US Tactical Water Polo, Chapter 9


Six–on–Five Offense

A productive Six–on–Five Offense is an important part of the game play for successful teams. 

Numerous ejections take place during the course of a game.

Teams find themselves either up or down a player as much as one-third of the game. With this in mind, it behooves the successful coach to spend considerable time developing an efficient Six–on–Five Offense.

Six–on–Five Offenses fall into three main categories:

  1. The Four–Two; 
  2. the Three–Three; and
  3. revolving combinations of the two.

The revolving combinations provide opportunities for specific plays and can be used as a part of either structure to create certain shots. Plays can be overdone but do have value in the Six–on–Five Offense.

Rules reduced the time for Six–on–Five Offense from :35 seconds to :20 seconds. This has changed the game significantly.

During the l992 Barcelona Olympic Games, team after team struggled with this aspect of the game. The low scoring percentage for Six–on–Five Offense demonstrated that teams had not caught up offensively with this rule change.

From a coaching standpoint, a few things become immediately apparent: 

First, if the ejection takes place during the transition, there may not be enough time to set up in a Four–Two structure.

Second, when it is possible to get to a Four–Two, there may not be time to get the players to positions they play best. In other words, even when there’s time to move into a Four–Two structure, with the :20-second ejection, players may have to learn to play effectively in more than one position.

Third, the quick (shot taken immediately following the ejection call) has gained even more importance than it possessed under the :35-second rule. 

Fourth, plays take time and, under certain conditions, may not be advisable for a particular ejection.

Finally, the Three–Three structure becomes even more important, as it sets up quicker than a Four–Two and requires shorter passes through to the shot.

Whatever course is followed, teams must improve their six–on–five scoring percentile if they wish to be successful.

No matter what structure is being used in the Six–on–Five Offense, coaches must prepare their teams for that moment when the ejection takes place.

Players must be trained to look immediately for the quick

In most cases, the quick shot should be taken by a player within the four-meter area and in front of the goal. 

Players should be aware of the ejection situation and set up in a structure which allows them maximum scoring opportunity.

They need to consider where the ejection has taken place and the time it takes them to get into their offensive structure. Twenty seconds goes by quickly.

Players must be trained to be extremely careful with the first pass following the ejection. 

If the pass is not going to the quick, the passer must be aware of the positioning of fellow offensive players.

They will be moving toward a Four–Two or Three–Three, and the first pass is an easy pass to throw away. For ball control to be maintained, players need to be specially trained with the first pass.

If a shot is not created within the ejection period, the opposing player returns to the defensive structure.

It is better to control the ball and continue an intelligent attack for the final seconds of the possession than to take a low percentage shot.

The Four–Two Offense

When we consider that over the course of a game, a team may have as many as ten six–on–five opportunities, it becomes apparent that it is important for the coach to be able to successfully teach the fundamentals of a Six–on–Five Offense.

  • Top teams should score at or above the 60 percentile for this element of the game. 

To achieve success, a considerable amount of time must be spent practicing this essential phase of offense. 

In Six–on–Five Offenses, all players are in a static, vertical position, which can become extremely boring during a lengthy practice session. Most players enjoy the movement aspects of the game, so it is easy to see that this practice can stagnate, causing the patience and the level of concentration necessary of success to vanish, particularly among the younger players. When this happens, the practice rapidly falls apart. 

The coach can avoid these problems and still put together a successful Four–Two Offense.

The Four–Two structure places four players across the front, near but not on the two-meter line (offensive players must be outside the two-meter line). The remaining two players take up a position six-or-seven meters from the goal line and on, or slightly outside, the posts of the goal.

See e268.


A variety of numbering or name systems have been used to describe player positioning, the most popular being the one shown in e268. By numbering the players, it is easy to create passing sequences through number identification. Players quickly learn this system.

  • The Four–Two is the most versatile of the Six–on–Five Offensive structures.
  • The Four-Two creates the greatest number of shooting possibilities.

Depending on the type of defense being played against the Four–Two, the free player on offense is most often in the front, or four-player line.

  • Every player in the Four–Two Offense is a potential scorer, which creates problems for the defense. 
  • Every player needs to be skilled in the shots which might be attempted from his/her position. 

The weaknesses of the Four–Two structure are:

  • width,
  • set-up time,
  • experience.

It is a weakness that the Four–Two Offense plays wide. The Four–Two Offense uses up a lot of pool width and may be difficult to employ in narrow pools.

The Four-Two takes longer to set-up than a Three–Three.

The Four–Two requires a greater number of experienced players, as the passes are longer than the Three–Three and all six players, when the opportunity occurs, are required to score from their positions.

Many young teams have two or three good players and several weak ones. Playing an effective Four–Two Offense with several weak players may be enough of a reason to employ the Three–Three structure, which requires fewer quality athletes.

In positioning for the Four–Two Offense, either the 1 player or the 6 player should be outside of the other three front-line players. See e 269 and e270.



It is important that either player 1 or player 6 be moved out away from the front line, as this opens the passing lanes. The coach must avoid placing all four front-line players in a straight line.

Also, the players should never allow themselves to get into a 2-2-2 alignment, where player 2 and player 3 are on the posts, players 1 and player 6 are both out at four meters, and player 4 and player 5 are in their normal positions. When either of these two situations occurs, passing lanes are immediately destroyed and turnovers take place.

Depending on which alignment gives the best attacking possibilities, player 1 and player 6 can easily rotate in and out from the front line.

