A conversation with Nicola Stamenic, head coach of the Yugoslavian Men’s National Water Polo Team. Stamenic succeeded Ratko Rudic as the Yugoslavian coach after the Seoul Olympics and led Yugoslavia to the gold medal at the 1989 FINA Cup, the 1990 Goodwill Games, the 1990 FINA World Championships and 1991 European Championships. The unfortunate political conflict in Yugoslavia kept his country from participating in international sporting competition from late 1991 to 1996. During much of this time, Stamenic coached professionally in Greece and returned to take over the national team after Yugoslavia’s disappointing 8th place finish in Atlanta. Stamenic led Yugoslavia to an impressive silver medal performance at the 1997 European Championships. The interview was conducted for ASCA by Bruce Wigo, USA Water Polo Executive Director, at the USOTC in Colorado Springs.
ASCA: One of the strengths of your team is your five on six defense. At the recent European Championships you held the Hungarians to only one goal out of 13 attempts in your five on six defense. Can you tell us why you were so successful against the Hungarians?
NS: Actually, we held the Hungarians scoreless from their 6 on 5. Their goal came with two of our players out. But really, this is a very difficult question to answer.
ASCA: Trade secret?
NS: NO! (laughing). I believe that we need coaches to collaborate. It is good for the sport. If there is a secret, it is that it takes ten years or more to develop players capable of playing good defensive water polo. That is the secret.
ASCA: But what is good defense? Is it keying on certain players like Benedek (Tibor Benedek, a left hander who plays the six position, is widely regarded as the most dangerous player in the world in the 6 on 5)? Was your strategy to press out on him to prevent him from shooting the ball?
NS: First you must understand that good defense is only possible when the players you are working with have sound defensive fundamentals. You cannot build a skyscraper without a solid foundation, strong steel and good building materials. The coach is the architect and the players are not only the building materials, but also the laborers and contractors – so they have to be smart and be able to understand the building plans. The coach selects the materials and must ensure that they meet the needs of the structure. If the finished product is knocked down by a big wind it is the architect’s fault.
ASCA: I was hoping that you could be a little more specific.
NS: As I told you, I am a mechanical engineer by training and perhaps view things from a different perspective than other coaches. I see things from an engineering point of view. I told you your question was difficult. You must allow me to answer it in my way.
ASCA: Please go on.
NS: Almost all countries employ similar defensive structures in the man-down situation. Generally, the offense uses a 4-2 structure and the defense plays a 3-2 zone. It is the quality of the materials and how the 3-2 zone is constructed that makes the difference. Players must have sound fundamentals. They must understand the responsibilities of every defensive position and the possibilities created by every offensive position. They must understand that it is teamwork that will enable it to withstand the forces of the opposition. In Seville, we did not have one player key on Benedek. Of course we know where Benedek plays and what he is capable of, but we do not change the Structure of the System for Benedek. The System does not guard Benedek, it guards an individual with unique biomechanical qualities which creates certain opportunities and possibilities for Hungary’s 6 against 5 offense. The uniqueness of each team, created by the individual biomechanical differences of each player, is what I focus on as a coach and expect the players to recognize. You cannot tear down a building and rebuild it from one day to the next. A good system will adapt to find solutions to the problems created by each opponent.
ASCA: So the key is scouting?
NS: It is essential. But you must understand what you see. What makes one team more successful than another? Why do some players score more goals than others? I believe the answer lies in the biomechanics of the players. What is his body position? Does he shoot from a vertical or horizontal position? What is his arm motion – over the head? Three quarter? Side arm? Does he move to his left when he shoots or to his right? How does he avoid the defender when shooting? What variety of shots does he have? With all these goals, is it the fault of the goalkeeper or the defender?
After you answer these questions then you decide the best way for the defense to defend. Where to position? Which hand to raise? Whether to block the ball or the arm? Whether you hold up one or two arms? This is the information you need to know and to communicate to your team. If the defenders and goalkeeper understand the biomechanics of the shooter and recognize the shooters tendencies when they see them – and react accordingly – they can reasonably predict when and where the shot is going and have a reasonable expectation to block the shot. On your “Ball Handling Skills” tape, Farago says, “A goalkeeper is never more clever than a shooter.” I don’t believe it.
ASCA: I think he intended it to mean that a shooter must believe it.
NS: Yes, I understand. But I don’t agree with that thinking. First, it stresses individual play over teamwork. You don’t need clever shots if the team has gotten the ball to the player with the greatest opportunity to score. Second, it ignores the fact that the goalkeeper can analyze the biomechanics and tendencies of the shooter. In this way the goalkeeper can become more clever. Many times I see a player who “thinks” he is more clever than the goalkeeper. More often than not, his shot is blocked.
