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Water polo

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Water polo is a team water game. A team consists of six field players and one goalkeeper. The winner of the game is the team that scores more goals.

Greece v. Hungary in Naples, Italy

Basic skills

  • Swimming: Water polo is a team water sport requiring an ability to swim. Field players must swim end to end of a 30-meter pool non-stop many times during a game without touching the sides or bottom of the pool. The front crawl stroke used in water polo differs from the usual swimming style in that water polo players swim with the head out of water at all times to observe the field. The arm stroke used is also a lot shorter and quicker and is used to protect the ball at all times. Backstroke is used by defending field players to track advancing attackers and by the goalie to track the ball after passing. Water polo backstroke differs from swimming backstroke; the player sits almost upright in the water, using eggbeater leg motions with short arm strokes to the side instead of long straight arm strokes. This allows the player to see the play and quickly switch positions. It also allows the player to quickly catch an on coming pass with a free hand.
Goalie eggbeatering up to block a shot.
  • Ball handling skills: 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.
  • Treading water: The most common form of water treading is generally referred to as "egg-beatering", 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 eggbeater 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" (i.e. staying aware of the surroundings) is a major advantage in scoring, even if a player lacks the speed of an opponent.


There are six field player positions and a goalkeeper on each team. Unlike most common team sports, there is not any positional play; field players often will fill several positions throughout the game as situations demand. Players who are skilled at several offensive or defensive roles are called utility players. Utility players tend to come off of the bench, though this isn't absolute. Certain body types are more suited for particular positions, and left-handed players are especially coveted, allowing teams to launch 2-sided attacks.


The offensive positions include: 1 centre (a.k.a. hole set, 2-meter offense, pit player or pit-man), 2 wings, 2 drivers (also called "flats"), and 1 "point" man. The hole set directs the attack, and on defense is known as hole check, hole D, pit defense or 2-meter defense, defending the opposing team's centre forward. The wings, drivers and point are often called the perimeter 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, used more by professional teams, is known as an "arc", umbrella, or mushroom, because the perimeter players form the shape of an arc, umbrella or mushroom around the goal with the center forward as the handle or stalk. The center forward, known by players as hole set or 2-meter is the centre player in the middle of the umbrella who is closest to the opposing teams goal. This player sets up in front of the opposing team's goalie and usually scores the most individually (especially during lower level play where arc or perimeter players do not have the required leg strength to drop effectively onto the pit player) 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 cumulatively score the most points for the team. The point player's position provides opportunities to pass to teammates and communicate among the offense, like the point guard in basketball. The centre forward also plays a big role offensively because they sit closest to the goal and usually attempt to shoot from close-range as frequently as possible with "Step-out"(a.k.a Roll-out), "Sweep", or "Backhand" shots.


Defensive positions are often the same, but just switched from offense to defense. Defense can be played man-to-man or zone. It can also be played as a combination of the two in what is known as an "M drop" defense, where the point defender drops down to double team the set offender and the rest of the defense plays man coverage. The opposing centre forward (hole set) is often double-teamed because of his position closest to the goal. In zone defense, players defend an area of the pool. A strong shooter or good passer can be double-teamed by the defense, known as "sloughing".


The goalkeeper is generally one of the more challenging positions. A goalie 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 30 square feet (2.8 m2) in face area; the goalie should also be a master of fast, effective lateral movement in the water as well as lightening fast lunges out of the water to deflect 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 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 goal:

  • 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. (Pool depth permitting)

The goalkeeper also has one limitation that other players do not have: he or she cannot cross the half-distance line. Also, if a goalie pushes the ball under water, it is not a turnover like with field players. It is a penalty shot, also called a 5-meter shot, or simply, a "5-meter".

Offense strategy

Starting play

The swimoff.

At the start of each period, teams line up on their own goal line. Three players go both sides of the goal; the goalkeeper starts in the goal. At the referee's whistle, both teams swim to midpoint of the field (known as the sprint or the swim-off); the referee drops the ball near the side of the pool. The first team to recover the ball becomes the attacker until a goal is scored or the defenders recover the ball. After a goal is scored, the teams line up anywhere within their halves of play, but usually along the midpoint of the pool. Play resumes when the team not scoring the goal puts the ball in play by passing it 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 while pushing the ball in front of them (" dribbling"). If an attacker uses his 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, he is ruled off side 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 centre 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 of 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 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.

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 (informally called a 'kicked 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

If a defender commits a foul within the five meter area that prevents a likely goal, the attacking team is awarded a penalty throw or shot. 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. 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. Penalty shots are often successful, but the goalkeeper who blocks a "five meter" can expect a chorus of cheers from the stands.


A shot is successful if the ball completely passes between the goal posts and underneath the crossbar. 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 on to 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, two overtime periods of three minutes each are played. If the tie is not broken after two overtime periods, a penalty shootout will determine the winner. Five players and a goalkeeper are chosen by the coaches of each team. 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 due to the high level of skill of these superior teams.


