The Importance of Statistics for Water Polo

Men lie, Women lie, but numbers never lie. Is it really like that? We will find out in today’s conversation. In 2010, our today’s guest Mr. Paulo Tejo, a Water Polo and Swimming Coach from Portugal, wrote his Master Thesis on the Man up Comparison between the Euroleague, Italian Championship and the World Championship.

Some 6 months ago Paulo and I had an interesting conversation on Facebook. An interesting conversation meaning somebody commented and then somebody replied and then somebody was mentioned and the whole thing escalated haha. I asked Paulo if he was willing to do an interview with me on the importance of numbers and statistics for Water polo. He accepted and six months later we are finally here haha.

Glad to have you here with us Paulo. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to explain to me and hopefully some readers of ours why are the numbers so important, but before we start, could you tell us a bit about yourself? I have seen on your Facebook page that you do a lot of stuff, but is your main job water polo related?

It’s me who must thank for your interest in my work. I’m a Water-Polo and Swimming Coach and I’ve been working, on and off, in both sports since 1989, although, mostly not at the same time. I’ve been a competitive swimmer from age 9 to 23 and I’ve started teaching on my Club’s (Associação Académica de Coimbra) Swimming School when I was 18. Since then I’ve coached competitive swimming on all levels. When I stopped swimming I tried Water Polo, a Sport that I loved since I was a teenager but I haven’t tried it before because, in contrast with swimming where I had a great Coach, there weren’t any Water Polo Coaches in my town. So there was a group of friends that practiced and competed in the Water Polo National Championship and they would join with us for practice as one of the players was in charge of the training session. Since I was already a Swimming Coach my teammates asked me if I would start coaching us too. This was in 1996. After this I started purchasing Water Polo books, and began studying the sport. A few years later, in 2004, I went to Spain to attend the Spanish Federation Coaches’ Course and later, from 2007 to 2010 my Master degree at the Spanish Olympic Committee.

Nowadays, and since 2014, I’m a fulltime Water Polo Coach in Associação Académica de Coimbra that, before Covid, involved coordinating a Learn to Swim School, Coaching both Senior and Age Group Teams and developing a Beach Polo Circuit we started in 2017.

So over a period o time your water polo life and your academic life started to intertwine a bit. Could you please explain to us these moments? How does it feel when you stop looking at water polo through the eyes of the kid you once was and start to look at water polo as an object of your scholar work and as a subject of your tedious research?

I think the first time I realized that the eye of a Coach needs to be different from the eye of the enthusiast was in Barcelona, in Entrenador Superior Coaches’ Course (the Spanish Top Level) when Antonio Aparício (the Spanish Men´s National Team Stats responsible), who was the Tactics Teacher, in that subject Exam, played a video of a quarter, I think a game between Spain and Germany in 2004 Olympics, and at the end made five questions, among them, which was the dominant hand of Germany’s player number 5. I realized I’ve had to learn to scrutinize the game on an all new perspective, a colder, less passionate and more analytical point of view, where some of the beauty of the game was somehow lost, but allowed me to see more objectively the factors that define the game.

What should be the main objective when wanting to implement statistics into something? Not just within a sport, but speaking in a much broader sense and general meaning? What do we gain with statistics?

I’ve got a College degree in Philosophy and a Master in High Level Sport focusing Water Polo so I’m far from being a Stats expert, but I think that they are only essential if you can translate them to knowledge. Stats are simply information and without looking deeply into them to understand their rational value within a chain of events, they are pointless. Information is valuable, but only when we’re able to understand how they depict events or behavior patterns it becomes knowledge that may assist on decision making or making informed choices.

Information is valuable, knowledge is invaluable.

Could you please give us an intro how do numbers and statistics within a certain sport function? How do we decide what is important to measure and what not to measure? Does analyzing statics data requires a bit of well placed subjectivity?

Statistics is a tool that can guide you on predicting behavior and back you on decision making, but as all of us have beliefs and pre-conceptions and biases, the way we build our tool should replicate all of these factors. There is no such thing as a neutral observer.

You can look to almost everything in a sport statistic and there are factors that naturally are universal in all those who observe and study a sport. It wouldn’t be believable that we didn’t kept record of the score, or the exclusions but there is also a high degree of subjectivity on it and, most of the time, coaches search for information that depict their own beliefs and point of view about the game. For instance, Mario Lloret, on one of his books has a game observation sheet that records the number of passes on each ball possession and the player who assists the hole man, or the time spent on attack which is coherent in a team that values ball possession and positional game. If you have a team that favors counterattack, you’d probably record the time you spent getting in the attack. Also I saw a few years ago the observation table of the Dutch National Team and my eye caught an observation category I’d never seen before, they recorded (I don’t know if they still do) how the team reacted after a Time-out.

Interesting. In your opinion, what is the most important piece of statistical information that we should pay attention to?