The outside players in this offense means players 1 4 5 and 6. One of the main problems for the outside players in the Four–Two Offense is knowing what to do with the ball once it is received. A player with the ball sees the opposing Goalie, five defensive players, and teammates—a total of eleven people with whom he/she must deal. It can be overwhelming, particularly to younger players. What most often happens is this player can’t read what the defense is giving. He/she can’t find a proper pass. Chances are, no matter what the situation calls for, if this player possesses a strong arm, he/she will shoot the ball. If the shot is not taken, the player may turn away from the cage, ignoring the Goalkeeper, and simply look for a safe pass to one of the other outside offensive players. This happens regularly and neither of these decisions gets the job done. Shots should be taken when the opportunity to score is there. Passes should be thrown with more in mind than simply “unloading” the ball.

The offensive team needs to get the defense “locked on to the ball” before any delayed pass is made. The Goalie’s position, as well as the other defensive players’ positions, must be read at all times. The Goalie either should be beaten with the shot or “locked onto” by the player with the ball so the next pass forces the entire defense to move. With improper “reads,” passes are wasted. With even one overthrown pass, the six–on–five can fall apart. The :20-second clock and offensive player advantage can rapidly disappear.

To overcome these problems and become a good six–on–five team, teach three basic drills. 

Each is extremely important to mastering the Four–Two Offense. 

Work toward a 70% scoring average for attempts taken. If this can be achieved, a number of additional games are won. Even if the team is able to improve its six–on–five scoring average above the 50th percentile, it has taken a giant step forward.

F Drill Description #75 F

F The Hot Potato Drill F

This is the simplest of the three six–on–five drills to be discussed, but it may be the most important to the success of the Four–Two structure. With the players in their normal Four–Two positions, and without defense, the ball should be passed quickly and logically among the six players.

  • The passes need to be thrown high and with accuracy. 
  • All passes should be firm and the ball kept dry (never touching the water).
  • Each pass must be thrown so it can be caught and immediately shot. 

It is extremely important that players learn that each pass must be placed so it can be caught and shot.


Starting positions for the hot potato drill is the same as a Four–Two structure.

Actually there is no shooting in the Hot Potato Drill. Players work only on their passes. The important thing for the coach to monitor is that each pass is made to a shooting position.

The post players need to constantly and correctly position themselves in relationship to the location of the ball. They must learn to always be on balance and in position to accept a logical pass.

  • When the ball comes in to a post player, it should always be placed high. 

The post player receiving the ball should immediately pass it to the other post position. This is for ball handling purposes, although post-to-post pass plays can be employed in later stages. The second post player should immediately pass the ball outside and the drill should continue. The Hot Potato Drill should be practiced daily.

Logical passing sequences should be encouraged, with the ball staying high, firm, and in constant receiving position for a shot. The ball must never be put on the water.

Dry passing accuracy is the entire basis for a successful Four–Two Offense. Goalies and defensive field players must be constantly challenged and moved. When the ball is on the water, it can’t be shot, and the defense has the opportunity to recover its balance.

As aforementioned, the Hot Potato Drill is simple, but it creates the entire base for a successful Six–on–Five Offense. Teams must be able to move the ball properly before they can achieve success with the extra-player offense.

Shots From Positions in the Four–Two Offense

Each position, from player 1 through player 6, has certain shots which must be individually mastered. Six–on–five shooting must be totally disciplined. Let’s take a look at the individual shots each position must learn. 

In most cases, the shot should be taken quickly after receiving the ball. 

Unless running a specific play or time has run out, faking is a detriment to the six–on–five shooter. Faking allows the defense, including the Goalie, the opportunity to improve positioning and to get their hands back into the air. (Review game video to see the high number of blocks against shots taken from a fake.)

All post shots should be taken quickly and most outside shots (player 1, player 4, player 5 and player 6) should come from the quick release. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but the quick release for six–on–five shooting always should be emphasized.

Shots For The 1 Position

The player in the 1 position must be one of the team’s top athletes. The 1 position is second only to the 6 position in importance to the success of the Four–Two Offense. This player must possess a good right arm, with quick release abilities. He/she needs to have a “stable hand.” In other words, he/she must be able to think!

Another important attribute of the 1 shooter must be the ability to fake, not so much to take the shot, but to create the illusion that a shot is about to be taken. Once the Goalkeeper is “locked” to the ball, a pass should be thrown to the next logical position.

The 1 position should be trained in three prime shots: 
  • the alley shot, 
  • the cross-cage from the pocket, and
  • the near-side-wrap-around shot.
The Alley Shot

The alley shot is taken when the 1 position is on the front line with player 2 and player 3. Player 1 is in and player 6 is out. When 1 is on the line and receives the ball, he/she most often has the alley (low near-side shot beating the defender and the Goalie with the strong side shot). There never should be a fake with the alley shot—catch and shoot! This shot is seldom taken cross-cage. There are exceptions to all rules of shooting. The idea is to score, and the offensive player should be always monitoring the position of the Goalie. Whenever the Goalie is out of position or distracted, the good shooter should have the “green light” to shoot.

Some players can make a living off of sleeping goalies. However, these players were exceptional, bright shooters, and still disciplined to the team system of play.
Cross-Cage from the Pocket

The second shot to be trained with the 1 position is the cross-cage from the pocket. When the 1 position is outside and rotates slightly to center water, the 1 player is in what is called the “pocket.” From this position, he/she most often has the quick-release, cross-cage shot.

