How to win as a TEAM!

Underwater hockey is the ultimate team sport. Ball-hogs (or rather, puck-hogs) are extremely rare in this game of timing and teamwork. In fact, at the recreational level, many players are so eager to get rid of the puck that they will often turn the puck over to the other team so they can go to the surface and breathe. Obviously, then, good teamwork is crucial to success. But how do you go about improving your teamwork? Well, let's begin with the basic fundamentals of team-play:

Formations

A regulation underwater hockey match is played with 6 active players on each team. The six players can be arranged in a variety of different formations. Brief overviews of some common formations are given below:

Three-Three

In this formation, the forward line has three players, usually designated 'left', 'right' and 'center' (the center forward position is sometimes called 'strike'). The Back line also has three players, who share the job of defense fairly equally, cycling into and out of the play in order to constantly block the opponent's direct line to the goal. Backs are also generally designated 'left', 'right' and 'center' with the center back position sometimes called 'swing'.

The three-three formation is a good starting place for a team that is still learning the various strengths and skills of its players. Individual roles in a three-three formation are somewhat loosely defined, allowing players a lot of flexibility with regards to positioning. Ideally, the forward line works as a cohesive unit, following the play and staying relatively close to one another, attempting to advance the puck by swimming and passing the puck to each other. The backs should follow the play also, but need to be careful to stay far enough behind the play to defend against break-outs by the opposing team's forwards. A common strategy is to rotate two of the backs directly behind the puck to maintain constant pressure on the play from behind while keeping the third back in reserve, further back and on the surface, ready to stop or contain break-outs. Obviously, in this scenario, the reserve back does less work than the other two, so at some pre-determined point (often when the puck moves from one side of the pool to the other), the backs will switch roles.

One-Three-Two

As a team begins to develop, more complex formations may better suit its needs. Three-line formations involving mid-fielders or 'mids' as well as forwards and backs are quite common. The One-Three-Two is one such formation. The single forward (sometimes referred to simply as the 'One') generally stays ahead of the puck to serve as a forward pass option or harass the opposing team's defenders, while the midfielders play close to the puck and attempt to drive it forward or move it laterally across the pool, depending on the situation. The two backs rotate smoothly with one another to prevent forward progress by the opposition. With only two defenders, this formation can be somewhat risky, and the mid-fielders (and even the forward in some circumstances) have some responsibility to fall back and play defense. The fine details of how and when this should happen vary from team to team and the smoothness with which players adjust their position has a huge impact on the overall effectiveness of the team.

Two-Three-One

Underwater Hockey is played without a goal-keeper, but for teams with a very experienced, capable, and dependable defender, the Two-Three-One formation can be extremely effective. The single defender (sometimes called the 'stopper') does not remain 'in the goal' the way goal-keepers in other sports do. Instead, the stopper follows the play around as it moves, keeping himself between the puck and his goal. While a good stopper is generally very fit and talented, he can still be overwhelmed by a strong attack, and most teams that utilize this formation have mid-fielders that can fall back and assist with defense when needed. As an offensive formation, the Two-Three-One can be very powerful, since all three mids can surge forward quickly to assist the forwards with attacks, knowing that they have a dedicated defender behind them.

Play-Action

Before each point of an underwater hockey match, the puck is placed in the center of the playing area, and the two teams 'line up' along their respective ends of the pool. The 'lining up' generally consists of the players each grabbing the pool wall or gutter with one hand while bracing their feet against the pool wall in preparation for a good push to accelerate towards the puck. Upon a pre-arranged signal (tournaments use buzzers or gongs, while scrimmages often start with one player simply yelling 'sticks up... GO'), the two teams leave their end-walls and race for the puck. There is usually a single player designated the 'striker' or 'rusher' on each team, and these two players will swim directly at the puck and try to win it for their side, while the remainder of the players fan out behind and beside their striker to be available for a pass or to attack and cover the opposing players.

The Strike, or the Rush, as this first part of each point is called, is obviously of some importance, and there are various strategies for gaining and keeping control of the puck in these first few seconds. Obviously, having a striker who is a fast swimmer is important, but other factors also affect the outcome. Most teams, regardless of formation, will spread out in a similar fashion for the strike, with two players flanking the striker for left and right pass options and one or two players behind the striker to cover. It is essential that each of these players be in his or her correct position, as the opposing team will be quick to take advantage of any weakness at this early stage of the point.

Upon winning the strike and gaining possession of the puck, a striker has a variety of options. Unless the opposing team's striker is very late in getting to the puck, going directly forward is usually not easy, although it can be done by a player with good stick-handling skills if he can manage to get around the opposing striker. A quick turn to the left or right and a pass to a team-mate is usually an easier option, and this is one of the most popular strike plays. Yet another option is a back-pass to a trailing team-mate, which can be done after curling to protect the puck, or simply by sliding it back underneath one's body with a pushing or tapping motion of the stick while swimming forward. Back-passes off the strike can be dangerous and should always be made quickly and accurately, making sure the pass goes directly to a team-mate rather than an unoccupied area - it is important to remember that the opposing team are all coming at you full-speed at this point, and leaving a 'loose' puck is inviting a furious, frenzied attack up the middle of the pool.

One of the most popular strategies for moving the puck towards the opponent's goal is to first move it to one side of the playing area and then advance it 'up the wall'. While this doesn't mean that the puck will always be against the wall of the playing area, it does mean that being able to control the puck effectively in a narrow region (maybe 2 meters wide) while advancing it forward is a very valuable team skill.


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