Interview with Brent Bohlender, USA Water Polo/United Airlines National Development Coach of the Year
USA WATER POLO: Tell us a little about the history of the Modesto/Stanislaus Club.
Brent Bohlender: Our club was formed in 1977. We had already had a girls’ high school conference for three seasons – and I wanted to develop something for them, and add them onto a group of guys who were going to Hawaii for the tournament there. We only had seven girls, and I had no idea of how they would do at that “level,” as girls’ water polo was pretty much non-existent. Well, we played the team that was billed as the University of Hawaii, and I was shocked;after all these were but high school girls. While the girls were doing good things in Hawaii, the boys were “messing around” – I was so bothered by their attitude that I suspended the boys’ program for the 1978 season and just concentrated on the women. We returned to Hawaii and won the tournament there and entered (what would be 21 straight appearances) the Senior Nationals in Fullerton. Later we would participate in Junior Nationals the first time in 1980 and our first Junior Olympics in 1986.
In the early years we played in summer tournaments against boys to prep for nationals. There were no girls’ teams in our area at that time. Over the years we have had approximately 2,000 DIFFERENT girls go through our program. To have a precise total of how many all-Americans we have had would be difficult – that number would have to be pretty close to 100. During one stretch of Junior Nationals we won 48 straight games from 1984 until the finals of 1990.
Our club has won EIGHTEEN national USWP championships ranging from 15-unders in 1986 to TWO Senior National Championships in 1994 and 1997. Additionally, Modesto-Stanislaus at a national level has had 14 second place finishes and 12 third place finishes for a total of 44 medals – and it should be noted that we are in a true sense a summer program. We do not participate in the winter stuff (indoors) because it conflicts with swimming.
USA WATER POLO: What areas do you primarily draw from?
Brent Bohlender: In the early days the girls on the team came predominately from Modesto area high schools and Turlock – along with an occasional player from Merced and Stockton areas. As our success grew we then began getting out-of-state players who would participate with us in the summer. We have had players from 12 different states during the 23 years of existence.
USA WATER POLO: What was the impetus to start a girls program?
Brent Bohlender: In answering why the desire to start the girls – it had a lot to do with their desire to want to learn the game. Their motivational drive for participating in polo was a pure love of the sport itself. Not because it was the thing to do which motivated most guys.
USA WATER POLO: Tell us about your blueprint for developing players.
Brent Bohlender: Talking about a blue print – the younger players with us work on the basic skills over and over. The older players also work on the same skill basis. I have been criticized for not involving the group in more scrimmage play during practice time – but I find that to not be good quality time for coaching, and in some cases is merely a time killer for some coaches. I also try to pair up strong and intermediate players together all the time. I do not like the strong always with the strong.
USA WATER POLO: Do you build the development of the boys and girls the same/differently?
Brent Bohlender: Boys and girls with me both have the same play systems – execution is pretty much the same. The guys, due to their physical strength, are capable of much more “dynamic” play, therefore in a high school situation that we have without much depth, I find myself concentrating on the individual strengths of each player to try and put some sort of game plan together. With the girls we have depth, so I concentrate more on the overall picture, and have a “system of execution” in mind.
USA WATER POLO: How have you been able to juggle both coaching the Junior Team and developing your club players?
Brent Bohlender: The time with USWP has caused problems, but I have been able to juggle them until this year. This is the first time that I will be gone most of the summer season. I have decided not to participate in Juniors or Seniors since I will be out of the country – this is a major first and ends a long string of competition. There is no choice. Other than that the national competitions have not directly affected the club program in the past, and I have been able to organize, coach; etc.
USA WATER POLO: Tell us about your coaching staff.
Brent Bohlender: I have had many coaches who have worked for me over the years. Many were high school coaches who assisted in the summer. Some have gone on to become head coaches at high schools in the area. I will attempt to name a few: Matt Hanson, Lisa Avrett, Jon Dibblee, Joyce Moe, Tracy Proietti, Eric Corgiat, Alan Huckins, Heather Moody; etc., etc.; etc. As well as Jennifer Earl and Mike Nelson from my club teams.
USA WATER POLO: How important is swimming to water polo?
