Interview with US Water Polo Executive Director Bruce Wigo


An interview with John Leonard, ASCA Executive Director and Bruce Wigo, US Water Polo Executive Director.

ASCA: Bruce, what is the most critical developmental need of US Water Polo at this point in time?

That’s a pretty broad question. Motor skills studies by sports physiologists have told us that every motor skill has an optimum learning age. As there is an optimum age for learning a foreign language and a musical instrument, there may be an optimum age for conceptualizing tactical and motor skills for each sport.

For water polo, this is believed to be between 8 and 11 years of age. The average age of exposure to water polo by members of our men’s national team and the national teams of other top water polo nations confirms this hypothesis. Athletes who get the early exposure have a distinct and definite advantage over athletes who pick up a water polo ball for the first time in high school. You don’t just have to be a great swimmer to play international water polo, you also have to have great instincts, reactions and game sense and that comes from early exposure.

Of course that is a long-term need for making water polo a national sport. Right now, as you know, there are regional pockets and where we have significant age group exposure we are seeing great players rising up who will be on our national and Olympic teams in the not too distant future. The Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maryland areas are great examples of this hypothesis and there are others.

ASCA: John, how do you see swimming coaches assisting this process?

Swimming coaches might assist in this process by incorporating age group water polo into their swimming seasons. But for some reason age group coaches see water polo as a threat. It should not be considered this way. In my opinion, as a former swimmer and not a water polo player, it will only benefit the swimming coach and age group program in the long run.

But in order to make water polo useful to the swim program, it has to be treated legitimately and two to three months has to be devoted to the sport. The coach has to take time to learn and teach the basic fundamentals of the game and to treat it legitimately. In my opinion, one of the biggest issues for swimming is the competition for attracting and retaining world-class athletes to the sport. It seems to me that swim coaches would rather lose their kids to soccer, hockey, volleyball and other sports rather than incorporate the same team and ball sport experience into their programs.

ASCA: Bruce, are you looking to create more water polo coaches, or more swimming coaches who also coach water polo?

I’m suggesting that we bring back the idea of the aquatics coach. A coach who does both. Understanding the need to be a good swimmer in order to advance in water polo there are water polo coaches who are dedicating portions of their year round programs to swimming. Joining USS and entering meets. I think that many USS coaches would benefit by doing the reverse. It’s not that it hasn’t been tried before. Jon Urbanchek, George Haines and Don Gambril did it with great success before the break up of the AAU and the idea came into vogue that swimming and water polo were stand-alone sports. I think swimming is losing a great opportunity to give young athletes a different type of developmental experience, while keeping them in the pool.

It’s funny that water polo was invented by swim coaches to develop swimmers – but today we have swim coaches who are either frightened by it (because it’s perceived as fun and will hurt their swimmers’ work ethic), question their ability to coach it or think it will hurt their bottom line. None of which I believe they will find to be true. But don’t take my word for it, ask someone like George Haines, Jon Urbanchek or Nort Thornton the next time you see them.

ASCA: Bruce, what level of education do you see it taking for the average coach to coach WP effectively?

I’ve seen coaches with little or no knowledge of water polo start programs and learn as they went and become successful. A little knowledge of soccer or basketball is helpful, but at the young age group level US Water Polo has manuals and videos that get a coach started and coaching effectively right away.

But you can’t just think you get a ball, whistle, some caps and have a game. As I have said before, to start a water polo program you have to treat the game legitimately. You have to teach basic fundamentals, teach the rules and otherwise prepare players to play real water polo. Players have to be able to eggbeater, pick up the ball from the water correctly, be able to pass effectively and know the rules before they start playing. Then you have a game not jungle ball that many coaches pass off as water polo.

ASCA: Bruce, what’s the best way for the swimming coach to gain that education?

Seek out information like they would for anything new. Attend clinics, read books, watch videos and talk to coaches who are using water polo effectively.

ASCA: Bruce, you talked about how swimming coaches coaching wp will help water polo, but how will this help swim coaches?

BOYS! Is swimming having trouble attracting and retaining ATHLETIC boys from 8 – 12? My 12 year old twins are swimming with the Ft. Lauderdale Swim Team. It is my observation at meets that there is a real lack of depth in the younger boys age groups. Perhaps this is just south Florida. At first my boys did not want to swim, only play water polo – but you cannot do that and expect to succeed. Now they are learning to enjoy swimming practices, but without water polo they would be out playing soccer or basketball or skateboarding. This is my personal experience, but swimmers like Brad Schumacher and Matt Biondi among others have related the same personal stories. So I believe that water polo can help with what I’ve heard is known as the boy problem in swimming.

