The stakes are high, and failure is the most likely result.
Skip it off the wrong patch of water, and it goes sailing over the goal. Misfire on a lob, and the goaltender grabs it with ease. Watch out for the forest of arms in front of the cage, or it’s all over before it even begins.
When it comes to Olympic water polo, players have a myriad of options when shooting on the world’s best goaltenders and precious little time to make a decision. They rely on a mix of intuition and an almost instantaneous assessment of the landscape when deciding which option to take.
“In a game I’m shooting so many times and I’m shooting in stress situations, sometimes when I’m tired, sometimes when I’m fresh, and you start learning about situations,” U.S. captain Tony Azevedo said. “So if I catch a ball, I see how the goalie is and then I know I am going to use this shot. Things start to come naturally.
“If I have to actually think about what I am going to shoot, that’s when it starts getting scary.”
While centres are close enough to tip the ball and there are occasional backhands right in front of the goal, most shots can be broken down into one of three categories- skip, lob or a throw straight toward the net.
Skips are tough for goaltenders to read, but they are a tricky proposition in the churning water. Finding a path clear of defenders also is a challenge.
“My coach in Italy last year insisted on skip shots because he said if you’re shooting for an upper corner you can miss by a centimeter and you miss,” U.S. attacker Josh Samuels said. “If you’re shooting for a skip shot, you can miss by a meter and it can still go in. There’s some truth to that.
“You hate it when it goes flying over the goal, but there’s no fear in shooting a skip shot versus shooting for the upper corner. It just depends on the game.”
If the goaltender comes out too much or at the wrong time, players try to float the ball over the goalie for the score. A good centre can help create more lob opportunities with an offensive presence in front, forcing the goaltender to address the situation.
Deception and touch are key. Samuels, who scored 176 goals at UCLA, described himself as a “terrible lobber.”
“You want to draw the goalie up so when you lob it he can’t move backwards,” he said. “That’s a unique challenge.”
Scouting also plays a role in which shots are used. The players know the goaltender’s strengths and weaknesses coming into the game. For example, it’s tough to lob over the United States’ Ashleigh Johnson, with her long arms and 6-foot-1 frame.
“We have tons of tendencies, like individual tendencies that we do, our go-tos that we like to shoot,” U.S. attacker Kaleigh Gilchrist said. “But you try as much as you can to read the goalie and understand where they’re coming from so you try to beat them that way, or read the shot blockers as well.”