A Spectator’s Guide to Water Polo
Adapted from a piece by Peter W. Pappas
Each year the rules of the game are prone to at least minor changes. Prior to the 202o Olympics, FINA, the NCAA, and the NFHS all accepted a set of significant changes to the rules. This article largely reflects the most current rules as of 2021 with the understanding that some changes are likely in the coming years.
Field of Play
- In a 25-yard (meter), six- (or eight-) lane pool, the entire pool constitutes the field of play. In larger pools, the perimeter of the field of play may be indicated by lane lines. The maximum size of the field of play is 75 feet (25 meters) long by 66 feet (20 meters) wide.
- The pool (field of play) is divided into areas by colored cones (or markers) along the side of the pool. Rules dictate that the cones should be of particular colors , as indicated below. But there is a broadly accepted allowance for deviating from those rules (cones cost money!). More important than the colors is the placement, which is as follows.
- Goal line – white cone: A goal counts only when the ball goes completely across the goal line and into the goal. The ball is out of bounds if it goes completely across the goal line and not into the goal.
- 2-meter line – red cone: No offensive player is allowed to swim inside of the 2-meter line unless he/she has possession of the ball, akin to “offside” in soccer.
- 5-meter line – yellow cone: Under the most recent rules changes the purpose of the 5-meter cone is solely to indicate the position from which a player will take a penalty throw (see below).
- 6-meter line – yellow cone:
- Indicates an area where an offensive player may take an unimpeded direct shot on the goal after receiving an ordinary foul. The fouled player may also shoot from outside six meters after having put the ball back in play (“popping” it in the air, demonstrably dropping it on the water). Under those conditions the defender may re-engage. Players may not shoot under either condition inside six meters. The referee will indicate that a player is in this position by raising one hand high above his or her head
- If a defensive player commits a foul inside of the 6-meter line which prevents a goal, as interpreted by the referee, the defensive player is charged with a penalty (personal) foul and the opposing team is awarded a penalty throw (a “5-meter”).
- Mid-pool – white cone: After each goal is scored, play is re-started at mid-pool.
- Each team must have seven players (six field players and one goalkeeper) in the water when the game starts.
- Either team may substitute players freely after a goal is scored, during a time-out, or between periods.
- During actual play, substitutions must occur through the team’s re-entry area (the corner of the pool in front of the team’s bench).
- Recent rules also allow for “on the fly” substitutions in courses where there are sidelines. Under those conditions, and as allowed by the hosts of the competition, during the run of play an exiting player can visibly touch hands with the entering player in the area past the sideline on the team’s half of the pool.
- If an illegal player (e.g. an eighth player, or one who has already fouled-out of the game) enters the field of play, that player is excluded from the remainder of the game and the opposing team is awarded a penalty throw [this rule varies slightly depending on whether the game is sanctioned by the NCAA, USA Water Polo, or the NFHS].
- By far the most common type of foul called is the “ordinary foul.” Ordinary fouls are the source of the vast majority of referee whistles during a match.
- To indicate an ordinary foul the referee blows the whistle once and points in the direction of the attack (i.e., the direction that the offensive team is moving).
- The player who was fouled (or a teammate) is allowed a “free throw” meaning he or she can put the ball back in play unimpeded by a defender. The offensive player must put the ball back in play within a reasonable amount of time.
- If a defender interferes with the taking of the free throw, the defender is excluded (ejected or “kicked- out,” see below).
- In most cases, a player taking a free throw cannot take a shot at the opponent’s goal.
- During the period of time between the referee’s whistle and the taking of the free throw (“dead time”), players may continue to swim and strive for position (i.e., play does not stop).
- Examples of some common ordinary fouls include (but are not limited to):
- Touching the ball with two hands (does not apply to goalkeeper inside of the 5-meter line).
- Walking on or pushing off the bottom of the pool (does not apply to the goalkeeper inside of the 5 meter line).
- Impeding a player who is not holding the ball.
- Throwing the ball out of the field of play.
- Failing to take a shot within 30 seconds (letting the shot clock expire).
- There is no limit to the number of ordinary fouls that a player can commit during a game, thus they are often used as a specific tactic by coaches.
- Offensive- or Contra-foul
- A player on the team in possession of the ball can be penalized for committing an ordinary foul against a defending player. In such a case the referee will blow the whistle twice and indicate a change of possession by pointing in the opposite direction of the most recent run of play.
Exclusion foul (a.k.a. ejection or kick-out)
- For an exclusion foul, the referee blows the whistle several times, points in the direction of the attack with one arm, and with a sweeping motion of the other arm signals the player to the team’s re-entry area (the corner of the field of play immediately in front of the team’s bench).
- The player who was fouled (or a teammate) puts the ball into play with a free throw. Play does not stop during “dead time.”
- The excluded player must swim to the team’s re-entry area without interfering with play.
- If an excluded player interferes with play, that player is charged with a penalty foul and the offended team is awarded a penalty throw.
- An excluded player may re-enter the game when:
- There is a change in possession.
- A goal is scored.
- 20-seconds of playing time elapses.
- The referee signals a change in possession.
- When re-entering the game, a player may not push off the side or bottom of the pool.
- An exclusion foul is a “personal foul.”
- If a player receives three personal fouls (exclusion + penalty fouls), he/she is excluded from the remainder of the game with substitution.
- (One note: although it is popular to call this type of game exclusion “getting rolled,” it is not. Getting rolled refers to a specific motion made by the referee when indicating that a player has been ejected from the match for one of a variety of reasons, not including accumulating three personal fouls.)
- Examples of exclusion fouls include (but are not limited to):
- Holding, sinking, or pulling back a player who is not holding the ball.
- Interfering with the taking of a free throw.
- Splashing water in an opponent player’s face.
- To commit an act of misconduct (e.g., obscene or abusive language) or disrespect.
- If a player exits the pool from anywhere other than the re-entry area during actual play (i.e., climbs out of the water along the edge of the pool), it is considered disrespect. The player would be excluded from the remainder of the game with substitution.
- To indicate a penalty foul the referee blows the whistle twice and raises his or her hand above the head with five fingers extended. Play is stopped so the offended team may take a penalty throw.
- It is a penalty foul to commit any offense within the 6-meter line that prevents a team from scoring a goal as interpreted by the referee.
- The offending player is charged with a penalty foul (a “personal foul”) and the opposing team is awarded a penalty throw (a “5-meter”).
- If a team is awarded a penalty throw, any player on that team in the water may take the penalty throw.
- The player taking the penalty throw does so from the five-meter line and must take the throw without any hesitation upon the referee’s whistle.
- The defending goalkeeper’s head must be directly underneath the goal’s crossbar.
- A player who commits an act of brutality is excluded from the reminder of the game and is not allowed to play the next game within that division.
- The team on which the penalized athlete plays is required to continue with one fewer player (normally 5 on 6) for four minutes. After four minutes a substitute can enter the game through the re-entry area.
- Each team may call time-outs during the four quarters of regular play. An extra timeout is rewarded to each team for overtime. The number and duration of time outs are normally two, and one minute, but can be altered by tournament hosts.
- When the ball is in play, only the team in possession of the ball may call a time-out.
- Either team may call a time-out after a goal is scored or before the taking of a penalty shot.