But that’s not the only way water polo can help. With the growth of women’s water polo and the hundreds of new scholarship opportunities for girls – and with more to come – it gives another opportunity to make athlete and parental investments in terms of time and money pay off.

I would also suggest that coaches get a copy of the video, “Swimming and Water Polo – The Perfect Combination.” Some of the greatest names in swimming – Biondi, Morales, Naber, Bottom, Shaw, Haines; etc. tell why they think swimming coaches and athletes will benefit from incorporating water polo into their programs. There is something that I’ve heard called the coordination correlation. This principle essentially says that by developing a variety of motor skills you improve the overall coordination and athletic ability of the athlete. There was a great football star, Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers who studied ballet to help him as a football player. I believe that the motor skills of water polo (hand/eye, sculling, eggbeater, dribbling, different body positions in the water; etc.) will also help swimmers become better at what they do.

ASCA: John, how do you see swimming coaches coaching WP without disrupting their swimming program?

I see swimming seasons taking eight to twelve weeks a year to focus on water polo. This doesn’t mean you forget about swimming during this time, but the major emphasis is on water polo. And have everyone participate. Athletes will learn new skills and improve as athletes. This doesn’t mean you forget about swimming, you just do less and do some with the ball, but time must be carved out of each practice or each week to teach the game and work on water polo fundamentals. There are many models for this.

ASCA: John, can you point to any?

Urbanchek, Haines, Gambril are a few. There are many more.

ASCA: Bruce, what programs are currently operating where water polo and swimming are thriving together?

The Naval Academy Swim Team is probably the most prominent. They are one of the top swim teams in their area and last year won the President’s Cup for being the top club water polo team in America. This was the program that developed Brad Schumacher.

ASCA: John, how are coaches supposed to find the time to add polo to their program?

It is not a matter of finding new time, it is a matter of using existing time and dedicating some of that time to learning water polo. Most swimming coaches have a misconception of what a water polo practice is. They think it is playing water polo and only have 14 swimmers in the water at a time. This is like thinking you practice for swimming by emulating a swim meet with heats. Effective water polo practices can be run in the same pools with the same numbers you have in your swim program. Scrimmaging and games can be held on weekends – in times when you might otherwise be going to swim meets.

ASCA: Bruce, at what ages can both sexes play the game together well, and when do they separate?

Until athletes reach the age of 14, it is safe for boys and girls to play together, but when doing drills and training boys and girls can work together just like they do in practice. But is really depends upon how serious you are. Many of the girls on our national team played on boys’ high school teams before there were any girls’ teams and excelled.

ASCA: Bruce, what scientific evidence is there that supports the positive physiological training effect of WP on swimmers?

The USOC and the Australian institute of Sport have both conducted lactate and heart monitor tests on athletes during competitions and have discovered that water polo is incredibly demanding. And ICAR tested our elite athletes. I’m no scientist, but the evidence, I’m told, is quite convincing that water polo is a positive and not a negative for swimming. The anecdotal stories from the likes of Matt Biondi, Pablo Morales and George Haines would seem to confirm the data. Then there are also the positive psychological benefits. While again, anecdotal, many of the greatest swimmers in history relate that water polo gave them a refreshing mental break from the monotony and work of swim training, without losing any conditioning or staying away from the pool. And a great many of these stories come from the greatest distance swimmers in our history, like Brian Goodell, Tim Shaw and Kurt Krumpholz.

ASCA: Bruce, what are the insurance liability issues of a swim team program (USA Swimming) conducting water polo as a conditioning program?

Water polo is a contact sport, but one in which injuries are very rare. While water polo practice is a legitimate training program under USA Swimming insurance, playing water polo against other teams is not covered. For that USA Swimming clubs would need alternative insurance. I would like to see some type of dual membership relationship developed that would allow this for the swim club that would like to play water polo games.

ASCA: Bruce, ideally, where would you like to see developmental polo programs be in 5 years?

On the age group level I would like to see a majority of USS and YMCA programs incorporating water polo into their swim programs within five years. And conversely, I would like to see every USWP program spending a portion of their season on swimming. I would like to see water polo be a part of every swim team program.

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