In my opinion, the corner stone of sports statics is to recognize that there are 3 types of information you can obtain from them:

  • the ones that you use to better your team and to guide your training. My dear friend Paul Metz,a great Coach who I had the pleasure to learn from, when we were discussing an excel sheet I used to use to analyze games with, where I had simply put Turnover stat, he suggested that I characterized it, allowing the observer to know how it happened. If it was a bad pass, or an offensive foul, or incapability to protect the ball. This kind of information is valuable for the Coach in order to know weaknesses and strong points of his team. Likewise, I came across a social media post a while back that reported a Russian proposal on evaluating individual performance assigning multiplying factor (positive or negative) to players actions. Is there a degree of subjectivity on this? I believe so cause there’s nothing objective on assigning 0,5 as a multiplying factor when you score a goal, or -0,1 on you miss a shot. Is it useful? No doubt about it;
  • the ones you use to know your opponent, that allow the Coach to prepare his team to a given match, for instance how they score their goals, is it on counterattack or in Man up, or in 6×6, or where they position their left handed players on Man up, etc. This kind of information allows you identify the opponents game pattern and inform and prepare your team to what they should expect from the opponent.
  • The ones that relate to winning, that are the more difficult to recognize and many times, without a wide sample and careful study of the sport itself, you cannot identify. For instance is it important to win the ball in the beginning of the quarter? I think it is because it allows you to have 4 more ball possessions, but is it a determinant for winning? I don’t think so! A few years back Mariano Garcia, the renowned Spanish Coach had a Blog where he made his own analysis on the results of the Division de Honor (Spanish first league) and one of the ideas he had was that the winner of the third quarter was probably the winner of the game. I do not know of any study that came to this conclusion I trust him, and his expertise, enough to give him credit. This factors, even thought harder to identify, may be stable for a period of time but may very rapidly loose validity for instance when there is a change in the rules such as the ones Water Polo undertook in the last years. In my thesis I found two indicators on Man Up that related to wining but that was in 2007-2009, nowadays, since there was no follow up (that I know of) on that particular game phase, I do not know if they still apply because the sport is dynamic, the process of trying to gain advantage on your opponent is constantly evolving.

Once you have this sorted out on your concept you can work on identifying the kind of information you want to obtain when you analyze one match.

Again we are not necessarily speaking only about the game of water polo. The way I see it one of the main statistics which separates one sport from another is the way of counting the score. Its very easy to find variables that are unique to only one sport. Statistics is the most firm bridge that connects the modern sports. Statistics bring a unique and a objective perception of any sport, but how can we isolate certain variables in other sports and apply them to ours?

Sport Statistic or metrology is not something new. Most Sports use it for decades and individual sports probably use it ever since man invented a device that allowed time to be measured with some precision. Team Sports obviously have common points.  All of us remember at the least the usual best scorer that happens in all team sports, but there are many points that are Sport specific, as Man Up goal. I’m convinced that most of the Top Water Polo National Teams use statistical analysis software. I know of some and you can even find on YouTube some lecture videos of USA Water Polo where they talk about the way they analyze the game, and they even say there are things they can not talk about.

You can even find some Water Polo specific App’s, that allow teams to collect match data, or even some software you can personalize with your own categories.

But it is fundamental to realize that there is a limit on the information you can gather from statistics. Stats can only give quantitative information and, mostly in team sports, qualitative information is of the same importance. For instance, Stats can tell you that a given team scores most of their goals from their Hole man, but it is equally important to know if this occurs after in the first stage of offensive transition, or in the last 5 seconds of ball possession. Statistics can count the number of goals of a perimeter shooter but they are unable to see if he varies the release point of the ball. Francisco Argudo, who worked with the Spanish Federation, developed a software that, for instance collected the videos of penalty shots. So before a match the Spanish Goal Keepers were informed on where their opponents aimed when they had a penalty shot.

A Scholar seeks for the objectivity of numbers, but Coaches also need qualitative information.

What is the end goal of statistics? Is there an end goal? Are statistics and numbers just a tool, or a final destination? How do you define numbers as an academic and how do you define them within your own private life?

As I’ve said before the key objective is to provide information you can use to help you know yourself, the opponent and the sport, they are means to an end. As a Coach, I used to make a video session the day before the match where the Athletes were informed on how the opponent scored (Man Up, Penalty, Counterattack, 6×6, Hole man, from a outside foul) and we viewed some video clips of the opposite team. I think that it’s enough information for the players to focus on the key aspects of the game.

Could you please tell us about your Master Thesis? Why did you chose the competitions you chose as your starting points and what did you learned from it, or what you did not learned from it?

My Thesis, in simple terms, studied the Efficacy Coefficient Values in Man Up situation developed by Francisco Argudo. I’ve applied them on three different Competitions trying to asses if any of them could be used to predict victory in top level Water Polo and, if any of them could, this was common to all competitions or particular to one of them.

