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A Beginner's Guide to Water Polo: Core Knowledge

by Joseph Carr


The following will be an account of the core skill sets and knowledge central to the game of water polo. This will be divided into 4 sections; a look at the rules of the game, the physical requirements including eggbeater and sprints, ball skills and finally basic tactical information for both general play and man up. By the end of this guide you should know enough about the basic elements of the game to get started. Specific drills and tips will be included where appropriate. Assimilating knowledge about a sport by reading about it is always going to be a struggle. DON'T PANIC! I will try to make any explanations as simple as possible but really this is more of an aid to assist you in training. Hopefully it might make sense of parts of the game you have previously been confused about and then again when we go on in training to cover new ground. There might be more detail there you can follow so dip in and out of the material as you understanding grows I hope you find this useful.



You can be wrapped up for a whole game for swearing or showing dissent.

Key Point The referee is there to progress the game.

  • The philosophy of gaining a decision is to earn it by showing the referee you are trying to play the ball.
  • To earn a minor foul, let go of the ball and push into your defender. You then have a free pass.
  • Major fouls are gained largely through holding, pulling back and pushing under water
  • There are lots of little tit-bit rules but you'll pick these up in no time!

This section will go on to outline the key rules you need to know to make sense of the game. However first there will a brief explanation on the philosophy of refereeing and a more detailed explanation of the minor and major foul.

As you should know water polo consists of two teams, seven a side, with the object of swimming/passing/wrestling/ shooting the ball down the pool and into the opposition goals. So what are you allowed to do and what are you not? How does the game fit together? In order to get a sense of this you can not think of water polo as one would think about 'football'. There is no "well technically it should have been.." or endless video replay of a tackle to determine whether there was contact The referee is the only person in the room with the authority to determine what has happened, whatever he says is the decision it's as simple as that.

The referee is there primarily to progress the game. A good referees decisions will reward good play and good players and punish bad play. He is not there to agonise over the details of who was holding who and when. When you understand this basic principle all other rules suddenly make sense, as do previously inexplicable decisions.

Let me give you an example before we go on to discuss the minor and major foul. You may often see players looking or reacting in order to try and get a decision outside of the zone of play (i.e. at the other end of the pool to the ball). Perhaps they're being held, perhaps they've been kicked off. It is true that within the rules you can not kick or hold another player however only a very poor referee will give these kind of decisions. It is not his job to protect you from the game! If you are being held then you have to show that you are being held, if you have been kicked off then it is your own fault for being off balance and having the wrong body position. If you are not doing anything, not making an offensive play, then you should never ever ever get the decision.

This aspect of water polo may seem unfair and clearly is widely misconceived however it is fair. Remember so much of the physicality occurs underwater. By pulling round you and then kicking off, the player is clearly bigger/stronger/fitter/ more technically proficient than you are. You could not stop him doing that. By giving you the decision the referee would be rewarding your ineptitude and punishing his bit of skill. In water polo if you are not getting the decisions from the referee then you have to keep going! You earn your decisions! For example, if you are being aggressively held in a game then drive towards goal. By swimming and making a positive move you are showing the referee good play and by impeding you the defence are demonstrating bad play. You will then get the decision. If the attacker is grabbing your trunks then get your bum out of the water and show the referee You will then get the decision.

Though obviously there are bad referees and there are bad decisions, good players should view the referee as nothing more than a prop. We can see these principles at play in how one earns a 'minor' and major' foul.


A minor foul is just a decision made by the referee to allow the attacker a free pass

Signalled by one whistle and an arm pointing towards the attacking teams opposition goal, the defender must then drop back 1 meter and may only block vertically (no leaning forward!}. If the defender impedes the foul after the decision has been given, they will be sent out for a major foul After 3 seconds or after the attacker plays' the ball i.e. moves with it, judged by the referee, the defender may again press the attacker. If a minor foul is conceded outside of the 5 meter line then the attacker may take a first time shot, which it is why it is important to block. If the attacker has a double movement or is within the 5 meter line then the foul is reversed.

Dont be confused by the above. Achieving a foul is very simple. Protect the ball by positioning the full width of your shoulders between yourself and the defender and then release the ball and push into the defender as they try and steal it from you. The referee is always trying to progress the play. If you have the ball in your hand then he will expect you to use it i.e. pass rt, kick out for a shot or take on and turn your defender. To gain the foul you must show the referee that the defender is making it impossible for you to play the ball. Thus let go of the ball and manipulate the defender into pushing you under water.

