USA Men's Water Polo Team can win Olympic Gold!

Well, this for many sounds like a fairy tale. It is something that it's been debated for many years. there are many solutions, ideas and opinions on how to reach this goal. One thing is for certain, after so many trials and errors. Coach and coaching is not the problem! That's right, after trying so many coaches, domestic and foreign, the results are the same. Then, what is the problem? Problem is clearly systematic and that is why women's water polo has tremendous success and men's doesn't. The answer lies in the simple biology and in current socio-economic situation.

First let's look at the system of water polo in the United States. On the age group level, looking at the numbers, water polo is played in the United States on the larger scale than the rest of the world combined. California has more players than anywhere in the world. However, even with the large numbers like that kids don't have real competition to participate in. Unlike anywhere in the world USAWP doesn't have National Championship. They don't have local leagues and games that would have some meaningful competition. Most of the competition for age group players are tournaments organized by the local clubs purely as the fundraising effort. That is why in many cases young athletes like that play 4-5 games over the weekend. At the Junior Olympics they will in many cases play 10 games in just 4 days. Just recently I have witnessed tournament where 10u team was scheduled to play three games in a row, back to back. That is insane! If you have ever played water polo then you know how hard it is to play one game let alone three games back to back. When spoken to the organizers about that situation, I was told that this is how they run their tournament and if I don't like it I don't have to participate. That tournament was sanctioned by the governing body, USAWP, and I didn't see any officials or representatives there to make sure that the tournament is run by their standards since they have sanctioned it. Of course, if you ask USAWP about the problem like this they will tell you that they can't oversee every event. And that is true, that would be impossible to check on every event. That is why there should be competition organized by the governing body through out the year. On the boy's side this is a big problem since there's more boys playing the sport. On the girl's side, competition is less dense and they get smaller number of games and more time to prepare between games.

When they move from age group to high school, then we are starting to get to the core of the issue. Boy's high school season is structured correctly with the leagues, divisions and weekly games. High school athletes do well when in the season. However, the timing of the season is not good for the boy's. Most of the top high school teams play during the fall. The season is couple of months long and there's not enough time to prepare before the season since most people take summer vacations before school starts. There's a huge gap between the high school season and the real competition season (JO qualifiers and JO's). Therefore, boys don't have continuity and consistency. On the other side, girl's season is during the winter for most of the top high school teams. Girl's usually compete and practice during the fall so essentially their season is twice as long than boys'. And the gap between major summer competition and high school season is much shorter. Therefore, girls get better longer competition and their development is more streamlined.

Once athletes move to college the struggle to have year round competition becomes even greater with NCAA rules that are designed for larger sports like football or basketball. However, we can see same problems that athletes face just like in the high school. The men's season is during fall and is very short with very little time to prepare. Women's season is in spring and they have much more time to prepare before the season since coaches have their athletes in school all of fall and winter. This is when we see the pipeline for national teams. National teams are comprised from current and former collegiate players. NCAA is the real feeder program for the national teams. Since men's season is in fall, athletes that participate on the national team level are not prepared for the challenge since the gap from their season to the national team summer season is too large. On the other hand, women are coming out of their highly competitive season into summer national team season. In the recent USAWP coach's clinic they had Mr. Savic presenting his drills for athlete development in the effort to educate United States water polo coaches. In the Q&A session Mr. Savic was asked how does he prepare his players in the preparatory period (so before pre-competition and competition period) before Olympic Games or major championships. His answer was that he doesn't. All of his players are prepared in their clubs and they come ready to the national team. There is very little that any coach can do if his players are not in the "competition shape". Only way to get there is to have enough meaningful competitive games.

In 2008 USA was able to win silver medal. They have matched their best results from the 80's. When you look at the difference of the team personnel from that team and the teams from the past two Olympic Games there's one thing that jumps out. The number of players playing abroad. Or even number of players playing abroad with the "good" clubs and playing in the European top championships. Right now the number is zero. So, before 2008 games USA had several players playing in the top clubs for a few years. The number of the competitive games accumulates which is developing well experienced, knowledgeable players. Currently, USAWP with it's system is producing mechanical, one dimensional players, that are athletically gifted but are lacking experience and knowledge that can only be obtained by playing large number of highly competitive games. That is not the main reason for American players not playing in Europe. Historically, there was always couple of big guys playing abroad. The main reason is that there's less money within the European clubs and they are looking to develop their own players within the club. For example, big Italian clubs didn't have good youth programs in the past. But now almost every large club has youth water polo school. There are more quality young players produced and there's less need to look outside of their clubs.

Since there's no opportunity for American players to play abroad USAWP is loosing large number of athletes that come out of college system. The solution would be to create some kind of outlet for the players that are done with their collegiate career. But, how come women's water polo is successful?

One of the reasons for the women's success we have listed above. The other reason is biological. Women's athletes mature earlier than men. If you look at the average age of the top three teams that were on the podium in the Olympics you can see the difference in the age. Women's average age is 26 and men's is 29. Also, if you look at the average age of the gold winning teams, the women's is 24 and men's is 28. The women can come out of the college and prepare for couple of years and compete in their second Olympics. After that they can go on with their lives and finish their career at the age of 25. For men is much harder and with the obstacles through their collegiate career listed above they have to train and compete for 6-7 years after college to be competitive with the European teams that play in the well established programs well into their 30's. Economically speaking there are not that many families and athletes that can support themselves for 6-7 years just by playing water polo. That is why wast majority of US players opt out of water polo after college.

Now when we have all of this laid out it is apparent what needs to be done for USAWP to win gold. And not only to win it once, but keep winning on the consistent basis. The gaps that are currently present on the age group level, through the high school and during the college need to be filled. That means that the whole system of competition needs to be changed. After all, the whole point of playing sports is competing. Then why not make some meaningful competition that will help develop the sport, develop the athletes and make the sport more exciting and popular. When that competition becomes strong on the lowest level then the top competition will evolve naturally. The need for the post collegiate league or even professional league will emerge and interest will be there. Right now it is all just a dream, just as winning the gold.