I’ve studied a sample of 88 matches of 3 distinctive level male competitions, namely:

  • One international National Team competition represented by 46 matches of The 2007 Melbourne World Championship relate to the Group Stage and involve the entire 16 participant National Teams;
  • One international Club team competition represented by 19 matches of the 2008-2009 Euro league of both the Group Stage and the Final Four, and involve 14 teams of 7 different countries.
  • One national Club team competition represented by 23 matches of the 2008-2009 Italian main national championship, both the Group Stage and Final Play-Off and involve all the 16 participants in the competition.

I concluded that, in Coach language, winning teams scored an average 45,75% of Man up situations while losing teams scored 30,39%. Winning teams shot 73,36% of their shots in Man up were on goal while loosing teams only had 63,83% of their shots, in Man Up, on goal. These values were consistent among winning team group and losing team group, but standard deviation overlapped precluding the reliability of these coefficients as definers of winning or losing condition.

I also found that, even though the winning teams may not be the ones who shoot in a higher percentage of the Man Up situations, they:

  • Score in a higher percentage of the Man up-situations;
  • Score in a higher percentage of the shots carried out;
  • Shoot on goal in a higher percentage of the Man up situations;
  • Shoot on goal a higher percentage of the shots carried out;

Once again I must alert that, since 12 years have passed over this study and there hasn’t been any further study that I know of, about the subject, the findings may not be valid.

In an ideal world what needs to be done now within the world of water polo and how could statistics help water polo get to that next level?

The most important thing is to share knowledge, allowing that our game becomes universal and all reachable. We’ve seen it through this pandemic many Coaches promoting or participating (André Avallone, Renan Rossin, Olly Gibb, Carlinhos Carvalho, Vjekoslav Kobescak, Miki Oca, David Martin, Adam Krikorian, and many others) in video conferences helping our Sport to evolve. One word to Coach Ricardo Azevedo that started in April doing regular zoom conferences with and they still go on to this day.

I think that also Beach Polo might be a great vehicle to promote Water Polo, we need to take it out of the pools and bring it to our beaches and rivers, near to kids in a relaxed environment to draw new players to our sport.

Statistic may also play an important role, namely if they become a wide spread habit amongst teams, not only providing players tools to make them more aware of the game and develop a deeper understanding of it, making it easier to identify their faults and correct their actions, but also coaches with tools and knowledge to prepare their games and develop their teams and players.

Also if National Competitions implement a wide spread use of game statistics researchers will have data available to better comprehend not only our sport but how it is played in any singular competition, and that, will go a long way in developing the sport.

According to numbers, how big of a sport is water polo in comparison to other, lets call them more successful, sports? What are others sports doing better with the data they have then the water polo community is doing with theirs? Is water polo not using its data to its full potential, or we don’t have enough data in the first place?

I think that we’re still a cult Sport, with a profound importance in some regions but marginal in many other places. We have difficulties specific to the Sport, it is the hardest Sport on earth and that alone was enough reason not to be widespread. We also have the difficulty that it is played in water, which means that it is not immediately available to everyone. You can practice all other team sports with little to no equipment which does not occur in water polo, we need to learn how to swim and, even if you have a body of water other tan a pool you’ll always need, at the least , two goals. Nevertheless, I think we still have a long road ahead in more in promoting and spreading our Sport even in places where infrastructures are available for practice.

In regard to statistic, as I’ve said before, most Top Teams, being National or Club level, already use it along with video analysis to improve their performance, but there is still much to do to make it an habit in all levels of play.

Is there such thing as too much information?

It depends on the context. If we’re talking of a Coach during a match, all the information you gather that you cannot operate on at that moment, is nothing more than noise. You need to have available information that allows you to take decisions that benefit your team, not to be distracted with meaningless information. If we’re talking on an Academic level information is valuable but it must be transformed in knowledge, we can relate to game performance.

Paulo I feel like I have one million sub questions for every question you answered me, but we don’t have enough time. When does your statistical knowledge predict. How long can a written interview be before the reader loses interest in it haha?

It depends on the interviewee and on the reader. I have the great defect of talking too much about things I’m passionate about, it’s about the patience of the reader to know how much he can take of me ..

Paulo, thank you for doing this interview with me. I am truly thankful for moments like this. I just wanted to do an interesting interview, but ended up learning something for myself. Once again thank you. Now let’s put all of this aside. For my last question(s).  How is the club you are coaching in Portugal dealing with this whole situation? How were things developing over the last few years?  What are your plans for the future? You have mentioned also Beach Water polo…

It has been very hard, we lost many players and we haven’t been able to enroll our senior Team on Portuguese first division by lack of funding to pay for the mandatory Covid testing before every match. We started a new lockdown last week and, even though we had several athletes that, by law, could continue training in the pool because they are on National Team, I choose to stop using the pool and we’re practicing daily online with both physical and tactical content.

We’re also working on our Beach Polo circuit and, if things come to any kind of normal, we can hopefully have 5 Tournaments in the summer covering all Portugal.

For now the only thing we can do is stay safe.

And thats all for today’s interview. And if you will remember only one thing from this interview, I wish that you will all accept that beach water polo is becoming a force to be reckon with. My name is Tomo Bujas and thank you for reading