Understanding Dropback Defense in Water Polo

There is a very good chance that your team will not always play man-to-man while on defense during a water polo game. A team with a fluid defense that can shift to provide more coverage on bigger threats — players closer to the goal, strong shooters — and less on weaker players, has a better chance of blocking shots and stealing balls.

The type of defense that involves one player dropping back to double up on another is known by many names, including dropback defense, crashing, dropping, or sloughing. Usually the extra support is needed in the middle of the offense's setup, near the hole set. This guide explains how to employ crashing, dropping, or sloughing as a defensive strategy. Although all three tactics are similar, there are some key differences.


Crashing means that — depending on the location of the ball — one of the defenders guarding the flats falls quickly back to help defend the hole set. Their role is usually to try to steal a wet pass into the hole set before the hole set can draw a foul. If they can't steal the ball, they will return immediately to guard their player on the perimeter.

Crashing makes sense when the other team exhibits poor passes, or has a few weak players who can be left alone on the perimeter while you crash.

How to Crash

Crashing requires a lot of coordination and communication. The player crashing should always be the person guarding the flat that is furthest away from the ball. The crasher also needs to announce to their teammates when they decide to crash. Once a pass goes into the hole set, it is this player's job to take a few quick strokes back and try to steal the ball.

As soon as this defender crashes back, the two remaining defenders need to shift between the players on top to guard the biggest threats. Telling each other who they’re guarding is the only way to ensure the most effective coverage. Once the crasher returns, the two defenders who remained can go back to (temporary) man-on-man defense.

Hot Tip: Position Your Hips

In order to make your crash (and return) lightning-fast, always position your hips correctly. That means keeping your hips at the surface of the water, and pointing in the direction you want to go. As soon as you decide to crash, you can simply flip over your hips and you'll be nearly at the hole set already. The reverse is true when it comes to returning to guard your player.


A drop is crash that is not temporary. In other words, instead of a crasher quickly swimming back and forth, there is always one player "camping out" in front of the hole set. Dropping as a defensive strategy is also often known as an "M-drop" because of the M shape the defenders make in the water. Dropping is usually employed when the offensive team has an extremely strong hole set, and the defense wants to shut them down completely.

The idea behind the drop is to force the offense to take outside shots that are easier for the goalie to block. This makes a good defensive strategy when the other team has an extremely strong hole set that the defense wants to shut down completely.

Mental Edge

Dropping requires a better awareness of the players and the ball than merely guarding man-to-man. Drop defense is not the time to zone out or get stuck face-guarding.

How to Drop

When dropping, one of the two defenders guarding the flats will always be dropped, leaving a player on the top open at all times. It is important for the two defenders remaining on top to constantly shift to cover the biggest two threats of those three players.

The defenders guarding the flats can take turns dropping as the ball moves around, or one can stay permanently dropped while the other two defenders on top cover for them.


Sloughing is just another, more generic term for crashing or dropping off a player while on defense. The offense usually uses this term to alert their teammates to a dropback defense by calling "Slough!" or "I've got a slougher!" If a coach tells you to slough off someone, it means to drop back towards the hole set without fully committing to a drop, but without the speed of a quick crash.

Dropback Defense is a Team Effort

Remember that although only one person drops or crashes, it requires an entire team working together to make this type of defense work. Communication from everyone — as well as the ability of the two top defenders to cover three offensive players — is crucial to the success of a dropback defense. Performed correctly, this can be one of the most effective defenses against a team with a strong hole set.

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