Water polo

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Water Polo
Greece (white) vs. Hungary (blue) play a water polo match at the World Junior Championships 2004 in Naples, Italy
Highest governing body FINA
Nicknames Polo, Wopo
Created Late 19th century
Contact Yes
Team members 7 (6 field players and 1 goalkeeper)
Type Indoor or outdoor, aquatic
Equipment Water polo ball, water polo goals, water polo caps
Venue Water polo pool
Olympic 1900

Water polo is a team water sport. The game consists of 4 quarters in which the two teams attempt to score goals by throwing the ball into their opponent's goal, with the team with the most goals at the end of the game winning the match. A team consists of 6 field players and one goalkeeper in the water at any one time. In addition to this, teams may have substitute field players and one substitute goalkeeper who are not in the water. Water polo is typically played in an all-deep pool (usually at least 1.8 m deep or 5.9 feet), and players require stamina and endurance to play the game.

Water polo is a contact sport. Minor fouls occur frequently and exclusion fouls (in which a player is suspended from the game for 20 seconds) are common.

Special equipment for water polo includes a water polo ball, which floats on the water; numbered and colored caps; and goals, which either float in the water or are attached to the side of the pool.

The game consists of swimming (with and without the ball), using a special form of treading water known as the eggbeater kick, throwing, catching, and shooting the ball. All this must be done using a single hand. Each team consists of 6 field players and a goalkeeper. Except for the goalkeeper, players participate in both offensive and defensive roles.

The game is thought to have originated in Scotland in the late 19th century as a sort of "water rugby". William Wilson is thought to have developed the game during a similar period. The game thus developed with the formation of the London Water Polo League and has since expanded, becoming widely popular in various places around the world, including Europe, the United States of America, Brazil, China, Canada and Australia.


William Wilson, Scottish aquatics pioneer and originator of the first rules of water polo.

The history of water polo as a team sport began as a demonstration of strength and swimming skill in late 19th century England and Scotland, where water sports and racing exhibitions were a feature of county fairs and festivals.[1][2] Men's water polo was among the first team sports introduced at the modern Olympic games in 1900. Water polo is now popular in many countries around the world, notably Europe (particularly in Serbia, Russia, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro, Greece and Hungary), the United States, Canada and Australia. The present-day game involves teams of seven players (plus up to six substitutes), with a water polo ball similar in size to a soccer ball but constructed of waterproof nylon.

One of the earliest recorded antecedents of the modern game of Water Polo was a game of water ‘hand-ball’ played at Bournemouth on 13 July 1876.[3] This was a game between 12 members of the Premier Rowing Club, with goals being marked by four flags placed in the water near to the midpoint of Bournemouth Pier. The game started at 6.00pm in the evening and lasted for 15 minutes (when the ball burst) watched by a large crowd; with plans being made for play on a larger scale the following week.

The rules of water polo were originally developed in the late nineteenth century in Great Britain by William Wilson. Wilson is believed to have been the First Baths Master of the Arlington Baths Club in Glasgow. The first games of 'aquatic football' were played at the Arlington in the late 1800s (the Club was founded in 1870), with a ball constructed of India rubber. This "water rugby" came to be called "water polo" based on the English pronunciation of the Balti word for ball, pulu.[4][5] Early play allowed brute strength, wrestling and holding opposing players underwater to recover the ball; the goalie stood outside the playing area and defended the goal by jumping in on any opponent attempting to score by placing the ball on the deck.


Note: Rules below reflect the latest FINA Water Polo Rules.[6]

Number of players

Senior games consist of seven players from each team (six field players and a goalkeeper) are allowed in the playing area of the pool during game play. FINA reduced the number of players in U20 (and younger) competitions that they sanction to six (5 field players and a goalkeeper) in 2014 with the intention of extending these changes to all levels of the game after the 2016 Olympic Games. If a player commits a major foul, then that team will only have 6 players until the player is allowed to re-enter. If a player commits a particularly violent act, such as striking a player, then the referee may signal a brutality foul, in which case that team is required to play with just 6 players in the water for a full 4 minutes, in addition to that player being disallowed any subsequent re-entry (i.e. he or she must sit out for the remainder of the game). In addition, the player may not be allowed to compete in a given number of future games depending on the governing body.

Players may be substituted in and out after goals, during timeouts, at the beginning of each quarter, after ordinary fouls and after injuries.[7] During game play, players enter and exit in the corner of the pool, or in front of their goal; when play is stopped, they may enter or exit anywhere.[8]

If at any time during play a team has more players in the pool than they are allowed, a penalty is given to the opposing team.


The two opposing teams must wear caps which contrast:

  • with both (or either) goalkeeper cap color,
  • with the other team's cap color and
  • with the ball color.

In practice, one team usually wears blue caps and the other white, but some teams do choose to wear different cap colors. For instance, Australia's women's water polo team wears green caps.[9][10]

Both goalies wear red caps. The first choice goalkeeper is usually marked "1" with the reserve being marked "13" (under FINA rules) or "1A" (under NCAA and NFHS rules).

Duration of game

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

Level of play Team level Time each period Authority Notes
Olympics National 8 minutes FINA [11]
FINA Water Polo World League National 8 minutes FINA [12]
Serbian, Russian, Croatian, Italian Water Polo League National 8 minutes VSS
Senior club play Club 9 minutes FINA
US College Varsity 8 minutes CWPA
US College Club 7 minutes CWPA
US High School Varsity 7 minutes NFHS
US High School Junior Varsity 6 minutes NFHS
US High School Freshman/Sophomore 6 minutes NFHS
USA water polo 14 & unders 6 minutes

Game and shot clock

The game clock is stopped when the ball is not 'in play' (between a foul being committed and the free throw being taken, and between a goal being scored and the restart). As a result, the average quarter lasts around 12 minutes 'real time'. A team may not have possession of the ball for longer than 30 seconds[13] without shooting for the goal unless an opponent commits an ejection foul. After 30 seconds, possession passes to the other team. However, if a team shoots the ball within the allotted time, and regains control of the ball, the shot clock is reset to 30 seconds.[8] Each team may call 1 one-minute timeout in each period of regulation play as long as the ball is in their possession, and one timeout if the game goes into overtime.[6] During game play, only the team in possession of the ball may call a timeout.[6]

Pool dimensions

The layout of a water polo pool showing the 2m and 5m markings (red and yellow), the half-way line (marked in white), a goal at either end and the length and width of the pool.

