What is Water Polo?

water polo

Water Polo is defined as a goal game similar to soccer that is played in water by teams of swimmers using a ball slightly resembling a soccer ball. There are six field players and one goalkeeper on each team. The objective is to score a ball into a net goal by swimming, passing, and shooting. Players must tread water through the entire game and may not touch the bottom of the pool.


water polo history

While the earliest origins of water polo are hard to know, it began as a sport during 19th century in England. In 1870, the London Swimming Club created rules for the sport and hosted the first official game in London. In the beginning stages of water polo, the game’s emphasis was more on strength and aggression in the water rather than speed or skill in the water. Rules were developed in Scotland in 1880 in order to provide less emphasis on brutness where a bigger ball and nets were introduced and players could not tackle players who did not have the ball. The rules developed in Scotland were then adopted in Great Britain, Hungary, Belgium. Germany, Austria, and France, and in 1911, FINA adopted the Scottish rules for international water polo events. 

The first time water polo was played in the United States was in 1888 by an English swimming instructor. The “American style” of the sport was very similar to rugby or American football in water and became popular in the US during the 1890s, mainly for the level of aggression the sport was played at. The water polo clubs throughout the United States refused to adopt the Scottish rules and were not allowed to compete internationally until they finally agreed to the more civilized version of water polo in 1914. 

The game has come to resemble soccer in the sense that a defender can only make contact with the player holding the ball and there is more of an emphasis on speed and passing on top of the water.

Playing Surface

Water Polo Pool

Water polo is traditionally played in a pool but can occasionally be played in open water such as lakes or the ocean.

For men, the distance between the two goal lines are between 20m and 30m while for women that distance is between 20m and 25m. The width of the pool can be between 10m and 20m. The depth of the pool must be between 1.8m and 2.0m. The 2m and 5m lines must also be marked on the sides of the pool.


Water Polo equipment list

The equipment required for a water polo match is:

Goals: Two goals located at each end of the pool.

Water Polo Balls: An official water polo ball. For men’s water polo the ball is a size five which has a circumference of 0.7m or 28 inches. For women’s water polo the ball is a size four, which has a circumference of 0.6m or 26.5 inches.

A Swimsuit: Men typically wear speedos while women wear snug fitting, high necked, zip up one pieces.

Goggles: While not used in games, goggles are used during warm-up and conditioning.

A Swim Cap: While not required for men, they can still wear swim caps. Women are required to have a light and a dark colored cap (to correspond with their headgear color) in order to cover as much hair as possible to prevent drag and grabbing by opponents.

Cap/Headgear: Teams typically use two sets of headgear; white for when playing as the home team and a secondary color (excluding red)for playing as the visiting team. The headgear has plastic circles over the ears in order to provide protection. Every goalie typically wears a red cap. These caps also have numbers on each side in order to better identify players.


Water Polo Gameplay

A water polo match consists of four 8-minute quarters, but tends to go longer due to the use of a stopping clock. There is a shot clock in water polo, meaning that each team can only have possession of the ball for a maximum of 30 seconds before taking a shot on the goal. Each team is allowed six substitutes, and those players can sub in after a goal or during a timeout.

Positions and Roles

Water Polo Positions

In water polo, there are six field players and one goalie in the water per team. The various positions are:

  • Point
  • Wings and Flats
  • Hole Set
  • Goalie
  • D-Hole


The point is one of the perimeter positions, located at the top of the semi-circle during an offensive possession in water polo.

Wings and Flats

These positions are also known as drivers and are the other four perimeter players that make up the semi-circle. Wings play on both sides down near the goal while flats are above them on each side near the 5m line. The job of perimeter players is to initiate motion through drives and picks and get open in order to receive a pass or shoot.

Hole Set

This position is located directly in front of the opposing goal, usually directing offense. Players can pass in to set where that player decides to either shoot or pass back out to one of the players on the perimeter. This position can also be called center forward.


The goalie stays within the area of the goal for the entirety of the match. They block shots, make long passes on counters, and communicate and direct their teammates when playing defense. They are the only player who can touch the ball with two hands and they can stand if playing in a shallow pool. They must have a strong egg-beater and ability to jump out of the water in order to block high shots.


The only set in stone defensive position in water polo is the d-hole or hole-d. They play defense on the other team's hole set.

Rules and Regulations

Water Polo Rules and Regulations

Some basic rules and regulations of water polo are:

  1. Field players cannot touch the bottom of the pool
  2. Players can pass the ball or swim while pushing the ball, but they are only allowed to hold the ball with one hand, aside from the goalie who is the only player that may use both hands to touch the ball
  3. Each match starts with a swim off. The ball is dropped in the middle of the pool and upon the whistle, both teams must swim to the middle. Whichever team gets the ball first  gets the first possession.
  4. After each goal, the team who gave up the goal will start in the middle of the pool with possession of the ball. Both teams must return to their own half of the pool before play can resume.

