Our water polo players in the Midwest must overcome several training obstacles, including the lack of ability to play year-round and the sport’s place as a tertiary activity for most schools. In my opinion, this combination can be a blessing in disguise.
To begin with, in a broad-spectrum sense, our athletes can devote this time to developing team skills by playing other sports, as well as improving on their lagging physical and technical skills. For water polo players, the skills of the eggbeater and throwing without ground reaction forces are critical; plus, the “hard skill” of swimming in and of itself becomes crucial for those still developing as athletes (such as the players I work with). The purpose of this article is to espouse the importance of improving swimming skills, especially for those in this developmental stage (high school), which will build a basis of sprint speed and technical efficiency in the polo pool.
Why Speed Is King in the Water Too!
All those familiar with the concepts and practices of track/sprint coaches Tony Holler and Chris Korfist (Track and Football Consortium) may find a parallel here. Philosophically, I see swim speed for a water polo player as analogous to an athlete who improves their absolute speed during track season to better their status in field sports such as football, lacrosse, rugby, or soccer.Philosophically, I see swim speed for a water polo player as analogous to an athlete who improves their absolute speed during track season to better their status in field sports. Click To Tweet
Most modern track and football coaches would agree that the hard skill development involved in sprinting sets the stage for success on the football field. I would be hard-pressed to find a high school polo coach who would argue that swimming faster and better would not help their water polo players. Two of my best male water polo players not only achieved all-state and all-American status in polo, but also doubled those honors in swimming. Many of my other high-achieving polo players (both men and women) have had comparable achievements in both sports, ranging from state honorable mentions in water polo to state placings in the state swim series.
The positive effects of swimming ability and water polo are twofold:
- Developing the technical skills to swim fast in the freestyle (front crawl) for breakaways, loose balls, and swim-offs (which happen four times a game) will turn a polo player’s speed into a weapon. Learning the backstroke will also enhance the skills of the defensive players during possession transitions as they seamlessly switch from front crawl to back during their spin moves.
- The mental fortitude of a racer is paramount for an aggressive and confident polo player. In other words, would you want to play with someone who thrives on pressure or one who succumbs to it? Would you also want the other team wary of your team because you have an ace swimmer (or several of them) who can break away at any time and win every swim-off? You’d be crazy to not want speed and competitiveness!
For the sake of comparison, I’ll refer to a study that examined both absolute (sprint speed) and repeated sprint abilities (think conditioning here) and compared swimmers and water polo players. The researchers discovered that swimmers had the edge over water polo players in swim speed in short distances (25 meters) by more than a half second (11.65 seconds versus 12.26 seconds, respectively), and in the long distances (800 meters) by two seconds (9.43 minutes versus 11.43 minutes), which was consistent with their initial hypothesis.1
Perfecting the Hard Skills
Expanding upon the concept of developing a fast swimmer to improve polo play, we must recognize this endeavor is best approached through a skills-based process. And like every skill requiring total body effort and coordination, there are rules to follow in terms of position, posture, and technique: This is what is meant by a hard skill.
Even just casually looking at an athlete at their peak, they all have commonalities in their technique. The great thing about the study above was that it not only found obvious the superior speed of swimmers over polo players, but also inferred why that may be. Specifically, swimmers have technical superiority over water polo players:
“…These findings may indicate that the superior head-down front-crawl swimming skill previously noted for swimmers compared to water polo players…”1
The significance of this finding manifests itself in two ways. First, in terms of preservation and injury reduction:
“Understand that most injuries have a neuromuscular base. It is a combination of technique and strength or other physical qualities as they relate to the execution of the skills on the field.”2
Simply put, the two major mechanisms of injury are lack of technique and insufficient strength (more on strength later), which should go hand in hand. If our aquatic athletes are trained in the proper mechanical execution of swimming, then they will cease to wear themselves out during sprints and have reserves for the possible extreme variations in stroke technique.
Secondly, this study also examined the work capacity and energy system abilities for water polo players and their swim counterparts. At first, the researchers guessed water polo players would have the edge over swimmers in respect to a repeated high-speed sprint effort test, given that the sport (and its practices) includes a mix of intense efforts (racing to the goal or a loose ball) and less-intense efforts (treading/eggbeater) versus swimmers who compete in single efforts (usually with longer rest times between events).
