Water Polo Rules: A Beginner’s Guide

FINA Water Polo World Cup. Summer Olympics. European Water Polo Championship. What happens underwater, stays underwater. Thankfully, for you, we have done the work to bring the basic rules of water polo above the surface.

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    How Many Players Can Be In The Pool? What Are The Positions And Officials In A Match?

    Each team consists of 14 players and can have a maximum of seven players in the pool at one time.

    There is one goalkeeper and six fielders per team. Each team has an extra goalie and six field players on the bench.

    Each player will assume a position depending on if their team is on offense or defense.

    Let’s dive deeper into these positions and explore their specific responsibilities:

    1. Center Forward: As the primary goal scorer, the center forward strategically positions themselves right in front of the opposing team’s goal, utilizing their exceptional skills to receive accurate passes from their teammates. Their ability to anticipate the movements of both their team members and the opposition allows them to create scoring opportunities and put points on the board.

    2. Center Back: The center back is a vital role in the team’s defensive strategy. Tasked with guarding and defending against the opposing center forward, their focus lies in disrupting the opponent’s offensive plays and protecting their own goal. In addition to their defensive duties, center backs also play a crucial role in directing the team’s defensive efforts, providing instructions and communicating with teammates to maintain a strong defensive formation.

    3. Wing: The dynamic and agile wing players excel at creating scoring opportunities for the team. With their remarkable speed, they swiftly swim towards the opposing team’s goal, relying on precise passes from their teammates to execute their offensive plays. Wings, known for their exceptional agility, enable themselves to maneuver through the water with ease and outwit their opponents to score crucial goals.

    4. Point: Positioned near the top and at the center of the offensive formation, the point player is often regarded as the most skilled and tactically astute individual on the team. They have exceptional control over the ball and are responsible for orchestrating the team’s offense. With their ability to assess the game situation and make split-second decisions, they lead the team’s offensive efforts, directing their teammates and setting up scoring opportunities.

    There are eight officials: two referees, a secretary, video assistant referee, two timekeepers, and two goal judges. The water polo rules do not require to have this amount of officials for each match. Therefore, it is not uncommon for officials to have multiple responsibilities for a match.

    What Are The Water Polo Rules for Equipment?

    You’ll need a few items to prepare for a game of water polo. First item is obviously the water polo ball – it’s like a soccer ball but with a special grip for the water. For the perfect fit and comfort, don’t forget a well-fitting swimsuit (one-piece for the ladies).

    A swim cap keeps your hair out of your face and helps you see clearly in the water. Goggles are great for eye protection and better underwater vision. Water polo rules recommend a mouthguard and ear guards for added protection during those intense battles for the ball.

    A water polo player is about to shoot at the goal.
    Photo by Weston Eichner on Unsplash

    What Type Of Fouls Are In Water Polo?

    According to water polo rules, there are three different types of fouls: ordinary, major, and brutality.

    Ordinary Foul

    An ordinary foul is a minor foul and usually results in a free throw, goal throw, or corner throw.

    • Grabbing the ball with two hands

    • Taking the ball underwater when tackled

    • Goalkeeper touching the ball with both hands past the 5 meter line

    • A player, excluding the goalie, hitting the ball with a clenched fist

    • Taking a penalty shot that is not in a smooth, continuous motion

    • Stopping, holding or pulling a player underwater when they do not have the ball

    • Pushing off of an opponent while attempting to pass or score

    • Stalling; Intentionally not moving, shooting or passing the ball within 30 seconds

    • Unnecessary delay with a penalty throw, goal throw or free throw

    • Flopping or simulating the act of being fouled

    • Splashing (Note: This can upgrade to a major foul based on the severity)

    Major (or Exclusion) Foul

    A major foul is considered an intentional foul and the penalized player will head into the re-entry area behind the goal for 20 seconds. Once a player receives 3 major fouls in a match, the referee ejects the player from the game.

    • Kicking or striking a player

    • Deliberate splashing in the face (Note: This can be an ordinary foul based on the severity)

    • Interfering with a free throw, goal throw, corner throw and penalty throw before it is taken

    • A player leaves the pool without the permission of the referee.

    • Attempt to block a shot or pass with two hands

    • A goalkeeper attempts to block a shot or pass with two hands pass the 5 meter line

    • Aggressively holding, sinking or pulling back an opponent not holding the ball

    • Holding a player with two hands while on defense

    Brutality Foul

    A brutality foul is a violent foul or blatant disrespect for others and the game. If a player commits a brutality foul, the referee issues the player a red card and ejected from the game immediately. This is regardless of the amount of major fouls they have.

