How can USA Water Polo win Olympic gold?

It is a question that many people in the water polo community are asking. Everyone has their own opinion and it appears that they have tried almost everything and yet there's no gold. They had foreign big name coaches, they had domestic coaches, they have tried with the old teams and with the young teams. Nothing really seems to work. In the eighties USA water polo was a powerhouse because of their training and superior conditions with top notch facilities. Since then European countries have made big strides and mainly it was because they were watching what USA players are doing. Traditionally european players were technically better but American players were faster and better conditioned. So now almost every European club has separate conditioning coach and strength coach. These people are specialists at what they are doing. Now every European player is as good of a swimmer as the American players. Europeans were able to close that gap. However, Americans are still struggling to close the gap on the technical side (when we say technical we are talking about ball skills, understanding of the game and tactics). Main reason for that is that with this current system players and coaches can't get enough game and competition experience. Some would say that this is not true because players, especially in younger age groups, get high number of games with all the tournaments that they play. And those tournaments are needed to fund clubs and USAWP organization. That notion is not true since now (and especially in SOPAC zone, largest zone within USAWP) we have only few people and two or three clubs that run most of the tournaments. This is beneficial for selected few and not for the sport of water polo. Furthermore, those tournaments are compacted and structured that sometimes teams have to play 5 games in just two days. We often see how water polo is one of the hardest sports on the planet and compared to triathlon or hockey (just to name couple) in terms of difficulty and energy spent and yet we subject athletes to grueling 5 games in just 2 days. Imagine if you do two triathlons in one day. I always say that these kids are true Ironmen. What is even worse is that the only national competition, Junior Olympics, is compacted with 10! games in just 4 days. With so many games and so many clubs and players there's no way for anyone to be able to spot real talent and systematically follow those talented players.

But how come with this system USA women are consistently winning gold medals?

There is a reason for that as well and we will talk about the difference between men's and women's water polo in one of our next articles.

The following was published in 2010 and still holds true:

National teams have to be formed through the competition not through ODP. Competitions need to be organized on a local level in the form of league competition with weekly games. This allows teams to prepare for each opponent. Players can grow physically and technically much faster and more efficient. Coaches can plan their season and have an annual plan and long term plans. Every coach should read Tudor Bompa on Periodization (“Theory and Methodology of Training”) and get trained to plan and organize the season. With the system in place right now there is no way for coaches to make their annual plan. Players and coaches are working only to survive while playing tournaments. There is no structure within one season.

Coaches involved with national teams and selection process cannot be involved with clubs, high school and college teams. They cannot be biased towards certain players and if they have contact with the players during the season of course they will look at their club or high school players differently than some other players. Most of the coaches take pride in their work and the product of their hard work are players that they are coaching. It is natural to be proud of their work and to try to showcase that. Furthermore, those coaches should follow all of the major national competitions, take notes and record games.


should not be used for selection process. Playing for the National Team is the highest honor for the athletes and players should not pay to participate on the National Team. All the expenses for National Teams (Cadet, Youth, Junior, Senior) should be budgeted for and covered from the general fund. However, ODP should use National Team coaches to train the athletes participating in ODP. National teams (U 16, U 18, U20) should have at least three months of activity per year (under the condition that work in clubs will be on year round basis). Work of each national team before international competition should follow this model in order to be well prepared:

Minimum one month of camp-basic preparation in USA

Controlled screening or friendly tournaments abroad or in USA

Beside these camps before international competitions, NT should have regular camps.

I assume that U 18 and U 20 teams now in 2010 will give at least 80% of National team in Rio 2016. It will be good to implement talent identification system for U 14 and create large talent pool that will be funneled into older age groups.

In the last Junior World Championships there was more focus on the selection process than working with the team. The team was selected a month before competition. By doing this there is a lot of pressure on the players if they will be selected. Players have to have maximum focus on the upcoming championship. Before major championships like Junior Worlds teams have to be selected way in advance so coaches and players can work on preparation without stress. In this case of 2009 Junior Worlds, teams were supposed to be in place not later than February and work with each other for few months.


High school competition (at least in California) is closest to what the USA water polo competition structure should look like. Teams are competing in their leagues on a weekly basis in different divisions. At the end of the season they have playoff to determine champion. This gives coaches an opportunity to prepare adequately for each team in the league. Also, it gives them an opportunity to plan the season accordingly. However, the season is very short. It is same with NCAA teams. Some would argue that is hard to change the system because of NCAA and CIF involvement.