Brent Bohlender: To be a good player you have to be a good swimmer. You CANNOT get around it. It is so logical – you can’t play basketball if you can’t get from one end of the court to the other, and the one who gets there sooner will have more opportunities.
At the national level, you’d be hard pressed if you could not get into the 55 time zone (100 freestyle). This was not true in the early days, there were times when we kept players who did 1:03s, but those days are long gone. The question of should they be both swimming and playing water polo simultaneously, my response is, “if they want to, why not?”
My Masters thesis was on female sports psychology, and the difference between individual and team sports personalities. We need to take these things into serious consideration if we are attempting to push them into a team sport like water polo or the individual sport of swimming. Let them experience both and when they make the choice they will be better competitors for whichever coach/sport they choose.
USA WATER POLO: We all know that girls water polo is growing rapidly. What about boys’? Is it growing, declining, or stagnant?
Brent Bohlender: The boys’ side is declining and mainly due to what I believe is the media game. Regarding swimming, we are low in numbers on the guys’ side and this is reflected in the number we see in polo. So their problem is our problem. The media in the last two Olympics has really pushed the female stars like Evans and VanDyken – where are the guys? The young boy at home sees swimming as a “female” sport and hence turns away. Having coached for 30 years, the year following an Olympics would always be big in the swim team business, yet after the last two there has been no “boom” – there-in is the problem. We need to reestablish the male in the sport of swimming, and I think water polo should be looked at more in swim programs.
USA WATER POLO: Tell us about how to build a program to the level you have achieved.
Brent Bohlender: To build a program, don’t just say we will play a summer season and then we will have a team. It doesn’t work that way. Make a plan – going to Hawaii, JO’s are excellent things to give an “end of the season” trip. This keeps the players involved and looking ahead for you, so during the dog days of summer they will hang in there. Play as much and as often in competitions throughout the summer – this is a fun time of the year;don’t make them feel that it is boring to go to workout. Always play teams that are tougher, older, wiser, bigger; etc. than your team is – this allows you to see special qualities which some athletes possess. YOU direct the club and use parents as support. Don’t let them direct the program – the kids don’t want this to happen.
USA WATER POLO: How important is winter water polo?
Brent Bohlender: Regarding year-around play, I am not sold on it at all. An aquatic season in our area would go something like this:
Sept. to Nov. – high school water polo season
Nov. to Feb. – they are on their own, they can work out with USS teams, but this is our dead time
Feb. to May – high school swim season/water polo area camps/tryouts, etc.
June to Sept. – summer water polo season
I think they need time to do other things during their high school years. Going too much too often will make them stale. That’s why I think the swimming and water polo mix is a perfect combination for both sports.
USA WATER POLO: What are your thoughts on Junior Olympics?
Brent Bohlender: JO’s is too big – it is merely a tournament that anyone can enter, as there is no screening like in the old days. There is no honor to be going when everyone goes. Even swimming has time standards. Nowadays all go, and how you are seeded can kill you – the last two years we have made it to semifinals and had to play 9 and 10 games respectively to get there – that is a little ridiculous. I would rather see each of the nine zones be allowed to send three teams – that’s 27 from across the nation and let them go at it. I could care less as to what zone is better than what zone, and the arguments of we have so many athletes we should be given more teams – that is not relevant if we are trying to involve all and be FAIR with one another.
USA WATER POLO: If you could adjust the rules to make the game more watchable what would you do?
Brent Bohlender: I was involved with the 5 on 5 experiment at Pan Ams in 1996 and I would still like to see this, it really speeds up the game and gives more open space to maneuver, and you have more difficulty “hiding” players. Getting rid of flags was a good thing and has improved viewer acceptance.
USA WATER POLO: Wendy Watkins is a star player on both your high school team, Johansen, and the Modesto/Stanislaus club. Tell us a little about Wendy.
Brent Bohlender: Wendy is special because at her age she is a pretty complete package. She has speed, size, arm strength, and a very deep sense of the game. I try not to include players on the National team who are my own players unless my staff is in TOTAL agreement that she should be there – and they did. Also, if my player is tied with another, I will take the other – Wendy was not tied with anyone.
College-wise she is easily in the top 4 to be graduating next year. She could play 2m, and collectively across the board we need more 2m players, but I see her more as a driver and set-up person.