Dimensions of the water polo pool[14] are not fixed and can vary between 20×10 and 30×20 meters. Minimum water depth must be least 1.8 meters (6 feet), but this in reality is sometimes not the case due to practicalities. The goals are 3 meters wide and 90 centimeters high. Water polo balls are generally yellow and of varying size and weight for juniors, women and men. The middle of the pool is designated by a white line. Before 2005, the pool was divided by 7 and 4 meter lines (distance out from the goal line). This has been merged into one 5 meter line since the 2005–2006 season. Along the side of the pool, the center area between the 5 meter lines is marked by a green line (if marked at all). The "five meters" line is where penalties are shot and it is designated by a yellow line. The "two meter" line is designated with a red line and no player of the attacking team can receive a ball inside this zone.

Overview of game play

In a water polo team, 6 players are assigned to attacking and defensive roles (commonly known as "fielders"), while one is assigned to the goalkeeping role. The primary aims of the fielders are to score goals and to prevent the other team scoring against their own team's goalkeeper. The goalkeeper's primary role is to stop shots from the opposing team going into his or her own goal.

Game play broadly includes swimming with and without the ball, passing both to a player's hand and onto the water and shooting. Fouls are very common, and these affect the game play, since the victim of a minor or a major foul will have the advantage of a free throw, while the victim of a penalty foul will have the opportunity of a one-on-one shot against the opposing team's goalkeeper.

Moving the ball

Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming with the ball in front of them. Players are not permitted to push the ball underwater in order to keep it from an opponent, or push or hold an opposing player unless that player is holding the ball. If a player does push the ball underwater when it is in their possession, that will result in a "turnover" which is when you have to hand the ball over to the other team. Water polo is an intensely aggressive sport, so fouls are very common and result in a free throw during which the player cannot shoot at the goal unless beyond the "5 meter" line. If a foul is called outside the 5 meter line, the player is either able to shoot, pass or continue swimming with the ball. Water polo players need remarkable stamina because of the considerable amount of holding and pushing that occurs during the game, some allowed, some unseen or ignored by the referees (usually underwater).


Water polo is a game requiring excellent hand-eye coordination and ability to handle and pass the ball. A pass thrown to a field position player is preferably a "dry pass" (meaning the ball does not touch the water) and allows for optimal speed when passing from player to player with fluid motion between catching and throwing. A "wet pass" is a deliberate pass into the water, just out of reach of the offensive player nearest the goal (the "hole set") and his defender. The hole-set can then lunge towards the ball and out of the water to make a shot or pass. The only player who is allowed to use both hands to touch the ball is the goalkeeper. Other players who touch the ball with both hands will cause a turnover.


There are two types of fouls: one (like the scenario above) only results in the "fouler" giving up the ball and backing off; the other results in an ejection or kick out. Ejections are usually given if someone is being a little too aggressive; i.e. drowning or smacking someone. A player can only have 3 ejections before being majored and can not play for the rest of the game. If a player gets a brutality he or she is also not able to finish the game. An example of a brutality would be excessively cruising or intentionally punching someone. Water polo is a physically demanding activity; action is continuous, and players commonly swim 3 kilometers or more during four periods of play.[7]

A defender will often foul the player with the ball as a tactic to disrupt the opponent's ball movement. Play continues uninterrupted in most cases, but the attacker must now pass the ball or continue swimming instead of taking a shot. (An exception allows players to quickly pick up the ball and shoot if fouled outside of the five meter mark.) However, as in ice hockey, a player caught committing a major foul, is sent out of the playing area with his team a man down for 20 seconds, but may return sooner if a goal is scored or his team regains possession. If the foul is judged to be brutal, the player is ejected for the remainder of the game, with substitution by another teammate after four minutes have elapsed. A player, coach or spectator can also be ejected for arguing with the referees. During a man up situation resulting from an ejection foul, the attacking team can expect to score by passing around to move the goalkeeper out of position. A player that has been ejected three times must sit out the whole match with substitution.


A water polo referee standing in front of the table officials.

The game of water polo requires numerous officials. The four main categories are: referee, secretary, timekeeper and goal judge. These can again be qualified into two broader categories: game officials and table officials.

Game officials

The game officials in water polo are the referee (or referees) and the goal judges. Game officials are broadly responsible for ensuring the game runs smoothly and that correct and fair decisions relating to the game are made.


The referees have ultimate power over decisions relating to the game, even (if necessary) overruling decisions from goal judges, secretaries or timekeepers. They have the responsibility of signalling fouls (minor, major, brutality and misconduct), goals, penalties, timeouts, start of play, end of play (to an extent), restart of play, neutral balls, corner balls and goal throws. He or she must attempt to keep all of the rules of water polo to the governing body they are using.

There are always either one or two referees in a game of water polo. At a higher level, two referees are virtually always used, but at lower levels and/or if there are limited available referees, a referee may officiate the game without another.

Originally, referees used flags to indicate possession, but these were replaced in 1997 with hand gestures.[15]

When goal judges are not present or available, the referee(s) my take their place in that they have the decision as to whether the ball has crossed the line etc.

When there are two referees, the ball may be called out of the water for the referees to confer about an appropriate decision and come to an agreement.

Referees have dress codes at higher (and sometimes lower) levels of water polo, and are expected to abide by this. Often, the dress code is all white, but some associations variate this slightly.

