Rules of the Game


Water polo was the first team sport ever played at the Olympic Games.  It is traditionally played in deep water, however, can be played in any type of pool or open water basin.  Field players can only use one hand, while the goaltender can use both.  For community water polo, the rules of the game are frequently different than adult water polo.  Modified rules are applied depending on the age and expertise of the players.  Each team has a coach that stands on the side of the pool giving instructions and positive feedback to their participants. Frequently in games involving young children, the referee will stop the game to explain the rules. When played in shallow pools, young children are not permitted to jump from the bottom of the pool to shoot or block a shot. The goal tender is allowed to jump off the bottom to defend his net.

Can a player touch the ball with two hands?

Only the goaltender may touch the ball with 2 hands.  The goaltender cannot cross the half court line.


How many players are allowed in the water at one time? 

There are two (2) teams in the water at a time, with each team playing with six (6) field players and a goalie.  One team wears a light coloured protective water polo cap, while the other team wears a dark coloured cap so that both teams can be identified.  As of the 2015/2016 season FINA has instituted an international rule change whereby each team will have five (5) field players and a goalie.


How are points awarded?

A goal is awarded once the entire ball has crossed the goal line between the posts and the crossbar.


How long is each quarter?

An international water polo game lasts 4 quarters of 8 minutes stop time.  That means every time the referee blows the whistle to indicate an event such as a penalty, change of possession, fouls, the game clock will stop until the play begins again. There is a 2 minute break between the 1st and 2nd quarter, a 5 minute half-time break, and a 2 minute break between the 3rd and 4th period.  If at the end of the 4 quarters the score is tied, there will be a 2 minute break followed by 2 quarters of 3 minutes stop time of overtime.  There will be a 2 minute break between the 1st and 2nd overtime period.  If the score still remains tied at the end of overtime, the game will be determined by a shootout.


What do the clocks represent on the side of the pool?

There are 2 types of clocks around the pool. The 1st clock is the "game clock" which posts a countdown of the time remaining in each quarter; the goals scored for each team, and may even post other important information such as penalties against each team and number of timeouts remaining.  The 2nd is the "possession clock" better known as the "shot clock".  Each team has 30 seconds to direct a shot towards the opposing team's goal. If the attacking team does not direct a shot within the 30 second time frame, the buzzer will sound and the ball will be given to the opposing team.  If a shot is directed towards the goal, and the attacking team regains possession of their rebound, they will be awarded with a new 30 second "shot clock".


What is a minor foul?

A minor foul is awarded to the player in possession with ball if the opposing player does not permit him from moving forward or playing the ball.  The referee awards the player in possession of the ball a minor foul by blowing his/her whistle once.  The minor foul gives the attacking player a "free" pass, meaning the player in possession of the ball cannot be attacked while passing the ball to a teammate.  If a minor foul occurs outside of the 5-meter area (yellow marker) the player in possession of the ball may direct a shot towards the net without hesitation or fear of being attacked by the defender.


What is considered a penalty?

A penalty is called a "major foul" and occurs when an athlete commits a more physical minor foul, or prevents a player from attacking the net.  The player does not need to have possession of the ball to draw a major foul against the defending player.  A player awarded a major foul must swim to the corner where the team's bench is located and sit in the penalty area for a period of 20 seconds.  The player may only re-enter the game once a goal is scored against, or his team regains possession of the ball or the 20 seconds has elapsed.


What is considered a penalty shot?

A penalty shot is awarded when a major foul occurs in the 5-meter area when an attacking player is in a scoring position.  The attacking team will select a player to take a shot without hesitation from the 5-meter line directly in front of the net.  No other player is allowed in the 5-meter area during the penalty shot, while the goaltender must remain on his/her goal line until the referee blows the whistle. The shooter must shoot the ball towards the net without hesitation. If the shooter hesitates or fakes, he loses his penalty shot.


What does the term "dunking or ball under" mean?

