Men's water polo originated in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s and is one of the oldest team sports of the modern Olympic Games. Despite the first women's water polo game being played in 1906 in Harlem, Holland (29), it developed only after the '60s in Europe, Australia, and in the USA, gaining the first edition of the official World Championships and the Olympic Games in 1986 and 2000, respectively (29). Women's water polo in the the USA has grown dramatically (7) achieving relevant success in international competitions, such as winning gold medals at the 2003 Barcelona, 2007 Melbourne, and 2009 Rome World Championships and podium positions at the 2000 Sydney (silver medal), 2004 Athens (bronze medal), and 2008 Beijing (silver medal) Olympic Games.
According to the new international rules introduced in 2005 by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) (9), a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women's collegiate water polo match consists of four 8-minute clock-time (i.e., excluding breaks in play) quarters. Two teams, made of 6 field players and a goalkeeper, play matches in a 25-m × 20-m court. A power play occurs when a player commits an exclusion foul and has a duration of 20 seconds or until the defense gains possession of the ball. The penalty line is 5 m from the goal line, and the goal throw occurs even when a defending player involuntarily sends the ball over the goal line. One major rule difference between FINA and the NCAA is the duration of the shot clock. The duration of the shot clock in a match governed by FINA rules is 30 seconds, whereas the NCAA rules call for 35 seconds.
Although research on water polo is mainly focused on the physiological profiles (4,10,20,21,24,26,27,30) and swimming capabilities of players (8,11,19,21,23,26,30), some authors (1-3,13,15-18,22,25,28) studied the play aspects of men's elite water polo. However, there is a relative paucity of studies on the technical and tactical aspects of women's water polo (3,17). Thus, the present study aimed at analyzing the technical and tactical aspects of American women's collegiate water polo, comparing winning and losing indicators classified according to different playing situations (i.e., Even, Counterattack, and Power Play).
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The local Institutional Review Board approved this study to investigate the technical and tactical aspects of American collegiate (NCAA) women's water polo. According to the literature (4), a single match could provide a valuable estimate of match analysis aspects of team sports. Therefore, it was hypothesized that examining the match outcome of 12 official 2008 NCAA women's water polo competitions would increase the relevance and applicability of results for coaches and conditioners.
Different technical and tactical indicators have been introduced to describe elite water polo (1,2,13,25), also in relation to the outcome (3,28). Actually, the mean number of the actions recorded during each playing situation can be similar between winning and losing teams, whereas during specific playing situations (i.e., Even, Counterattack, and Power Play), differences relative to action duration, number of players and passes involved in a single action, exclusion fouls, and shot indicators (i.e., origin, type, and outcome) might show differences, highlighting higher tactical water polo skills of players on winning teams. At present, there is no information relative to the tactical aspects that characterized the winning and losing performance in NCAA women's water polo.
Usually, the technical staff of NCAA water polo teams routinely records the matches for subsequent analysis of their team and other teams. Thus, the cooperation with the technical staff of the Indiana University Women's Water Polo Team presented us with the opportunity to analyze the video recordings of the 2008 NCAA women's water polo matches. In the present study, the notational analysis parameters of Even, Counterattack, and Power Play playing situations have been considered as dependent variables and the match outcome (i.e., winning and losing) as between factors.
Twelve different women's water polo teams have been analyzed during 12 official matches of the 2008 NCAA Championship. Each team involved players (age: 18-22 years) with at least 3 years of previous training. In general, NCAA women's water polo teams are involved in five 120-minute training sessions per week.
The 12 NCAA women's water polo matches were recorded by means of a video camera (JVC GR-DVL 107, Yokohama, Japan) positioned at one side of the pool, at the level of the midfield line, at a height of 10 m and at a distance of 10 m from the pool, with a fixed court of vision. Hence, the video recordings were reproduced by means of a Video Home System (SONY SLV-E1000VC, Tokyo, Japan) to collect the following technical-tactical parameters:
(a) The frequency of occurrence of the 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; (b) The mean duration of game clock-time of offensive actions electronically registered during the games; (c) 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); (d) The mean number of passes in a single offensive action; (e) The ratio between the number of turnovers (i.e., offensive fouls, bad passes, or steals determining a turnover) and offensive actions; (f) The ratio between the number of exclusion and penalty fouls and offensive actions; (g) The ratio between the number of goals and shots; (h) The ratio between the number of shots originated inside or outside the 5-m area and the entire number of shots; and (i) The ratio between the number of drive shots (i.e., overhead shot with no fake), shot following a fake, or other type of shots (i.e., backhand and off-the-water shots, performed with the ball controlled in the water), and the entire number of shots.
All these indicators were analyzed in relation to the following offensive tactical phases (i.e., Even, Counterattack, and Power Play). In particular, Even situations are played by a number of offensive players relative to the ball position, which is equal or lower than that of the defense; Counterattacks refer to playing situations where the number of offensive players relative to the ball position is higher than that of the defense; Power-Play actions originate an exclusion foul of a defensive player who has to go out of the court for 20 seconds of clock time (18).