Referee signalling

Referees have a variety of methods for signalling fouls, most of which are done by hand and with the aid of a whistle. The purpose of these signals are to inform players, coaches, spectators and other officials of the decision being made, with sometimes information as to why the decision has been awarded.

Goal judge

The goal judges are responsible for several parts of the game. These include: signalling when a goal is scored, signalling corner throws, improper re-entry (after an exclusion), to signal when play can start (at the beginning of quarters) and to signal improper restart at the beginning of quarters.

The goal judge is situated (normally sat) perfectly in line with the goal line - one at either end and usually on opposite sides. They remain seated throughout the game.

In practice goal judges are very rarely used at lower levels, but are compulsory at most international matches. Like referees, they will normally have a dress code which they are expected to abide by.

Previously, goal judges would use a red flag to indicate a corner and a white flag for a goal throw, but these have since been replaced with hand gestures.

Table officials

The table officials in water polo are the timekeeper(s) and the secretary/secretaries. They are overall responsible for the timings of the game and keeping correct information regarding the events of the game, as well as informing of the players of very specific information (notably to do with exclusions and exclusion fouls).


The timekeeper (or timekeepers) have varying responsibilities depending on the equipment available. Only one is required if no 30 second clock is being used, with two being required otherwise. (Shot clocks are supposed to be used, but sometimes due to unavailability games are played without them). In higher level matches sometimes there are even more than two timekeepers used.

Often (though not always) one timekeeper is responsible for running the shot clock. This means that he or she resets it when necessary. When this is the case, the other timekeeper is often responsible for the game clock and score. If an electronic scoreboard and game clock is being used, the timekeeper will update the score when necessary, and has a similar job with the game clock. If not, then the timekeeper will manually time the periods with a stopwatch (or similar device) and alert the players when the period is over with a whistle. If an electronic scoreboard is used, a synthetically produced sound is often produced at the end of periods to alert other officials and players of the end of the period.

Timekeepers are essentially responsible for keeping record of: the current score (though this is done more officially by the secretary), the 30 second clock, the length of the quarters (at the end of each quarter they indicate this with a whistle blow if this is not done synthetically), the time of exclusion (and when re-entry is thus allowed), the length of timeouts, the length of time between periods and to signal (if not done synthetically) by whistle 30 seconds before the end of quarter or half time and 15 seconds before the end of a timeout. Timekeepers are also responsible for the last minute bell: a bell (or other device - can be audible) showing one minute remaining before full-time.

Basic skills

Water polo is a team water activity requiring swimming skills including treading water or wrestling before turning back for the opposing team's possession. The front crawl stroke used in water polo differs from the usual swimming style: water polo players swim with the head out of water at all times, in order to observe the play. The arm stroke used is also shorter and quicker and is used primarily to protect the ball. Backstroke is used by defending players to look for advancing opponents and by the goalie to track the ball after passing. Water polo backstroke differs from swimming backstroke; the player sits up a bit in the water, using eggbeater leg like motions with short arm strokes to the side instead of long arm strokes. This allows the player to see the play and quickly switch positions. It also allows the player to quickly catch a pass.

File:Water Polo Eggbeater.jpg
Goalkeeper eggbeaters up to block a shot.

As all field players are only allowed to touch the ball with one hand at a time, they must develop the ability to catch and throw the ball with either hand and also the ability to catch a ball from any direction, including across the body using the momentum of the incoming ball. Experienced water polo players can catch and release a pass or shoot with a single motion. The size of the ball can overwhelm a small child's hand, making the sport more suitable for older children. There are also smaller balls that can be used by younger children when playing.

  • Treading water: The most common form of water treading is generally referred to as "egg-beater",[16] named because the circular movement of the legs resembles the motion of an egg-beater. Egg-beater is used for most of the match as the players cannot touch the bottom of the pool. The advantage of egg-beater is that it allows the player to maintain a constant position to the water level, and uses less energy than other forms of treading water such as the scissor kick, which result in the player bobbing up and down. It can be used vertically or horizontally. Horizontal egg-beater is used to resist forward motion of an attacking player. Vertical egg-beater is used to maintain a position higher than the opponent. 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.
  • Reflexes and Awareness: At higher levels of the sport the pace of play rapidly increases, so that anticipation and mental preparation is important. "Field sense" is a major advantage in scoring, even if a player lacks the speed of an opponent.[17]


There are seven players in the water from each team at one time. There are six players that play out and one goalkeeper. Unlike most common team sports, there is little positional play; field players will often fill several positions throughout the game as situations demand. These positions usually consist of a center forward, a centre back, the two wing players and the two drivers. Players who are skilled in all of these positions on offensive or defensive are called utility players. Utility players tend to come off of the bench, though this is not absolute. Certain body types are more suited for particular positions, and left-handed players are especially coveted on the right-hand side of the field, allowing teams to launch 2-sided attacks.


The offensive positions include: one center forward also called a set or setter, two wings (located on or near the 2-meter), two drivers (also called "flats", located on or near the 5-meter), and one "point" (usually just behind the 5 meter), positioned farthest from the goal. The wings, drivers and point are often called the perimeter players; while the hole-set directs play. There is a typical numbering system for these positions in U.S. NCAA men's division one polo. Beginning with the offensive wing to the opposing goalies right side is called one. The flat in a counter clockwise from one is called two. Moving along in the same direction the point player is three, the next flat is four, the final wing is five, and the hole set is called six.

The most basic positional set up is known as a 3–3, so called because there are two lines in front of the opponent's goal. Another set up, used more by professional teams, is known as an "arc", "umbrella", or "mushroom"; perimeter players form the shape of an arc around the goal, with the hole set as the handle or stalk. Yet another option for offensive set is called a 4–2 or double hole; there are two center forward offensive players in front of the goal. Double hole is most often used in "man up" situations, or when the defense has only one skilled hole D, or to draw in a defender and then pass out to a perimeter player for a shot ("kick out").

