Water polo

From Academic Kids

Water polo is a team water sport, which can be best described as a combination of swimming, football (soccer), basketball, ice hockey, rugby and wrestling. A team consists of six field players and one goalkeeper. The goal of the game resembles that of football/soccer—to score as many goals as possible, each goal being worth one point.

A water polo athlete can be best described as having the over-arm accuracy of a baseball pitcher, the vertical of a volleyball player, the toughness of a hockey player, the endurance of a cross-country skier and the strategy of a chess player. In six feet of water.


Basic skills needed for a Water Polo Player

  • Swimming: As water polo is a team water sport, swimming is most commonly a skill which is acquired before playing this sport. It is a key element as it is needed to swim back and forth across the court often.
  • Ball handling skills: As all out-field players are only allowed to touch the ball with one hand at a time, they must develop good ball control.
  • Treading water: The most common form of water treading is referred to in the United States as the "egg-beater," named because the movement of the legs resembles the motion of an egg beater. The advantage of the egg-beater is that it allows the player to maintain a constant horizontal position in the pool (as opposed to the scissor kick, which results in the player bobbing up and down.) Also, by kicking faster for a brief period the player can get high out of the water (as high as their suit—below their waistline) for a block, pass, or shot.


The game is divided into four periods, of which the length depends on the level of play:

Olympics: 7 minutes
High School:
7 minutes
Junior Varsity:
6 minutes
5 minutes

The game clock is stopped when the ball is not 'in play' e.g. between a foul being committed and the free throw being taken and between a goal being scored and the re-start. This causes the average quarter to last around 12 minutes 'real time'. A team may not have possession of the ball for longer than 35 seconds without shooting for the goal or an opponent being ejected - after this time, possession passes to the other team. However if a team shoots the ball within the alloted 35 seconds, and regains control of the ball, the shot clock is reset to 35 seconds.

Dimensions of the water polo pool are not fixed and can vary between 20 x 10 and 30 x 20 meters, and are filled with water to a minimum depth of at least 1.8 meters (at least 6 feet). The goals are 3 meters wide and 1 meter high. The ball used is a water polo ball. One player on each team is designated the goalkeeper, and their primary job is to guard the goals, deflecting or catching any shots at goal. The goalkeeper is the only player who can touch the ball with both hands at any time, and, in a half-deep, half-shallow or all-shallow pool, the only player allowed to stand on the bottom.

Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming whilst pushing the ball in front of them. Players are not permitted to push the ball underwater when being tackled, or push or hold an opposition player unless that player is holding the ball. Water polo players tend to need remarkable stamina due to the considerable amount of holding and pushing that occurs during the game, both that which is unseen/ignored by the referees (usually underwater) and that which is allowed. Water polo is one of the most physically demanding of all sports.

Missing image
A classic 4-2 man-up situation. The attacking white team has 4 players positioned on 2 metres, and 2 players positioned on 4 metres. The 5 outfield defending blue players try to block shots and prevent a goal being scored for the 20 seconds of man-down play. In the top left corner, the shot clock can be seen, showing 28 seconds remaining in the white attack.

As in ice hockey, players can be sent out for short periods of time for committing fouls. In waterpolo, a player caught committing a 'exclusion' foul, is sent out for 20 seconds, until the next goal, or until his team re-gains possession, whichever comes first. This type of foul is normally called an ejection. If the foul is a non-sportsman like act, however, the player is ejected for the remainder of the game with substitution. This type of foul is often called a 'roll' because the referee signals the foul by "rolling" his hands around one another. If a player commits a foul with intention to harm, the player is ejected from the game without substitution. The player's team plays one man down for the rest of the game. This type of foul is called a 'brutality' and is signaled by the referee by crossing the arms in the form of an X. During a 'man-up' situation resulting from an "ejection", the attacking team can expect to score, by adopting a 4-2 or 3-3 formation, and moving the goalkeeper out of position. A player that has been excluded three times must sit out the whole match with substitution, much like the five personal fouls in Basketball.

At long range from the goals, shots at goal are usually easy for goalkeepers to stop, but from closer in are very difficult.


There are six field player positions, however unlike most common team sports there is no positional play, players often will play several positions throughout the game as situations demand.