The term "dunking or ball under" occurs when the entire ball is placed under the water.  The referee will only blow the whistle when the player in possession of the ball "dunks" the ball under the water when a defending player surrounds him/her.  The ball will be given to the defending team if the attacking player commits a "dunking" minor foul.


What do the white, yellow, and red markers along the pool represent?

The white markers along both sides of the pool represent the goal line at each end of the pool, and the center line.  The red marker represents the 2-meter line, while the yellow marker represents the 5-meter line.  An attacking player cannot enter the 2-meter area without possession of the ball.  If a player is inside the red line (2-meter area) and receives a pass, the referee will blow their whistle as the player is offside.  The ball will be turned over to the defending team.  Attacking players earning a minor foul outside the yellow line (5-meter area), can direct a shot towards the goal without hesitation or fear of being attacked by a defending player. If he hesitates, fakes a shot and then shoots and that ball enters the net, that goal is disallowed. The shot must occur without hesitation.


What is considered out of bounds?

When the ball leaves the field of play:  the side of the pool and the ends of the pool outside of the goal posts and over the crossover. Whichever team causes the ball to go out of bounds the ball will be awarded to the opposing team. A player from the opposing team will then swim to corner of the pool to claim the ball at the 2 metre line. She will pass the ball to her teammates to restart the play.


Water polo is a contact sport. What physical moves are not permitted to occur?

When a player is not in possession of the ball, it is not permitted to excessively hold, dunk, or prevent the attacking player from swimming.  The offending player will earn a 20 second ejection from the field of play. A player in a scoring position with possession of the ball may not be dunked, pulled back, or held.  The offending player will earn herself a penalty. She will not be ejected from the field of play, however, the opposing team will be awarded a penalty shot. This is a shot towards the net from the 5 metre line.


How many fouls is a player allowed before ejected from the game?

Every player is allowed 3 personal fouls made up of major fouls (awarded 20 seconds in the penalty box) or penalty fouls (opposing team awarded a penalty shot).


What are the different positions?

Everyone in the water plays offense and defense with the exception of the goaltender.  However, the goaltender is extremely important in the transition (counter) offense.  The main positions are the centre forward (hole set), 2M guard (hole check), goaltender, and driver.  The centre forward is the most important offensive position. The centre forward is the center of any team's offense and is positioned on the 2-meter line in the offensive zone.  The drivers surround the centre forward in a horseshoe (umbrella) formation attempting to pass the ball to the centre forward or direct a shot towards the goal.  The 2M guard (hole check) is responsible for defending the centre forward.


How is the first possession of the ball decided in each quarter?

At the beginning of each quarter all 5 athletes lineup along their goal line with the ball placed in the middle of pool being held by a buoy.  The referee blows the whistle and the 2 opposing players in the middle of the pool swim for the ball.  This is called a "swim ball".  If the pool facility does not have a buoy in the middle of the pool, the referee will drop the ball near the side wall at the half-court line.


What do the referee whistles represent?

When the referee blows a single whistle he/she is awarding a minor foul, calling a goal, signaling the start if the swim ball, signaling the start of the penalty shot, or signaling the restart of play after a goal. When the referee blows a double whistle he/she is signaling a turnover foul.  This is when the attacking team commits a minor foul to gain a scoring advantage, and the ball is then given to the defending team.  The direction of play will change directions. A double whistle followed by the referee showing all 5 fingers in the air signals a penalty foul has occurred (a major foul against an individual outside the 5 metre line that was intending on attacking the net) and that a penalty shot is being awarded to the other team. When the referee blows multiple whistles he/she is signaling a major foul.  The referee will point at the player being excluded for 20 seconds and direct them to their penalty area while blowing their whistle.  A referee may blow multiple whistles to get the attention of the athletes in the water if they haven't heard the original whistle signal. The referee will then signal with his hands the cap number of the player that has earned the major foul or penalty foul. When the referee holds a closed fist in the air, this indicates the cap #10. If he holds a closed fist and 2 fingers, this indicates cap #12. 


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