The center sets up in front of the opposing team's goalie and scores the most individually (especially during lower level play where flats do not have the required strength to effectively shoot from outside or to penetrate and then pass to teammates like the point guard in basketball). The center's position nearest to the goal allows explosive shots from close-range ("step-out" or "roll-out", "sweep", or backhand shots).

Another, albeit less common offense (violation), is the "motion offense" in which two "weak-side" (to the right of the goal for right-handed players) perimeter players set up as a wing and a flat. The remaining four players swim in square pattern in which a player swims from the point to the hole and then out to the strong side wing. The wing moves to the flat and the flat to the point. The weak side wing and flat then control the tempo of play and try to make passes into the player driving towards the center who can then either shoot or pass. This form of offense is used when no dominate hole set is available, or the hole defense is too strong. It is also seen much more often in women's water polo where teams may lack a player of sufficient size or strength to set up in the center. The best advantage to this system is it makes man-coverage much more difficult for the defender and allows the offense to control the game tempo better once the players are "set up". The main drawback is this constant motion can be very tiring as well as somewhat predictable as to where the next pass is going to go.


Defensive positions are often the same positionally, but just switched from offense to defense. For example, the center forward or hole set, who directs the attack on offense, on defense is known as "hole D" (also known as set guard, hole guard, hole check, pit defense or two-meter defense), and guards the opposing team's center forward (also called the hole). Defense can be played man-to-man or in zones, such as a 2–4 (four defenders along the goal line). It can also be played as a combination of the two in what is known as an "M drop" defense, in which the point defender moves away ("sloughs off") his man into a zone in order to better defend the center position. In this defense, the two wing defenders split the area furthest from the goal, allowing them a clearer lane for the counter-attack if their team recovers the ball.


Goalkeeper blocking a shot

The goalkeeper has the main role in blocking shots against the goal. He or she has to be able to jump out of the water, using little more than one's core and legs, and hold the vertical position without sinking into the water, all while tracking and anticipating a shot. The goal is 2.8 m2 in face area; the goalkeeper should also be a master of fast, effective lateral movement in the water as well as lightning fast lunges out of the water to block a shot. Another key job that the goalkeeper is responsible for is guiding and informing his or her defense of imposing threats and gaps in the defense, and making helpful observations to identify a gap in the defense that the defenders may or can not see. The goalkeeper is also the "quarterback", as he or she usually begins the offensive play. It is not unusual for a goalie to make the assisting pass to a goal on a break away.

The goalkeeper is given several privileges above those of the other players, but only if he or she is within the five meter area in front of his or her goal:[18]

  • The ability to punch the ball with a clenched fist.
  • The ability to touch the ball with two hands.
  • The ability to touch the bottom of the pool.

In general, a foul that would cause an ejection of a field player might only bring on a five-meter shot on the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper also has one limitation that other players do not have: he or she cannot cross the half-distance line.[18] Also, if a goalkeeper pushes the ball under water, the action will not be punished with a turnover like with field players, but with a penalty shot.

Offense strategy

Beginning of play

The sprint (swimoff).

At the start of each period, teams line up on their own goal line. The most common formation is for three players to go each side of the goal, while the goalkeeper stays in the goal. If the ball is to be thrown into the center of the pool, the sprinter will often start in the goal, while the goalkeeper starts either in the goal as well or to one side of the goal.

At the referee's whistle, both teams swim to midpoint of the field (known as the sprint or the swim-off) as the referee drops the ball on to the water. Depending on the rules being played, this is either on the referee's side of the pool or in the center. In international competitions the ball is normally placed in the middle of the pool and is supported with a floating ring. The first team to recover the ball becomes the attacker until a goal is scored or the defenders recover the ball.

Exceptionally, a foul may be given before either team reaches the ball. This usually occurs when a player uses the side to assist themselves gain a speed advantage (i.e. by pulling on the side to move faster). In such scenarios, the non-offending team receives a free throw from the half way line.

It is important to note that the swimoff occurs only at the start of periods. Thus it will either occur 2, 4 or 6 times in a match, depending on whether the match is in halves, quarters or in quarters and extends to extra time.

Restart after a goal

After a goal is scored, the teams may line up anywhere within their own half of the pool. In practice, this is usually near the center of the pool. Play resumes when the referee signals for play to restart and the team not scoring the goal puts the ball in to play by passing it backwards to a teammate.

Advancing the ball

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. Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming with the ball in front of them (dribbling). If an attacker uses his/her arm to push away a defending player and free up space for a pass or shot, the referee will rule a turnover and the defense will take possession of the ball. If an attacker advances inside the 2-meter line without the ball or before the ball is inside the 2-meter area, (s)he is ruled offside and the ball is turned over to the defense. This is often overlooked if the attacker is well to the side of the pool or when the ball is at the other side of the pool.

Setting the ball

The key to the offense is to accurately pass (or "set") the ball into the center forward or hole set, positioned directly in front of the goal ("the hole"). Any field player may throw the hole set a "wet pass". A wet pass is one that hits the water just outside the hole set's reach. A dry pass may also be used. This is where the hole set receives the ball directly in his hand and then attempts a shot at the cage. This pass is much more difficult because if the pass is not properly caught, the officials will be likely to call an offensive foul resulting in a change of ball possession. The hole set attempts to take possession of the ball [after a wet pass], to shoot at the goal, or to draw a foul from his defender. A minor foul is called if his defender (called the "hole D") attempts to impede movement before the hole set has possession. The referee indicates the foul with one short whistle blow and points one hand to the spot of the foul and the other hand in the direction of the attack of the team to whom the free throw has been awarded. The hole set then has a "reasonable amount of time" (typically about three seconds) to re-commence play by making a free pass to one of the other players. The defensive team cannot hinder the hole set until the free throw has been taken, but the hole set cannot shoot a goal once the foul has been awarded until the ball has been played by at least one other player. If the hole set attempts a goal without the free throw, the goal is not counted and the defense takes possession of the ball, unless the shot is made outside the 5-meter line. As soon as the hole set has a free pass, the other attacking players attempt to swim (or drive) away from their defenders towards the goal. The players at the flat position will attempt to set a screen (also known as a pick) for the driver. If a driver gets free from a defender, the player calls for the pass from the hole set and attempts a shot at the goal.

