When Tony Comes to Town: Azevedo in Connecticut, Talks Polo with TWp

Elite Academy

As close to a household name as exists in American water polo, Tony Azevedo coming East is a big deal. Scheduled for a clinic at Chelsea Piers Field House in Stamford, Connecticut this weekend (October 23 – 25), TotalWaterpolo took the opportunity to speak with arguably the most accomplished athlete in U.S. water polo history.

Now leading 6-8 Sports along with his wife Sara, dad Ricardo and fellow Olympic legend Maggie Steffens, Azevedo spoke about the COVID-19 crisis that has sidelined sports globally, the value of 6/8 clinics and performance software and how current circumstances have impacted American water polo on all levels.

The following is an edited and condensed transcript of TWp’s conversation with the five-time Olympian who remains the all-time leading scorer in FINA World Championship history.

– As a former athlete, a parent and a business owner, how have you responded to what has been an unprecedented situation in our county the past seven months?

What a whirlwind. When this first happened… 6-8 Sports had not yet become profitable in and of itself. Our main income was from traveling around doing speeches, public events and clinics. Then, boom! All that disappears.

Immediately, we started doing Zooms for athletes and coaches. My dad did free sessions breaking down video and introducing our coaching certification. Maggie stopped training temporarily with Team USA and we were able to buckle down and focus on 6-8 full time.

[On The Record with Ricardo Azevedo, Former US Head Coach, Now Advising Brazilian Water Polo]

What’s most disappointing is how much harder our sport was hit than a lot of others. When it comes to water polo there’s a reason we’re not swimmers. We’re a team sport; we feed off of competition with each other.

One of the things I was trying to promote to players and coaches is: Let’s do those Zooms with teams in mind—not just a workout but a kind of test. We have this [6-8 Sports app] for iPad or [cell] phone where you can score an athlete.

Azevedo conducting a blocking drill. Photo Courtesy 6-8 Sports

I wanted to foster competition among athletes! If you’re watching games and talking with your coaches and your teammates—that’s great. A big weakness in our country when it comes to polo is we don’t talk enough. Mostly it’s because we don’t know enough about [the sport].

I especially feel for [high school] seniors trying to get into college and having less spots because of everything [that’s] happening. But you’ve got to look at the other side of it. This “COVID Generation” as I call it, they have an ability to work on things they hadn’t had time to before, like speed, strength and water polo IQ.

When they come out of this and they start playing again they will be faster, stronger, smarter.

– When everything stands still, and no one getting in the water for three to four months, is an emphasis on core skills and strength enough for the rest of the country to catch up to California?

This morning I was talking to a kid from Denver about his [upcoming] training program because they’re back in the pool with full contact. We’re supporting and sponsoring the Salt Lake City Splash, which is going to be the biggest [water polo] tournament ever in Utah—they’re also open with contact.

What I tell kids now, regardless of where you’re from, take this time to work on your weaknesses. Before, with athletes’ crazy schedules of training and games, they often didn’t have time to focus on the little things that can actually make a huge difference. NOW is the time to do that.

The big misconception [is] we’re going to play so many games and then be able to compete. First, you’ve got to play high-level [matches]. If you’re getting killed or are killing, that’s not helping you evolve. You need to be in high-pressure situations if you’re in high school.

The other things are: lift, swim and watch water polo. That’s what athletes outside of California really lack compared to kids out here where it’s sunny and have been swimming and playing water polo our whole lives—and get to see so much more water polo. If you’re not from California you have to put in that extra effort to KNOW the game inside and out— to get that water polo IQ.

– Your success as an athlete was predicated on a disciplined approach to your sport—and I imagine that how you, Maggie and Sara run 6-8 Sports is no different. What was your approach to counteracting the limitations presented by CDC guidelines?

We immediately released an “At Home” daily workout program through the 6-8 app that athletes could do at home —we partnered with the Stanford Club as well as  Pepperdine, UCLA and USA Water Polo. Maggie and I created 100 videos of shooting techniques, at-home workouts and video breakdowns. We created game analysis where you can follow a player and watch and see what athletes are doing correctly.