    • Using foul language or violent and persistent foul play

    • Disrespecting the referee

    • Deliberately trying to injure a player

    What Is A Penalty Throw And How Is It Determined?

    A penalty foul is when the referee determines that a major or brutality foul prevents the offense from a scoring opportunity. The referee will set it up for just the goalkeeper and the offensive player to face each other. The offensive player will take a penalty throw from the 5 meter line and must throw the ball in a smooth, continuous motion (e.g. no hesitation or fakes).

    • Any defending foul committed within the 5 meter line that could have resulted in a scored goal

    • An opposing player commits an act of brutality or kicks or strikes an opponent within the 5 meter line

    • Affecting the lineup of the goal by pulling or pushing it

    • A defender punches the ball with a clenched fist on a scoring opportunity

    • A player with a major foul re-enters the game too early

    • A player off the bench enters the pool without the referee’s permission and impacts the shot

    • A coach on the defending team makes a clear intent to delay the game

    How Large Is The Pool In Water Polo? How Long Is A Water Polo Game?

    The pool is 30 m in length by 20 m wide and the pool is 1.8 m deep. There is a red line (2 m line) from the goal and a yellow line (5 m line) away from the goal. The “Phases of the Game” and “Fouls and Penalties” sections discuss the purposes of these lines.

    The game is 32 minutes long and contains four quarters of 8 minutes. Each team gets (1) one minute timeout per quarter. Once a team gets possession of the ball, they have 30 seconds to shoot the ball. If they fail to shoot at the end of 30 seconds, the ball goes to the other team. The shot clock resets anytime the ball goes out of play, a foul occurs, or a change in possession.

    The goalie is making an attempt to block the ball.
    Photo by Eugene Lim on Unsplash

    What Are The Phases Of A Water Polo Game?

    The game begins with the ball on the mid-line in the middle of the pool.

    The goal of the game is to score more goals than the other team. A goal happens when a player is able to throw the ball within the opponent’s net.

    A player can pass the ball to any teammate but they can only catch and handle the ball with one hand. The only exception is that the goalkeeper can handle the ball with both hands until the 5 m line.

    A player with the ball can move inside the 2 m line to get a better shot at goal. Also, their teammate can move inside the 2 m line but can’t be closer to the goal than them.

    A player can be called for an ordinary foul if they move inside the 2 m line without a teammate and a teammate passes them the ball. This is water polo’s equivalent of “offsides”.

    A player can swim with the ball by pushing the ball with one hand ahead of them while swimming. However, the player can’t push the ball underwater at any time.

    All water polo players must tread water and are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool. The only exception is that the goalkeeper can touch the bottom of the pool.

    If the match has a tie game at the end of the 4th quarter, the teams engage in a shootout to determine the victor.

    FINA Water Polo Tournaments

    There are several tournaments held every 1-4 years by the international governing body for water polo, FINA. These include:

    • FINA Water Polo World Cup: The World Cup occurs every four years and offers a unique water polo competition for all nations around the world.

    • FINA World Aquatics Championships: Held every two years, this event highlights the best in international aquatics including swimming, diving, open water swimming and water polo. It is one of the most prestigious aquatic events in the world.

    • FINA World Masters Championships: This event is specifically for athletes over 25 years of age and provides a unique competition for veteran water polo players to compete in. This tournament occurs every two years at the same time as FINA World Aquatics Championships.

    • Youth Water Polo World Championships: This tournament features teams from all around the world and helps foster a new generation of water polo talent. It is open to athletes aged 18 and under, making it the perfect platform for young players to showcase their skills. This tournament occurs every two years.

    • European Water Polo Championships: This championship tournament brings together some of the best water polo teams from throughout Europe. This tournament occurs every two years.

    • FINA World Aquatics Championships: Held every two years, this event is the largest international water polo tournament in the world and brings together athletes from all over the globe. It offers an incredible platform for competitors to showcase their skills on a global stage. Due to complications with COVID-19, this tournament will run 4 years in a row (2022-2025). After 2025, the tournament will occur every two years onward.

    Although it’s not governed by FINA, water polo has a strong presence at international tournaments, such as the Olympics, Pan American Games, and World Championships.


    Water polo is an exciting, fast-paced sport that requires skill, athleticism and teamwork. Anyways, no need to tread lightly. You made it through and understand water polo rules better now. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share this with others.