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The Essentials of Water Polo: A Beginner’s Guide

how to play water polo

Water polo marries the physicality of basketball, the strategic plays of soccer, and the refreshing twist of playing in a pool. It’s a challenging yet exhilarating sport that requires athleticism, precision, and a good grasp of its fundamental rules. If you’re new to water polo or considering taking the plunge into this dynamic team sport, understanding the basics is your starting block. Here, we’ll cover the fundamental rules and essential skills to play water polo effectively.

Critical Rules of Water Polo

Two teams play water polo, each aiming to outscore the other by shooting a water polo ball into the opposing team’s goal. Each team has seven players in the water at any time: six field players and one goalkeeper. Here are some pivotal rules:

  • Player Mobility: Players (except for the goalkeeper within their 5-meter area) are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool, requiring them to tread water or swim throughout the game.
  • Scoring Goals: The prime objective is scoring goals. This can be achieved by throwing the ball into the opponent’s net, manned by the goalkeeper.
  • Handling the Ball: Players can catch, pass, and shoot the ball using a single hand. Holding the ball with both hands is a foul, except for the goalkeeper.
  • Movement with the Ball: You can swim while pushing the ball in front of you or giving it slight taps to dribble. If you fail to dribble while moving, it results in a turnover.
  • Physical Contact: While water polo is a contact sport, certain forms of aggression, like attacks on the head or face, are forbidden. Minor jostling for a position is generally accepted but monitored by referees.
  • Game Duration: A match consists of four eight-minute quarters interspersed with short breaks, including a longer interval at half-time.
  • Exclusions and Penalties: Fouls can lead to temporary exclusions (similar to a penalty box scenario in hockey) or penalty shots, depending on their severity. Players may also face ejection for persistent fouling.

Essential Skills for Water Polo

To thrive in water polo, you’ll need to develop a trio of foundational skills:


Efficient and powerful swimming abilities are non-negotiable in water polo. Players often sprint short distances to attack, defend, or transition between plays, making speed and stamina essential.

Treading Water

The ability to tread water, mainly using the ‘eggbeater’ kick, is crucial. This technique allows players to maintain a vertical position in the water, supporting themselves with one leg. At the same time, the other can make stabbing motions for propulsion or sudden changes in direction. It’s also vital to elevate yourself to throw or block shots out of the water.

Ball Handling

Effective ball handling encompasses catching, passing, and shooting with one hand. Precision and speed in these skills are vital as players must quickly distribute the ball to teammates or aim accurately at the goal under pressure from opponents.

Water polo is as demanding as it is rewarding, offering a comprehensive workout, the thrill of team strategy, and the sheer joy of play. Whether you’re just starting or looking to refine your skills, focusing on the basics will pay dividends in your development in the sport. With a clear understanding of the rules and a commitment to mastering the essential skills, anyone can dive into the exciting world of water polo.

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