A classic 4–2 man-up situation. The attacking white team has 4 players positioned on 2 meters, and 2 players positioned on 4 meters. 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.

Man-Up (6 on 5)

If a defender interferes with a free throw, holds or sinks an attacker who is not in possession or splashes water into the face of an opponent, the defensive player is excluded from the game for twenty seconds, known as a 'kick out' or an ejection. The attacking team typically positions 4 players on the 2 meter line, and 2 players on 5 meter line (4–2), passing the ball around until an open player attempts a shot. Other formations include a 3–3 (two lines of three attackers each) or arc (attackers make an arc in front of the goal and one offensive player sits in the 'hole' or 'pit' in front of the goal). The five defending players try to pressure the attackers, block shots and prevent a goal being scored for the 20 seconds while they are a player down. The other defenders can only block the ball with one hand to help the goalie. The defensive player is allowed to return immediately if the offense scores, or if the defense recovers the ball before the twenty seconds expires.

Five meter penalty

Five meter penalty shooting

If a defender commits a major foul within the five meter area that prevents a likely goal, the attacking team is awarded a penalty throw or shot.[6] An attacking player lines up on the five meter line in front of the opposing goal. No other player may be in front of him or within 2 meters of his position. The defending goalkeeper must be between the goal posts. The referee signals with a whistle and by lowering his arm, and the player taking the penalty shot must immediately throw the ball with an uninterrupted motion toward the goal without pumping or faking. The shooter’s body can not at any time cross the 5 meter line until after the ball is released. If the shooter carries his body over the line and shoots the result is a turn over. If the shot does not score and the ball stays in play then the play continues. Penalty shots are often successful, with 63.7% of shots being scored from them.[19][20]


A goal is scored if the ball completely passes between the goal posts and is underneath the crossbar.[7] If a shot bounces off a goal post back into the field of play, the ball is rebounded by the players and the shot clock is reset. If the shot goes outside the goal and onto the deck (outside the field of play) then the ball is automatically recovered by the defense. If the goalie, however, is the last to touch the ball before it goes out of play behind the goal line, or if a defender purposely sends the ball out, then the offense receives the ball at the two meter line for a corner throw or "two meter" much like a corner kick in soccer or football. When the goalie blocks a shot, the defense may gain control of the ball, and make a long pass to a teammate who stayed on his offensive end of the pool when the rest of his team was defending. This is called cherry-picking or sea gulling.



If the score is tied at the end of regulation play, a penalty shootout will determine the winner. Five players and a goalkeeper are chosen by the coaches of each team. A player cannot be chosen if he or she was ejected three times during the match. Players shoot from the 5 meter line alternately at either end of the pool in turn until all five have taken a shot. If the score is still tied, the same players shoot alternately until one team misses and the other scores. Overtime periods are common in tournament play because of the high level of skill of these superior teams. Before September 2013 teams would play two straight 3-minute periods.


Differing from FINA rules, for which there are no shootouts, teams play two three-minute overtime periods in American college varsity water polo, and if still tied play three-minute sudden death periods until a team scores a goal and wins the game.[21]


American High School water polo plays overtime as a "sudden death" period of a specified time limit. If this results in a tie, the teams engage in a shootout as described in FINA rules above.

Defense strategy

File:Water Polo Defense.jpg
Water polo defense: A defender may only hold, block or pull an opponent who is touching or holding the ball.

On defense, the players work to regain possession of the ball and to prevent a goal in their own net. The defense attempts to knock away or steal the ball from the offense or to commit a foul in order to stop an offensive player from taking a goal shot. The defender attempts to stay between the attacker and the goal, a position known as inside water.

Advantage rule

If an offensive player, such as the center forward, has possession of the ball in front of the goal, the defensive player tries to steal the ball or to keep the center from shooting or passing. If the defender cannot achieve these aims, he may commit a foul intentionally. The hole set then is given a free throw but must pass off the ball to another offensive player, rather than making a direct shot at the goal. Defensive perimeter players may also intentionally cause a minor foul and then move toward the goal, away from their attacker, who must take a free throw. This technique, called sloughing, allows the defense an opportunity to double-team the hole set and possibly steal the inbound pass. The referee may refrain from declaring a foul, if in his judgment this would give the advantage to the offender's team. This is known as the Advantage Rule.[22]


Ordinary fouls occur when a player impedes or otherwise prevents the free movement of an opponent who is not holding the ball. The most common is when a player reaches over the shoulder of an opponent in order to knock the ball away while in the process hindering the opponent. Offensive players may be called for a foul by pushing off a defender to provide space for a pass or shot. The referee indicates the foul with one short whistle blow and points one hand in the direction of the attacking team (standing roughly in line with the position of the foul), who retain possession. The attacker must make a free pass without undue delay to another offensive player. If the foul has been committed outside the 5-meter line, the offensive player may also attempt a direct shot on goal, but the shot must be taken immediately and in one continuous motion. Because of this rule the hole set will often set up at or beyond the five meter mark hoping to get a foul, shoot, and score. If the offensive player fakes a shot and then shoots the ball, it is considered a turnover. If the same defender repetitively makes minor fouls, referees will exclude that player for 20 seconds. To avoid an ejection, the hole defender may foul twice, and then have a wing defender switch with him so that the defense can continue to foul the hole man without provoking an exclusion foul. The rule was altered to allow repeated fouls without exclusions, but is often still enforced by referees.

