If you go to any water polo game in the USA, you will most likely hear the words “drive, drive” being screamed by a coach or sometimes even by the crowd, often throughout the entire game. Bystanders often wonder what this means, but I’ll go as far as to say that oftentimes players and coaches don’t actually fully understand the meaning of this phrase either.
The word “drive” was borrowed from basketball in the late 50s, when water polo began to use movement as a way to attack the goal. Before that time, water polo was a static game and very little movement took place– it was more about posting up or 1 on 1 individual attacks. Games were typically low scoring, both because of the lack of a shot clock, but also because the leather ball was heavy and did not allow for many perimeter shots.
In the rest of the world, various different terms are used in place of the word “drive”, including “attack”, “penetrate”, and “enter”. Regardless of the terminology, the “driver” position in water polo is extremely important for the game. Unfortunately in the US, we often consider drivers to be a ‘dime a dozen’ and instead choose to emphasize goalie, center and defender training. The drivers are often left out there to fend for themselves, based on the idea that driving is a skill everyone is born with.
Let’s take look at this position: to begin, there are 3 different types of drivers and these are named according to the position they play and their strength and characteristics:
1- 1 or 2 drivers (USA Right hander side) are usually the best shooters on the team; they are fast and quick; the 2 driver is usually more offensive than the 1 driver.
2- 4 or 5 drivers (USA Left hander side) should be good defenders and able to shoot across their bodies; your best passers should play this position; left-handed players will play this position as well.
3- 3 drivers (USA Point) are usually defenders or strong shooters; some teams also use this position for a quick player to create movement.
Besides the different types of drivers there are also different drives that are and should be dictated according to the time, defense and tactics used by different teams:
1- Perimeter driving (when a player drives from positions 2, 3, 4).
2- Wing driving (also known in the USA as “back door” or “baseline”, both terms adopted from basketball).
3- Post up driving (when a player looks to muscle a smaller player by playing as a second center).
4- Picking or Screening (“picks” were very popular in the 70s and 80s until they were deemed illegal; coaches adapted by creating moving picks now known as screens; these are when 2 or more players use a drive as a way to create and open a player or to exchange defenders).
5- Other types of drives are double or diagonal (double is when synchronized or timed 2 players initiate drives for tactical purposes; diagonal is when players 2 or 4 exchange sides– widely used for creating motion and attacking zones).
Following all this comes the most important part of driving—the skills required to play the position successfully that in my opinion are often not taught and worked on sufficiently. The specific training for drivers is very varied: they require quick hands and fast strokes; they must be able to react with quick explosive movements when going from the horizontal to the vertical position; they should be able and must be able to pass under pressure and shoot the quick shots; movement to the right or the left should be worked on during training, allowing for the driver to be of multi-use.
Drivers should also be able to control the game and call offenses (defenders call defenses). In the last few Olympics, the leading scorers (for the most part) have been drivers, examples include: Sukno and Boskovic from Croatia, Prlainovic and Sapic from Serbia, Perrone from Spain, Azevedo from the USA, Biros from Hungary, Kasas from Hungary and Felugo from Italy, just to name a few.
Here are a few of the drills that I use to train the driver position:
1- Ball handling skills (remember that drivers will handle the ball on offense 80% of the time; precision and accurate passing are very important; drivers should be able to deliver a pass from any body position and under pressure).
2- Leg strength and explosive movement upwards (both defensively and offensively the driver is often used to create lanes or intercept plays; high body position on passing and shooting is a very important tool for success).
3- Hand speed (I use a wrist hand weight that I created weighing 250 grams; I have players pass, lunge and stroke with the weigh to help build strength and not only speed; but this also helps with power).
4- Stroke speed (using the wrist weight and some resistance bands will develop quickness and explosive movement).
5- Heavy ball (using this while following a shooting motion will strengthen the core and legs and at the same time work on the vertical game).
The final piece of the puzzle is to work on the mind of the player– this might be the most difficult part, but nonetheless a must. A good driver must possess a strong awareness of his/her surroundings and an in-depth knowledge of tactics. An analog I use with my players to emphasize these skills is as follows:
D – Decode the defense
R – React according to the situation
I – Intelligence; read the clock and situation
V – Vision; be aware of teammates and score
E – Execution of the drive needed
In conclusion, driving is very important for the game of water polo today. But one must also take into consideration that with a 30-second clock, highly defensive schemes, and the physicality of the game, driving should be used intelligently with specific needs in mind. Make sure to go over with each driver his/her strengths and weaknesses, allowing him or her to be positioned in the right place. The most common mistake in high school water polo is players playing in the wrong position.
At the higher level there are specific positions that need to be filled. If my 2 player is very offensive, I will make sure to pair him up at position 1 with a more defensive-minded player. Players will also change their positions for different teams — a center in high school might become a driver in college, so make sure to evaluate the true position of a player to help him/her succeed at the higher level.