You will never get a foul if you have hold of the ball. You will never get a foul if you hold the ball and then when out of position you let go and ask the referee to help you out. You must be in control and protect the ball at all times.


A major foul is for more serious offences that warrant further advantage than a simple free throw. These will be primanly gained through the centre forward' position, swimming in from the arc' and from stupidity. They entail the offending player being excluded from the game for 20 seconds of play. They have to leave the area of play by swimming into a designated area behind the goal and in front of their own bench.

Really REALLY bad fouls (or stupidity) result in either a wrapping up (exclusion for the entire game) or brutality (similar to a red card in football).

The offences that entail a major foul are unfortunately numerous however 90% of the major fouls given in a match will be according to the following rule:

WP 21.8 To hold, sink or pull back an opponent who is not holding the ball. ‘Holding’ is lifting, carrying or touching the ball, but does not include dribbling the ball.

This essentially means you can't grab someone, pull someone back or push them under water when they are not in possession of the ball. If they swim off then let them go, If you are in the center forward position then you have to jump round the attacker, rather than over them, in order to challenge for the ball.

To gain a major foul is not easy, It they are a good defender then you will have to expend a lot of energy not just getting into position to earn the foul (i.e. goal side) but also in showing the referee that he is in fact holding you. This part of the game is contentious at every standard and will be for you as well. The best advice I can give is when defending, make the effort to show your hands and when attacking always make the effort to keep going, even if it's impossible.


  • Possession changes every 30 seconds. Measured by a shot clock.
  • When you have 3 exclusions against you, you can no longer play in the game.
  • When substituting you have to get in and out in the designated area by your bench. Only after a goal may you jump in or climb out on the side.
  • If the attacker has a major foul given against them, while in the 5 meter area and through on goal, it is a penalty.
  • Penalties have to be taken in one motion.
  • If the goalkeeper has ‘ball under' given against them, then it is a penalty.


Key Point Practice Practice Practice

  • The importance of eggbeater. Both vertically and horizontally.
  • Sprinting and how to be inefficient

This section will cover the two basic physical aspects unique to water polo: Eggbeater and head up sprints. Each of these skills are picked up over time and practice. After a period of time the physical parts of water polo will seem second nature to you however everyone picks things up a their own speed. The skills will come, the important thing is while in the development stage to try and pick up as many good habits as you can.


This is one of the basic skills of water polo, a specific way of treading water. It allows you to keep level in the water by maintaining a solid base. The technique is simply alternately kicking your legs as you tread water, in a circular fashion, while sitting in an upright position and sculling with your hands The way this is illustrated is think about sitting in a chair. A lot of the skill involved with this exercise is to do with flexibility, the higher and wider your legs go, the more water you can push under you and the easier it is to perform.

In water polo we use this skill constantly, kicking up to catch a ball or kicking against or round a player. However the dynamic nature of our sport means that we are never static. Therefore it is very important to adapt your eggbeater to the demands of the game such as moving forward blocking, moving laterally, wrestling, jumping backwoods for an interception, etc. There are two techniques which will help you master the varying demands.


Perform eggbeater as normal. Begin to kick faster and raise yourself out of the water. When you have reached your plateau give a big scissor kick or breast stroke kick to jump out an extra few inches. You can then reach with a hand as if you are trying to catch or intercept a ball.

You can practice this by yourself next time you go swimming (as long as you don't mind looking a bit silly).


The further underneath your legs are the easier it is to push you away from goal. When facing off a player you must get your bum as high as possible horizontally in the water so that your legs can extend as much force as possible in the relevant direction.

Furthermore, just as in the vertical eggbeater kick, you can use the same technique to kick forward as if jumping round a defender.

This exercise can also be practiced next time you go swimming by simply doing lengths of the pool in the horizontal position, your bump up, doing egg beater all the way up the pool. Occasionally kicking forward.


Unlike competitive swimming water polo relies exclusively on power to push yourself through the water. It is far less important to train your muscles to be efficient in the water, rather train them to be better at coping with inefficiency. Acceleration is the name of the game!

Keeping your head up is vitally important, obviously as it is the only way you can know what is going on in the game. Your head should only come down to aid you in a chase and even then normally just for a few strokes before looking again.

When training for water polo it is more efficient to train for shorter distances, faster, rather than longer and more efficient. A great way to practice it is to get yourself a water polo ball and simulate 4 sets of 16 length sprints, like a match. Moving the ball forward with the wave in between your arms.