Near-Side, Step Out Wrap Around

If the cross-cage from the pocket is not there, a near-side, step out wrap around may be open. What happens here is, if the cross-cage shot is taken away by the Goalie, and the defender between 1 and 2 has the alley covered, the 1 position player can step out over his/her right leg (providing additional distance from the defender) and wrap the ball around the defender between 1 and 2 and into the goal. Incidentally, faking can be allowed before the cross-cage shot from the pocket if needed.

The near side wrap around also calls for some faking before the shot is released. These are the only shots where faking should be allowed before the shot unless running a specific play or time is running out on the shot or game clock.

The alley, pocket, cross-cage and near side wrap around are the only shots the coach should allow the 1 position to take—remembering that any shooting rule can be broken if the Goalie is out of position.

In this system, where player shooting discipline is of key importance, the person breaking a shooting rule had better score the ball!

Shots For The 2 Position

Teams play both right-handed and left-handed players at the 2 position, although most teams have fewer lefthanders than righthanders. Therefore, lefthanders are played primarily at the 6 position and secondarily at the 5 and 2 positions.

In all cases, post players need quick hands, good legs, and height where possible. All post shots are quick release and the pass to the post should arrive high. Post players also must be effective in shooting the rebound.

  • The righthanded 2 player should be able to shoot the inside pass from 6 and 5 players and the cross-cage backhand from the 1 pass. 
  • The lefthanded 2 player should be able to shoot the above shots plus the outside release, near side triangle shot.

What happens with a near side triangle is the 1 position passes to the lefthanded 2 player as he/she releases out and away from the cage. With the lefthander, most near side triangle shots are taken to the strong, or near side of the goal.

Shots For The 3 Position

The player in the 3 spot most often is righthanded. His/her main shots are the inside backhand from the 1 pass or 4 pass and the near side triangle, rear release shot from the 6 pass. The near side triangle shot from the 3 position generally is most effective when taken cross-cage.

On rare occasions, both the 2 and 3 players may get a pass over the top from the 4 or 5 positions. For this to be effective, the 2 and 3 players must rotate the shooting shoulder to the outside so that they both are in position to catch and shoot the ball.

All those playing in the 2 and 3 positions should train their different shots, practicing with the players who will be feeding them the ball.

Shots From The 4 Position

The 4 player always should be righthanded and should be a good shooter. Most of his/her shots come from the 6 pass and should be quick shots (no faking). The 4 shooter must possess good legs and a strong, quick arm.

Shots From The 5 Position

Whenever possible, the 5 player should be lefthanded. If none are available, a quick releasing righthander should be employed.

Like the 4 position, this player must have good legs and a quick release shot. Most of his/her shots come from a pass from 1 or from 6, with the 5 player “sliding” to his/her left for the shot.

To have the greatest scoring opportunity, all shots coming from the 4 and 5 positions should be quick release shots. Most blocked attempts in the Four–Two structure come from 4 and 5 shooting the ball following a fake. Conversely, most scores from position 4 and position 5 come from a quick release shot after a pass from either player 1 or player 6.

Shots From The 6 Position

In this system, the 6 position quarterbacks the six–on–five. Player 6 should be a good thinker and a good passer. This position contains more options than the other five positions.

Naturally, a lefthander is preferable, although a quick release shooting righthander can be effective in this position.

The shots are essentially the same as in the 1 position, with the alley shot far-and-away the most important to the 6 player.

When 6 is out, the cross-cage opens and is another important shot to be mastered by the 6 position.

The near-side-wrap-around is far more difficult for the lefthander, so this shot does not have the same importance as it does with the 1 player.

Goalies have a tendency to overplay their left side when a lefthander is in the 6 position, which makes the wrap-around a rare occasion shot for the lefthanded 6 player.

The 6 position is a passing position first and a shooting position second. When shots come from the 6 spot (and they should come often), the alley shot gets the most scores, followed by the cross cage when 6 is in the pocket position.

All the players in all of the positions in the Four–Two Offense must spend time working on their shots. Before and after practice, players should get together with the playing positions which pass to them and practice their shots.

F Drill Description #76 F

F The Type of Shots Drill F


The Type of Shots Drill is more of a learning exercise than a simple drill. The players start in their normal Four-Two positions, get passes from their logical teammates, and make shots on goal with the proper type of shooting mechanics.

Learning To Read The Defense—Priority Passing in the Four–Two Offense

Learning to read the defense with priority passing brings together all aspects of the Four–Two Offense and must be practiced until all the players are totally disciplined to the priority pass concept. An accomplished squad has a “computer-like,” read-out principle, where players are programmed to follow certain steps rather than being controlled by individual impulses.

Coaches can program the players’ minds so that a disciplined thought pattern is followed by each individual during the course of the ejection period. This system has proved very successful with well coached teams.

By using this approach, players are controlled by the system rather than by their individual choice.

“System first, arm second!” is the battle cry when coaching the Four–Two Offense.

One hindering observation coaches might notice that with Six–on–Five Offense: Very few players are able to consistently find the free player.

Unless having played together for ten or more years, even great players oftentimes miss the obvious. When it comes to seeing the place that the next pass should go to, the Four–Two Priority Pass Read Out System makes average players good and good players great at finding the freest player for a possible shot.

Each time they receive the ball, the outside players (numbers 1, 4, 5, and 6) have one of two decisions to make—“Should I shoot the ball, or should I pass?”

Remember the roles of the outside players in the Four–Two differ from those players in the post position. Outside players are primarily passers first, shooters second, while the post players (2 and 3) are shooters.

The posts generally receive and shoot the ball, rarely making a pass.

