Stay Cool and Active With Water Polo

Water polo is a terrific summertime activity for a wide range of ages, depending on how informally or competitively you wish to play. As a kind of basketball-in-the-water, it delivers a surprisingly vigorous workout. At 10.0 METs, the ACSM Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide places it on a caloric expenditure par with swimming the crawl stroke at a fast speed, approximately 75 yards per minute.

There are water polo clubs in many cities, with the most options for children and young adults, for whom classes and summer programs abound; but adult and adult-masters programs exist as well. If you have a swimming pool, family fun awaits with the purchase of a few key pieces of equipment. And it might be possible to organize your own group by renting use of a pool from a high school or even making an arrangement with your condo or apartment complex.

Here are some water polo basics from the Albuquerque Water Polo Club to help you initiate a game whenever and however you see fit:

Overview and basic play

  • Players can only use one hand to hold the ball
  • Teams consist of 6 field players and 1 goalie as well as substitutes
  • The object of the game is to score in the opposite team's goal like in soccer
  • Only the goalie can use two hands when he is within 5 meters of his own goal
  • Players advance the ball by passing to teammates or swimming with the ball in front of them
  • There are personal fouls like in basketball
  • There are power play advantages like in hockey
  • Like in basketball, teams have shot clocks that vary by age groups

Physical contact is the rule rather than the exception as players maneuver for position in front of the goal. The referee indicates fouls by blowing a whistle. There are ordinary fouls, which give the fouled player a free throw, and major fouls, which lead to the fouling player being ejected for 20 seconds.

Each quarter starts with teams lined up on opposite goal lines. On the whistle, the teams sprint toward center pool for the ball. The player arriving first at the ball gains possession for his team. The team gaining possession advances the ball by swimming or passing the ball. Goals are scored when the ball completely passes between the front of the goal posts. It need not slam into the back of the net. Following a goal, the ball is put into play as soon as all players are back in their respective halves of the pool.

Key measurements
The standard pool is 30 x 20 meters. It is ideally all deep, but switching sides can also be a fair way to play if this is not possible. Standard goals are 0.9 meters high and 3 meters wide, but smaller, less expensive nets can be used instead. The offensive team is not allowed to pass to a teammate within 2 meters of the goal; an offensive player can only swim the ball inside 2 meters. Penalty shots are taken at 5 meters out from the goal.

About game clocks
As in basketball, two clocks are used to time a water polo game. One indicates the time remaining in the quarter. The other, called the shot clock or 30 second clock, indicates how much time remains for the offensive team to shoot the ball. Failure to shoot within the allotted time results in the offensive team losing possession of the ball. The shot clock resets whenever the opposing (defensive) team gains clear possession of the ball.

A water polo game consists of 4 quarters, each quarter being 8 minutes in length with 2-minute intervals between quarters. Substitutions are permitted after a goal is scored, between periods and on the fly, similar to hockey.

Ordinary fouls
There are two kinds of water polo fouls: ordinary and major. Ordinary fouls account for approximately 90%, while exclusions and penalties (known as major fouls) make up the rest.

Ordinary fouls include:

  • grabbing the ball with two hands
  • taking the ball under water when tackled
  • impeding an opponent who is not holding the ball
  • holding or pushing a player underwater when they do not have the ball
  • pushing off of an opponent
  • stalling (failing to shoot or advance the ball within 30 seconds)
  • splashing

After an ordinary foul, play does not stop and only the clocks (shot and game) stop momentarily until the offended player takes his free throw. Most ordinary fouls are similar to basketball with one exception. If a player has possession of the ball, the defending player can wrestle away possession of the ball. A smart offensive player will actually drop the ball to draw the foul.

When the referee calls an ordinary foul, the offended team is awarded a free throw at the point of the foul. The offended team must put the ball in play without delay by passing it, swimming with it or shooting it (if outside of 5m). The player taking the free throw has approximately 3 seconds to put the ball into play. If the ball is not put in play within this amount of time, the team may be charged with delaying the game and the opposing team is awarded the ball.

Major fouls
Major fouls include:

  • kicking or striking a player
  • deliberate splashing in the face
  • an ordinary foul committed by the defense during dead time
  • interfering with a free throw
  • misconduct or disrespecting the referee
  • aggressively holding, sinking or pulling back an opponent not holding the ball
  • impeding or pushing off an opponent before a free throw, goal throw, corner throw or penalty throw is taken
  • committing an act of misconduct by using foul language or violent or persistent foul play

Major fouls are also called exclusions or kickouts. They mainly occur when fouls are flagrant, brutal or when a defender impedes an offensive player without the ball. An exclusion foul is punished by the award of a free throw to the opposing team and a 20-second exclusion of the player who committed the foul. The excluded player must swim to the re-entry area, nearest to the player's own goal line, without leaving the pool or interfering with play. The excluded player can return after 20 seconds, a goal has been scored, or after a change of possession. After a player commits three major fouls, they are fouled out of the game.

A penalty is awarded when a goal scoring opportunity is denied by the defensive player fouling. A penalty foul is recorded against the player committing the foul. The player taking the penalty throw has a direct shot at the goal from the 5 meter line, with only the goalie to score past.

The award of a penalty most commonly occurs in the following situations:

  • when the goalkeeper or any player pulls down or pushes away the goal
  • when any player, except the goalkeeper, blocks the ball with both hands or with a clenched fist
  • when the goalkeeper takes the ball underwater
  • when an offensive player in control of the ball, is fouled from behind while moving towards the goal
  • when a defending player commits an act of brutality
  • when an excluded player intentionally interferes with play
  • when an excluded player or a substitute re-enters the pool early or illegally
  • when the coach of the team not in possession of the ball requests a time out


At its most basic, water polo requires: Two goals (ranging from $100 to $400, depending on size and features), a water polo ball ($25 to $30), and goggles for players to protect the eyes and improve visibility (anywhere from $7 to $20).

It’s also a good idea to have: Cones to mark the 2- and 5-meter lines, a timing device, and protective caps if you plan on playing “all-out.”

ACSM Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide, 2011

SMWPC, 2012,

AWPC, 2015,

Swim Outlet,

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