Water Polo Rules: Mastering The Tough Water Sport

men playing Water Polo

Do you love water sports? Are you looking for a new hobby? Then you're probably considering taking up water polo. But before you commit, you should familiarize yourself with water polo rules.

After all, those new to this complex team sport are almost always left scratching their heads when they first read about it. But even though water polo is a challenging game, that doesn't mean that it's impossible to master.

What Is Water Polo?


group of men playing Water Polo

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Water polo is a demanding team sport played in the water.

The goal of the game is straightforward: Score more goals than the opposing team.

Indeed, this sport is quite similar to basketball and football. However, it requires the strength of wrestling and the resilience of cross-country running.

Physical contact among players is a crucial part of the game and takes place both above and below water. It’s not unusual to see players pulling, pushing, holding, grabbing, and even sinking one another.

This game is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Water Polo Rules: The Basics


Water polo rules can seem confusing at first.

But as long as you start with the basics, the rest won't seem so daunting.

The set-up

To play water polo, players need access to a pool. Colored lane lines, cones, or tape, divide the pool into distinct areas, including:

  1. 1
    Goal-line (white)
  2. 2
    Seven-feet line (red)
  3. 3
    16-feet line (yellow)
  4. 4
    Mid-pool line (white)

The distance between goal lines is usually between 66 feet and 98 feet for men and between 66 feet and 82 feet for women.

The ideal width is anything between 33 feet and 66 feet, whereas minimum water depth is always 6 feet or more.

Number of players

Two teams play a water polo match.

Each team is allowed 13 players. However, only seven players can participate in the game at any given time. Six of these are field players, and one is a goalkeeper.

Unlike most team sports, there is no positional play in water polo. Field players tend to fill several positions throughout the game, depending on the situation they find themselves in.

The positions are:

  • Center (or Hole Defense)
  • Point
  • Two wings
  • Two posts

When it comes to offensive tactics, the center, which is probably the most critical position in the game, takes most of the shots.

The two drivers help the center lead the team's offense by eluding the opposing team's defenders and either passing the ball to the center or taking the shot themselves.

The point is responsible for passes and throws whereas the two wings recover failed shots and launch an offensive attempt.

In terms of defense, only the goalkeeper and Hole Defense (usually played by the center) have defensive positions. But other players help defend against attacks.

Every water polo match includes two referees clad in all-white. Referees make sure that the game is played fairly by calling a foul whenever someone misbehaves.

Thank you, next

The truth is, almost every player breaks water polo rules at one point or another during the game. That's why each team has as many as six substitute players.

During play, substitutions occur only through the team's re-entry area.

Your cap color matters

The two opposing teams wear caps of contrasting colors. Usually, one side wears dark caps, whereas the other wears light caps.

On the other hand, goalies wear red caps.

Time flies when you're having fun

The game is composed of four different periods. Each period is typically eight minutes long. Nonetheless, due to fouls and goals, a period can last up to 15 minutes.

Two clocks time a water polo game.

One clock shows the remaining time in a period. The other clock, known as the shot clock, indicates how much time the offensive team has left to shoot the ball.

The shot clock resets:

  • When the defensive team obtains the ball
  • On all exclusion fouls
  • On penalty shots

Halfway through the game, players get a five minute rest period. They also get two-minute breaks between periods one and three.

Are You Ready To Play?


men playing Water Polo

image source: flickr.com

We've covered basic water polo rules and discussed the set-up.

Now, let's move onto to the actual game.

The swim-off

Before the game starts, both teams line up along their goal line.

They stay there until the referee signals the start of play, at which point both teams rush towards the ball as quickly as they can.

Their goal?

It's to gain possession of the ball and go on the offensive.

Moving the ball

There are two ways players can move the ball.

They can pass it to one of their teammates. Or they can move it themselves by pushing it in front of them. Either way, they can only hold the ball with one hand.

Pushing the ball underwater to keep it away from the opposing team isn't allowed. When that happens, the ball is automatically handed over to the other side.

Moreover, players can't touch the bottom or the sides of the pool.

Consequently, players spend the entire game treading water. The majority of players use the eggbeater method, the most complex but also the most energy-efficient technique for treading water.

Goalkeepers are exempt from some of the above water polo rules.

For example, as long as goalkeepers stay within the 16-foot area of the goal, they can stand and walk on the bottom of the pool. They can also touch the ball with both hands.

Scoring a goal

Whenever a team throws a ball that passes through the goal line and the goalposts, it scores a goal.

Speed is important. As soon as a player gets his hands on the ball, he has 30 seconds to shoot it. If he runs out of time, he has to hand over the ball to the opposing team.

Goalkeepers can score goals too. But they can't go past the halfway line.

Restarting play

What happens when someone scores a goal?

Both teams line up on their side of the pool, usually close to the center.

The team that didn't score is given the ball and goes on the offensive the second the referee signals for play to restart.

Time out

Each team can call for three two-minute time-outs during the match.

However, when a game is in progress, only the team that possesses the ball is allowed to call a timeout.

Foul Play


men playing Water Polo

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There are three kinds of fouls in water polo:

  1. 1
    Ordinary foul
  2. 2
    Exclusion foul
  3. 3
    Penalty foul

Referees don't always declare a foul though, especially if such a declaration would be advantageous to the offending player's team.

Ordinary foul

The most common type of foul is the ordinary foul or the minor foul. Minor fouls account for most of the whistles heard during a water polo match.

Ordinary fouls include:

  • Touching the ball with both hands
  • Hitting the ball with your fist
  • Holding the ball underneath the water
  • Pushing off against the bottom or the sides of the pool
  • Disrupting a player that isn't holding the ball
  • Tossing the ball out of the field of play
  • Failing to take a shot within the appropriate amount of time
  • Lingering within seven feet of the opponent's goal line without a ball
  • Wasting time

Whenever someone commits an ordinary foul, the referee blows the whistle once, at the same time pointing in the direction of the attack.

The fouled player is awarded a free pass either at a point equal to the foul or behind the place of the foul. Usually, the player granted a free throw can't aim for the opposing team's goal post (unless he takes the shot from 16-feet or farther).

Exclusion foul

More severe offenses call for an exclusion foul.

Exclusion fouls include:

  • Holding, pulling back, or sinking a player that isn't holding the ball
  • Splashing water in an opponent's face
  • Interfering with a free throw
  • Using abusive language
  • Failing to exit the pool via the re-entry area during actual play, thus showing disrespect

A referee signals an exclusion foul by blowing the whistle several times, pointing in the direction of the attack, and motioning the player to leave the pool for 20 seconds (leaving the team short on players) or until a goal is scored.

An exclusion foul is a personal foul. Players that receive three exclusion fouls leave the game for good.

Penalty foul

A penalty foul is any offense that prevents a team from scoring a "probable goal" within the 16-feet line.

Brutality is the most consequential foul that a player can commit and includes the deliberate kicking, hitting, and biting of another player.

Players charged with a penalty foul can't return to the pool for the remainder of the game. They're also not allowed to appear in the next scheduled match.

After a penalty foul, the referee gives the opposing team a penalty throw. The team must take the throw from the offensive 16-feet line. The penalty shot is a direct shot on the goal, meaning that only the goalkeeper can defend it.

Are You Ready To Play Water Polo?


A man going to trow a Water Polo ball

image source: unsplash.com 

Now that you're familiar with water polo rules, it's time to give this tough sport a go.

Seeing how water polo is all about strategy, strength, endurance, and ability, it'll probably take you a while to get good at it. But it's going to be worth it in the end.

Did we forget any important water polo rules? Are there any tips you'd like to share with us? Let us know in the comments below!

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