If not taking a shot immediately after receiving the ball, each of the outside players next must look for a priority pass. They must learn what these priority passes are and where they should be thrown.

As the defense shifts, these are the positions which open up for a pass from the 1 position.

The priorities for the 1 position are:

  • 1 c 3 inside,
  • 1 c 6 inside or pocket,
  • 1 c 5 and
  • 1 c 2.

The priorities for the 6 position are:

  • 6 c 2 inside,
  • 6 c 1 inside or pocket,
  • 6 c 3 for the near side triangle and
  • 6 c 4.

The 4 position has:

  • 4 c 3 inside,
  • 4 c 6 and
  • 4 c 2 over the top.

Number 5 position has:

  • 5 c 2,
  • 5 c 1 and
  • 5 c 3 over the top.

Logic Sequence for Outside Player

Each outside player must learn his/her priorities and then, upon receiving the pass, must think in the following sequence:

“Do I have the shot?”

If: Yes, then take it, generally from the quick release mode.

If: No, then: “Do I have a priority pass open?”

If: Yes, then make the priority pass to the open player.

If: No, then attack in toward the defender in front.

When the defense (including the Goalkeeper) is committed to the attack, pass the ball to a logical outside position and start the sequence over.

Once this system is learned, disciplined and indelibly set into the minds of the players, the shot or priority pass decision becomes automatic and decisions should take only about one-thousandth-of-a-second (:00.001) to make. This training enables the player to recognize instantly either the shot or free player.

Remember, if the player receiving the ball has neither the shot nor a priority pass, he/she must immediately start faking a shot and penetrating in toward the goal and his/her defensive opponent. This faking and penetrating should be followed with a chest fake (lift of the upper body in a shooting motion ) to convince the Goalie that a shot actually is coming. At this point, with the defense “tied-down,” the attacking player passes the ball to a fellow outside player and the sequence starts again.

  • Shoot, Priority Pass, Attack In And Chest Fake

If players follow this discipline, a good shot from the priority pass system should eventually open. With only :20 seconds of shot-clock time before the ejected opponent returns to the field of play, it is imperative the attack be immediate and persistent.

If time starts to run out on the :20-second ejection, players must make a decision as to whether to shoot or simply control the ball and continue to attack offensively six–on–six.

Remember, ball control is one of the single most important elements of a successful offense. 

When a score is not going to take place, the team is further ahead by controlling the ball for :35 seconds rather than giving it up on a low percentage shot at :20 seconds. Besides, during those final :15 seconds, there is always the possibility of earning another ejection. Keeping the percentages on your side in every area of the game is the key to winning water polo.

The scoring percentages in the Six–on–Five Offense can be raised above the 50th percentile when the team has learned the proper elements of the Four–Two attack.

The Hot Potato Drill teaches a team how to pass. This is the critical base for a successful Four–Two Offense.

The Type Of Shot Drills teach players when, as well as what, to shoot. Players must become skilled with the shots to be taken from their positions.

Finally, The Priority Pass Concept teaches and disciplines players to find the “split in the seam”—the open player while he/she still remains free.

When these three drills have been mastered, a team has far greater success with its Four–Two offense. Remember the following sequence upon receiving the pass. Shoot if you have the shot; if not, instantly look for the priority pass and, if no one is free, attack in, chest fake to commit the Goalkeeper and field defenders; then pass to another outside position .

F Drill Description #77 F

F The Priority Passing Drill F


The principles of the priority passing concept need to be applied to many different drills. The respective outcomes are too numerous to illustrate.

The Three–Three Structure

Although not so versatile as the Four–Two, the Three–Three has some advantages over the Four–Two which coaches should consider when deciding which six–on–five structure to use.

First, the Three–Three sets up faster than the Four–Two. This has great application to the :20- second ejection rule in force.

Second, the Three–Three is simpler to run. There are fewer passing choices, as the offense is concentrated primarily in the three outside players.

Third, fewer quality athletes are required to make the Three–Three structure work.

(In the Four–Two, all six players need to be quality in their positions; everyone in the Four–Two is a shooter and the 1, 4, 5 and 6 players must excel in both passing and shooting.)

Fourth, the Three–Three doesn’t spread as wide as the Four–Two. This can be an advantage in narrow playing courses. The Four–Two Offense covers greater width of the pool in the front line, creating greater potential for throwing the ball onto the deck, particularly with the pass from player 1 to player 6. Overpassing is not a problem with the Three–Three, as 98% of the passes take place among the three outside players. As they are positioned in a “flat triangle.” Passing distances are short and simple. The ball is easily kept in the field of play.

As far back as l958, elite-level coaches were working with the Three–Three. Originally, time was spent developing the structure as a six–on–six, frontcourt, offensive, attacking system. The Three–Three frontcourt offensive structure remains popular, particularly with some at the high school level.

In the early stages of development, it became apparent the Three–Three had great potential for attacking-five-player defenses.

This structure can work against the 3-2 zone. It was evident the Three–Three structure had good potential against player-down defenses.

In l972, the USA selected an Olympic training squad in June, immediately played four games against the visiting Yugoslavian Olympic Team, then left for Europe and a six-week-training stint.

Team USA had no team workout time prior to the Yugoslavian competition, and only two days of training before arriving in Budapest and commencing play in the Tunsgram Cup. 

It was a difficult time for United States Water Polo. Olympic squads were selected just prior to final training for the Olympic Games.

