Water polo originated in England and Scotland was one of the original team sports at the first modern Olympic Games in 1900 with Great Britain winning the first four men’s Olympic gold medals in 1900, 1908, 1912 and 1920.
The sport combines speed and strength as well as teamwork and a high level of fitness – one outfield player can cover up to two miles in one game alone.
To help you understand more about water polo, we’ve broken down the basic water polo rules into simplified sections below.
Put simply, there are goals at each end of the pool and the winner of the game is the team that scores the most goals by getting the ball between the posts.
Click one of the buttons below to get more detail about water polo. Find out about the rules, game time and physicality, or use our water polo terms dictionary to learn more about water polo language.
Each team is allowed to have seven players in the water at any one time (six ‘outfield’ players and a goalkeeper). Other than the goalkeeper, you will see the other players moving continuously around the pool.
They are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool and must tread water the entire time – although players use a movement called the egg-beater which is more efficient than the normal action of treading water.
Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming while pushing the ball in front of them. They can only hold the ball with one hand, other than the goalkeeper who can use both hands.
Water polo players need remarkable stamina because of the considerable amount of holding and pushing that occurs during the game. As it’s such a fast game and can be quite draining, each team is also allowed a maximum of six substitutes.
Under FINA rules, a water polo match is divided into quarters.
Each of the four periods is eight minutes long but because the clock is stopped when the ball is not ‘in play’, in real life the average quarter lasts around 12 minutes.
Each team is only allowed to hold onto the ball for a maximum of 30 seconds before shooting for the goal. If they haven’t done this then possession passes to the other team.
Water polo is often seen as a physical sport as players jockey for position or aim to knock away or steal the ball from the other team.
Deliberately kicking or hitting an opponent with the intent to injure is against the rules, but sometimes players will commit a foul in order to stop a player shooting for goal or getting into space.
Players will also try and stop other players even if they haven’t got the ball. They may try to grab their opponent’s shoulders, back or legs. This is also a foul.
A player caught committing a major foul is asked to leave the pool for 20 seconds. A major foul includes sinking (dunking) a player, swimming on another player’s back or trying to stop the other player from swimming.
Once asked to leave the pool a player who has committed a major foul may return sooner if a goal is scored or his team regains possession. If a player commits a major foul three times they must sit out the whole match.
You can’t learn about the rules of water polo without understanding the key water polo language and terms.
A quick read of our concise water polo dictionary below and you’ll be good to go.
So man-up (a water polo pun!) and get reading!
Simply click on the drop down menu, choose your word, and a definition will appear below.
- Determines possession of the ball at the start of each period of play. Players from each team line up at their respective goal lines. The ball is released at halfway and, at the signal of the referee, players swim for the ball.
- Under FINA rules, the home team usually wear white caps and the visiting team wear coloured (traditionally blue). Goalkeepers must wear red caps to make them easily identifiable to the referees. Caps are numbered from 1 to 13 with goalkeepers wearing 1 and 13. Only seven players per team are allowed in the water at one time.
- Unlike outfield players, the goalkeeper may touch the ball with two hands simultaneously. Outside the five-meter line, goalies must adhere to field player rules. They are not allowed to cross the half-distance line.
- Attacking player who generally plays between the two and four meter lines and outside either/both goal posts.
- Centre forward
- The attacking player who establishes a position directly in front of the opponents' goal, between the two- and five-meter lines. This position is usually played by someone who has good leg-strength and is one of the larger players on the team. These players must have excellent shooting skills. Also known as hole forward or pit player.
- Field players who specialise in escaping their defenders by swimming towards the goal. Drivers need outstanding hand-eye coordination, a good shot, and must be fast swimmers.
- The attacking player who is farthest from the goal and usually in the centre of the pool. The point position is responsible for communicating with the rest of the attack and has frequent passing opportunities.
- Centre back
- The defender who plays between his/her own goal and the attack's centre forward, or hole set. Also known as hole guard.
- Water polo games are played in four quarters, the length of which differs according to the level of play. International matches consist of four eight-minute quarters. The time remaining is stopped every time play stops.
- Shot clock
- The clock that counts down the number of seconds a team has to shoot at the goal. The shot clock is reset (to 30 seconds) if the attacking team gets possession of a rebound.
- A shot or throw in which a player tosses the ball directly behind him/herself.
