers did much better in this test. And long distance swimmers did the best because of their aerobic ability. The authors concluded that the reason for these discrepancies between swimmers and water polo players are not only aerobic abilities but also the technique. Technique helps swimmers conserve energy. That is something that is very important to understand and to remember. With proper swimming technique we can do more sprints because every stroke and every ounce of energy counts and adds up through the game. And the team with more energy at the end of the game can have that final push and win the game.

How do we train for water polo then? Well, don't throw away your goggles. Just like in everything else there needs to be balance. Vertical game is as important as horizontal game. If the season is planed well then you will have periods of heavy swimming and periods of technical work. With proper planing and organizing players can achieve their maximum potential.

(1) Yoav Meckel, David Bishop, Moran Rabinovich, Leonid Kaufman, Dan Nemet, Alon Eliakim, (2013) Repeated Sprint Ability in Elite Water Polo Players and Swimmers and its Relationship to Aerobic and Anaerobic Performance. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (12), 738 - 743.