Skills are necessary to play the game. Skills enable players to control the puck, to beat other players. Skills are necessary for players to interact with others. No team play can effectively exist unless there is a level of individual skill. The more skills a player has the more options open for that player, and the more difficult it is for the opposition to contain him or her.
Skills or techniques can be broadly divided into three classes:
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Snorkelling skills consist of the techniques needed to effectively move around the pool. They of course include the basics of snorkelling: swimming underwater, using the snorkel. However they more importantly include some techniques specific to underwater hockey:
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Individual techniques comprise the range of skills that a player can use by himself. The full range may be unlimited although there are several basic skills which every player will need. These are:
It is normally difficult for beginners to perfect these basic skills. The actions are difficult and the time to practise underwater is limited by breath-hold to about 10 to 20 seconds. It is well worth teaching the basic skills on the poolside - or preferably a carpet. Practising on a carpet definitely helps both learning and perfecting stick skills. The basic skills should be able to be done without looking at the puck, and lots of carpet practice is the quickest way to achieve this.
The list of techniques can then grow almost limitlessly. In the following sections are discussed some areas which are particularly important to beginners or even more experienced players.
In underwater hockey a great deal of the time in a game will be played with the opposition in possession. Learning how to tackle is of great importance for beginners. If they can tackle they will generally be more confident on the bottom, they will get more possession themselves which will help them improve more quickly and they will be have a better chance of playing a team game. (Most of these points apply to more experienced players too.)
For beginners, it can be difficult to gain possession of the puck unless it is given to them. It is necessary for them to learn how to tackle. The simplest tackling skill to learn is spiking. It is simple to pick up, easy to do, and requires little strength. Make sure that the players have strings on their sticks which go around the palm: on a spike, the string takes most of the force. When teaching how to spike, the hardest part is convincing beginners that it is OK to spike hard. Timing is also important: they must hit the puck before their arms are fully extended. Have them practise spiking the pool wall until they do it hard enough. Later, try them spiking the puck for a width or so. Then have them turn their hands palm up for every second spike: this will prove invaluable along a wall.
Most beginners will get into a confrontation with an opposition player when they are pushing against each other with the puck in between their two sticks. Teach them how to twist their wrists to force the puck off onto their stick side. Alternatively they can suddenly relax, and have their opponent reflexively throw the puck away or push upwards to push the puck over the opposition's stick rather than against it.
Spiking can be effective especially at beginner level. It encourages confidence and aggression. However as players improve the spike becomes less effective. Beginners when spiked tend to give up hence giving the spiker the puck; more experienced players will keep control. More effective tackling relies on taking the puck away from the opposition. This should be taught as early as possible as it can determine a player's style in the future.
Teaching turning skills is described in Basic Skills. The next step is to teach players how and when to use the turn to take possession of the puck. The most important element in using a turn to tackle someone is ensure that as soon as the tackler has possession of the puck he or she guards possession using the body - particularly the shoulder.
It is important that beginners be taught to swim over the puck rather than try to pull the puck to them. Swimming over the puck improves the chances of retaining possession since the body can be used to protect the puck. Take care to emphasize the importance of staying flat on the bottom - dropping the shoulder - during the turn. Players tend to rise when tackling; this gives the attacker the advantage as he or she can swim through. If the technique is correct the effort is minimised; if incorrect (the defender rises) then the effort required to complete the tackle is increased and control is lost.
The technique is best taught by having the players swim with the puck towards you and then turn away from you while you attempt to get the puck. This teaches them the correct shielding technique. Gradually increase the pressure you apply in trying to get the puck. Make sure to practise both turns - that is to the right and to the left.
The next step is to start with the coach or another player swimming with the puck and the pupils tackling using the turns.
Once the basic technique is understood have players practise its operation in the following configurations with the attacker swimming straight with the puck.
There has been a tendency to think of turning as a weakness - a vulnerable action. Certainly one should not go into a turn when not under any pressure or when able to outswim the opposition or pass past them. However when players are proficient and confident in their turns, the turn becomes a technique of strength. Players learn to keep possession confidently and to free up their concentration to decide what tactically to do with the puck.
One of the most important skills for a team game is passing. It may also be one of the most difficult to perfect. A player requires:
Good passing seems to require several components:
The choice of stick is extremely important. So far no one stick appears suitable for all players - in fact generally players who can pass well with one stick have trouble passing with another (even a different colour of their own!). Some guide-lines may be made for the stick design, but ultimately it is from trial and error - practice and experimentation - that one decides the best stick for oneself.
Wood is universally approved as the best material. It is easily
worked, absorbs shock and has good friction on the puck. Most commonly used types of wood are:
The basic shape is shown below:
There are untold variations possible. One of the most common is to flatten the leading edge of the stick intending to get a straight passing edge. This may be more effective for passing.
FLATTENED FRONT EDGE STICK
Thought about the handle shape is often neglected. The handle could be as important as the playing area's shape. The picture of the BASIC STICK shows a handle which curves forward. The effect is to make the stick curve to the right when held normally and the handle also fits in the palm more comfortably.
Not shown in the drawings is the bevel or angle on the playing edge. In order to lift the puck most players put a gradient of about 10 degrees on the front edge of the stick. The slope is so as to encourage the puck to lift when moving the stick forward. The front edge should be bare if possible (don't paint it or varnish it) and uniformly level for best friction on the puck. A rounded front edge will not connect the puck with the same surface area as a flat front edge, and this seems to affect passing reliability.
Some players bevel a mark at the thumb position on the stick - this helps twist the stick upwards when passing to further improve the lift on the puck.
The glove is almost as important as the stick design. If a player uses a very thick or loose-fitting glove then the stick is higher off the pool bottom than with a thinner glove. This means that the stick is higher up the puck. If the stick edge is above the puck's centre of gravity it is going to be even harder to lift the puck. Keep the glove thin (especially on the bottom) and passing should be improved.
Again there are many styles of glove:
Radiator Hose - cut finger pieces out of radiator hose of any flexible hose. The result is protection which is tight fitting and leaves the palm and fingers bare. It is inconvenient as normally tape is used to fasten the finger pieces.
An ideal pass is one in which the puck is spinning and lifted a foot or so off the bottom. (There may be debate about sliding passes versus lifted passes, but at most levels the lifted pass is most effective). The spinning stabilises the puck and gives it improved penetration through the water - just like a Frisbee.
The ideal pass comes from the wrist. It is a quick flick using the wrist but primarily the thumb. This is quick, unpredictable and gives the correct action to lift the puck.
When teaching passing start by:
The quality of passing basically comes down to strength. Lots of practice gives strength. Other exercises are useful - the grippies used by squash and tennis players or anything that increases the strength of the grip will probably help.
In New Zealand play is often dominated by the wall. Techniques to control the wall can therefore be important. There can be two main ranges of wall techniques:
The first two sections below deal with moving off the wall.
Generally it is best to avoid head-on confrontation on the wall. In a head-on situation it is difficult to control the game. Generally the stronger player will win - unless skill is used. When defending on the wall:
The moves described below are examples of ways for a player to move the puck off the wall.
Players should be taught to be confident with their skills anywhere in the pool. The middle of the pool provides the most variables and may therefore be the most difficult area of the game. Most of the other skills apply here. Peripheral vision and speed are more important here because of the increased number of options for both attacker and defender - a player with the puck may be completely surrounded in the middle of the pool but never so at a side.
Some of the skills to practise are:
Individuals can find it worthwhile training on their own with different means of getting the puck into the goal.
Ideally when an attacker comes within the 3 metre area of an opposition goal the goal should be scored.