Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scrimmage, what is it good for?

There was a time, in the 70's and early 80's when water polo clubs in Canada had pretty dull and static practice routines. These involved a short swim set that looked a bit like a swim club, then some passing and a 30-45 minute game at the end of practice. That gave players a sense of the structure of the game but not much skill to execute it properly.

As practice frequency increased, sessions became longer and players started younger the skills naturally improved without too much of a format change. Then sport science became involved and clubs started to teach much more skill, different swim styles were trained and scrimmages were at a higher tempo. That was a standard formula even if some (most?) clubs did not change the swimming format enough.

About 5 years ago, after a long struggle with the city to improve our facility access, we were able to secure daily training space for our competitive players in Manitoba. That was great as a step in an LTAD direction with hours increasing in the water. But, there was a down side to the changes. To get the big blocks of time for water polo with other competitive sports (swim, dive, synchro) we needed to share the largest facility at the same time. That meant compromise.

Divers did not compromise diving boards, swimmers did not compromise walls or lines on the bottom and synchro did not compromise deep, open water. Water polo did compromise, no walls to set up a playing course and allow referees to walk alongside the "game". This meant daily "scrimmages" had to be confined in a half-court space during the week and only weekends were available to us to play a game with a water polo course set up.

A great deal can be done with a half court set up. But what can never be done properly is counter attack, transitional play, breakaways, restarts or extended game like swim set ups. This put increasing pressure on the weekend scrimmage as it was the only time that players played with a real view of tactical situations. We were promised that there would be additional space to make up for the weekly scrimmages when the prime time space was granted to us but that all materialized at the same time - Saturday afternoon - at all pools.

I've seen a big drop in tactical play with our teams the past 4 years, even if skills have improved in many cases with players. What was really interesting was the past 2 weeks during the Spring Break for school players (actually 1 week before and 1 week during). We had a scrimmage 6 days per week for 2 weeks. Not all players were there, some were on holiday, some just didn't bother. But those that were made measurable improvements as the days went by; counter attacks extended from 10m to 20m, advantages were recognized in transition rather just on an odd drive. Players started to create patterns on restarts that took advantage of progress from one attack to the next in a fluid game.

I guess I am writing this because I undervalued the scrimmage that we lost this fall with the PWPL games that took our pool time. I thought games could replace much of the scrimmage but these are not equal learning opportunities so they didn't. I counted, we had 7 scrimmages in the club for U16, U18 or Senior teams between the season start in September and the 2 weeks stretch of games in mid March. Seven scrimmages in 6.5 months and that is taking advantage of 100% of the pool space we had. Wow, no wonder the teams have taken some slow starts to games this winter.

We'll be sure that doesn't happen again, even if we have to create a Handball league to generate the game reps.

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