Water Polo Basics


The Essentials

Game Length: A game of water polo is divided into four seven-minute quarters. A game clock counts down the time left in each quarter. A shot clock, which starts at 30 seconds, counts down the time that the offense has to shoot the ball on each possession.  Both clocks stop immediately following a foul and do not start until the ball is put back into play.  With the clock constantly stopping and with the breaks between quarters, a water polo game lasts about an hour.

Start of the Game: At the beginning of each quarter, each team lines up on the goal line. Once the referee blows the whistle to signal the start of each quarter, the players sprint toward mid-pool where the referee drops the ball. Whoever wins the sprint is the first to be on offense.

Offense and Defense: Players advance by swimming, dribbling, and passing the ball. With the exception of the goalie, they can only touch the ball with one hand at a time. Most offenses organize themselves into a similar configuration each time they prepare to score a goal. The offense surrounds the hole-set, who is positioned directly in front of the opponent's goal. Perimeter players, also known as drivers, try to take a shot at the goal or attempt a wet-pass into the hole-set (a strategy called "setting the hole"). The hole-set shoots the ball if given the opportunity, but is often strategically fouled by the hole-defender, who chooses to foul the hole-set and force a free-pass rather than allow him to shoot the ball.  Immediately following a foul, there are three seconds of dead-time, in which the fouled player must put the ball in play. During dead-time, perimeter players drive towards the goal to either become available to take a shot, or 'draw a foul,' which results in the defender's exclusion from the game for 20 seconds.  During the 20 second exclusion, the offensive team is in a power play (6-on-5) that creates a high probability for scoring.

Scoring: A goal is scored once the ball completely passes over the goal line. If a goal is scored, the teams line up mid-pool and the non-scoring team takes possession of the ball.

Counter-attack and transition: The counter-attack is the transition between when the defensive team obtains possession of the ball and when it sets up in front of its opponent's goal. During the counterattack, the goalkeeper looks for an outlet to an open player down-field who either runs a fast break or sets up the offense.

Equipment: There is minimal equipment in water polo. Players wear swimsuits and caps. Additionally, there is a yellow ball and several goals The women's ball (size 4) is slightly smaller than the men's ball (size 5).


Whistles and Fouls: Water polo is a physical sport. There is considerable contact under the water. Unlike many sports where play is stopped anytime a whistle blows or a foul is called, in water polo the speed of play often increases following a whistle.

Foul Type: There are three types of fouls: ordinary, exclusion, and penalty fouls.

Ordinary Foul: Violation of minor rules. Results in free throw for fouled team. Accounts for the majority of the fouls in the game. Examples include: using two hands, impeding the movement or pushing off of an opponent, 2-meter violation, shot clock violation, and ball under. Fouls are signaled by one whistle for defensive fouls and two for offensive fouls (turnovers). Referee points in the direction ball will be played.

Exclusion Foul (Kickout): More serious violations of the rules.  Results in the exclusion of a player until 20 seconds have passed, a goal is scored, or possession has changed. Examples include: interfering with a free throw, holding, sinking or pulling a player not holding the ball, or committing an ordinary foul during dead-time. Signaled by several consecutive whistles. Referee points at a player and then to the re-entry area.

Penalty Foul (5-meter): Called inside the 5-meter line, in which a goal was probable if a foul had not been committed. Results in a penalty shot from the 5-meter line. An example is during a fast break attempt when a defender sinks a player that has possession of the ball immediately in front of the goal. Signaled by a long-whistle, referee holds up five fingers. 

***NOTE: Fouls will not be called if the offensive player is holding the ball in hand. Often, a player who is holding the ball may be pulled, pushed, dunked, etc. and no foul is called. Although spectators may become upset, there is no foul to call until the player drops the ball.

Field Diagram 

The diagram below illustrates standard measurements for a water polo field. With the exception of the goalie, players may not use the bottom of the pool to stand or push off during the game. Each water polo pool is marked with several important lines:

Goal lines (white): Lines that mark the boundary on either end of the pool.

2-meter line (red): Line that not be crossed by offensive players without possession of the ball, unless the ball is inside the line and they are behind the line of the ball. Corner throws are taken from the 2-meter line, and goal throws are taken between the goal line and the 2-meter line.