The same experienced observer scored all the matches to avoid 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. No difference between observations emerged.
Means, SDs, and ranges were calculated for each of the dependent variables. The analysis of the variance (ANOVA) approach was applied to the playing situation (Even, Counterattack, and Power Play) as dependent variables and match outcome (winning and losing) as between factor. All statistical analyses were conducted using the statistical package SPSS (version 13.00, Institute Inc., Cary, NC, USA), and the criterion for significance was set at a 0.05 alpha level. When significant differences were obtained, post hoc test was applied over match outcome. Moreover, to provide meaningful analysis for the comparison, Cohen's effect sizes (ES) were also calculated (5). An ES = 0.2 was considered trivial, from 0.3 to 0.6 small, <1.2 moderate and >1.2 large (12).
Match outcome did not show main effects for the frequency of occurrence (Even: 79 ± 5%, range 70-90%; Counterattack: 6 ± 4%, range 0-17%; Power Play: 14 ± 5%, range 4-22%) of the offensive actions (main number: Even: 41 ± 3, range 35-48; Counterattack: 3±2, range 0-9; Power Play: 7 ± 3, range 2-13), despite the margin of victory (i.e., the goal difference between winning and losing teams) was 5 ± 3 goals (range 1-9). Furthermore, during the Even playing situation, the mean duration (p = 0.024, ES = 0.3) of the winning teams' actions (18 ± 2 seconds, range 15-23 seconds) was shorter than the losing one (19 ± 1 seconds, range 17-21 seconds), whereas no difference emerged for the mean duration of the Counterattack (11 ± 3 seconds, range 3-18 seconds) and Power Play (14 ± 3 seconds, range 8-21 seconds) actions.
The analysis of the players involved in a single action showed a difference for the Even actions (p = 0.033, ES = 0.3). In fact, the winning teams performed the Even actions with a lower number of players (3 ± 0, range 3-4) than that of the losing team (4 ± 0, range 3-4), whereas no difference was observed for the Counterattack (2 ± 1, range 0-3) and Power Play (4 ± 0, range 3-5). Moreover, differences in relation to the match outcome emerged also for the number of passes performed during the Even (p < 0.0001, ES = 0.5) and Power-Play playing situations (p = 0.02, ES = 0.3). In particular, during the Even actions, the winning teams performed a lower number of passes (3 ± 0, range 2-4) than that of the losing (4 ± 0, range 3-5), whereas during the Power-Play actions the winning performed a higher number of passes (6 ± 2, range 4-11) than losing (5 ± 2, range 3-8). In the Counterattacks (2 ± 1, range 0-3), no difference between winning and losing emerged.
The analysis of the turnovers (i.e., the ratio between the number turnovers and offensive actions) did not show differences between winning and losing for each playing situation (Even: 36 ± 7%, range 21-51%; Counterattack: 19 ± 29%, range 0-100%; Power Play: 7 ± 9%, range 0-29%). However, a difference emerged for the exclusions and penalties achieved during the Even (p = 0.026, ES = 0.3) and Counterattack (p = 0.029, ES = 0.3) actions. In fact, during the Even situation, the winning teams achieved a higher ratio between exclusions and penalties achieved and offensive actions (21 ± 6%, range 7-29%) than that of the losing (17 ± 5%, range 11-24%). On the other hand, the analysis of the exclusions and penalties achieved during the Counterattacks showed a higher losing occurrence (5 ± 15%, range 0-50%) than that of the winning (19 ± 31%, range 0-100%). No difference emerged for the Power Play (3 ± 5%, range 0-17%) actions.
The ratio between goals and shots showed differences for each playing situation (Even: p < 0.0001, ES = 0.5; Counterattack: p = 0.021, ES = 0.4; Power Play: p = 0.003, ES = 0.4). In particular, the winning teams performed a higher occurrence of goals (Even: 30 ± 13%, range 15-55%; Counterattack: 60 ± 33%, range 0-100%; Power Play: 56 ± 23%, range 25-100%) than losing (Even: 17 ± 6%, range 0-24%; Counterattack: 35 ± 37%, range 0-100%; Power Play: 38 ± 17%, range 0-67%).
The analysis of the origin of the shots (Table 1) showed differences between winning and losing for the shots performed both inside (p = 0.002, ES = 0.4) and outside (p = 0.002, ES = 0.4) the 5-m area during the Even actions, whereas no difference was observed for the same technical and tactical aspect recorded during the Counterattacks and Power-Play situation. Moreover, Table 1 shows the results regarding the shots performed in relation to the different technical categories (i.e., drive shot, shot following up fake, other type of shots). Differences relative to the match outcome emerged only for the shots following up fake during the Counterattacks (p = 0.049, ES = 0.3). In particular, during the Counterattack playing situation, the winning teams performed a lower occurrence of shots following up fake than that of losing. However, no differences emerged for the analysis of the type of shot performed during the Even and Power-Play actions.
