Seven players from each team (six field players and a goalkeeper) are allowed in the playing area of the pool during game play. Visiting team field players wear numbered and usually dark blue caps, and home team field players wear usually white caps (though any other contrasting colours are now allowed); both goalies wear quartered red caps, numbered "1". Both teams may substitute players. During game play, players enter and exit in front of their team bench; when play is stopped, they may enter or exit anywhere.
The game is divided into four periods; the length depends on the level of play:
|Level of play||Team level||Time each period||Authority|
|FINA Water Polo World League||National||8 minutes||FINA|
|US College||Varsity||8 minutes||NCAA|
|US High School||Varsity||7 minutes||NFHS|
|US High School||Junior Varsity||6 minutes||NFHS|
|US High School||Freshman/sophomore||5 minutes||NFHS|
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 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. Each team may call 2 one-minute timeouts in the four periods of regulation play, and one timeout if the game goes into overtime. During game play, only the team in possession of the ball may call a timeout.
Dimensions of the water polo pool are not fixed and can vary between 20 x 10 and 30 x 20 meters. Minimum water depth must be least 1.8 meters (6 feet), but this is often waived for age group or high school games if such a facility is unavailable. The goals are 3 meters wide and 90 centimetres 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. In the past, 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. The "five meters" line is where penalties are shot and it is designated by a yellow line. The "two meters" line is designated with a red line and no player of the attacking team can be inside this line without the ball.
One player on each team is designated the goalkeeper, assigned to deflect or catch any shots at goal. The goalkeeper is the only player who can touch the ball with both hands at any time, and, in a shallow pool, the only player allowed to stand on the bottom. Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming while pushing the ball in front of them. Players are not permitted to push the ball underwater when being tackled, or push or hold an opposing player unless that player is holding the ball. 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 or pass the ball. Water polo players need remarkable stamina due to 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 physically demanding sport; action is continuous, and players commonly swim 3 kilometers or more during four periods of play.
Water polo is a game requiring excellent eye-hand coordination. The ability to handle and pass the ball flawlessly separates the good teams from the great teams. 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. A goal may be scored by any part of the body except a clenched fist, or a foot.
Scoring in water polo can be quite different than in other sports. For example, a "skip" or "bounce" shot is fired intentionally at the water with considerable force so it will bounce back up. The ball usually hits the water within a metre of the net, where the goalie cannot anticipate and block the shot. Another shot, called a "lob" is thrown with a large vertical arc. Often these shots are more difficult to stop than a faster shot, as they are usually thrown across a net at such an angle the goalie must not only shift position from one side of the net to the other quickly, but also at the same time propel out of the water more than for other shots. Pump faking is effective when using any kind of shot. The player gets in the position to shoot but stops halfway through his motion, causing the defending goalkeeper to commit too early to block the subsequent shot.
The referee's whistle for a foul is heard much more in water polo than in other sports. 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 instead of advancing or 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.
The most basic positional set up is known as a 3-3, due to the fact that there are two lines in front of the opponent's goal, both containing three players. 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 center forward 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 forward sets up in front of the opposing team's goalie and usually scores the most individually (especially during lower level play where perimeter players do not have the required strength to effectively 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).
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:
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 (in American water polo). In International competition the ball is 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. 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 backwards to a teammate.
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.
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 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. 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 a probable 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.
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.
Shots usually succeed when the goalie 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 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. Alternately, the ball can be thrown sidearm with heavy backspin. This will cause it to slide along the surface of the water. 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.
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.
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.
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