All About Water Polo


The Game’s History

Water polo was founded by Englishman, William Wilson, in 1844. Known as “football in the water” it was played in rivers and lakes (we try to keep it to heated indoor pools as far as possible these days!). The first official game was played in the Crystal Palace Plunge in London. Forty years later in 1885, William Henry, of the Royal Life Saving Society of England, standardised the game. The English Amateur Swimming Association formulated rules and recognised the game.

The first international match was played at Kensington, England in 1890 between England and Scotland. Only a few countries played matches until the Olympic Federation included water polo. Water polo is played by both men and women and is the longest-standing team sport in the Olympic Games, being first introduced in Paris in 1900. Initially for the men’s competition only, women finally competed at Olympic level in 2000 at the Sydney, Australia Olympic Games.

The sport is governed by FINA, Federation Internationale De Natation - the world aquatic body, and is played in more than 100 countries.


How to Play Water Polo

Water polo is an energetic, fast paced and fun team based game. Ultimately, it is a test of each team’s tactical and technical skill of passing, strength of throwing and endurance in the water. Because officially it is played in deep water, you are not able to stand with your feet touching the bottom of the pool. Instead you must use a special technique of treading water called eggbeater to propel your body out of the water, high enough to allow your arm to pass and catch the ball and score goals using one hand.

Swimming techniques used in water polo are also slightly different to swimming competitively. When swimming freestyle you will need to be able to do this with your head out of the water in the direction of play while keeping possession of the ball or looking for opportunities to catch or throw the ball. Keeping your head above water is important because you will need to be able to see and keep track of play and passes quickly. Equally, when swimming backstroke your head must be upright so that you are able to be ready for a change in direction or a pass.

Water polo, like rugby and netball, involves passing a ball, goals, team positions, physical contact and tactical play. You will need to have physical endurance as the game is played in deep water, so you’ll be treading water for the entire game without being able to touch the sides of the pool. It is also very fast paced in both directions, so a good level of swimming ability is needed. A report in 2011 rated water polo as the “Toughest Sport in the World”. This was based on speed, endurance, strength, agility, skill level and physicality.


The Basics of Water Polo     

The Field: The playing area is 25x20m and the pool should be a minimum of 2m deep. As there is a lack of pools in England with these dimensions, a great number of games are played, especially at junior level, in shallower/narrower pools.

Under 12 water polo is often played across the swimming pool (12.5m x 12.5m) however this does depend on the swimming pool.

Teams: Teams have seven players in the water at a time, one goalkeeper and six out-field players, with up to six substitutes. Rolling substitutions are allowed – owing to the fast pace and exhausting nature of the game.

Players’ Code: Players tread water the entire game and cannot touch the bottom or side of the pool. No player except the goalkeeper may handle the ball with more than one hand.

Duration of Play: The game is separated into four quarters of eight minutes at elite level, with a two-minute interval between quarters. Because the clock is stopped when the ball is not ‘in play’, the average quarter lasts around 12 minutes.

Time Clock: A possession – or shot-clock controls time. Each team has 30 seconds to shoot the ball at the goal. If no shot is taken, a free throw is awarded to the opposing team. The attacking team will receive a further 20 seconds if a shot is taken but they retain possession. A separate game clock times the passing of each quarter (stop clock).

Start of Play: Each quarter is started with teams lined up on opposite goal lines. The referee’s whistle is the signal for teams to sprint towards the centre of the pool, where the ball has been placed or dropped.


The Lines Of The Game

  • 2m line: This is the distance from the goal. An attacking player may not go within 2 metres unless in possession of the ball or if a team mate is more advanced than them;
  • 5m line: When a penalty is awarded, they are taken from this line;
  • 6m line: When a free throw is awarded (after a foul), if you are inside the 6 metre line the ball needs to be put into play and you must not shoot; if you are outside the 6 metre line you can chose whether to put the ball into play or shoot immediately;
  • Centre line: Is where the ball is placed or dropped at the start of play.


Do you want to know more info about the rules of water polo? This can be found here.  


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