5-meter line (yellow): Line from which penalty shots are taken. Also, Line outside of which an offensive player may immediately shoot the ball in one continuous motion (no pumping or faking) following an ordinary foul. The goalie becomes a regular field player if he crosses the 5-meter line.

Mid-pool (white): Marks the spot where the referee drops the ball during the sprint. This is also where players line up after a goal. 

Field positions 

There are two teams of seven players each. Each team has one goalie and six field players. The goalies wear red caps, the home team’s field players wear dark-colored caps, and the visiting team’s field players wear white caps. The diagram below shows a typical offensive formation known as 3-3.


Hole-set: An offensive player who positions himself directly in front of the opponent’s goal to run the offense. Teammates pass the ball to the hole-set, who attempts to shoot it or pass it to an open teammate. Also called the center forward, hole, hole-man, or 2-meter man.

Wings: Positioned at the 2-meter line on far left and right side of goal. The wings pass the ball to hole-set when there is an opening.

Drivers/Flats: Positioned at or just beyond the 5-meter line. The drivers/flats pass the ball to hole-set when there is an opening.

Point: Positioned furthest from goal, behind the 5-meter line. The point communicates with the team on offense.

The wings, drivers, and point players are often referred to as perimeter players. To become an effective perimeter player, players must have strong knowledge of drives and ball picks (screens) as well as having the speed and upper body strength to shoot and pass the ball even under pressure. They must also be attentive to the offensive or defensive direction of the goalkeeper and the hole-set.


Goalie: Defensive player who guards the goal by blocking the opponent’s shots. The goalie is the only player who can touch the ball with two hands at once. Also called goalkeeper.

Hole-Defender: A defensive player who guards the hole-set. The hole-guard’s main objective is to prevent the hole-set from scoring, often by purposely committing ordinary fouls. Because of field position, the point on offense will typically be the first back on defense and therefore the hole-defender.


Advantage rule: A referee’s decision to let play continue when a foul was committed that, if called, would be a disadvantage to the team that was fouled.

Backhand: A pass or shot that is thrown backwards. Most commonly seen as a shot from the hole-set.

Ball under: An ordinary foul for taking or holding the ball underwater while in contact with an opposing player.

Brutality: An exclusion foul for extremely rough play such as striking another player. Results in player being removed from the remainder of the game.

Corner throw: A free throw by the offensive team when the ball goes out of bounds over the goal line and was last touched by the defense (usually the goalie).

Dead time: The period of time, no longer than 3 seconds, following a foul before the ball is put back into play. Minor fouls committed during dead time become exclusion fouls.

Dribble: To swim with the ball using a modified (head above water) crawl stroke.

Drive: To swim quickly toward the goal without the ball to become open for a pass.

Drop: A strategy in which a defender swims toward the goal to protect it from incoming offensive players.

Dry pass: A pass in which the ball never touches the water.

Eggbeater: A kicking motion, using alternating circular motions of the leg, for treading water.

Free throw: A free pass granted immediately following a foul.

Front: A defensive strategy by the hole-guard to block the passing lane by playing between the hole-set and the ball.

Goal throw: A free throw awarded to the defense (goalie) when the ball goes out of bounds over the goal line and was last touched by the offense.

Impede: To prevent the movement of a player not holding the ball.

Inside water: A situation when the offensive player has an advantageous position in front of the defender, with nothing but open water between them and the goalkeeper.

Lane press: Strategy in which defensive players put pressure, without fouling, on the player with the ball and attempt to block the passing lanes.

Outlet: A pass from the goalie to an offensive player at the start of a counter-attack. Also called a release.

Passing lane: The area between the ball carrier and the intended receiver of the ball.

Power Play: The offensive advantage when a defensive player serves an exclusion foul (20 seconds). Also called a '6-on-5' or 'man-up'.

Slough: The defensive strategy in which a defender drops off a driver to help guard passes into the hole-set.

Strong side: The side of the pool on the same side as the ball.

Weak side: The side of the pool opposite the ball. During the game, players often yell ’weak’ to indicate that they are open on the other side of the pool.

Wet pass: A pass in which the ball lands in the water. A wet pass is used to ’set' the hole.