If these kids can’t get in the water, or if they have a [backyard] pool, let’s have them doing the right drills and teach them how to pick up a ball. The biggest thing when I go to a clinic, more than 50% of the kids don’t pick up a ball correctly. That’s crazy to me. Or, they don’t go over their hips.

A lot of these things can be worked on outside the water. We assume you have to play [to learn it]. You don’t. You can’t spend your entire life outside, but if you want to fix a shot, that comes from a strong back, a strong core, strong legs and proper technique. We’re showing you all that technique on our app. This is stuff you can do on land and come out stronger, fitter and smarter.

Steffens on the pool deck overseeing 6/6 athletes. Photo Courtesy 6-8 Sports

The other plus was having Maggie—all that energy that she was just going to crush in Tokyo—being fully engaged with 6-8. It turned this company from slowly growing to exactly where want it right now. We reset everything; sped up development of Game Desk [detailed scoring & analytics platform]. Athletes can start testing themselves everyday on the 200, the 100 and see their progress.

We are providing the tools for athletes to view their improvement and for coaches to track and monitor their athletes over time.

– But you’re not just doing virtual trainings, right? There is a facility in SoCal where you can conduct hands-on training in the water.

There’s two [locations]. There’s the 6-8 Elite Training Academy [at the Los Cab Sports Village in Fountain Valley]. This is for 20 athletes who were hand-picked from around the country. They’re training full-time with myself, Maggie and my dad. We’re all in a bubble so we can have hands-on [training].

We are also using a private club in Long Beach where we run daily passing and shooting clinics. We’re not [allowed] contact in that club, but do a lot of shooting and noncontact competition.

– I understand that there are guidelines for safety and contact, but doesn’t the fact that it takes place in chlorinated water create a safe environment for polo?

Everything about the Covid guidelines has been perplexing to me. You jump into a body of water and immediately the chlorine is crushing everything from your eyes to your ears. What bothers me is that we create these rules: you can’t pass the ball with one another, you can’t shoot at a goalie.

Who’s making these rules up? The moment the ball touches the water it’s in chlorine. The moment you enter the water you’re in chlorine. I understand waiting on full contact but overall many rules seem arbitrary.

Polo’s one of the more positive ones that should be opening up. Watching basketball and soccer players out here—full contact playing—I wonder to myself: They’re allowed and we’re not?

– What’s your sense about coming East? Both coasts are struggling with the same issue of consistently getting in the water and training—but Connecticut has the advantage of allowing kids to scrimmage.

I’m super excited to come out to Connecticut and partner with Scott [Schulte], who was my long-time coach at NYAC [New York Athletic Club]. But, you asked: Is doing a clinic out here enough. It’s not. That’s been my worry for the last couple of years. When I do a clinic, in four to five days I see a huge difference. I see kids motivated, understanding what they need to improve. And then I don’t see them again, or, they come back a year later and they haven’t improved as much as they could have.

[Scott Schulte, New Director for CP Water Polo: “Nothing’s Going to Happen Overnight”]

But what we’re doing with CT Premier is partner with them and establish a long-term relationship. When I’m out there [this] weekend it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be inspiring and I’m definitely going to be able to change some kids lives. Athletes and coaches will clearly see their strengths and weaknesses and be able to understand what they need to do to improve. Scotty, the CT Premier CEO, can analyze all of his athletes over a period time and see where they can improve.

Going forward, this is how we can start changing the sport. What we need to do… that article in The Atlantic [about high-pressure high school athletics in Connecticut] was great in showing how fast the sport’s growing. But what they’re not telling you is what percentage of [water polo] athletes actually have the chance to be good.

That number is extremely low because they’re coming from programs where they’re not learning the correct fundamentals and they need to get to the next level.

– What the article in The Atlantic underscores is parents pushing their kids to success. Don’t the athletes just want to play?

That’s where we’ve gotten lost. Everything’s gotten more parent-centric instead of listening to the athletes. In [The Atlantic] article, there was a lot of good and a lot that I disagreed with. When it comes to water polo, if you are in high school, stop going to these crazy tournaments that your mom or dad want to tell their friends how good you are because you won [it].