Referees and Officials

Water Polo Referees and Officials

Water polo referees typically dress in white from head to toe and walk alongside the pool on the deck. Typically, two referees will call a game, although the game can be called with just one referee, and tournaments will have a team of referees that will rotate games so that teams will not play with the same ref team calling their games the entire tournament.

Referees communicate fouls and other calls through whistle blasts and arm movements. Overall, the referees role, when properly executed, helps to maintain a sense of safety and order during the game.

Lingo and Terminology

Water Polo Lingo and Terminology

There is lots of lingo that is used commonly in the sport of water polo. Here are a few:

  • Egg-Beater: Egg-beater is the style of treading used in water polo
  • D-Hole: The player defending hole set
  • Man-up: This refers to the scenario where a member of the opposing team is ejected
  • Man-down: This refers to the scenario where a member of your team is ejected
  • Head-up swimming: This refers to swimming with your head out of the water, typically associated with water polo
  • Head-down swimming: This refers to swimming with your head down and in the water
  • Hip overs: The movement of changing direction quickly in water polo by rolling over your hips


Water Polo Coaching

The coaches role is to help train and develop various levels of water polo athletes. Various National Governing Bodies (NGO’s) of water polo offer different certifications or professional development training in order to coach. There are also coaching clinics hosted by FINA in every aquatic sport, including water polo, that educate and train coaches from across the globe. 

Skills and Techniques

Water Polo Skills and Techniques

Because water polo positions are incredibly fluid, it’s important to have a strong general skill set when playing water polo. It is important for any position to have strong legs that can tread for long periods of time. It is also helpful to condition using swimming in order to build speed and endurance. Finally, it’s also important to be able to catch and pass with one hand in the water while treading.


Water Polo Strategy

Here are a few important water polo strategies:

  • Water polo can be very quick paced. It is important to have awareness at all times and to read the game. 
  • A good strategy, especially when playing defense, is to play with hips up towards the surface of the water in order to better control where your player can go.
  • Always talk and communicate when on offense and defense.
  • Pay attention to how the refs are making calls or reacting to certain things so as to be mindful of getting fouls called on you.


Water Polo Drills

There are various different types of drills that can improve a water polo players skill set. There are fundamental drills, defense drills, offense drills, shooting drills, goalkeeper drills, passing drills, and strength and conditioning drills. One common way to train legs in water polo is to do various drills doing egg beaters for various lengths of time and various difficulties by lifting your arms out of the water, first wrists out, then elbows out, and then streamline.

Because there can be quick turnovers in water polo, an important skill to practice is turning quickly in the water. This can be practiced by having players swim heads up back and forth, having to switch directions every time a whistle is blown. Fundamentals are key in any sport so it’s also helpful to do various sprint sets, both head up and head down, with and without the water polo ball. In order to practice game-time scenarios, scrimmages during practice are a way to practice game-time situations and can be mixed up with a drill such as shooter trials where whoever shoots or loses the ball must touch the cage of the opposing team before swimming on to defense.

Olympic Water Polo

olympic water polo

Water polo was first introduced to the olympic program in 1900 and was the first team sport to be added to the Olympic Games. Women’s water polo was introduced to the olympic program in 2000 during the Sydney Olympic Games, but FINA had hosted the first women’s world cup in 1979 and the first women’s world championship in 1986.

Hungary has won the most olympic medals in men’s water polo with thirteen total medals including 7 golds. European countries such as Italy, Spain, and Yugoslavia also have very successful men’s national teams. The United States is the only non-european team to medal in Olympic water polo with two silver medals and three bronze medals. In women’s water polo, the United States, Canada, and Australia often compete for dominance.

Water Polo Brands

Water Polo Brands

Water polo equipment and gear is made by both large brands that create gear for multiple sports as well as smaller brands that create solely water polo gear and equipment.

  • Nike: Goggles, parkas, apparel, and water polo suits
  • Turbo: A popular water polo brand, manufactures men’s and women’s suits and water polo caps
  • Kap Seven (Kap7): Manufactures water polo balls, ball bags, ball carts, water polo caps, and protective headwear
  • Speedo: Popular brand for goggles, swim caps, water polo suits, and apparel.
  • TYR: Manufactures goggles, apparel, and water polo swimsuits
  • Arena: Manufactures goggles, parkas, warm up sets and apparel, and some swim water polo suits.
  • Finis: Manufactures water polo caps, goggles, and apparel
  • Mikasa: Mikasa typically manufactures water polo balls and bags

Water Polo Youth Organizations

Water Polo Youth Organizations

In 31 states, there is at least one water polo club competing under the umbrella organization of USA Water Polo. Some of the larger clubs include Rose Bowl Water Polo Club in Pasadena, California and the New York Athletic Club found in New York City. There are also a few non-profit clubs, such as the SOCAL Water Polo Foundation that works to help develop children’s water polo skills.