To the surprise of the researchers, swimmers outperformed water polo players in repeat sprint efforts.
“However, in contrast to our second hypothesis, water polo players exhibited poorer RSA compared to the swimmers.” (Ref. 1, Fig. 1)
In this case, the technical superiority of the swimmer allowed for a better stroke economy per sprint effort. Specifically, the superior posture and position of the swimmers in the front crawl allowed for better stroke precision and kick coordination. This is akin to track coaches referring to stride economy for sprinters and distance runners alike. The lessened expenditure of energy is derived from the maintenance of optimal technique and increased GRF for each stride.
You can certainly make the argument that more chaotic stroke patterns will occur during a polo match (much like sprinting for field athletes, where varying patterns and degrees of freedom of technique will occur). While it is true that no one movement will truly look the same as the previous one, it does not give us a free pass to bypass technical development. Without a base standard of swim technique and mechanics, our varying degrees of stroke patterns will suffer.While it is true that no one movement will truly look the same as the previous one, it does not give us a free pass to bypass technical development. Click To Tweet
In this case, the polo player—trained less in swim technique—will have less margin for error and may fatigue at a faster rate, opening themselves up to more of an injurious situation. This is something we obviously want to avoid when not in contact with an opponent. Up-and-coming water polo players should realize the importance of this concept and take initiative in developing the hard skill of optimal swimming technique. Swimming competitively on a team in short course season or seeking out a qualified coach are viable options to garner the competent hard skills of swimming.
Key Movements Concepts
Okay, so what can we do outside of the pool?
Again, I can’t stress my role as a physical preparation/athletic development coach enough. My objective is to help PREPARE athletes for the demands of their water sports, not BE the water sport. The following will cover how I attempt to develop and bridge the gap to the hard skills of swimming through strength, without “bringing the water to the weight room.”
Good programs include a spectrum of exercises that span the general-specific continuum. Within this continuum, exercises can also cover the parts-whole spectrum, where “part” exercises cover part of a key movement pattern (KMP) via singular joint movement or an area of accentuation of muscular contraction. “Whole” exercises, meanwhile, encompass the whole KMP. For the polo player/swim sprinter, this KMP is the front crawl and arm action.
Key Movement I: The Front Crawl
Here, I’ll borrow concepts from how I train a swimmer. We begin with the front crawl. Examining this in a basic sense, we see that the athlete lies prone over the top of the water, reaching over their head with one arm and retracting the other and cycling in a crawling motion in the attempt to “grab water” to propel the body forward. The legs also work in opposition in the kicking motion to enhance this propulsion via a rudder effect. Essentially, we have a prone cross crawl pattern to create horizontal movement, most of which is produced by the upper body.
To begin, we must examine posture and position. In my opinion, the alignment of the trunk (via the spine) is of paramount importance, as this will determine how well the athlete can keep their torso over the surface of the water to best propel the body forward. Any type of slumped posture while attempting to get long will limit overhead reach, and any hyper-lordotic posture will limit the ability to kick effectively. Think Janda lower/upper cross postures to an extent here. (***We must not deny the flexion/extension moments of the spine that happen during the dolphin kick action.)
For us, this begins with a robust plank position from head to toe. Head in line with shoulders, in line with hips, in line with ankles: This is our base posture, which we call getting long! If our athletes are unable to hold this for at least the duration of a swim event (20 seconds to five minutes), then they may exhibit a performance bleed at the shoulders or hips somewhere. We use the planking drills as a living diagnostic in which we can coach proper positions while correcting faulty ones. The beauty of holding positions (and most isometric drills) is that young athletes learn by “thinking their way” through the drill. They learn what optimal and nonoptimal positions feel like.The beauty of holding positions (and most isometric drills) is that young athletes learn by ‘thinking their way’ through the drill. They learn what optimal and nonoptimal positions feel like. Click To Tweet
In this case, we cue a glute squeeze as opposed to a stomach brace. If you have recently attended a clinic where Cal Dietz has presented, you probably know why. What we have consistently found is that overly bracing the abdominal region waters down (pun intended) performance around the appendages. On the other hand, a squeeze of the butt allows for a stable alignment and for the spine to move properly during strokes. You do want some rotation to happen here when swimming, and the glutes/hip flexors initiate firing during the kick. Keep in mind the swim-sprint-crawl is simply another high-speed gait cycle like sprinting that leaves us clues as to the role the paraspinals play in the front crawl, and they will operate similarly.