There are standard offensive and defensive positions that act as a guideline for players, the most basic positional set up is known as a 3-3, due to the fact that there are two lines both containing 3 players. Another set up is known as a 'umbrella', because the perimeter players form the shape of an umbrella around the goal with the 'center forward' as the "handle".

Key positions offensively include: 1 center forward (a.k.a. hole set or 2-meter offense), 2 wings, 2 drivers (also called "flats"), 1 'point' man, which defends the opposing team's center forward (a.k.a. hole D or 2-meter defense), and 1 goalie. The wings, drivers and point are considered the "perimeter players".

The Center Forward is the center player for the line closest to the opposing teams goal. This player sets up in front of the opposing team's goalie and usually scores the most individually or contributes most often to initiating plays.

The five perimeter players often swim the most and interchange their positions several times during a single offensive play. They contribute to the actual execution of plays, and most often cumulatively score the most points for any team.

The point player's position gives more access for providing better passes to teammates and communication among the offense. The point player is like the point guard in Basketball.

Defensive positions are often the same, but just switched from offense to defense. Defense can be played man-to-man or zone.

The goalkeeper is the only player given several privileges above that of the other players, but only if he is within the four meter area. These privileges are:

  • The ability to touch the ball with two hands.
  • The ability to strike the ball with a clenched fist.
  • The ability to touch the bottom of the pool. (only in certain pools)

The goalkeeper also gets one limitation that other players do not have: He cannot cross the half-distance line.

The offense sometimes "counterattacks" when the goalie blocks a shot, gains control of the ball, and makes a field pass to a teammate at the opposite end of the pool. If a player stays on his offensive end of the pool when the rest of his team is defending, he is said to be "cherry picking."

Offense Strategy

When the offense takes possession of the ball, the strategy is to advance the ball down the field of play and to score a goal. The key to the offence is to accurately pass the ball into the Hole Set. The Hole Set (better known as 'Center Forward') is the position that sets up directly in front of the goal.

The offense can attempt to pass the ball into the Hole Set, which is called "setting" the ball. The offensive players can not legally use their arms to push away a defending player. If an offensive player pushes a defender away with an arm, the offensive player will commit a turnover and the defense will take possession of the ball.

The Hole Set attempts to take possession of the ball, to shoot at the goal, or to draw a foul from the defensive player. A foul is called if the defensive player attempts to knock the ball away from the Hole Set once the offensive player has taken possession of the ball. A foul is indicated by one short whistle blow by the referee at which point the referee also indicates that the offensive team keeps possession of the ball, by pointing one hand to the spot of the foul, and the other hand in the direction of the attack. At that time, the hole man is given three seconds to make a free pass to one of the other players. The defensive team cannot pressure the hole man directly after the foul and the offensive player cannot shoot a goal once the foul has been awarded. However, if the offensive player has 'advantage', the play will continue until the defensive player illegally takes away that advantage.

If the Hole Set attempts a goal after the foul has been committed, the goal is not counted and the defense takes possession of the ball.

If the defense player pressures the Hole Set after the foul has been committed, the defensive player is kicked out of the game for twenty seconds. If the offense scores in less than twenty seconds, the defensive player is allowed to return to play before the twenty second have expired. If the defense recovers the ball off a turnover before the twenty seconds transpires, the defensive player can return to the field of play.

When the Hole Set has a free pass, the other players on the field of play will attempt to drive away from the defense. Typically, the driver positions will swim or drive towards the hole man to get away from the defense. The players at the flat position will attempt to set a screen for the driver. When the driver is free from the defense, the player will call for the ball and attempt a shot at the goal. The Hole Set will attempt to pass the ball to the driving player. If the shot is successful, the offense will score a goal. If the shot is not successful, the offense and defense players will attempt to rebound the ball to take possession. The shot clock is reset after a shot is taken at the goal.

A shot is successful if the ball passes the vertical plane defined by the goal posts in its entirety.

If a shot bounces off a goal post back into the field of play, then the shot is unsuccessful and the ball is rebounded by the players and the shot clock is reset.

If the shot goes outside the goal and on to the deck (outside the field of play) then the ball is automatically recovered by the defense.

If the ball, however, has been last touched by a defender before landing on the deck, it is recovered by the offending team at the corner and the shot clock is reset, like a corner kick in Soccer.