Major fouls (exclusion fouls) are committed when the defensive player holds with two hands, sinks or pulls back the offensive player away from the ball before the offensive player has had a chance to take possession of the ball. This includes dunking (sinking in FINA rules), intentional splashing, pulling back, swimming on the other player's back,stopping the other player from swimming 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 referee will first point to the player who commits the foul and will blow the whistle, then they will point to the ejection corner and blow the whistle again. 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. The remaining five defenders, to cover the six attackers on a man up situation, usually set up in a zone defense in front of their goal. 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 ejected three times must sit out the whole match with substitution, much like the six personal fouls in basketball.

Drawing the ejection (forcing defense to commit a major foul) occurs when an offensive player takes advantage of a defensive player by using body position and/or grabbing on their wrists to make it appear as though the defensive player is committing a "major foul", therefore resulting in the ejection of that player and gaining a 6 on 5 advantage. Another common way to draw an ejection is by staggering stroke while being chased to make it appear as though the defensive player is pulling the swimmer back.

Brutality fouls A brutality is called when a player kicks or strikes an opponent or official with malicious intent. The strike must make contact with the player for a brutality to be called, and must be with intent to injure. Otherwise the player is punished with a misconduct foul, with substitution allowed after 20 seconds or a change of position. The player who is charged with a brutality is excluded from the game for 4 minutes, and the team is forced to play with one less player than the other team for that duration. In addition to the exclusion a penalty shot is also awarded to the opposing team, if the foul occurs during actual play. Previously, the team who was charged with a brutality would be required to play the remainder of the game with one less player, similar to a red card awarded in football. All brutalities have to be reported by officials and further actions may be taken by the relevant governing body. These actions could include more games added onto the one game suspension.

A misconduct foul is an unsportsmanlike act. For unacceptable language, violence or persistent fouls, taking part in the game after being excluded or showing disrespect, a player is ejected for the remainder of the game with substitution after 20 seconds has elapsed. There are two kinds of misconduct fouls that a player can incur. If a player physically assaults another player and the referee deems it not to be severe enough to warrant a charge of brutality, the lesser charge being Misconduct-Violence can be applied. If the incident does not involve physical (or attempted) contact, the referee can impose a Misconduct charge. In most competitions Misconduct-Violence carries heavier sanctions than Misconduct.

A penalty shot or 5-meter is awarded when a major foul is committed inside the 5-meter line and a probable goal was prevented by the foul. This is usually awarded if the defensive player in on another players back. This usually means that the offensive player is in front of and facing the goal. The penalty shot is attempted from 5 meters. Any defenders flanking the player taking the shot must be no closer than 2 meters. The goalkeeper must be on the goal line. In high school rules, the goalie must keep their hips even with the goal line. They are allowed to lean their upper body over in order to kick up higher. The referee blows the whistle and the player must shoot immediately.


Even with good backup from the rest of the defenders, stopping attacks can prove very difficult if the goalkeeper remains in the middle of the goal. The most defensible position is along a semicircular line connecting the goalposts and extending out in the center. Depending on the ball carrier's location, the goalie is positioned along that semicircle roughly a meter out of the goal to reduce the attacker's shooting angle. The goalkeeper stops using his or her hands to tread water once the opponent enters at about the 7 meter mark and starts treading water much harder, elevating the body, arms ready for the block. Finally the goalie tries to block the ball down, which is often hard for the longer reaches, but prevents an offensive rebound and second shot. As is the case with other defensive players, a goalkeeper who aggressively fouls an attacker in position to score can be charged with a penalty shot for the other team. The goalkeeper can also be ejected for twenty seconds if a major foul is committed. Also inside the five meter mark, the goalie can swing at the ball with a closed fist without being penalized.

Ball handling skills

When passing or shooting, the hips of the player should line up in the direction in which the ball is thrown. When passing, shooting or receiving a ball, the player rotates the whole of the upper body, using egg-beater which is the circling of feet under water to keep the lower body in the same position, then releasing the ball with hips lined up in the direction of the throw. For extra accuracy and speed when releasing the ball, a player uses body momentum to follow through at the end of the throw.[23] Only one hand may come in contact with the ball at any time.

Picking up the ball

When picking up the ball, the player with the ball must turn away from his opponent as to prevent him from knocking the ball out of his hand

Picking up the ball is an essential part to any water polo player. It is what is needed for almost all shots and passing the ball. When picking up the ball, it is essential that the fingers and thumb are distributed over the mass of the ball to get a grip.[24] The player should be faced away from his or her opponent, as it is very easy to knock the ball out of the hand of a player who is holding the ball.[6] There are two methods of picking up the ball: under water and on top of water.[24] In the under water picking up method, the ball is picked up from underneath the water. In the on top of water picking up method, the player's hand goes on top of the ball.[24] This is the method most often used for shooting, as it allows the player to be briefly lifted out of the water, but other players may put the ball under, giving their team a free throw.


There are two basic passes in water polo: the "dry" pass and the "wet" pass.[24]

Dry passing

The passing to a field position player, a dry pass (meaning the ball does not touch the water) is thrown a few inches above the head of the catching player and to the left or right side depending on the receiver's dominant hand. The dry pass allows for optimal speed when passing from player to player, who do not have to pick the ball up out of the water to throw. A fluid motion between catching and throwing is the goal. An expert thrower's hand creates back spin, making the ball easier to catch. In order for the player to catch the ball above their head, they must egg beater harder which brings their body higher out of the water.

Wet passing

The wet pass is a deliberate pass into the water (thus not caught in the hand).[25] This is usually done when making a pass into the hole set. To make a successful wet pass, the ball lands just out of reach of the offensive player and defensive team. The hole set can then lunge towards the ball and out of the water to make a shot or pass.[26] This is a very effective offensive strategy if a team has a strong hole set. The only thing the passer must look out for is a possible double-team on the hole set. If that happens, the player must look for an open player or pass the ball closer to the hole set to avoid a turnover. Also there are about three types of set goals. First is the sweep. The sweep shot is where an outside rim player passes the ball wet into set. Then the set player will reach out for the ball while his/her hips are pointing towards the goal; the player will then come out with their arm straight will aim towards the high corner of the net and fire the ball.