Because of this lack of training time, the USA coaches had its squad using the Three–Three as its Six–on–Five structure both against the Yugoslavians and during the Tunsgram competition. With essentially no training time, important and difficult games to be played, and teammates new to each other, it was far easier to use the Three–Three. 

The USA squad played quite successfully with this structure. Several of the opponents laughed at the USA's use of a Three–Three as a Six–on–Five attacking system. In their minds, it didn’t exist as an alternative to the Four–Two.

Although, Team USA was using a Four–Two by the time the 1972 Munich Olympics rolled around. The two months of practice gave the coaches and players time to develop the player recognition necessary for a successful Four–Two. None were laughing anymore.

The United States finished third in the Munich Games, winning its first Olympic Water Polo medal in 40 years. It’s interesting to note the Three–Three started to be employed internationally as a Six–on–Five Offense shortly after the l972 Olympics.

Although not widely used at first, it slowly grew in popularity.

Most skilled teams phase into a Three–Three from the Four–Two. 

In the years to come, several powerful water polo countries play almost exclusively in a Three–Three. 

The Three–Three has not surpassed the Four–Two as the predominant Six–on–Five offensive structure.

With quality players elite coaches still prefer the versatility of the Four–Two, but the Three–Three has become a very usable alternative to the straight Four–Two structure.

This is especially true with a slower moving squad and the desire for a faster pace for bettering both the opposition and racing against the :20-second-ejection period.

Player Positioning In The Three–Three

The Three–Three lines up, as the title implies, with three players across the front line approximately two-and-a-half-meters out from the goal and the three additional players in a “flat triangle” between six-and-eight meters. (The middle point of the triangle starts his/her play at eight meters.)

  • In the Three–Three, 90% of the shots taken come from the three outside players.

To designate player positioning, use the numbering and titling system shown in e275.

This keeps the outside positions with the same numbers as used in the Four–Two, and uses the descriptive terms of the “Hole” and “Point” to describe the other two positions. Coaches have found this the easiest system.


Let’s consider the qualities needed to play each position in the Three–Three. We’ll take the front line first.

1 Position

This obviously requires a righthander. If the team is lacking in quality players, this position can be played by one of the weaker starters. Only occasionally will the 1 position be free for a shot.

The Hole – H

While the Hole position in normal six–on–six offense requires a highly skilled player to direct the attack, against the player-down defense the opposite is true. The weakest starter can play here as he/she is covered one–on–one 99% of the time.

6 Position

If the team is so fortunate as to start two lefthanders, the 6 position should be played by the weaker of the two. If a righthander is playing this spot, he/she should to be a “quick release” shooter and can be the fourth best field starter.

4 Position

Moving to the back line, the 4 player should be righthanded and should possess good legs and a strong right arm. Obviously, this needs to be one of the best players and a strong and accurate shooter.

5 Position

If the team has two lefthanders, the better of the two should play this position. If the team has only one lefthander, generally this would be his/her position.

There are exceptions to this rule: When the lefthander does not possess a good arm, he/she should be played inside. Another exception might be if the lefthander is too small or has poor legs.

Players in the 5 position must be able to get up both to receive the pass and to see through the defense. If a righthander plays this position, he/she should be a good “off-side,” quick release shooter. This position should be filled with the team’s second best athlete.

The Point – P

The Point position must be played by the team’s best and brightest athlete. This player must be an outstanding perimeter shooter, with both power and quickness. The (POINT_PLAYER) quarterbacks the Three–Three Offense and handles the ball more than any of the other players.

Playing The Three–Three Front Line

1 Position

The 1 position needs to stay on balance to the goal at all times. By staying on balance, this mean keeping his/her body in a shooting position the entire time, with the left shoulder in, the right shoulder out. The center of the chest points toward the center of the goal. See e276. The right arm should be up in a shooting position at all times, remaining there during the entire offensive sequence. This is important for two reasons: First, it provides a constant target for the occasional incoming pass, and second, it allows for a quicker shot if the Goalie is out of position. With the 3-2 zone defense, the 1 position is guarded one–on–one most of the time. Regardless of this situation, the 1 player must be ready for the ball in case the defense drops off or moves out to attack an outside player.


The player’s chest is pointing toward center goal.

The 1 position does a rocker arm slightly to the outside when the ball is being penetrated by the 5 position. See e277.

“Rocker arming” creates a “teeter totter” effect and allows the front line (1 and 6 players) a better chance to cover the
counterattack when it appears the ball will be shot.

The 1 position always should be ready to receive the ball, but particularly when it is being penetrated by the 5 or Point positions, the 1 player must be moving slightly in a “rocker arm” motion.


The rocker arm motion is used by the player at the wing.

The Hole

The Hole position occasionally gets the ball but never in the “wet” position. As with the 1 and 6 positions, the HOLE is guarded one–on–one with the Three–Two zone defense. As the team is one-player-up, the free player in the Three–Three should be outside, never inside as in the Four–Two. As a result, the only time the HOLE gets the ball is if the defense goes to sleep and makes a major positioning error. This happens occasionally with the 1 and 6 positions, but rarely with the HOLE. Even so, the HOLE must always be prepared for the rare occasions when the defense makes such an error. When this happens, the HOLE should slide slightly right or left of the defense and be prepared to receive the ball in the “dry” position. See e278.

The HOLE should move left or right only if the defense makes an error.

Otherwise, when guarded one–on–one, the HOLE must remain stationary at center goal. If the HOLE’s position is constantly moving left and right while being guarded one–on–one, the HOLE “clogs” the shooting lanes of the 4 , 5 and POINT_PLAYER positions. As the majority of the shots are created from 4, 5 and the POINT_PLAYER positions, unnecessary movement in the HOLE position can destroy the effectiveness of the Three–Three Offense.