[The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents]

Or, you’re going to a program that’s winning at the 12U level. Does that matter? No. What matters are the fundamentals. It’s getting athletes to love this sport, teaching them the basics they need to thrive in this sport.

And this is a problem I have seen around the country. If [fundaments] are what they need at that level—and I’m telling you that’s what they’re doing in Europe or in other successful countries—why can’t someone from anywhere in the country compete?

If we can get those fundamentals equal across the board, if they love the sport they’re doing everything possible to excel in it.

Now if I’m flying out West, it’s for a two-week long intensive training camp with a California team that’s my equal and getting them games and games and games.

Their ceiling is going high, high, high. And that’s where I see a parallel between successful programs outside of California and ones that haven’t taken that next step.

– For East Coast high school athletes, going to California for JOs have been the best way for to get noticed by college coaches. But, with JOs cancelled due to Covid, this is not a structure that works.

We all know JOs. You need that type of big event for sponsors—kids, parents all get involved. I get it, there’s one in every country. It’s all the little ones—mini JOs—that are popping up every weekend that are killing our kids.

Going forward, if I’m an athlete from Connecticut and I can go through the same [6-8 Challenge] testing that kids across the country are and realize that I’m just as good as other kids in some areas and way weaker in others… I’m going to be motivated to get my leg strength to shoot the ball harder and to swim faster. I’ll work on all these things so I can get myself physically and fundamentally equal to [other] kids].

Water polo athletes at the 2018 Junior Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Everardo Luna

By the time I reach that level of high school, which is when athletes should get serious about the sport, I’m the same if not at a higher level than those kids from California. While they’ve been playing, playing, playing, I have been  working on my legs and my teammates and I have been crushing each other on technique and shooting.

High school comes and now there’s a commitment to travel. Instead of two trips to California, why not go to Italy and play twice a day against some Italian teams? That’s going to be more beneficial.

Or, host a California team that’s training for JOs and would love to come out to New York or Connecticut and would love to train for two weeks with a team around their level.

High school is a time that you have to play [high-level] games. And if you have all the fundamentals, your improvement will sky-rocket.

– You say that this is a partnership between 6-8 Sports and Connecticut Premier Water Polo. How do you see this relationship continuing?

It’s not just Connecticut Premier, Scotty and the coaches. It’s us analyzing their data and providing feedback. We see a trend where your [athletes] are weak [in this area]; here’s a drill to improve and help you reach your goals.

We have tons of Olympians we send all over the world doing clinics. We will offer more opportunities for myself, Maggie, maybe Jessie SmithPeter Hudnut or Ashleigh Johnson to talk to and inspire kids—and continuing [with] the groundwork, just like the SAT. This is very basic [to assess] where you are and it helps if you study and get to the point of kids in ODP because we do the measurable [the 6-8 Challenge] with that group as well as kids from around the world.

I want Connecticut Premier, Greenwich Aquatics and other clubs out there competing against each other rather than just having one powerhouse. But that also takes egos out if it—which is what we need. Now there’s another competitor—which makes the whole area more dominant. And for coaches there’s more money because more kids are playing.

Photo Courtesy: 6/6 Sports

The mindset that I have my club and we’re the best and no one else matters—that’s wrong. The sport is not going to grow in your region.

What did Greenwich do to be successful? Share that with everyone, have us show you all our analytics for improvement—we’re definitely sharing that—and hopefully find a path [for kids]. What did Thomas Dunston do when he was 12 years old? How many games did he play? What made him who he was at 12? We don’t have that.

Now we’ll have a kid come into Chelsea Piers at 10 years old and leave signing with a DI school at age 17. We want to be able to show every parent this athlete’s entire footprint with Connecticut Premier and understand how to more effectively develop future athletes.

– This sounds great but in this moment when polo—like other sports—is suffering, how do players and clubs not only find a way out but emerge stronger?

[First] what we need to do is create a professional league. That one of 6-8 Sport’s ultimate dreams. But we’re not going to get anywhere near that if we don’t have the high level analytics that other sports do. And, we’re teaming up with a lot of people just to get that.

