To avoid any interobserver variability, a single experienced observer (who already experienced the notational analysis of more than 300 water polo games) scored all the world championship games. Moreover, before the study, the observer scored one of these games twice, where each observation was separated by 7 days, showing a high intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) (ICC = 0.98).
Descriptive statistics included mean, SDs, and ranges (i.e., minimum and maximum) for each dependent variable. Then, statistical analyses were conducted using an SPSS package (version 17.00; SPSS Institute, Inc., Cary, NC, USA) with a criterion for significance set at p ≤ 0.05. An independent 2-sided t-test was applied on all technical and tactical parameters listed in Table 1 to evaluate the differences between winning and losing teams during close (i.e., W vs. L) and unbalanced (i.e., MW vs. ML) games. To provide meaningful analysis for comparisons, the Cohen’s ESs were also calculated (3), considering an ES ≤0.2 as trivial, from 0.3 to 0.6 as small, from 0.7 to 1.2 as moderate, and >1.2 as large.
Games with close, unbalanced, and even scores were 44% (n = 21), 50% (n = 24), and 6% (n = 3), respectively. Three games were excluded from the notational analysis because of their even score at end of the fourth quarter. The actual margins of victory were 1.7 ± 0.9 (range, 1–3) goals and 9.9 ± 5.6 (range, 4–22) goals for the close and unbalanced games, respectively. For close games, actions showed no difference between winning and losing teams for the considered playing situations. Conversely, unbalanced games showed effects relative to game outcome for even (p = 0.003, ES = 0.4) and counterattack (p < 0.001, ES = 0.6) actions only (Figure 5).
Regarding mean duration of actions, no effect emerged between winning (even: 21 ± 2 seconds, range 19–25 seconds; counterattack: 11 ± 5 seconds, range 0–15 seconds; power play: 16 ± 3 seconds, range 13–22 seconds; transition: 4 ± 3 seconds, range 0–9 seconds) and losing (even: 20 ± 2 seconds, range 17–23 seconds; counterattack: 10 ± 5 seconds, range 0–16 seconds; power play: 15 ± 2 seconds, range 12–19 seconds; transition: 4 ± 3 seconds, range 0–10 seconds) teams playing close games. For unbalanced games, differences emerged in relation to even (MW: 20 ± 2 seconds, range 17–22 seconds; ML: 21 ± 2 seconds, range 18–24 seconds; p = 0.012, ES = 0.2) and power play (MW: 13 ± 3 seconds, range 9–18 seconds; ML: 16 ± 3 seconds, range 10–22 seconds; p = 0.004, ES = 0.4) situations. No difference for counterattack (MW: 11 ± 4 seconds, range 0–14 seconds; ML: 12 ± 4 seconds, range 0–17 seconds) and transition (MW: 5 ± 3 seconds, range 0–9 seconds; ML: 6 ± 3 seconds, range 0–12 seconds) was found.
Table 2 shows results related to action outcomes. Regarding close games, differences between winning and losing teams emerged for goals (power play: p = 0.022, ES = 0.3), no goal shots (power play: p = 0.035, ES = 0.3), and lost possessions (counterattack: p = 0.01, ES = 0.4). For unbalanced games, effects emerged for goals (even: p < 0.001, ES = 0.6; counterattack: p < 0.001, ES = 0.5; power play: p < 0.001, ES = 0.6), no goal shots (counterattack: p = 0.022, ES = 0.4; power play: p < 0.001, ES = 0.6), lost possession (transition: p = 0.015, ES = 0.4), and penalties (even: p = 0.002, ES = 0.4; counterattack: p = 0.006, ES = 0.4).
The analysis of the shot in relation to the origin (Table 3) reported effects for zone 1 (even: p = 0.019, ES = 0.3; counterattack: p = 0.013, ES = 0.4), zone 4 (even: p = 0.009, ES = 0.3; power play: p = 0.003, ES = 0.4), zone 5 (counterattack: p = 0.038, ES = 0.3) during close games and zone 2 (even: p = 0.039, ES = 0.3), zone 4 (even: p = 0.021, ES = 0.3), and zone 5 (counterattack: p = 0.009, ES = 0.3) for unbalanced games.
Regarding the technical variables (Table 4), differences between winning and losing teams emerged in terms of drive shots (power play: p = 0.047, ES = 0.3), shots after more than 2 fakes (counterattack: p = 0.047, ES = 0.3), and off-the-water shots (even: p = 0.009, ES = 0.3) for close games. Conversely, unbalanced games reported differences for free throws (even: p < 0.001, ES = 0.5), drive shots (even: p = 0.014, ES = 0.2; counterattack: p = 0.011, ES = 0.4; power play: p = 0.003, ES = 0.4), shots after 1 fake (power play: p = 0.008, ES = 0.1), and shots after more than 2 fakes (counterattack: p = 0.01, ES = 0.4).