The lob shot

Any part of the body can be used to score a goal except for a clenched fist.[6]

Shots usually succeed when the goalkeeper is out of position. At long range from the goal, shots are easy for goalkeepers to stop. If a shot is taken at a distance it is best to shoot cross cage and into one of the four corners (SP), but closer ones are very difficult. Close-range shots tend to be harder to come by (since players close to the goalpost are usually under very great pressure), but in these situations usually a soft tap-in, with or without a feign, is enough to beat the goalkeeper. Close-range shots may come from the center-forward in open play, utilizing either quick backhand-shots, sweep-shots, layout or other creative shooting positions.

When shooting, the body should be sideways. Then, while shooting, the body should turn to give the shot extra power

There are three basic outside water shooting techniques. The first is the power shot. Water polo players can generate ball speeds between 50–90 km/h (30–56 mph). The player propels his body out of the water and uses this to help him shoot the ball into the goal. It is powerful, but precise targeting is needed. If the shot is not in the corners, the ball can be more easily blocked by the goalie. Also there is the bounce shot or skip shot. The player throws the ball at an angle directly into the water. If done correctly and powerful enough, the ball can bounce into the goal. The bounce shot usually takes the goalie by surprise.[27] Alternately, the ball can be thrown sidearm. This is a shot with much backspin. This can cause it, if done correctly and with enough spin, to slide along the surface of the water. The lob shot is a high arching shot intended to pass over the goalie's hands and into the goal. It can be effective if taken from an angle on either side of the goal post; this provides a large area behind the goalie into which the lob can drop on its downward arc. This shot can confuse the goalie and can force the goalie to eggbeater up too early and miss. If the does block it, he or she either has to lunge upwards and back, or go very high.

Outside water shots require a player to cease swimming, and usually occur outside the 2 meter zone. Players may perform an inside water shot, also known as a "wet shot". "Wet shots" are shot from water level by players who are currently in control of the ball. Wet shots are performed when the player has open water between him and the goal because the defender is behind him or her. A "wet shot" is valuable as the player does not have to stop and lift the ball up for a shot, making it easy for the trailing defender to steal it. Instead, the player can keep the ball in front of them while performing one of the following shots: The t-shot or bat shot is executed by scooping the ball with the non-dominant hand, "loading" the ball to the dominant hand, and propelling the ball forward. The pop shot is a quick shot executed by cupping the ball with the dominant hand from underneath the ball and releasing it, usually into a corner of the goal. This shot is timed with a player's swimming stroke, and should flow comfortably from the dribble. Other inside water shots include the screw shot, which can likewise be executed directly from the stroke, and a spring shot where the player pushes the ball slightly into the water (but avoiding a "ball under" foul) and then allows a sudden release. While beginning players will have difficulty integrating these shots into their stroke, resulting in weaker shots as compared to outside water shots, inside water shots by experienced players have sufficient force to skip past the goalkeeper. One thing the shooter must watch is how close they get to the goalie because they can come out of the goal and take the ball.

Another popular shot is the back hand. It is usually used by the 2-meter offense player. When the ball is set the hole keeps it in front of them until they reach for it and shooting it behind them while looking away from the goal. This shot is a hard one to make; their arm and elbow have to be in a perfect position in order for the ball to go towards the net, as the shot is taken "blindly". The center defender is neutralized in this shot, and the goalie is usually too close to the action and has no time to respond.

Judging exactly when to shoot can be tricky, as a blocked or a wide shot results in a turnover. This can be very risky in some situations, for example when a team has gained an advantage by swimming a counterattack. A failed shot in such a situation turns the advantage into a severe disadvantage, as the opponents left behind find themselves in numerical superiority and are thus presented with an excellent opportunity to score.


Baulking (also known as hezie or hesitation shot or "'pump fake'" or dummying in the UK) is a feinting tactic for outside water shots where the player gets in position to shoot but stops halfway through.[28] This puts the defense on edge, causes the defenders to stand lower and lower in the water as their legs fatigue, and partially immobilizes the goalie by wasting his blocking lunge. This can be repeated until the player decides to release the ball. A good baulk takes a great amount of hand/arm and leg strength to maintain a high position in the water and the ball aloft in the shooting stance. The goalkeeper is particularly vulnerable to baulking as he must extend both his arms wide out of the water, which is intended to make him/her appear bigger and more imposing, thus, more difficult to beat. However, this places a massive strain on the goalie's legs, which are working in a rapid eggbeater motion. This causes the keeper to tire quicker as it is assumed a shot is imminent, thereby making them easier to beat.

Swimming with the ball

Attacker (7) advances the ball by dribbling.

Swimming with the ball might be the easiest way of advancing the ball down the pool when no other teammates are open for a pass. When swimming with the ball, it is important that the player keeps their elbows high in order to stop opposing players from gaining possession of the ball as well as keeping their head out of the water to see the rest of the pool and make the appropriate play.[29] The ball should ride in the wake that comes off the chest of the player and they should use their arms to keep the ball in front of them. Players can also hold the ball in their hand and swim backstroke.[30]


Water polo is a contact sport, with little protective gear besides swim suits and caps with ear protectors. Among the most common serious injuries are those affecting the head and shoulders. Those induced to the head are usually caused by elbows or the ball itself. One case would be when the defense guards the offense, the defense are right behind offense trying to steal the ball or trying to stop the ball from scoring or being passed. So as a result of the offense trying to shake off the defense to either score or pass the ball, a lot of elbowing and forceful removal from the defensive grab is needed. Many times the head being the main body part out of the water is injured in such a way. Many times these injuries are intentional and can sometimes anger many players to take revenge. Another common injury would be in the shoulder. Throwing or shooting the ball with a "cold arm" can strain the shoulder if not warmed up properly. Also occasionally, the defensive player will sometimes pull the arm to foul the offensive player. This can also injure the shoulder. With the arm, fingers are also usually harmed, due to not catching the ball right or blocking the ball. Many sprained fingers or on a more serious scale, fractured fingers have resulted from water polo. Some of the most injured players on the field are the goalies. They have to endure the ball thrown at them at a fast speed and are expected to "throw it down" to prevent the ball from going into the goal and scoring. When blocking shots the ball can hit the fingers instead of the whole hand causing fractures and strains.[31] Goalies have also been known to suffer nosebleeds. Other injuries take place underwater as many things can not be seen from above the surface and not much padding is used to protect the players.