Key Point. If it works do it! Relax and think about the process.

Some helpful shooting tips.

If you ever took the time to think about all of the different technical details that make up a world class shot you would probably go insane! Everyone has their own method and technique and the rule is, if it works then do it! However whether building a shot from scratch or whether tinkering with your technique for experiments sake it helps to know a few key principles;

  1. Hold the ball above your head in the shooting position as if you are carrying a tray.
  2. The better/higher you kick out. the better your shot will be. A lot of this is about timing. You need to time your kick so lhat you're shooting at the top of your stroke.
  3. The power comes from your core and the rotation of your trunk NOT your arm and shoulder. Similar to a javelin thrower or baseball player.
  4. The accuracy of shot is helped by pointing your wrist at the end of the motion You should point with your index finger where you want the ball to end up.
  5. As Bruce Lee said 'be like water'. If you tense up while shooting your shot will lose power and accuracy. Rather think of your arm as a whip, keep it relaxed and flexible.
  6. Practice different kinds of shots and shots under pressure. It is easy to look good hitting the top comers with no goal keeper and no defenders however only top players can do it through blocks with someone grabbing their trunks.
  7. The dummy and timing of the shot is as important as the technique itself. A good keeper will save even world class shots if he is in position. You have to fool him and weaken him with a convincing dummy to have a decent chance.
  8. Finally when training and building your shot do not be afraid to experiment In a match it doesn't matter how it goes in however in training you should be working to commit to muscle memory the best technique possible. Don't think about the end result, only think about the technique. It doesn't matter if it missed, was saved or clanged in off the crossbar, what you are trying to learn is the process.



Key Point These are the formations we play water polo with.

  • The Arc Formation
  • The Man up and Man Down Formation

All water polo is played around 2 key formations: 'The Arc', and the 'Man Up' 4-2. The arc is the formation for general play and the 4-2 is the formation for man up and man down. Though there are hundreds of variations, all of them start with these two basic ideas. Even when exhausted and disorientated, if you can manage to get into position, you should be okay.

There are 6 attackers and 6 defenders who mark each man for man There is a player in the centre on two meters called the 'pit player, a player on each wing also on two meters and a player opposite each of the posts on the goal but this time 5 meters out. Finally there is a player on the top of the arc. on 7 meters, who dictates the play,

The centre position is the most important as that is the primary focus of the attack They will wrestle with the pit defender and try to get exclusions or good shots away from close range. Each of the post players (labeled 2 and 4) are called drivers as they are responsible for forcing the attack. Number 3 position is the last person back so must be more careful about committing to an offensive swim. The wings are stationed deep and are used to provide a ball round a defence into the pit or in quick offensive screens with the drivers.

When attacking the players must face towards goal, horizontal in the water, ready to drive, often touching or pushing against the defenders.

When defending the players must face the attacks, also horizontal in the water, keeping an eye on the ball and movement round the arc. They must mark the attacker by putting both hands on their chest and trying to push them out. or jump round when they are passed the ball. If the attacker drives then the defender must quickly bring their knees up to change direction and follow the attacker into the middle.


Upon a successful pass to the pit or drive into a dangerous position the defence will be put under pressure to foul you. After committing an exclusion, the offending player will be sent out for 20 seconds. This gives the attack a crucial advantage. A good rate of return of man-ups is scoring around 70-80%.

There are various ways of achieving this however the basic formation is as follows;

As you can see, the attacking formation is 4 along the back on 2 meters, one each post and then one on each wing and then 2 players on 5 meters opposite each post.

In defence the formation is obviously different with only 3 along the back and two working in between the back line and the 5 meter line. Though this will become more apparent in training, the defence moves across according to which side the ball is moved towards. The defensive player in the middle covers each of the post attackers depending on where the ball is. If you imagine all of the defenders are tied by a bit of string to the ball, then as the ball goes round the defenders lean towards it and are dragged to the proper defensive positions.

The attack works the ball round in an effort to find and create weaknesses to exploit.

The man up and man down system is probably the most complicated thing you will learn in water polo. However the premise is that through this formation, or some derivative, you limit the attacker's advantage by always being ahead of the ball and always covering the shot.



In this guide there is an explanation for each of the three basic parts of the game of water polo, the rules, the physical dynamic, passing and shooting and finally the formations. I hope that it was both simple enough to follow and has enough depth to get you along the right track.