The Wild World of Water Polo

Water polo is often thought of as the “other” water-based sport, but recently it has seen significant growth in the United States. It’s a fast paced, exciting, and occasionally rough game that I found myself thrown into coaching last semester!

A regulation-size water polo pool at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The Rules

  1. There are 7 players from each team allowed in the game at a time
    1. 1 goalie and 6 field players or 7 field players
  2. Put the ball in the net (or “on the cage” as water polo players/coaches prefer to say) to score a point
  3. Fouls can be called for interfering with a players movement, unless that player has the ball
    1. If a foul is called the defensive player must back off the offensive player until that player makes a “water polo move”
  4. Penalties work like hockey but with a twist – players sit out for either 20 seconds or until their team regains possession of the ball, whichever comes first
    1. If a player is ejected like this 3 times in one game, that player must sit out the rest of the game (this is called getting “rolled” in water polo)
  5. Players can only touch the ball with one hand at a time
  6. There is a 35 second shot clock in the women’s game and a 30 second shot clock in the men’s game (at the NCAA level, shot clocks can be different in other levels)
  7. Games are broken up into 4 quarters of 8 minutes each
  8. Each team gets three “full” timeouts and one 30 second timeout
  9. The ball cannot be passed across the 2 meter line, it must be carried
Note the red and yellow lines on the side of the pool. The red line marks the area 2 meters in front of the goal. The yellow line marks the area 5 meters in front of the goal.

That covers the basics. Ideally water polo is played in a pool that has a uniform depth, but this is not always possible. If the pool has a shallow and deep end, the goalie in the shallow end is the only player allowed to touch the bottom of the pool but they must defend a higher net. There are more intricate rules like ball under, exposure (exactly what it sounds like), and so on. If you really get into the game you might want to learn those rules as well.

Levels of Competition

Players usually start around high school age due to the game’s physicality, but there are some clubs that start younger. In the United States high school water polo is especially prominent on the West coast, but teams can also be found in the East. There is also a highly competitive club scene.

Water polo is an NCAA sport, with a championship tournament hosted every year. There are 39 men’s teams and 58 women’s teams (across Divisions I, II, and III) in the NCAA. The game is also played at the Olympic/international level, and is especially big in Eastern Europe.


Water polo is a fun and fast-growing sport. To see more, try looking up some of the games from the recent Rio Olympics!


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