Data related to the specific offensive even action arrangements (Table 5) reported differences for either close (6 vs. 6/5 vs. 5: p = 0.019, ES = 0.3; 2 vs. 2/1 vs. 1: p = 0.048, ES = 0.3) or unbalanced (2 vs. 2/1 vs. 1: p = 0.011, ES = 0.4) games. In terms of defensive even action arrangements (Table 5), effects emerged only for unbalanced games (pressing: p = 0.012, ES = 0.3; zones 1–2: p = 0.002, ES = 0.4; zone M: p = 0.004, ES = 0.4; zone 2-3-4: p = 0.024, ES = 0.3).
Effects emerged (close games: p = 0.049, ES = 0.3; unbalanced games: p = 0.02, ES = 0.4) for the frequency of occurrence of even actions in relation to tactical role during both close (W: center forward: 48 ± 11%, range 33–65%; perimeter players: 52 ± 11%, range 35–67%; L: center forward: 55 ± 12%, range 35–76%; perimeter players: 45 ± 12%, range 24–65%) and unbalanced (W: center forward: 58 ± 10%, range 46–76%; perimeter players: 42 ± 10%, range 24–54%; L: center forward: 50 ± 11%, range 37–78%; perimeter players: 50 ± 11%, range 23–63%) games.
Regarding power play, no difference emerged for the offensive arrangements and roles related to close (W: 4:2, center forward 21 ± 17%, range 0–56%; 4:2, perimeter players 70 ± 21%, range 33–100%; 3:3, center forward 0%; 3:3, perimeter players 8 ± 16%, range 0–40%; L: 4:2, center forward 22 ± 12%, range 0–38%; 4:2, perimeter players 70 ± 19%, range 29–100%; 3:3, center forward 0%; 3:3, perimeter players 8 ± 17%, range 0–57%) and unbalanced (MW: 4:2, center forward 24 ± 16%, range 0–54%; 4:2, perimeter players 70 ± 16%, range 46–100%; 3:3, center forward 0%; 3:3, perimeter players 6 ± 14%, range 0–50%; ML: 4:2, center forward 24 ± 27%, range 0–100%; 4:2, perimeter player 69 ± 26%, range 0–100%; 3:3, center forward 1 ± 3%, range 0–9%; 3:3, perimeter player 6 ± 9%, range 0–25%) games. Moreover, no effect has been reported for the power play defensive arrangements of close (W: cluster 64 ± 18%; range 40–92%; anticipating 36 ± 18%, range 8–60%; L: cluster 62 ± 25%, range 23–100%; anticipating 38 ± 25%, range 0–77%) and unbalanced (W: cluster 55 ± 33%, range 14–100%; anticipating 45 ± 33%, range 0–86%; L: cluster 60 ± 24%, range 25–100%; anticipating 40 ± 24%, range 0–75%) games.
To our knowledge, this is the first study decoding technical and tactical profiles of women’s water polo world championship games in relation to the margin of victory. In line with the experimental hypotheses, the present findings showed that the technical and tactical aspects did not report clear differences between winning and losing teams for close games, whereas several effects emerged for unbalanced games.
Although the comparison between winning and losing teams playing close games reported several slight differences (i.e., goals and no goal shots during power play and lost possessions during even; shots from zones 1 and 4 during even, from zones 1 and 5 during counterattack, and from zone 4 during power play; off-the-water shots during even, shots after > 2 fakes during counterattack, drive shots during power play; 6 vs. 6/5 vs. 5 and 2 vs. 2/1 vs. 1 even offensive arrangements; and center forward vs. perimeter players during even), their low ESs or high standard deviations might denote incidental effects exclusively because of the situational nature of water polo (17). Despite previous studies (1,2,5,26,30) reported several differences between winning and losing water polo teams, the introduction in this study of a specific margin of victory determined the absence of clear effects that discriminate W and L teams. In particular, this effect can be explained because W teams often (i.e., 11 out of 21 games, 52%) reported a draw or a disadvantage score at the end of the third quarter, determining their success only toward the end of game. Coherently, slight differences between MW and ML (i.e., duration during even; penalties during even and counterattack and lost possessions during transition; shots from zones 2 and 4 during even, and shots from zone 5 during counterattack; free throws and drive shots during even, shots after 2 fakes during counterattack, and shots after 2 fakes during power play; offensive 2 vs. 2 and 1 vs. 1 arrangements during even; and pressing, zone M, and zone 2-3-4 during even) could also be attributed to the situational nature of this sport.