6 Position

The 6 position’s responsibilities are the same as the 1 spot. He/she always must be on balance to the goal, the arm up, ready for the dry pass and shot, and “rocker arming” when necessary.

The righthander playing the 6 position must be particularly aware of staying on balance to the goal. Inexperienced righthanded players in the 6 position have the tendency to turn their backs to the goal, forcing a backhand type shot when receiving a pass from 4 or the POINT_PLAYER. As this positioning in the Three–Three is two to three meters wide of the goal post, turning the back to the goal in the 6 position creates a nearly impossible shot. It is critical for the 6 player to keep on balance to the goal.

Playing The Three–Three Back Line

The back line must be in a “flat triangle” to maintain maximum passing lanes. When the POINT_PLAYER penetrates but does not shoot, he/she must immediately reposition to recreate the triangle.

The Point_Player

This player is the quarterback and, as aforementioned, must be an outstanding player and must have good vision, great legs and be an outstanding perimeter shooter. He/she needs to possess the “good wrists” which allow for quickness in shooting. He/she shoots with power, but quickness must be incorporated for maximum effectiveness.

The POINT_PLAYER controls the ball and should start most offensive series. Let’s look at three separate diagrams to see the shooting or passing possibilities for the POINT_PLAYER.

 Remember, the Three–Three is a power, lane shooting offense and 90% of the shots will come from the outside.


In e279, the defense presses out on 4 and 5, creating the “wedge,” and allowing the POINT_PLAYER to penetrate for the shot.

When shooting while penetrating the wedge, the POINT_PLAYER should be prepared to go with power to either the right or left side of the goal. Remember, if the defense suddenly shifts and the POINT_PLAYER passes instead of shooting, the POINT_PLAYER must immediately reposition to the point of the triangle.


In e280, the POINT_PLAYER starts to penetrate and the defensive player between the POINT_PLAYER and 5 gives the impression he/she is going to pick up the POINT_PLAYER. In this case, the POINT_PLAYER must penetrate the ball hard and force this defender to commit. If the defense “tackles” the POINT_PLAYER, the POINT_PLAYER should pass the ball to the 5 position. If the defender “stunts,” then drops off the POINT_PLAYER, the POINT_PLAYER should take the ball up the “wedge” for the shot.

Stunting means creating the impression that the player’s intentions are something different from what they really are.


The opposite of e280, in e281 the POINT_PLAYER now attacks the defender between his/her position and the 4 player. The same rules apply here. Whether to the left or right, it’s important to go after the defender who starts to attack out. It also is important to remember the POINT_PLAYER may have to execute these maneuvers several times within the :20-second ejection before the best shot opens. When the shot comes, the shot is most often from power. The Three–Three against the 3-2 zone is a power shooting, down-the-lane offense.

There is a big difference between the Three–Three Offense against six–on–six defense and the Three–Three Offense against the 3-2 zone, which has been created as the result of an ejection. 

The Three–Three against a six-person, even up, dropback defense features similar penetration and ball attacking against the perimeter defensive players, but once the defense commits to the ball, the six–on–six Three–Three passes to the hole or cross passes the ball outside for a quick release shot against the dropping defender.

With the Three–Three attack against the 3-2 zone the ball rarely is passed to the Hole (only when left unattended by a major defensive error) and there are not many cross passes as, once you free-up players 4, 5 or the POINT_PLAYER, they usually have the best lanes for penetrating and taking the shot. Most often, when the penetrating player is attacked, the attack is by a defender from the inside line. Therefore, if a pass rather than a shot takes place, this pass generally goes to a fellow player inside.

4 And 5 Positions

The same rules of attacking apply to both of these positions.

Looking at e282 and e283, see the ball starting with the penetration of the POINT_PLAYER. Once the defense commits to the POINT_PLAYER, either 4 or 5 is free to receive the ball but neither should move into the slot prematurely. They should time their moves to that of the defensive player. As the defensive player makes the commitment to the POINT_PLAYER, who has the ball, the 4 or 5 player should move to the slot.

This move into the slot is important. One or two short strokes should be taken at an angle in and toward the center of the goal, not toward the posts of the goal. After the two short strokes, the player should immediately come to the vertical, with the shooting arm up and ready for the ball. The rights and wrongs of this move are shown in e284 and e285.



e284 Right!

e285 Wrong!

Player 4 has gone too deep to safely receive the point pass.

As stated earlier, the timing of the move is critical. Depending on the situation at the moment, either player 4 or player 5 must be ready and in the correct shooting position as the POINT_PLAYER is being “tackled.”

Once the ball is received, the player should have a power shooting lane to the goal. This does not mean the shot is taken immediately. Penetration toward the center of the goal should be continued, with the shot occurring when optimum position has been reached. If the inside defense commits out, the ball should be passed to the inside offensive player on the ball-holder’s side. See e286.


Finally, it is important to remember the 4 or 5 position should not go too deep to receive the pass from the point. Young players tend to get excited —“I’m free!”— and move in on top of the Hole position.

Oftentimes they add insult to injury by turning their backs on the goal and calling to the POINT_PLAYER to pass them the ball. When this happens, they are easily blindsided by the defense. One defender can cover two offensive players. And, even when free, the inexperienced player must turn around to shoot the ball. This allows the defense more time to recover.

