The other day a friend came over who happens to be a 50 meter specialist. Chris had competed at the college level, and now trains rigorously with a club team. After a while, we began to talk about sprinting. Because I haven’t been training, he was convinced that he could beat me in a race. We ended up making a bet about who would win a 10 meter sprint. 


But Chris made a big mistake. He let me to dictate the rules of the race: we would start in the water, with our hands on the wall. The 10 meter race was also very short.


We jumped in my pool, and when my wife Sara gave the signal we raced forward!  I won, by at least a body length.


Chris had failed to consider several key differences between water polo players and swimmers. Swimmers use the momentum of a dive to move forward when sprinting. Their subsequent strokes are long, deep, and often use excellent technique.


In contrast, water polo players learn to propel their bodies forward from a static position in the water. We do this by rotating our bodies over our hips. It’s the explosiveness of this rotation that allowed me to “jump’ way ahead of Chris at the beginning of our short race, leaving him unable to catch up. My strokes were shorter, quicker and technically “uglier” than Chris’, but more effective at moving super fast.


In fact, the ability of a water polo player to rotate their body over their hips is an excellent metric of their talent. In countries like Serbia, where water polo is huge, young kids are taught technique for this rotation from the moment they enter the pool. They are also taught to swim with shorter strokes, to keep their heads up when swimming, and to use quick stop/go movements for positioning. 


In the USA kids often start water polo after first learning to swim conventionally. Conventional swimming emphasizes stroke technique and keeps the head under water. While this training is helpful, it means that USA kids often take longer to adjust their swim technique in ways that maximize their water polo potential.


This means that if you’re serious about polo, it’s never too early to learn water-based positioning. If you don’t, you might also find yourself on the wrong side of a bet (Chris is buying me dinner and it’s going to be satisfyingly delicious:)