The present study showed that technical and tactical parameters of NCAA women's water polo competitions vary in relation to the match outcome. Despite the fact that the frequency of the 3 playing situations (Even, Counterattack, and Power Play) did not vary between winning and losing teams, the match outcome showed significant differences in the duration of the actions, the number of players involved, and passes performed in a single action, the number of exclusions and penalties achieved, the number of goals, and the origin and type of shots.
The duration of an action can be influenced by the opportunities of the offensive team to perform its strategy to score a goal or to achieve an exclusion foul (17). In this study, the winning NCAA women's water polo teams performed shorter Even actions than those of the losing teams. Moreover, the Even actions were also characterized by a lower number of passes and players involved, suggesting either a lower ability of the losing teams to oppose the offensive teams or a higher ability of the winning teams to quickly and effectively finalize their offensive strategies. The literature on men's water polo (16) reported that the offensive teams aim to obtain an exclusion foul of an opponent player to attain a Power-play action. The present findings showed that the NCAA women's teams favor a different tactical strategy. In fact, the higher occurrence of goals scored by the winning teams during Even actions suggests that their offensive strategies focus on a direct scoring of a goal. Nevertheless, in this playing situation, winning teams also reported a higher occurrence of exclusion fouls achieved, suggesting an additional opportunity to score goals by means of the consequent Power-play action. Another relevant technical aspect of the NCAA women's water polo is the different occurrence of the shots performed inside and outside the 5-m area during Even actions, with the winning teams performing more shots inside the 5 m area. These findings highlight a better technical and tactical ability to approach the goal, which could offer higher opportunities to score.
When a team loses the possession of the ball during an offensive game phase and some of its players are unable to perform a fast transition to defend, a Counterattack originates (18). This situation represents a favorable opportunity to score, especially when the players perform a rapid conclusion without giving the opponent any opportunity to catch up. In fact, winning and losing teams tended to perform fast (around 11 seconds) Counterattacks, similarly to men's elite and sub elite players (17). However, losing teams are not very effective in taking advantage of this playing situation, probably because of the aggressive defense of the opponents who prefer to risk an exclusion foul to prevent a shot. Conversely, the winners maximize the advantages of the Counterattacks, scoring more goals than losing players who tend to shoot after a fake instead of performing a quick shot.
The Power-Play actions did not show a relevant influence of match outcome for the mean number and duration of actions, players involved, exclusions and penalties achieved, turnovers, and type of shots. Nevertheless, interesting technical and tactical aspects emerged for the mean number of the passes and the occurrence of goals in relation to match outcome. During this playing situation, the offensive teams widely use a 4:2 tactical arrangement (13), disposing 4 players along the 2-m line (i.e., 2 in front and 2 externally respect to the posts of the opposite goal) and 2 more players at 5 m from the goal line (i.e., 2 in front of the posts of the opposite goal). In this arrangement, the offensive team performs a series of passes and strategic movements of players to have an effective opportunity to score a goal. The present finding showed that the ability to perform a higher number of quick passes and goals determines the main difference between winning and losing teams more than the overall duration of the Power-play actions.
The present study represents the first attempt to the analysis of technical and tactical aspects of American women's collegiate water polo in relation to match outcome. However, further studies on youth and European women's water polo championships are needed. Moreover, the analysis of specific playing roles (i.e., center forward play and perimeter players) could provide useful information on favorable playing conditions, such as the achievement of exclusions and penalties fouls (15-17).
Notational analysis is a valuable tool for coaches, conditioners, and sport scientists (14) to be aware of the actual demands of the game (27), also in relation to the level of competition (18). Focusing on different playing situations (i.e., Even, Counterattack, and Power play) and match outcome (i.e., winning and losing teams), the present study highlighted the higher abilities of the winning teams to perform fast Even actions, characterized by a reduced number of players and passes, and a high occurrence of shots performed inside the 5-m area. These findings urge coaches to improve the player's capability to quickly handle the ball, to recognize the most appropriate playing situation to achieve the 5-m zone, and to develop aquatic abilities to maintain the appropriate body position under the defender's pressure. Moreover, the higher occurrence of exclusion fouls and penalties obtained by the winning teams during Even actions suggests the coaches to organize specific training sessions with a relevant involvement of the center forward, who is the most critical player in this particular phase (16,17). Furthermore, the shooting capabilities of athletes could be trained starting with shooting bouts performed with no opponent and progressing toward bouts with an even number of defenders. Considering the importance of passing for scoring a goal, coaches are suggested to train this specific capability under defensive pressing involving an increasing number of players (i.e., 2 vs. 1, 3 vs. 2, 4 vs. 3, 5 vs. 4, and 6 vs. 5). Despite this study being focused on offensive phases of the game, defensive indications emerged too. In particular, during Counterattacks, an aggressive defense should be favored, which characterize the winning teams.
The authors would like to express their gratitude to the technical staff of the Women's Indiana University Water Polo Team for its support for the achievement of the match video recordings.
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