An offender is ruled off-side if the player has advanced inside the 2-meter line without ball possession or the ball already inside the 2-meter area. This is often overlooked if the offender is well to the side of the pool.

Defense Strategy

On defense, the players work to make sure the ball does not go into the goal. In order to pressure the offensive players, the defensive players work to knock the ball away from the offense, block any shots at the goal, and foul defensive players positioned close to the goal. The defense works to knock or steal the ball from the offense or to commit a foul in order to stop an offensive player from taking a shot at the goal. If an offensive player, such as the Hole Set (better known as 'Center Forward'), has possession of the ball in front of the goal, the defensive player works to keep the Center from shooting or passing, if the defender cannot, the defender commits a foul. The hole man must then pass the ball off to another player rather than taking a shot at the goal.

Minor fouls occurs when a player impedes or otherwise prevents the free movement of an opponent who is not holding the ball, including swimming on the opponents shoulders, back or legs. The most common is when a player reachs over the shoulder of an opponent and knocks the ball away. However, the player cannot legally reach over the opponent until the opponent has taken possession of the ball. Once a player has committed the foul, the opponent has three seconds to make a free pass to another offensive player. If the foul has been committed outside the 7-meter line, the offender may also attempt a direct shot on goal.

Major fouls are committed when the defensive player pulls the offensive player away from the ball before the offensive player has had a chance to take possession of the ball or illegally take away 'advantage' from the offensive player. This includes dunking ('sinking' in FINA rules), pulling back, or otherwise preventing the offensive player from preserving his 'advantage'. A referee signals a major foul by two short whistle bursts and indicates that the player must leave the field of play and move to the penalty area for twenty seconds.

The player must move to the penalty area without impacting the natural game play. If the player does not leave the field of play, the player will be kicked out for the remaining time of the game with substitution.

A penalty shot is awarded when a major foul is committed inside the 4-meter line, when the offender has an opportunity to score. This usually means that the offender is in front of and facing the goal. The penalty is shot from 4 meters. Any defenders flanking the executing offender must be no closer than 2 meters away. The goalkeeper must be on the goal line.


Invented in the late nineteenth century in Great Britain and played in many countries around the world, notably including Hungary, the game involves teams of seven players (plus up to six substitutes), with a ball similar in size to a soccer ball but constructed out of waterproof nylon. The goal of the game is to throw the ball into the team's goal net at the end of the pool, and prevent the opposition from doing so at the other end of the pool.

Men's water polo was the first Olympic team sport. It debuted in the 1900 games. Women's water polo was introduced in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games after political protests from the Australian women's team. Such protests were rewarded when Australia won the gold medal match against the United States with a "buzzer-beater" last-minute goal.

The annual Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge Universities is the longest running waterpolo fixture in the world, having run since 1891.

The most famous waterpolo match in history is probably the 1956 Summer Olympics semi-final match between Hungary and the Soviet Union. As the athletes left for the games, the 1956 Hungarian revolution happened, and a 200,000 strong Soviet army crushed a small uprising of Hungarian insurgents. Many of the Hungarian athletes vowed never to return home, and felt their only means of fighting back was by victory in the pool. The confrontation was the most bloody and violent waterpolo game in history, in which the pool reputedly turned red from the blood spilt. The Hungarians defeated the Soviets 4-0 before the game was called off in the final minute to prevent angry Hungarians in the crowd reacting to Valentin Prokopov punching Ervin Zador's eye open. The Hungarians continued to win the championship by defeating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. Half of the Hungarian Olympic delegation defected after the games.

Water polo world championships are held every year together with the world swimming championship, under the auspices of the "FINA Water Polo World League".

Today water polo is gaining popularity in the United States. Though the majority of domestic club teams are based in California and in Texas, it has become more widespread among New England preparatory high schools and Ivy League universities. Prince William of England is the captain of his collegiate water polo team.

Recently In the 2004 NCAA Finals Stanford was Defeated by UCLA.

Youth Water Polo

Missing image
The joy of youth water polo

Water polo is an excellent sport for children. It appeals especially to those who might be coming off synchronized swimming or competitive swimming. Check your local regional listings for a club near you, or see a growing list of clubs below.

External links

Water Polo Clubs

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