Water Polo Coaches

Water Polo Coaches

Some of the most well known water polo coaches are:

Nikola Stamenic: Serbian water polo coach, coached the Yugoslavia men’s national water polo team beginning in 1988 and coached the Serbian men’s national water polo team from 1992 until 1999.

Ratko Rudic: Croation water polo coach; coached the national teams from Yugoslavia, Italy, the United States, Croatia, and Brazil.

Adam Kirkorian: USA women’s national team head coach. In 2019 he coached his team to winning all three major international competitions- the FINA World Championships, FINA World League, and the Pan American Games

Water Polo Players

Water Polo Players

Here are some well known water polo athletes:

Tony AzevedoUSA men’s national team captain
Dusan ManicSerbian national team member, professional player for Pro Recco
Dénes VargaHungarian national team member, won the 2008 Olympic gold medal
Maggie SteffensUSA women’s national team member, two time olympic gold medalist
Ashleigh Johnson USA women’s national team member and goalie, 2016 olympic gold medalist
Sabrina van der SlootDutch women’s national team member

Water Polo Leagues

Water Polo Leagues

There are professional water polo leagues that compete in Europe. A handful of them are:

  • LEN Champions League: Top-tier professional water polo league in Europe
  • Croatian First League of Water Polo: Pro water polo league in Croatia formed in 1991
  • Elitserien: The senior of two professional water polo leagues in Sweden
  • Deutsche Wasserball-Liga: Premier water polo league in Germany
  • Serie A1: Premier professional water polo league in Italy
  • A1 Ethniki Water Polo: Professional water polo league in Greece
  • Országos Bajnokság I: Professional water polo league in Hungary

Water Polo Teams

Water Polo Teams

A handful of pro water polo teams competing throughout Europe are:

  • Pro Recco: Professional water polo team in Italy
  • HAVK Mladost: Professional water polo team in Croatia
  • Ferencvárosi TC: Professional water polo team in Hungary
  • VK Partizan: Professional water polo team in Serbia
  • Olympiacos: Professional water polo team in Greece

Water Polo Tournaments

Water Polo Tournaments

There are a multitude of water polo tournaments at various levels. Some of the most covered tournaments are the international stage tournaments.

  • FINA World Championships: Occur every other year
  • Pan American Games: Occur every six years
  • NCAA Division I Tournament: Annual tournament at the US collegiate level

Water Polo Websites

Water Polo Websites

Websites can be helpful when looking for equipment, news, and competitions. Here are a few if you’re looking for more water polo info:

  • USA Water Polo: Website for the governing body of water polo in the United States
  • FINA Water Polo: Water polo page on the website for the international governing body of aquatic sports
  • CWPA Water Polo: Website for the Collegiate Water Polo Association
  • Swim England Water Polo: News and features of water polo inside and outside of England


What is Water Polo?

Water polo is a sport typically played in a pool with seven field players and a goaltender on each team. The objective is to score a soccer-sized ball in a net goal.

How does scoring work in water polo?

Water polo is similar to soccer and hockey. Each team defends their goal while trying to score on the other team’s goal. To score a goal, players throw the ball between the posts and under the crossbar of the opposing team’s goal. The team who scores more goals by the end of the game wins.

How is Water Polo played?

Water polo is played with 14 players, 7 on each team. Players are only allowed to have one of their hands on the ball at any time, except for the goalie. The goalie can use both hands and is the only player who can touch the bottom of the pool.

What are the Rules of Water Polo?

There are many fouls in water polo, which result in a loss of possession. A few of them include interference, shot clock violations, and push-offs. There are also major fouls, which result in the player being held out of play for 20 seconds. A few examples of significant fouls are kicking, splashing, and behavioral misconduct. Fouls are called by referees, who also judge when goals are scored and are in charge of stopping and starting play.

Water polo is popular in the United States, Canada, Australia, as well as European countries such as Hungary, Italy, Spain, and Yugoslavia.

Is Water Polo an olympic sport?

Men’s water polo became an Olympic sport in 1900 and was the first team sport added to the Olympic program. Women’s water polo was the last team sport to be added to the Olympic program in 2000, 100 years later.