Originating in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s, water polo is one of the oldest team sports of the modern Olympic Games, with European men's teams mainly winning the golden medals. In Italy, 5 men water polo championships (i.e., Serie) are organized according to the level of players (i.e., elite: Serie A1 and Serie A2 and sub-elite: Serie B, Serie C, and Serie D). Every year, the club ranking first in the Serie A1 wins the national prize (i.e., Scudetto). In general, clubs competing in a given Serie need to obtain a position in the best 4 rankings to be moved to the upper Serie, whereas those obtaining a position in the worst 4 rankings are moved to the lower Serie. Furthermore, the clubs obtaining a position in the best 4 Serie A1 rankings are allowed to take part in the Euro League Championship (EL), which represents the most prestigious European competition.
At present, official national and international water polo matches consist of four 8-minute clock-time (i.e., excluding breaks in play) quarters, so that a match may extend up to 60-65 minutes. Two teams, consisting of 6 field players and a goalkeeper, play matches in a 30 × 20-m court. Actually, the number of players might vary during the game according to the rules of the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) (8) that comprise 20-second clock-time power play situation when a player commits an exclusion foul, extended to 4 minutes in case of an act of brutality. Furthermore, to render the game faster and more attractive to spectators, new rules (i.e., 30 seconds of clock time allowed to conclude a single action; 5 penalties determine the winner in case the score remains tied after two 3-minute extra times; the 5-meters penalty area from goal line; and the corner throw changed in goal throw when a defending player involuntarily sends the ball over the goal line) have been introduced in 2005 (8).
Research on water polo lags behind that produced on other team sports and is focused largely on the physiological profiles (6,9,19,20,23,25,27,29) and swimming capabilities of players (7,11,17,18,20-22). Recently, some authors (1-3,12,14,15,24,28) considered technical and tactical aspects of elite water polo, especially in relation to playing situations involving even or uneven (i.e., power play and counterattack) numbers of players. The research in other team sports showed that the level of competition strongly affects several aspects of play (4,5,16,17,26), and no study investigated whether technical and tactical aspects of water polo are competition-level dependent. Thus, to extend previous works on water polo performance, the present study aimed at comparing elite (i.e., Euro League and Italian “Serie A1”) and sub-elite (Italian “Serie B”) matches.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The local institutional review board approved this study to investigate the technical and tactical aspects of elite and sub-elite water polo. Recently, different technical and tactical indicators have been introduced to describe offensive elite water polo performances (1,2,12,24), also in relation to the match outcome (3,28). Although it seems reasonable to hypothesize that match-related statistics are linked to the level of competition, at present, sub-elite water polo has not been investigated so that performance at lower level can be inferred only from competitions played at elite level. Actually, the mean number of actions during the entire match can be similar among levels of competition, whereas a different distribution of favorable uneven playing situations (i.e., counterattack and power play) might be present at sub-elite level because of the lower water polo skills of players. Thus, relative to even and uneven playing situations, it might be possible to expect differences between skill levels in these offensive indicators: frequency of occurrence of actions and mean duration of clock time; mean number of players and passes involved in a single action; frequency of occurrence of turnovers; and frequency of occurrence, type, origin, and outcome of shots.
A notational analysis was performed on 17 men's water polo matches during the 2005-2006 season, 4 matches played at international elite level (i.e., Final Four of Euro League, EL), 7 matches played at Italian elite level (i.e., Serie A1 Championship, SA), and 6 matches played at Italian sub-elite level (i.e., Serie B Championship, SB).
The EL and SA matches were recorded from Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Sport Satellite channel, whereas the SB matches were recorded by means of a video camera (GR-DVL 107; JVC, Yokohama, Japan) positioned at a side of the pool, at the level of the midfield line, at a height of 10 meters, and at a distance of 10 meters from the pool. The coaches of the SB teams gave their approval for video recording and analysis of the matches. A Video Home System (SLV-E1000VC; Sony, Tokyo, Japan) was used analyze recordings for the evaluation of the following technical-tactical parameters:
- The frequency of occurrence of offensive actions. An action was defined as originating from the moment that a player gained possession of the ball until possession was lost to the opposing team
- The mean duration of clock time of offensive actions in seconds electronically registered during the games
- The mean number of players directly involved in a single offensive action (i.e., the players who had the possession of the ball during the single offensive action)
- The mean number of passes in a single offensive action
- The frequency of occurrence of the turnovers (i.e., offensive fouls, bad passes, or steals determining a turnover)
- The frequency of occurrence of shots in relation to the different playing situations
- The outcome of the shots (i.e., with or without a goal) in relation to the different playing situations (i.e., the ratio between the goals and the shots performed)
- The frequency of occurrence of the origin of shots according to the representation of the court of play in 6 zones (Figure 1), established according to 2 horizontal (i.e., inside and outside the 5-meter penalty area) and 3 vertical (i.e., between the goal posts, from the right post to the right lateral line, and from the left post to the left lateral line) criteria
- The frequency of occurrence of the following type of shots: a) drive shot (i.e., overhead shot with no fake), b) shot after 1 fake, c) shot after 2 fakes, d) shot after more than 2 fakes, e) backhand shot, and f) off-the-water shot (i.e., shot attempted while the ball is controlled in the water).