Next, we extend the idea of the front crawl by doing exactly that—CRAWLING!!!
Athletic development and training experts from Vern Gambetta to Jay DeMayo to Donnie Thompson are advocates of some form of walking on the hands to not only load the shoulder joint, but also to connect the upper and lower body. I hold this philosophy to be true, as it helps us apply rhythm and coordination while maintaining this “planked” posture as required in the water. We typically incorporate bear crawling variations in our warm-ups. Five yards seems to be a good distance, and we go forward, backward, to the left, then the right, and do the same while crossing the hands over.
Video 1. Forward bear crawl with bands.
Once our kids are no longer challenged by normal bear crawls, we load them by condensing the breaks, adding them into a “medley,” or using a mini band around the wrists.
Video 2. Lateral bear crawl with mini band.
The Connection: Croc Walk Progressions
Once regular planking and bear crawling become easy, then we join these parts into a whole movement. We have the athletes put their feet on furniture sliders and crawl forward and backward. For us, the croc walk is way we bring “life” to the basic plank.
Video 3. The technique in the croc walk resembles the front crawl as seen in swimming, sans the kicking.
We instruct our athletes to grab the ground as they would grab the water, while maintaining the plank position with the rest of torso. The hips may twist a little, but don’t let them sway. This proves to be quite challenging for most at first, but give this a try for a few weeks and they’ll be able to do the cycle croc walks before you know it.
The cycle crocs are another part of the progression, in which the athletes work their arms through the catch, pull, exit, and recovery cycle. The next progression is a loaded cycle croc where we attach a load at the hips. We’ve done these with bands, a sled, and even an Exer-Genie sprint trainer. DO NOT rush to get to this point! It is imperative that your athletes earn their progression by mastering planking and basic crawls and possess a surplus of upper body strength (10+ strict pull-ups). This will come into play when we use this drill as a “compete” exercise and time a 10-yard croc.
Important exercises here are bodyweight drills such as the pull-up and various versions of the push-up, as they form the base of shoulder extension and resisting a force in front of the body.
Video 4. The backward croc cycle performed by an athlete with furniture sliders.
Key Movements Concepts 2: Stroke Arm Action
The next key movement concept is the arm action in the stroke. As much as track and speed coaches obsess over the cycling leg action in sprinting (back half mechanics, front half mechanics, foot strike, etc.), swim coaches obsess over the cycling arm action. Swimming is the opposite of sprinting in this way. The pull power from the upper body produces the most power for propulsion and the kick supports it.As much as track and speed coaches obsess over the cycling leg action in sprinting, swim coaches obsess over the cycling arm action. Click To Tweet
The arm action of the freestyle involves four basic phases:
- The Catch: Entry of hand into the water.
- The Pull: The act of the arm pulling against the resistance of the water.
- The Exit: The final pull against the water as it is about to go over the surface.
- The Recovery: Cycling of the arm over the surface of the water, preparing for entry phase/reaching.
A key component to the catch involves the arm reaching overhead as the hand enters the water in an attempt to get as much water as possible—another application to getting long. General exercises we use are overhead pressing with dumbbells (single arm preferred) and push-up variations using sliders or suspension straps. More recently we have found that employing a Coiling Core Concept® during alternating arm patterns allows our aquatic athletes to bridge the gap between general and specific in their effort to “get longer.” Despite the controversy generated from its “creator,” applying this concept during strength exercises aids in teaching coordination of the reach, spinal movement, and contraction of the opposite latissimus dorsi, which loads the recovery arm for subsequent strokes.3
Video 5. Pullover variations for swimmers and water polo players.