ASCA: You didn’t like the Farago tape?
NS: Oh, I think it is fantastic and is necessary for young players. Unlike street sports, like basketball and football (soccer) our players have limited time to train. You have two hours of practice and then you’re out of the pool. You can’t go down the street and practice water polo like you can with other sports. Great players don’t get great in practice. They get better than others by practicing on their own – or by playing with friends outside of practice. The Farago tape shows the importance of this and how to practice outside of practice. Players must do this. There are some techniques or things I teach differently, but that is Farago’s way and he was certainly a great player.
ASCA: If we can get back to five on six defense for a minute. How important are individual and team statistics in your scouting report?
NS: Statistics might tell you what happened, but they don’t tell you why. Why things happen is the most important consideration. Once you figure out why things happen you must devise a plan to change the statistics to be in your favor. It is the statistics after you have put your plan into effect which are most important. These statistics provide confirmation of your tactics and strategy. For example, say you are going to play a team which scores a goal in 40% in its 6 against 5 offense. You analyze the combinations and possibilities of this offense. You study the biomechanics of each offensive player. You make a plan to reduce the offensive success rate. If the statistic of your opponent is reduced to 20% after you play, this confirms that your strategy was good and you will probably win the game. If your opponent’s statistic is reduced to zero, your strategy was perfect. Perfection should always be the goal, even though it is a destination that you will never reach.
ASCA: But you achieved perfection in Seville.
NS: Statistically, in one category, there was numerical perfection but our defense was far from perfect. And the final outcome was that we lost the game. (in the gold medal game of the 1997 European Championships, Hungary defeated Yugoslavia, 3 – 2) So was this perfection? The most important statistic in the end, and the only one that really counts, is the final score.
ASCA: You place a great emphasis on the System. Can you tell me more about your thoughts on this?
NS: The System is everything. Water polo is a team sport which requires all the players to be interdependent upon each other. You can have an individual on the team who has the best skills and talent in the world, but if he does not play within the system – if his actions are unpredictable to his teammates – the system will fail and the team will lose. When I was a player I thought of myself as a very outstanding player who was neglected and unappreciated by the coach. I was very bitter against the coach for many years because he never recognized my talent. But as a player, I never realized the importance of the System. This coach was Mr. Vlacho Orlic, who I now regard as the most brilliant water polo mind in the world. A real genius.
ASCA: Mr. Orlic is here with you. What capacity does he serve?
NS: He is an advisor to the team.
ASCA: As a mentor?
NS: Yes. As I said before, he is a genius. Mr. Orlic is famous as coach of PARTIZAN Water Polo Club, six times European Champions Cup winner. He was also our Olympic coach in 1972 and 1976. He is responsible for the success of Yugoslavian Water Polo and was the teacher of Ratko Rudic (three-time Olympic Gold medal coach), Bruno Silic (Coach of 1996 Olympic Silver medal coach from Croatia) and many others.
ASCA: Can you tell me a little more about him?
NS: Mr. Orlic is originally from the historic Adriatic seaport city of Dubrovnik, in what is now Croatia. The fact that he is Croatian has not changed his status in Yugoslavia or within the Yugoslavian Water Polo Federation. He transcends politics – Water polo has been his life and in his words, his religion. He is still on very friendly terms with Croatia.
Mr. Orlic was a trained as a medical doctor, but he has never practiced medicine. He has always been a coach. After my playing career ended, Mr. Orlic asked me to help coach some children. He is always looking for good young coaches. I was one of many he recruited to coach. Mr. Orlic selects the ones with the most potential to advance from the Junior program to the clubs and to the national team. To ensure continued success, Mr. Orlic believes that there must be renewal and replenishment in the ranks of coaches as well as players. He is now the coach of Becej and took them to the LEN “Final Four” last year. He is looking for someone to replace me after 2000, 1 know this and understand the system. He says he hasn’t found that person yet, but when he does, I know it will be time to step down.
ASCA: I’d like to speak with Mr. Orlic.
ASCA: What makes Nicola Stamenic a good coach?
VO: (Through an interpreter) Very few coaches work according to the rules of science. He is the only one of the many coaches I have worked with who has a technical university degree and who worked in his specialty. He is an engineer. This background has given him a special background for looking at water polo and analyzing individual skills. He pays attention to fundamentals because he knows he must have the best bricks for his building.
He is the best coach in the world when it comes to understanding and teaching individual fundamentals and individual tactics.
