Introduction to Water Polo

By Jill Gardiner , last updated November 20, 2011

While anyone who’s ever watched the Summer Olympics has likely heard of water polo, not everyone is necessarily familiar with how the game is played. With a brief introduction to the sport’s history, rules, field of play, and positions, you’ll be able to follow along in no time. A true test of one’s aquatic endurance, don’t let the fact that this sport is played in a pool fool you into thinking it’s leisure oriented; this fast paced game of passing and scoring is as rigorous as any other team sport. Whether you’re thinking about taking this sport up yourself or are simply interested in learning more about it, here’s a basic introduction into the wild, wet world of water polo.


Initially modeled on English rugby, the water-based version of the sport was being played as early as the mid-1800s. Players could hold the ball with two hands, even tuck it into their swimsuits, and swim underwater towards the goals while goalies waited on dry land to pounce on them once they surfaced. A particularly brutal sport, this game had all the wrestling and violence of rugby but with most of it happening beneath the surface of the pool. It was the adoption of Scottish rules in 1911, rules that focused on swimming and passing, which resulted in the version of the game we know today, one that is more similar to soccer.


Each team consists of seven players, regardless of whether they are playing offense or defense. Each team has a goalie, while the offensive team has a “hole-set,” who’s position is right in front of the opposing goal, and the defensive team has a “hole guard,” whose job it is to prevent the hole-set from scoring. The remaining five players on the offensive team are called “drivers,” and the remaining five players on the defensive team guard those drivers. Drivers attempt to score goals or pass to the hole-set and their guards attempt to interfere with scoring and to gain possession of the ball.

Field of Play

The field of play in water polo is not a field at all, but a pool. Goals are located in the center of each end, and a white line running from the front of the net to the sides of the pool is called the “goal line.” Six feet from the goal line, a red line called the “2 meter line” indicates a boundary which offensive players cannot cross unless they are in possession of the ball. Six feet from the 2 meter line, a yellow line called the “5 meter line” marks the spot where players take penalty shots. There is also a white line at the halfway point between the two goals called the “mid-pool line.” This is where the referee drops the ball at the beginning of play and demarcates the limit of the goalie’s advancement.


To begin, the referee drops the ball at the mid-pool line and both teams rush forward to gain possession. The team that does become the offensive team moves the ball forward, either by dribbling or passing, and then attempts to score by throwing it into the goal. If no shot is taken in thirty-five seconds, it’s a turnover and the other team gets possession of the ball. No one can touch the bottom of the pool and no one besides the goalie can touch the ball with more than one hand. These and certain types of offensive or defensive actions are considered fouls and can result in a free throw and temporary or permanent exclusion from the game.

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