All the indicators were analyzed in relation to the following different offensive tactical phases (i.e., even, counterattack, and power play). In particular, even situations are characterized by a number of offensive players relative to the ball position, which is never larger than that of the defense; counterattacks refer to playing situations where the number of offensive players relative to the ball position is larger than that of the defense; power play actions are played further to an exclusion foul of a defensive player who has to go out of the court for 20 seconds of clock time.
The same experienced observer scored all the matches, thereby eliminating any interobserver variation in the measures. To assess the test-retest reliability, before the study, the observer scored a single match twice, each observation separated by 7 days, showing no difference between observations.
Means and SDs were calculated for each of the dependent variables. All statistical analyses were conducted using the statistical package SPSS (version 13.00; Institute, Inc., Cary, NC), and the criterion for significance was set at a 0.05 alpha level. The multivariate approach (multivariate analysis of variance) was applied to the playing situations (even, counterattack, and power play) as dependent variables and competition levels (EL, SA, and SB) as between factor. Because the variables related to the origin and type of a shot included several subgroups, separate analyses (ANOVA) were performed for each playing situation. Thus, for each significant multivariate value, the univariate effects were applied. When significant differences were obtained, Bonferroni's post hoc test was applied over competition levels. Furthermore, to provide meaningful analysis for comparisons, the Cohen's effect sizes (ESs) were also calculated. An ES ≤ 0.2 was considered trivial; from 0.3 to 0.6, small; <1.2, moderate; and >1.2, large.
Competition level showed main effects for the frequency of occurrence of offensive actions (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.5-0.8), the mean duration of clock time of offensive actions (p = 0.002; ES = 0.7), the mean number of players involved in a single offensive action (p = 0.002; ES range: 0.5-0.7), the mean number of passes in a single offensive action (p = 0.001; ES = 0.6), the frequency of occurrence of shots (p = 0.006; ES range: 0.5-0.6), and the relative outcome (p = 0.04; ES = 0.6), whereas no difference was found for turnovers.
Figure 2 indicates that even was the most frequent offensive situation. Competition level showed differences only for the frequency of occurrence of counterattack (p = 0.001; ES range: 0.5-0.6) and power play (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.7-0.8) actions. In particular, SB players performed a significantly higher frequency of counterattacks than EL and SA counterparts, whereas the reverse picture emerged for power play actions.
The analysis regarding the mean duration of clock time of the offensive actions (Figure 3) showed differences only for even (p < 0.0001; ES = 0.7), with EL and SA athletes playing significant longer actions than SB ones.
The analysis of the number of players directly involved in an action showed differences among competition levels only in relation to power play situations (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.5-0.7). The number of the players involved in the power play actions was significantly higher in EL (n = 4 ± 0) and SA (n = 4 ± 0) than in SB matches (n = 3 ± 1). No difference in players involved existed among competition levels in even (n = 4 ± 1) and counterattack (n = 2 ± 1) actions.
Competition level showed differences in relation to the mean number of passes only during even (p = 0.004; ES = 0.6) and power play (p = 0.001; ES = 0.6). In particular, during even and power play actions, SB players performed less passes (even: n = 3 ± 1; power play: n = 4 ± 1) than SA players (even: n = 4 ± 1; power play: n = 6 ± 1). No differences among competition levels were reported in relation to the frequency of occurrence of the turnovers.
The frequency of occurrence of the shots performed during the different playing situations showed differences only in relation to counterattack (p = 0.003; ES = 0.5) and power play (p = 0.004; ES range: 0.5-0.6) actions. In particular, during counterattacks, SB performed a significantly higher number of shots (13 ± 10%) than EL (4 ± 3%) and SA (4 ± 4%), whereas the reverse result emerged for power play actions (EL = 39 ± 10%; SA = 34 ± 12%; and SB = 22 ± 10%). No differences emerged in relation to the frequency of occurrence of the even shots (62 ± 11%). The ratio between the goals and the shots performed showed differences among competition levels only for even situations (p = 0.002; ES = 0.6). In particular, in this situation, SB showed a higher percentages of goals (34 ± 15%) than SA (16 ± 11%). No difference was reported for the ratio between the goals and the shots performed of counterattack (43 ± 40%) and power play (48 ± 21%) situations.
Considering the frequency of occurrence of the shots (Table 1) originated in the 6 zones of the court, differences among competition levels were found only for even (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.5-0.9) and power play (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.5-0.7) situations. In particular, during even actions, EL and SA performed a higher number of shots from the zones 4 (p < 0.0001; ES = 0.8) and 6 (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.8-0.9) than SB, whereas EL and SA performed a lower number of shots from the zone 2 than SB (p < 0.0001; ES = 0.9). Furthermore, SA performed a lower number of shots from the zone 3 than SB (p = 0.009; ES = 0.5). Regarding power play actions, SB reported a higher number of shots from the zone 2 than EL and SA (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.6-0.7), whereas EL and SA performed more shots from the zone 4 than SB (p < 0.0001; ES = 0.7). Moreover, SA performed a higher number of conclusions from the zone 6 than SB (p = 0.043; ES = 0.5). No difference among competitions emerged for the shots originated from the 6 zones during the counterattack actions.