While playing one major injury that can occur is a labrum tear in the shoulder. The labrum is the cartilage that extends the glenohumeral joint of the shoulder which helps in stabilizing the shoulder. A labral tear can result from activities such as falling wrong, lifting heavy objects, or any other strong force running through the shoulder. Such forces exist in water polo from the continuous stresses of swimming as well as the forces caused from throwing the ball and/or having the pass or shot blocked. This is evident as labral tears are commonly found in people who participate in throwing sports. Tearing the labrum will result in the weakness of the arm. The continued weakening or injury of the labrum can ultimately cause the joint to become so weak that subluxation or dislocation of the shoulder can occur.

Sunburn is a common minor injury in outdoor matches. The irritation of the sunburn can be restrictive because of the sheer amount of movement involved in the sport. Players will often neglect applying sunscreen as this will impair the player's ability to grip the ball and rapidly deteriorate the ball's physical grip due to the oily nature of sunscreen. Having large amounts of sunscreen on during an official match is banned by FINA and most other state/national governing bodies.

Eye irritation from pool chlorine is also common because players cannot wear goggles. They are regarded as a safety hazard because they may cause cuts, bruises or suction injuries during player-to-player contact or if the player is hit in the face by the ball.


Inner tube water polo is a style of water polo in which players, excluding the goalkeeper, are required to float in inner tubes. By floating in an inner tube players expend less energy than traditional water polo players, not having to tread water. This allows casual players to enjoy water polo without undertaking the intense conditioning required for conventional water polo.

Surf polo, another variation of water polo, is played on surfboards.[32] First played on the beaches of Waikiki in Hawaii in the 1930s and 1940s, it is credited to Louis Kahanamoku, Duke Kahanamoku's brother.

Canoe polo or kayak polo is one of the eight disciplines of canoeing pursued in the UK, known simply as "polo" by its aficionados. Polo combines paddling and ball handling skills with a contact team game, where tactics and positional play are as important as the speed and fitness of the individual athletes.

Water polo equipment

Water polo balls: old (left) and new designs.

Little player equipment is needed to play water polo. Items required in water polo include:

  • Ball: A water polo ball is constructed of waterproof material to allow it to float on the water. The cover is textured to give players additional grip. The size of the ball is different for men's, women's and junior games.
  • Caps: A water polo cap is used to protect the players' heads and ears, and to make them identifiable from afar. Home team field players wear numbered white caps; Visiting team field players wear numbered dark-colored or black caps. Both starting goalkeepers wear red caps (sometimes quartered), numbered "1" (substitute goalies' caps are numbered either "13" for FINA international play or "15" for NCAA play) Caps are fitted with ear protectors.
    Male field player swimsuit
  • Goals: Two goals are needed in order to play water polo. These can either be put on the side of the pool, or in the pool using floaters.
  • Mouthguard: A mouthguard is not mandatory in most tournaments, but is recommended.
  • Swimwear: Male water polo players wear either swim briefs or jammers (thigh-length trunks). Female players must wear a one-piece swimsuit. Suit-grabbing fouls are common, so players often wear tight-fitting suits, and may layer on several suits at a time for additional security. Many swimwear labels also sell specialized water polo suits that feature reinforced stitching and tougher fabric. Female water polo suits are generally one-piece outfits which do not have open backs, but zip securely up the back so as to not have straps that can be easily grabbed.

Major competitions

Men's water polo at the Olympics was the first team sport introduced at the 1900 games, along with cricket, rugby, football, polo (with horses), rowing and tug of war.[33] Women's water polo became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games after political protests from the Australian women's team.

The most famous water polo match in history is probably the Blood in the Water match, a 1956 Summer Olympics semi-final match between Hungary and the Soviet Union. As the athletes left for the games, the Hungarian revolution began, and the Soviet army crushed the uprising. 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.

Every 2 to 4 years since 1973, a men's Water Polo World Championship is organized within the FINA World Aquatics Championships. Women's water polo was added in 1986. A second tournament series, the FINA Water Polo World Cup, has been held every other year since 1979. In 2002, FINA organized the sport's first international league, the FINA Water Polo World League.

There is also a European Water Polo Championship that is held every other year.

Professional water polo is played in many southern and eastern European countries like Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Serbia, Spain, etc. with the LEN Euroleague tournament played amongst the best teams.

Water polo federations, teams and clubs

Water polo rules


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  13. See WP 20.16 for time of possession
  14. FINA Water polo pool diagram
  15. Snyder, p. 14
  16. "The Technique of the Eggbeater Kick" by Marion Alexander and Carolyn Taylor
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  18. 18.0 18.1 Snyder, p. 108
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  20. Snyder, p. 121
  21. NCAA Water Polo 2008–09 and 2009–10 Rules
  22. FINA Water Polo Rules, Section WP 7.3: Advantage Rule
  23. Marion Alexander, Adrian Honish, Coaches' Infoservice, sports science information for coaches: The Water Polo Shot Retrieved June 25, 2012
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Snyder, pp. 47-51
  25. Lambert; Gaughran p. 45
  26. Lambert; Gaughran p. 59
  27. Stubbs, Ray: Sports Book p. 244
  28. Snyder, p. 58
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  30. Dribbling
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  33. International Olympic Committee Water Polo Site



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