Differing from FINA rules, overtime in American college varsity water polo play is sudden victory, first team to score wins. There are no shootouts, the overtimes simply continue until a team scores.

Defense strategy

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 prevent a goal. The defense attempts to knock away or steal the ball from the offense or 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.


If an offensive player, such as the hole set (center forward), has possession of the ball in front of the goal, the defensive player tries to steal the ball or keep the centre from shooting or passing. If the defender cannot, he may intentionally commit a foul. The hole set then has a free throw but must pass the ball off to another offensive player, rather than making a 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.

Minor fouls (ordinary fouls) occur when a player impedes or otherwise prevents the free movement of an opponent who is not holding the ball, including swimming on the opponent’s shoulders, back or legs. 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 to the spot of the foul and the other hand in the direction of the attacking team, 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 pulls 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, 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.

Brutality fouls A brutality is called when a player kicks or strikes (or attempts to kick or strike) an opponent or official with malicious intent. 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 then the other team for that duration. 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 soccer.

A misconduct foul is an unsportsmanlike act. For unacceptable language, violent 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 have elapsed. 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 violent foul with intention to harm, the player is ejected from the game without substitution. The opponents are awarded a penalty shot, and the ejected player's team plays one man down for the next four minutes of game time. This type of foul is called a brutality and is signaled by the referee by crossing the arms in the form of an X.

A penalty shot is awarded when a major foul is committed inside the 5-meter line and the offensive player had an opportunity to score, or a goal was prevented by the foul. 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.

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.


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 centre. 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 the 7 metre 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 two 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 with one hand. When passing, shooting or receiving a ball, the player rotates the whole of the upper body, using egg-beater 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.


There are two basic passes in waterpolo: the "dry" pass and the "wet" pass. When passing to a field position player, a dry pass (meaning the ball doesn't 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.

The wet pass is a deliberate pass into the water. 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. 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.


The Lob Shot

Shots usually succeed when the goalie is out of position. At long range from the goal, shots are easy for goalkeepers to stop, 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 is enough to beat the goalkeeper. Close-range shots may come from the centre-forward in open play, utilizing either quick backhand-shots, sweep-shots, layout or other creative shooting positions.

There are three basic outside water shooting techniques. The first is a straight forward power shot. Top level 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 his momentum to shoot the ball into the net. Though very powerful, this shot requires the precise targeting. If the shot is off the mark, the ball will either be blocked by the goalie or rebound off the goal post. Another shooting technique is the bounce shot or skip shot. Instead of shooting directly into the net, the player throws the ball at an angle directly into the water. If done properly and with enough force, the ball will bounce off the water and into the goal. The bounce shot usually takes the goalie by surprise. But, if done from far enough away the goalie can plan to block the ball low on the water instead of bringing the hands up in the air. The lob shot is high arching shot intended to pass over the goalie's hands and under the crossbar. It is most effective 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 confuses the goalie and usually forces the goalie to kick up out of the water too early and miss the block.

Outside water shots require a player to cease swimming, and usually occur outside the 2 meter zone. A player who has inside water and has a defender approaching may not want to pause and let his defender catch up. In these situations, which can often result from driving after a foul has been committed on the hole set or during a close fast break counterattack, players may perform an inside water shot. 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.

Baulking (a kind of pump fake a.k.a. hezie or hesitation shot) is effective when using an outside water shot. The player gets in the position to shoot but stops halfway through. This puts the defense on edge 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 strength to palm the ball.

Game variations

Inner tube water polo is a style of water polo with the important difference that 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. This sport is predominantly played at universities by intramural coed teams. The sport's rules resemble those of water polo, however, with no governing body the rules vary across different leagues. For example, while the winner is determined by the team which scores the most goals, some leagues award one point for a male goal, and two points for a female goal, while others award one for either.

The game was invented in 1969 by now retired UC Davis associate athletic director of intramural sports and sport clubs, Gary Colberg. Noticing how much fun the water polo team was having, Mr. Colberg thought up the idea of using tubes so that people with no experience in water polo could still enjoy the game.

Surf polo, another variation of water polo, is played on surfboards. 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 an exciting 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 has a special texture so it won't slip from the hands of a player. The size of the ball is different for men's and women's games.
field player cap
goalkeeper cap
  • Caps: A water polo cap is used to protect the players' heads and to identify them. Home team field players wear numbered light or dark caps, and visiting team field players wear contrasting caps. Both starting goalkeepers wear (quartered) red caps, numbered "1", and substitute goalies caps are numbered either "1-A" in NCAA play or "13" for FINA international 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.
  • Swimwear: Male water polo players often wear swim briefs. Some players prefer to wear 2 briefs for more security during play. Female players must wear a one-piece swimsuit.


The modern game originated as a form of rugby football played in rivers and lakes in England and Scotland with a ball constructed of Indian rubber. This "water rugby" came to be called "water polo" based on the English pronunciation of the Balti word for ball, pulu.

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. Women's water polo became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games after political protests from the Australian women's team.

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.

Water polo federations, teams, & clubs

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