Drive shot was the most frequent conclusion in relation to the different level competitions (Table 2). Differences among competition levels emerged only in relation to even actions (p = 0.015; ES range: 0.5-0.7). In particular, EL and SA performed a higher number of drive shots than SB (p < 0.0001; ES range: 0.5-0.7), whereas SA performed a higher number of shots with 1 fake than SB (p = 0.006; ES = 0.5). Competition level approached significance (p = 0.053; ES = 0.4) for shots with 2 fakes.
The technical and tactical analyses of team sports suffer the situational nature of the competitions so that replication of studies might be difficult. Nonetheless, notational analysis is a valuable tool for better coaching and interpreting team sports, enabling coaches and scientists to learn more about performances (13). At present, information on water polo's notational analysis is present only in relation to elite competitions. Some authors (12,28) focused on shots (i.e., type, penalty, and outcome) and swimming aspects (i.e., front crawl and backstroke and distance swam) of water polo matches. Although Hughes et al. (12) considered the offensive systems of play (i.e., 4:2 and 3:3) during even and power play situations, no relation to the level of the competition was included.
Actually, the present results showed that competition level has a relevant impact on the occurrence of technical and tactical indicators especially in relation to even, counterattack, and power play situations. Although the number of even actions showed no difference among competition levels, counterattacks were more frequent at SB level, indicating a teams' lower ability to prevent transitions that determine numerical and tactical unbalances. On the other hand, the higher number of power play actions played at EL and SA indicate the teams tend to achieve exclusion fouls during even play, especially defending the center forward who is largely engaged in dueling situations (14,15).
During even playing situations, interesting results were found for technical and tactical indicators. Considering the opportunities to score a goal or to achieve an exclusion foul, the fact that SB teams showed faster conclusions, a higher number of shots carried out inside the penalty area (i.e., zone 2 right in front to the goal) also with fakes to mislead the goalkeeper and a higher percentage of goals scored, indicating the lower ability of the defense. On the other hand, elite players have to apply more elaborated strategies that require a longer duration, a higher number of passes, and shots performed from perimeter areas (zones 4 and 6, respectively).
The importance of the center forward at elite level (14,15) is directly linked to the higher frequency of occurrence of exclusion fouls that determine power play playing situations. In fact, despite even actions showed the highest frequency of shots in each playing situation, in Euro League and Serie A1, the highest percentage of scoring a goal was recorded during power play actions (10). On the other hand, the same picture is not definite in the Serie B level. Despite that the power play situation lasts 20 seconds independently from the competition level and all the analyzed offensive teams tend to develop their actions around 13 seconds, sub-elite offensive teams tend to involve a lower number of players and passes than elite ones, indicating a lower ability to move the ball as quick as possible. However, the higher frequency of occurrence of shots generated from the central 5-meters area (i.e., zone 2) indicates that the sub-elite teams tend to perform shots from the closest zone to the opposite goal than elite teams. In fact, at elite level, power play actions were performed by a higher number of shots originated from the outer zones (i.e., zones 4 and 6).
During a match, other unbalanced situations occur when a team loses possession and some of its players are unable to perform a fast transition to defense. Thus, a counterattack originates. Regardless competition level, the duration of counterattacks was reduced to one-third of the time allowed to conclude an action (i.e., around 10 seconds) because of the necessity of the attacking team to profit of temporary advantages over the defense team.
However, most of the analyzed indicators suggest differences in terms of defense ability too. In particular, the lower number of counterattack, the higher duration of the even situation, the highest number of players involved during power play actions, as well as the highest number of passes during even and power play situations, and the lowest number of shots originated from the closest zone to the opposite goal court during even and power play situations suggest that elite players have to perform more elaborate offensive actions than those of the sub-elite players.
Smith (27,28) claimed that much of the information used in water polo coaching remains speculative and anecdotal until studies are performed to determine the actual responses and adaptations to water polo training and competition. The present data contribute to undress this issue, with special reference to the level of competition, demonstrating that differences between elite and sub-elite water polo matches are present, especially when several indicators are considered. Therefore, it is not appropriate to infer sub-elite water polo competitions from the elite data, and coaches should be aware that several technical and tactical aspects of water polo show a high specificity. In particular, the indicators that better discriminate among competitions levels are (a) the number of counterattack and power play actions, (b) the duration of even situations, (c) the number of players directly involved during power play actions, (d) the frequency of occurrence of the passes during even and power play actions, (e) the frequency of occurrence of the shots during counterattack and power play actions, (f) the frequency of occurrence of goals during even actions, (g) the frequency of occurrence of shots originating from different zones of the court, and (h) the type of shots performed.
Professional coaches and trainers could benefit from the present data to better interpret technical and tactical aspects of water polo in relation to its competition level. For this reason, further research is needed to investigate youths' and women's water polo. Moreover, the analysis of defensive technical and tactical aspects should also be encouraged to better define differences in relation to competition level.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to coach Barry King for his support for helping reviewing the article.
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