Going against the system and trying to restructure everything is not an answer. NCAA and CIF are very necessary. They provide good competition and development for players and a way to make money in water polo for coaches. Instead of going against the system there needs to be some adaptations. Club teams can fill that void in the off season. There should be some club leagues that will be played in the off season with the games on a weekly basis. League champions can play in the playoff or in the championship tournament. There is already a championship tournament in place for age group clubs (National Club Championships). NCC is an invitational tournament right now. Instead, it should be a league championship tournament. The same competition can be instituted for college athletes in their off season.


Referees, coaches and players are the basic make up of water polo, and they should act together in the interest of USA water polo. I am hearing a lot of complaints about refereeing. But on the other side, I have observed lot of games and I can say that the level of refereeing is much better than players and coaches perceive it to be. That does not dismiss the fact that I have seen some mistakes as well. In any sports, mistakes are part of the game. Who is not making mistakes? Does anyone complain when players or coaches make a mistake???

Instead of complaining about the referees, I suggest that referees and coaches have meetings at least once in 3 months (4 times per year) where they can discuss in a constructive manner the made mistakes on both sides. Referees should give instructions for coaches about rule implementation, using video materials and other ways of presentation. The meeting between coaches and referees can be arranged at the next water polo summit.

Coaches should communicate conclusions of these meetings to their players, so players can adopt their playing style to the level of international water polo and referee criteria. Referees should also have some kind of internal competition, where the best graded or ranked referee will represent USA on an international stage. For referees to be graded there needs to be someone who will do that. I have noticed that more often than not, there is no supervisor or delegate on the match, who evaluates the quality of refereeing.

Without an evaluation referees have too much power without any consequences especially, if they commit mistakes. There needs to be a set of rules for referees that commit mistakes. Based on the severity of the mistake there needs to be some kind of punishment (suspension etc.). The introduction of a supervisor or a delegate is very important.

Another important issue for referees is they should practice (just like players are practicing).They should come on occasions to club training and whistle. NWL will provide the latest instructions and interpretation of water polo rules to referees, as they are changing every few years. But, this will not be limited only for referees. Coaches, officials and players will be involved as well.


Talent identification is very important for the future of USA water polo. USA is a big country and is full of talent. Just for comparison, Croatia has 15 fully functioning clubs with only 10 that are working year round. In USA we have over 40,000 water polo members with hundreds of year round programs. But, outside of California, it is very hard to reach top level. That is unacceptable!

Usually players learn their water polo skills (passing, shooting, leg work, swimming style etc) between 10 and 14 years (refer to list of technical tactical skills in age group). The most crucial years are between 12 and 14. Later, if they learn basics the wrong way, it is almost impossible to correct it. So, when the talent is discovered it needs to have maximum support from ODP. Two years ago at the Speedo Cup there were no national team coaches present. How is talent going to be recognized if there’s nobody to see them? However, talent in water polo does not mean anything if there is no good organization, hard work and training. ODP and National Team coaches need to follow up with the clubs if these talented players are trained correctly.

When identifying talent special note should be on:

understanding the water polo game

anthropological and bio-mechanical status (predicted body size and physiological capabilities)

health status


Coaches should have adequate training in planning and programming season. One coach should work with max 18 athletes. If a coach is working with more, he simply cannot offer high quality training to athletes. Clubs should have the same model of training as the National Team. Since players spend 90% of their training in the clubs national team coaches should have high interest in the work of the clubs. Also:

Coaching staff in clubs should have a good collaboration with the national team staff. The should be asking for advice,exchanging ideas and helping when needed in all areas.

Coaches should be a role model to athletes. Complaining about refereeing is a big problem. Even if a referee commits a mistake against their team, coaches should act decently and not mention that in front of players. Players will then seek an alibi through the referees for their mistakes.

Video analyzing of the game. Clubs should provide a video camera and staff for recording. All important matches should be video recorded, and later re-viewed and discussed, first among the coaching staff, then later with the players.

Each player in the club should have his personal file sheet where coaches should input test results, anthropologic, biometric and other data, from the first time player enter the club and start playing water polo until the end of his career.

Clubs should participate on an international level as well. It is highly recommended that each team go once per year abroad, and once a year host a foreign team. This will increase the level of quality, and will motivate players to work harder.

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