Water polo collaboration adds up for Pacific

James Graham and John Mayberry

Water Polo Head Coach James Graham and Associate Professor of Mathematics John Mayberry

The unique collaboration of head coach and math professor has helped Pacific build nationally ranked water polo programs while analyzing how the sport is played and officiated.

James Graham, head coach of Pacific’s men’s and women’s teams, and Associate Professor of Mathematics John Mayberry have worked closely the past 10 years to apply sports analytics to water polo, with the ultimate goal of more wins for the Tigers.

They have published three papers and a chapter in a book on water polo. And, with the university starting an academic offering in sports analytics this fall, they predict more opportunities ahead.

“John has the gift to be able to apply mathematical concepts to the information on the sport that we gather. I have no doubt that his input has contributed to our teams’ success over the past decade,” Graham said.

Added Mayberry: “I have a background in other sports, but I admit I can be confused while watching water polo. James understands water polo and I can help him with the math. It has made for excellent collaboration.”

Their teamwork started after Graham read the book “Moneyball” and watched the 2011 movie that chronicled how the Oakland Athletics baseball team used statistics and sophisticated sabermetrics to build winning teams.

“There are two things I am very passionate about: water polo and math. That book spoke to my soul. And after seeing the movie, I wanted to take a stab at water polo analytics to find out why we were not achieving the success I wanted to see,” Graham said. 

One of Graham’s former players, Nate Hirsch ’12, had Mayberry for a math class and suggested that he might be willing to help them. The partnership was formed.

Their first paper in 2014 measured the success of different offensive tactics, including direct shots (from in front of the goal) versus perimeter shots. They also studied trends that can decide victory or defeat.

A second paper delved into referee bias and specifically how penalties were or were not called based on score and flow of games.

“While we found that many officials were fair, they also could be biased by game situations,” Mayberry said.

Their most recent paper was published in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport. It is titled “Change the rules, change the game? Offensive tactics in elite men’s water polo from London to Tokyo.” This paper is available online for a cost.

The research included detailed analysis of more than 4,000 plays from elite water polo teams, comparing tactical decisions and outcomes from the 2012 London Olympics to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Graham and Mayberry delved into the impact of new water polo rules.

Dylan Bernardi ’21 and Lucy Lynn Davis ’22, who played for Graham as students, helped with the research as co-authors.

“Changes in tactical choices were significant,” Mayberry said. “The vast majority of shots in 2021 Olympic games were perimeter shots. High-percentage direct shots were basically killed off by rule changes.”

This fall, Pacific launched a specialization to prepare students for careers in the growing field of sports analytics and unveiled a partnership with data integration and visualization pioneer SMT (SportsMEDIA Technology). The program will be one of the few of its kind in the nation.

“I hope that we will get more opportunities to apply analytics now that this program is starting on campus,” Graham said. 

Pacific has had other water polo research. Joey Gullikson, a former assistant coach at Pacific, wrote his master’s thesis about analyzing water polo shooting statistics (he worked closely with Mayberry). 

Graham and Mayberry joked about getting each other “10-year anniversary gifts,” acknowledging the strength of their partnership.

“This is what makes it amazing to work at Pacific--the ability to have this type of impactful collaboration across disciplines,” Graham said.

“You would never see something like this at a larger school. James and I probably never would have met each other,” Mayberry said. “The work we are doing now is rewarding.”