Nothing can ruin the Three–Three Offense against the 3-2 zone faster than the 4 or 5 player moving in too far. These players must be trained to simply move to the slot and stay on balance to the goal. By so doing, they have good shooting position plus visual contact with the defensive and offensive players in front of them. If the defense commits out, they are then in a position to see it immediately and can easily make the next pass.

Six–on–Five Offensive Plays

Plays should be a part of the team’s Six–on–Five thinking, but players first need to learn the basics of the Four–Two and Three–Three player advantage systems. Players must become
fundamentally sound. Players should be able to throw good passes, read defenses, understand passing priorities within the structure, and master quick release shooting. In the final analysis, throwing the type of pass which allows the receiving player to “quick release” shoot is the most important factor in any successful six–on–five structure. 

Plays can be installed after the above basics are mastered and players have an understanding of both the Four–Two and Three–Three structures of extra-player offense.

Before looking at plays, it’s important to realize there is a difference between running pre-designed plays and simply concentrating on two or three passing patterns to shots. Many teams, limited in experienced players, run simple passing patterns to free-up their one or two best shooters. There is nothing wrong with this. The coach must use available players to best advantage, even if it means using patterns which easily can be defended.

  • But there is a major difference between passing patterns and actual plays.
  • Plays generally involve the movement of players, positioning passes in relationship to this movement and, once started, tend to continue through to a hoped-for shooting situation.

When preparing for actual games, the Six–on–Five Offense should be based on scouting reports of the other team’s defensive alignments and tendencies.

Passing patterns can be adapted to scouting reports, and they certainly can allow for flexibility and the use of the team’s best talent in the Six–on–Five Offense.

Plays, although they may be designed to take advantage of the best talent, tend to be “set in concrete.” Once in motion, no matter what the defense does, a play generally continues to move along pre-set lines. At times, a play can get an easy goal. At other times, plays can be disastrous.

Understanding all this, the first question might be, “Should my team have six–on–five plays?”

The answer to this is a definite yes!

“If so, when should they be employed?”

Plays can be used early in the shot clock when scouting shows that the plays should be effective.

“What plays should I employ?”

“Which are the best plays for my team to use?”

Before this lesson diagrams a few plays, coaches are encouraged to work up his/her own plays based upon the team’s capabilities.

Water polo coaches have orchestrated hundreds of plays, with varying degrees of effectiveness. No coach should be so presumptuous as to say the few plays outlined in this lesson are any better than those another coach might design. 

Coaches need to experiment, using creativity as they try to beat the opponent’s defense.

The :20-second-ejection period definitely impacts Six–on–Five Offense. 

Twenty seconds quickly disappears. Some leagues deploy 30-second periods and in the past, water polo play had :35-second ejections. With more seconds, teams could set up in a Four–Two or Three–Three, run a priority offense then, if nothing else were working, go to a play in the final :10–:12-seconds at equal strength.

With the :20-second rule it is still possible to do both, but time is extremely limited. Most teams stay with priorities the entire :20 seconds, or go immediately to a pre-designed play.

Top coaches believe priority offense (reading the defense and attacking with the pass accordingly) should be the basis of any six–on–five attack. However, if a team has shown it can score one goal after another from a certain play, that play should be used on every ejection until the defense shuts it down. No matter what the basic offensive philosophy, the coach should always use whatever works best. Getting the ball into the goal is what it’s all about. However, good teams which scout and play good team defense, quickly pick up on the opponent’s pre-designed plays. Therefore, to score consistently against a well-prepared defense, the effective Six–on–Five team must have a fundamentally sound priority system, plus a few good plays.

With all this in mind, let’s look at a few plays which have proved useful over the years. Certainly, whatever plays a coach chooses to run must be based on the talent in the water. The wise coach uses patterns which complement the individual skills of the team.

Most plays in the Four–Two structure are “quarterbacked” by the player in the 6 position. This player must be able to read the defense and to pass well. If the team is in a Three–Three structure, the quarterback is at the point position. Successful Six–on–Five Offense requires in-water leadership and this leadership, depending on which offensive structure is being used, must come from either the 6 position or the point position.


(top) Four–Two Structure

e288(bottom) Three–Three Structure

Illustrations e287 and e288 show the numbering and naming system used to identify the positions of the various players in the Four–Two and Three–Three structures of Six–on–Five Offense.

Six–on–Five Plays

The Silent Rotation

This is a power play used in the Four–Two structure.

Given a :20-second ejection rule, the silent rotation play is probably the only play diagramed in this lesson which can be run in conjunction with the priority offense system. As it sets up quickly, both priority attack and the Silent Rotation play can be run within :20 seconds.

  • The name Silent Rotation is to describe this play as it doesn’t need to be “called out” by a player in the water. 

Simply, it is started by the 6 player when he/she decides to rotate with the ball in, and toward the goal line. See e289.

This rotation can start at any time during the :20-second ejection period.

When the 6 player starts the rotation, the other players should rotate automatically to their new positions. Oftentimes, a team can find it valuable to run the Silent Rotation when the ball has been overpassed from player 1 or 4 to the 6 player. When player 6 has to chase a wide pass, the Silent Rotation should start immediately as there is little time left on the ejection for running anything else.

Also, the Silent Rotation can be used when there are fewer than :08-seconds left on the “kickout.” The player doesn’t have to shoot the ball, but the Silent Rotation, besides putting player 1 in good shooting position, places him/her a greater distance away from the returning defender and in good position to cover the counterattack in case a shot is taken.

If player 1 receives the ball, the type of power shot created, while giving an excellent opportunity to score, also provides the possibility of retaining ball control from a Goalie-deflected shot.