ASCA: Is that why you asked him to try his hand at coaching 20 years ago?
VO: Oh, no. He was one of many young coaches. It is more difficult to find good coaches than good players. Not only must a coach have knowledge but he must be a man of personality. He must be able to lead and have everyone’s trust. It takes many years to learn if a person has these qualities. You need many young coaches and at first he was one of many.
ASCA: What was his progression?
VO: At the end of his career he was a player/coach at one of our clubs.
When he retired as a player, he began his professional career but continued with water polo by working with very young, beginning players. I watched him develop with this group for five years. It was obvious he had talent and was ready to progress. He was selected to be administratively in charge of youth selection and I brought him to work under me at Partizan. For one year, he was an administrator and did no coaching. He just watched, observed the way things were done. By 1986, 1 recognized that Mr. Stamenic would be our next national coach.
ASCA: Can you tell me about how you interact. I mean, if Mr. Orlic tells you to do something and you don’t agree, what happens?
NS: As I said before, Mr. Orlic is a genius, and not just at water polo. He is consultant to other sports in our country and even to the government. He has a very unique perspective, a different way of looking at things. He never tells me what to do. He presents things in a way that opens discussions and makes me think. It’s never, “do this or do that.” We collaborate and we don’t always agree, but whatever he says always makes me think. His presence is always welcome and always very helpful.
ASCA: Trust must be there.
NS: Yes. Absolutely. Above all other things Mr. Orlic stands for ethics. There is no questions of his motives, honesty and integrity. All is for the good of the sport of water polo.
ASCA: Mr. Stamenic, one final subject, if I may. You’ve both said why fundamentals are important, but is there a certain philosophy about teaching them that you use? How do you approach teaching fundamentals in practice?
NS: Many years ago, when I was a young boy, I wanted to learn how to juggle three balls and I wanted to see how long it would take me to learn. So I got watch and three balls. I found it took me 35 minutes to be able to juggle.
A few years ago I wanted to prove a point to my players about skill learning. I told them about my little test and suggested an experiment. I proposed that all could learn to juggle in from 30 to 40 minutes of practice. Some wanted to quit in frustration after ten or twenty minutes but I encouraged them to continue. All became jugglers within the time frame.
What does this have to do with your question? I believe that there is a threshold or a statistically provable amount of time required for athletes to learn the skills of a sport. Some skills might require a minimum of one hour, others might take one year – there are no shortcuts. The individual skills are the easiest to learn while team skills and tactics are more difficult. There must be a progression – a system – of one brick on top of the other. Time frames must be planned. You cannot build a the fourth story of a building before the third.
ASCA: So you always work on fundamentals in practice?
NS: At the national team level the players must have the fundamentals in place because we are working at the top of the building. But we are always looking to improve. About fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the Japanese martial art of Aikido. Aikido philosophy has influenced my life and coaching philosophy in many ways, but on this topic it is interesting that the highest level Dans (black belts) always spend time on the most basic techniques – ones that first day classes are taught. They do this because they understand that body position and basic movements are the keys to the most advanced movements and that no matter how many years they have practiced they have not perfected these basic techniques. Of course it looks perfect to you and me, but they know they are not perfect (the way a diver or gymnast knows a “l 0” does not mean perfection) and the Aikido philosophy is that “perfection” is an ideal concept that will never be reached. We are all human and can never be perfect but by constantly striving for perfection martial artists and water polo players and teams can become great. So sometimes we do some very fundamental things in practice, but only to show the importance to more advanced tactics and concepts.
ASCA: Is there anything else you have learned from Aikido?
NS: Another thing about Aikido which has been very helpful to me as a coach is the way they use the strength of their opponent to their advantage. The principles are especially useful in water polo at the two meter position. It is very difficult to use force against force. But if the offensive player knows how to use the pressure and force of the defender to his advantage he will be a much better player. This knowledge, I believe, is essential and we show our players some basic Aikido to understand it. But Aikido also has given me knowledge of the points of contact.
WPS: What do you mean?
NS: The Aikido defense against Yokomun strikes is very interesting. The Yokomun strike is a chop which is very similar to a pass or shot motion. When the strike is begun, the defender moves into the attacker and strikes his arm at the point of weakness. In water polo, the shot or pass can be blocked or disrupted. Hold up your arm to pass. (he chucks my bicep and then elbow)
Defenders often go to block the ball when they should be blocking the arm which is easier to reach, being closer to the body.
ASCA: With that, I want to thank you both and I hope you are enjoying your visit.
NS: Very much. Thank you.