Occurrence of actions in relation to playing situations during close games showed no effect between winning and losing teams, in line to a previous study on women’s National Collegiate Athletic Association water polo championship (18). Conversely for unbalanced games, the lowest frequency of even actions and the highest portion of counterattacks of MW could be ascribed to the limited ability of defensive ML players in covering the opponents after own offensive actions. As expected, no clear effect emerged between W and L teams for goal occurrence during each playing situation (5,18). Conversely, MW teams not only scored more than ML but also reported a reduced occurrence of failed shots with respect to their counterparts for no goal shots during counterattack and power play, indicating their ability to profit from potential numerical advantage for the offensive players. Furthermore, MW players are also able to defend ML players during counterattacks and power plays, inducing them to fail their shoots.
The lack of clear difference between teams in terms of origin of shot further underlines the situational nature of water polo. In line with the literature on men’s (10,14,17) and women’s (18) water polo, drive shots resulted the most frequent. However, during counterattacks and power plays, MW performed more drive shots than ML, substantiating their ability to quickly finalize these favorable actions.
The crucial responsibility of the center forward (16) emerged especially in unbalanced games. However, during even actions, MW players systematically rely on playing strategies favoring conclusions with this role and preventing the involvement of the opponent center forward with a double-mark defense on it (i.e., zones 1–2 defensive arrangement). In general, the prevalent use of pressing defensive arrangements for even situation indicates the dynamic and aggressive nature of modern water polo. In line with the literature on men’s elite water polo (10), during power play, offensive teams made most frequent use of the 4:2 arrangement and opponent teams were defending with the cluster arrangement. In this specific playing situation, findings showed that perimeter players performed more shots than central players positioned along the 2 m line, probably limited in their capability to receive the ball because of the close presence of several defenders.
In conclusion, the present findings confirmed the hypotheses that no clear technical and tactical aspects determine game outcome in women’s water polo in close games. However, differences between winning and losing teams in unbalanced games highlight the need to analyze water polo games in relation to specific margins of victory. Although the situational nature of water polo (17) renders difficult data interpretation, there is a need to specifically analyze performances according to gender, playing situations (i.e., offensive and defensive phases during even, counterattacks, power plays, and transitions), roles (i.e., center forward, perimeter players, and goalkeeper), competition levels (i.e., elite and subelite), age (i.e., adult, youth, and master), and margins of victory (i.e., draw, close, and unbalanced games). Finally, the technical and tactical evolution of this sport supports further research in this area.
According to the present notational analysis of official water polo matches, coaches could plan sound training sessions considering specific technical and tactical aspects for elite women’s water polo teams. To enhance technical and tactical abilities of their players for generating power play actions, which reported the highest frequency of scored goals, coaches should administer drills favoring players (with particular reference to the center forward role during even actions) to obtain an opponent’s exclusion (13,15,16). In particular, physical trainers should focus on training sessions aiming at enhancing strength of center forwards who need to fight against 1 or 2 defenders. Thus, exercises should improve lower-limb and upper-limb strength to maintain an effective body position and to upset the body position of the opponent.
In considering the exclusion of opponents that determines power play situations with scoring opportunities for offensive perimeter players, drills should encourage effective ball handing; positioning of players with respect to the ball, teammates, and opponents; and identification of the most opportune position to score a goal. Thus, physical trainers should focus on training sessions aimed at enhancing lower-limb power for in-water-jumps, which are crucial to perform effective shots when attacking (22) and to steal the ball or to disturb the opponents’ action when defending. Furthermore, strengthening also upper-limb strength could improve throwing velocity (19), necessary to perform effective drive shots. Because unbalanced games showed differences between winning and losing teams mainly for defensive tactical abilities, coaches of teams often losing games with a high disadvantage should focus their training to reduce the high frequency of the opponents’ counterattacks.
Thus, decision-making and timing skills should be enhanced through drills, promoting prompt identification of the end of an offensive action and consequent beginning of the opponent’s counterattacks. In particular, physical trainers could focus on changes from vertical body position to high-speed swimming bouts, which are crucial to promptly move toward the opponent goal in attack or to cover the opponents’ transition in defense.
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Keywords:Copyright © 2014 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
notational analysis; margin of victory; playing situation