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Understanding Water Polo

Water polo is a game of strength, quickness and endurance. Ball handling skills and exceptional swimming ability are especially important with the mobile, fast paced style of game played.

The Game

  • The playing area is 30 x 20 meters (25 x 17 meters for women), with a minimum of 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) of depth.

  • Each team is allowed 13 players, with seven (a goalkeeper and six field players) participating at any one time. Players tread water the entire game and cannot touch the bottom or sides of the pool, and except for the goalkeeper, may handle the ball with only one hand.

  • The game is played in four quarters, each quarter being seven minutes in length with two-minute intervals between quarters (28 minutes of stopped time). Substitutions are permitted only after a goal is scored, between periods, or for an ejected player. There are no time-outs.

  • Physical contact is the rule rather than the exception, as the players maneuver for position in front of the goal. The referee indicates fouls by blowing a whistle and holding up a flag mounted on a short pole. The color of the displayed flag indicates which team is awarded the ball: white for visiting team, blue for home team. Unlike most sports that stop on a whistle, action in water polo is initiated by the whistle.

  • A goal 1 (point) is scored when the ball is thrown or pushed completely past the face of the goal.
Time Clocks
As in basketball, two clocks are used to time a water polo game. One indicates the time remaining in the quarter. The other, called the shot clock or thirty-five second clock, indicates how much time remains for the offensive team to shoot the ball (the team is allowed 35 seconds to shoot the ball).

Each quarter is started with the teams lined up on opposite goal lines. On a signal (whistle) from the referee, the teams sprint toward center pool for the ball. The team gaining possession of the ball advances it toward its offensive end of the pool by swimming, dribbling or passing the ball.

There are two types of fouls in water polo. Ordinary fouls account for approximately 90 percent of the whistles during the game, and personal faults (or major fouls). Major fouls include exclusion and penalty fouls.

Ordinary fouls include:

  • touching the ball with two hands;
  • taking the ball under water when tackled;
  • impeding an opponent who is not holding the ball;
  • pushing off of an opponent; and,
  • stalling (failing to shoot or advance the ball within 35 seconds).
When the referee calls an ordinary foul, the offended team is awarded a free throw at the point of the foul. The offended team must put the ball in play without delay by passing it or swimming with it.

Exclusion fouls include:

  • kicking or striking;
  • deliberate splashing in the face;
  • an ordinary foul committed by the defense during dead time;
  • interfering with a free throw;
  • misconduct or disrespect to the referee;
  • holding, sinking or pulling back an opponent not holding the ball.
Exclusion fouls may result in a player being ejected for 20 seconds. The ejected player (or his substitute) may not return until the 20 second exclusion time expires, a goal is scored or a change of possession takes place, which ever period is shortest.

A player receiving three major fouls is removed from the game with substitution. Deliberate kicking or striking with intent to harm an opponent (brutality) results in ejection of the offending player for the remainder of the game, without substitution.

Penalty fouls are committed within the four-meter area where a goal probably would have resulted. The offensive player fouled while in control of the ball and facing the goal inside the four-meter line is usually awarded the penalty throw. A penalty foul is recorded against the player committing the foul. The player taking the penalty throw has a free shot at the goal from the four meter line, with only the goalie defending.

The award of a penalty throw most commonly occurs in the following situations within the four-meter area:

  • including the goalkeeper, any player pulling down or pushing away the goal;
  • any player, except the goalkeeper, playing the ball with both hands or with a clenched fist;
  • the goalkeeper or a defensive player taking the ball underwater;
  • when an offensive player in control of the ball, and facing the goal, is fouled by holding, sinking or pulling back.
A player who receives three personal faults (major fouls) will be excluded for the remainder of the game with substitution.

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