The pull phase initially involves almost pure internal rotation, with the humerus abducted at 90 degrees as well as flexed (the popular 90/90 position). To work this action in a parts sense, we use internal rotations with the elbow to the side. The “rehab/ PT” type exercises with elastic resistance or handheld weights have their place here. Medball throws (in this same action) can add a power component to the catch. You can utilize throws of both repeated and single effort here. Consequently enough, training the muscles in this pattern can also aid in throwing velocity that is beneficial to water polo players.
As the pull action progresses, the arm draws downward toward the hip with the elbow obtusely bent (think a diamond shape if you are viewing from front), but it will straighten a bit in the mid catch. This will be where the most propulsion can be generated, given more favorable leverages for the powerful lats and pectorals.
Video 6. Push-Up Matrix: Keep in mind varying grips and hand positions will target the latissimus dorsi and pectorals in different ways, which will strengthen the shoulder girdle in a broad sense.
General movements that help develop pulling power are pull-ups (with varying grips and elbow positions) and horizontal pushing variations that target the pecs. (Remember, they internally rotate the humerus as well.)
Covering every movement of the scapula is necessary to maintain the integrity of scapulohumeral health for an upper-body-dominant sport. The classic line of thinking in pairing vertical pulls and pushes in a session may hold some merit here. Respective of the overhead position, scapulohumeral rhythm is met if it is elevated maximally during overhead work. This is where the undertrained serratus anterior gets some necessary work and is forced to coordinate with the trapezius and rhomboids.
As the arm approaches the exit phase, the technical key lies in keeping the “high elbow” (elbow above hand), as the elbow will exit the water before the hand. Think the old dumbbell kickback action here. The elbow and arm extension act as a finisher of projection before the hand reaches the surface of the water. Here we can use “kickback” variations with dumbbells, bands, or a cable machine.
Pronating the hand will add some coordination with the elbow muscles. While barbells, dumbbells, and bands work well for these movements, integrating old-school barbell triceps extensions and full pullovers (taking the hands as far toward the hips as possible) will make it a more complete movement. The flywheel device also allows us to incorporate rhythm and cadence for these movements as athletes may experience them during sport.
The exit phase then leads to the recovery phase, in which the arm shortens close to the body as it is pulled up out of the water before reaching to enter for the catch. The muscles of the posterior shoulder girdle, deltoids, and trapezius are put to work in this action. Basically, every muscle that moves the scapula in every angle is worked in the front crawl arm action. While most strength coaches (many of whom have been influenced by well-meaning PTs) only opt for scapular depression and retraction exercises and technique, emphasis on the basic rowing exercises will only serve us so much. We must not neglect EVERY movement of the scapula.
With the aforementioned movements, protraction and upward rotation must be at equilibrium in terms of strength. In other words, do not be afraid to shrug, don’t be afraid to reach horizontally, and certainly don’t be afraid to go overhead. Our programs include Olympic lifts and pulling variations that link scapular coordination from toe to head. We also employ isolated scapula actions in our pull-ups and push-ups that cover depression, retraction, and upward rotation/elevation.
Give Them What the Water Can’t
Much like their field athlete counterparts, our aquatic athletes must prepare with an emphasis on skill as well as strength, power, and conditioning. As physical preparation coaches, our duty is to not only cover the strength and work capacity components of their development, but also bridge the gap to skill.This may seem like a difficult task when working with aquatic athletes, but if we can give them what the water can’t, then we are on the right track. Click To Tweet
This may seem like a difficult task in working with aquatic athletes, but if we can give them what the water can’t, then we are on the right track. In my experience, I’ve never seen young women and men who are as dedicated and loyal to training as my aquatic athletes. I hope the concepts and drills above are easy to grasp and will allow other physical preparation coaches the opportunity to diversify and connect with their aquatic athletes to have the same rewarding experiences I’ve had.
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1. Meckel, Y., Bishop, D., Rabinovich, M., Kaufman, L., Nemet, D., and Eliakim, A. “Repeated Sprint Ability in Elite Water Polo Players and Swimmers and its Relationship to Aerobic and Anaerobic Performance.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2013;12(4):738-743.
2. Yessis, Dr. Michael. “Are Injuries Due Mainly to Conditioning or Lack of Conditioning?” elitefts.com, 5/6/11.
3. Coiling Core Training®, WeckMethod. David Weck.