The USA has great basketball tradition and on the world stage they are on the completely another level. Wherever you go in the USA you can see basketball hoops on playgrounds and parks in almost every neighborhood. You can see kids shooting around and playing pickup games. Many of these kids later move up to the organized side of the sport. However, they never lose those valuable lessons that they have learned while playing around. These are the lessons that kids learn on their own and there’s no coach in the world that can teach them.
These kids learn the game by playing the game. They figure out what works for them, for their body types and for their abilities in general. But what is most important is that they are driven by the love for the game. Not the sport, but the game. It is not surprising when these kids move to the organized sport, where coaches can incorporate their knowledge of the game and skills with the fundamentals of the organized sport, to have a tremendous success. This is what is happening in basketball but not in water polo.
When was the last time you saw kids pick up the ball and start playing water polo? When was the last time kids started to play improvised games on their own? The pinnacle of the game imagination in the USA is “five lives”. That game is very static and it doesn’t teach much. How can we expect our athletes to have imagination when every practice and activity is controlled and structured? As a matter of fact our kids are living in the structured world where their days have schedule from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed.
It is not surprising that the kids that grow up in this kind of environment don’t have any kind of imagination or creativity. And it is not their fault.
We have games and practices that are scheduled and organized. We tell our kids how to play and what to do. This is the environment that creates robotic, one dimensional players. This is evident when you see kids from the USA when they play their European counterparts. Their movement is not fluid and their shooting is very predictable. This is the result of teaching players to play exactly as they are told instead of letting them play and learn on their own how to outplay and outsmart the opponent.
Some coaches will tell you that the reason for kids not playing pickup games is that they don’t have the access to the pool. Well, that is partially true. Some European countries have seas and the ability to throw the goal at the beach and play. But who is stopping Americans to do the same? Do you really need a water polo goal to play water polo based games? This is something that we were writing about before.
Other sports have implemented unstructured practice or structured play. However, we don’t see this in American water polo system. This type of training is also called small sided games. There are limitless possibilities that you can implement. 2 on 2, 3 on 3, 4 on 4 or lopsided games. In this kind of environment kids learn on their own how to play the game the way that fits them. This kind of practice develops happier and more confident athletes because their skill level is high.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can just let them play every practice. It is important to work on the elements of water polo, mostly on swimming and moving through the water. To play basketball you need to know how to run. Running is the activity or the skill that kids learn very early, and almost every kid can run. However, not every kid knows how to swim. Therefore, if you don’t teach your athletes how to swim properly (proper swimming technique will help them play) they will not going to be able to play. It is like playing basketball and not knowing how to walk or run.
Practices should be mix of structured and unstructured activities. Early in the development work needs to be focused on the basic elements of the sport. Later those activities can become more complex.
Kids that learn to play in this structured and unstructured environment are more likely to pick up the ball and go play with their friends, on their own. These athletes will no longer play the sport just to win, but they will play the sport for the love of the game. And believe me athletes that love the game eventually become champions.