When the shot does come, it should be taken by player 1 or player 4 and, most often, shot hard and high.


As aforementioned, the Silent Rotation can be used anytime during the :20- second ejection, but it is particularly effective in creating the last-second shot. Properly run, it creates a three–on–two situation (three offensive players on two defenders) on the righthander’s side.

In e289, player 6 takes the ball inside to the goal line and player 1 rotates out to the “pocket” for the pass from player 6. If the defense “stays home” (defenders stay on player 2 and player 4), player 1 is free for the power shot.

In the Silent Rotation Play, player 4 always rotates to the point and player 5 moves to the right.


Most often the player shoots with the right hand with the pass from 6.

If the inside defender moves out on player 1 player 6 can pass inside to player 2. See e290.


If the defender on player 4 stays in to guard player 1 when he/she is in the pocket, player 6 should pass to player 4, who has rotated to the point. Player 4 can shoot or attack in on the defender. If the guard decides to leave player 1 and again attack out on player 4, 4 should pass to player 1. If the inside guard then attacks out on player 1, 1 will pass inside to player 2, who should “layout” toward the original position of player 1. When laying out, player 2 must be careful not to get inside the 2-meter line. See e291.

The #2 Out Play

The #2 Out Play is very popular and is used in the Four–Two structure of Six–on–Five Offense.


  • The #2 Out Play usually is signaled or called by the 6 player. 

When the play is called, player 2 should move out slowly, player 4 should move to the point and player 5 should move to the right. The play should always be started when the ball is with player 6. Otherwise, the defense will immediately pick up player 2 coming out and is able to make the proper defensive adjustments.

As the play unfolds, if player 2 gets free, player 6 should pass 2 the ball for the shot. The key player is 6 because 6 must read the defense. The defenses’ moves determine where player 6 passes the ball. Obviously, player 6 needs to be a stable, intelligent, high caliber athlete. See e292.

Let’s look at some of the passing variations for the #2 Out Play, and remember, player 6 must read the defense at all times.


In e293, the defender between player 1 and player 2 follows 2 as 2 moves out. So player 6 passes to player 1 who moves to the 2-meter line as the defender follows player 2.


In e294, as player 2 starts to move out, the inside defender “stays home,” but the defender on player 4 drops in and picks up player 2. The ball should go from player 6 to player 4, who has moved to the point position. Player 4 can penetrate and shoot, or if his/her defender comes back out, player 4 can attack in on the defender then, depending on who is free, pass to either player 2 or player 1.

As the #2 Out Play puts the team in a Three–Three structure, when player 4 attacks the defender, the offense is two–on–one on the righthander’s side.


This shows player 2 having moved out, but the defense is playing well and there is no free player. This does happen. In this case, the team can run a Three–Three Offense, or, if time permits, the offensive team can rotate back to a Four–Two Offense.

The Player-Five Slide Play

The Player-Five Slide Play is another common play and an easy one to run within the :20-second ejection period. It is used extensively in international water polo.


If the Goalie tends to overcommit to the lefthander’s side, or if the Goalie is weak laterally, the Player-Five Slide Play works well.

Also, if the guard at 5 drops in to cover a possible pop-out by the 3 post player, the play can work well.

Simply start a series of passes between player 5 and player 6. Move player 4 over to the left, and slide player 5 to the point. The pass should come from player 6 to player 5, who should quick release shoot to the high and far corner of the goal.

Team Right Slide Play


Here is the play called, Team Right Slide Play.

Start playing straight-up Four–Two Offense, then slide the entire team to the right on command. The slide puts the righthanders (1 and 4) in maximum advantage shooting position. The Team Right Slide Play works well against young defenses as they tend to lose sight of correct positioning. Oftentimes, younger players follow the shift and, as a result, defend players who have moved out of scoring position.

The Three–Three Rotation Play


The Three–Three Rotation play has a multiple number of passes between 5 and 6. Then the POINT_PLAYER drives into the opening near the post.

Rotation plays can be run from the Three–Three as well as the Four–Two. Let’s take a look at a popular Three–Three rotation play.

See e298.

Begin by moving the ball to player 6, then start a passing sequence between player 6 and player 5, attacking in on the defenders after each pass. When the defender on player 5 pulls outside on 5, give the ball to player 6 and drive the POINT_PLAYER. The POINT_PLAYER should move toward the 3 post and to free water between defenders.

The POINT_PLAYER should pop up to receive the pass from player 6. If the defense has committed wide, the POINT_PLAYER should be free for the shot. As the POINT_PLAYER drives, the offensive HOLE should slide to the 2 post position.

If the POINT_PLAYER is not open on the drive, player 6 should look to make a pass to the HOLE player who has moved to the 2 post. See e299.

If the player defending on player 1 picks up the HOLE player moving to the 2 post, player 6 will pass to player 1 who should have moved out toward the pocket. The 1 player may have the shot, but if the shot is not there, 1 should look for the 3 post player inside. The 3 post player actually is the former point player who started the original rotation. See e300.

If nothing opens up, the team has rotated from a Three–Three into a Four–Two structure. They can stay in the Four–Two for the remainder of the shot clock, or can run a Silent Rotation or #2 Out Play. Of course, the decision at this point depends on time left on the ejection.

As you can see, there are countless plays and variations of plays which can be used. Coaches should be creative. Have fun and develop your own plays.


If the defense converges on the POINT_PLAYER’s drive, the 6 player must look to pass to the HOLE who has now moved over to the 2 post.


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