- Counter attack
- Quickly converting from defence to attack and pushing the ball toward the opponent's goal following a turnover.
- Dry Pass
- A pass made and caught without the ball touching the water.
- Wet pass
- A pass thrown so that it lands in the water, away from a defensive player. Sometimes this pass is thrown to a spot the attacking player is moving towards on the counter attack.
- Off-the-water shot
- A shot on the goal taken while the ball is controlled on the water; typically a quick wrist shot.
- To lose possession of the ball through poor retention of possession, fouling, or a shot clock violation.
- Ordinary Foul
- Also called minor fouls, these rule violations are penalized by awarding a free throw to the opposing team. Examples of ordinary fouls are: impeding an opposition player; standing; touching the ball with two hands simultaneously; pushing the ball under water. Ordinary fouls are signalled by the referee with one short whistle blast; with one hand the referee will point to the spot of the foul, and with the other signal the team who has possession.
- Free throw
- After an ordinary foul, the player closest to the spot of the rule infraction is allowed a free throw. The throw must be made without delay from that spot or from the location of the ball if that is further from the defending team’s goal, unless otherwise directed. The defender may not challenge the player making the throw until he/she has released the ball. Instead of passing to a teammate, the player may also take the foul to themselves by momentarily letting go of the ball, but may not shoot at the goal, even after dribbling, unless he/she takes an immediate shot from outside the five-meter line.
- Exclusion foul
- Also called major fouls, these are signalled by two short bursts of the whistle. Players committing major fouls are excluded from the game until their team regains possession or 20 seconds have passed. Players serving major foul penalties must leave the field of play without interference to the game, and serve their ejection in a designated penalty area.
- Penalty foul
- Called when a player commits a foul that is directly intended to prevent a goal from scoring while the ball is inside the five-meter line. The player who commits the foul receives a personal fault, and the opposing team is awarded a penalty throw. A penalty foul is also called when the defence holds, sinks or pulls back an offensive player who has inside water and control of the ball inside the five-meter line.
- Penalty throw
- A free shot on the goal, taken from anywhere along the five-meter line. When the penalty throw is made, the only player allowed between the shooter and the goal is the goalkeeper.
- Personal foul
- Major and penalty fouls are personal fouls. Any player committing three personal fouls is excluded from the rest of the game.
- When one player enters the game, in place of a teammate. Substitutions can be made between periods, during time-outs or following a goal. Running substitutions can be made by the player to be substituted moving to the re-entry area. Substitutions are also made for players who are ejected from the game due to a red card, two yellow cards, or three personal fouls.
- Two-meter violation
- When a player is within two meters of the opponent's goal line. This is an ordinary foul. The only time a player can remain in this position is if they are behind the line of the ball.
- A stop in play. In order to call a time-out a team must have possession of the ball. In regulation time, teams are allowed to call as many as two 60-second timeouts. In overtime, teams are allowed only one timeout, no matter how many periods overtime lasts.
- Official in charge of ensuring fair play throughout a game. There should be two referees, one on each side of the pool, whose responsibilities change with possession and direction of play. The referees' decisions on fouls, scores, possession and other rule infractions are final.
- Lob shot
- A shot on the goal that is lobbed over the field of play, and intended to fly over the hands of the goal keeper and drop under the crossbar.
- When the ball passes completely over the goal line, between the uprights and under the crossbar. One point is awarded to the attacking team, so long as the ball was not punched into the goal and was touched by at least two players after the start, restart or free throw.
- Bounce shot
- An outside water shot executed by throwing the ball at an angle into the water, with sufficient force to make it bounce into the goal. Also called a skip shot.
- Red card
- Card shown by the referee to signal that a player (or coach) is ejected from the game for inappropriate conduct. The player or coach must leave the pool deck.
- Yellow card
- Card shown by the referee to warn a player (or coach) that their conduct is inappropriate. Two yellow cards are the equivalent of a red card.
- Corner throw
- A free throw taken at the intersection of the sideline and the 2-meter line. A corner throw is awarded when the ball goes out of bounds at the goal line and was last touched by the goalkeeper.
- Term that describes the advantage for the attacking team that occurs when a player is called for a major foul and ejected for 20 seconds. For the duration of the exclusion, the attacking team, with 6 players in the game, is said to be "man-up," and the defensive team, with 5 players in the game, said to be "man-down." The situation is also described as a power play or extra-man situation.