Water polo right now, you’ve got 75,000 athletes playing the sport but only five percent of them are at an elite level. You look at Serbia. If they have 1,500 athletes, 1,470 are good.

If we can raise our number of elite athletes, what’s going to happen is we can have a bigger college [national] tournament—something similar to March Madness in basketball, where a Whittier can upset a Stanford. Or where a Naval Academy or Air Force Academy can win the whole thing.

And I’m seeing more and better athletes going to schools that traditionally they didn’t go to. If we can change that and help the level of polo across the board, then you’ll see more and more programs will want it because [the sport draws] athletes who are dedicated to their education. We don’t get athletes who think: I’m gonna make it big in water polo.

No, to play the sport they love, they have to have great grades—then they’re successful later on.

If we can turn that five percent into 30 or 40 percent, then we’ll see serious competition in DI, DII and DIII. And water polo can grow where it needs to go.

– Professional play does not exist in the States, but almost the entire American men’s team is in Europe, playing for professional clubs. How will this move the needle forward for Team USA in the 2021 Olympics?

For our athletes—and I’m going to stick with the men’s side because the women clearly have it figured out—it comes down to the foundation. Compared to years ago, where there was a smaller group, we’re getting athletes who are big, strong, fast. But they’re missing some of the basic moves that make it harder for us to compete with European teams.

Azevedo and Steffens. Photo Courtesy: 6/8 Sports

The second thing is, [the U.S.] really needs to create its own philosophy of the game. A lot of times we try to be someone else, but if you’re always trying to be someone else you’ll never find out who you are. We have to make sure that the United States men, when you play against them, they have that representation: this is us. Be it counterattack, five on six defense, we’re gonna own [that] and it’s going to go across the board. This is how we play here, this is how the juniors play, the youth play—everyone in the States understands we are a fast, counterattacking team. We play for our center, we post up, whatever it may be, we all have to get on the same page.

Right now, I don’t see that.

But our athletes all going to Europe is great. There’s two ways to go; one way is you lock them all up, you rent a hotel in Utah and you train non-stop against each other. Then you fly to Europe and do some training trips.

The other way is [your players] join professional teams. When we were successful in 2008, 11 of our 13 athletes were playing professionally overseas. That was unprecedented. That team played seven years together before that happened, which was an advantage.

Playing overseas is huge—not just because of the number of games they’re going to get. They’ll learn what it takes to be a professional, to show up and get the job done. And it’s not fun and games; if you lose, guess whose fault is it? Yours; as a foreigner in Europe, the pressure is on you.

This is the best thing we could have done and I look forward to seeing how it turns out in 2021 in Tokyo.

– On the women’s side, Maggie Steffens and her team had their drive for a third straight Olympic gold stalled for a year—and it allowed her to be much more involved in 6-8 Sports.

The biggest difficulty in our sport is keeping players involved. They don’t get paid a good amount from the Olympic Committee and there’s always something easier to do. When Maggie and I started talking, I said when she’s finished playing, let’s build something here so you don’t have to worry about getting a job or being a coach. We’re going to do something that’s going to change people’s lives.

Having Maggie on board—her youth and understanding technology way better than I do—has been a game-changer. Her energy and everything she’s given over the last six months is beyond impressive. She’s the single reason why we did a full flip turn on everything and are growing so much now—especially with the elite academy and all of our technology.

You can see why she’s so good; when we’re doing shooting drills… sometimes you see athletes and they go to clinics and no one talks. Can you believe I went to five Olympics and almost no one from the women’s or men’s team would ask me about their shooting or shot-blocking?

Maggie Steffens at 2017 FINA World Championships. Photo Courtesy: Gertjan Kooij

I’m sitting here in our backyard and Maggie’s asking: Hey, how do you do that shot? That’s exactly what a successful athlete does. You don’t have an ego—obviously, your confident in yourself—but you go out there and do everything you can to be your best but you keep asking questions.

As far as the women are doing: this has been a great time for them to understand more of who they are. It’s brought them closer together because they all mourned at the same time and had conversations: What are we doing, are we in this for the right reasons?

They’re all going through this together and I think they’ll come out of it stronger than we’ve ever seen.