What will I see and hear at a water polo game?

  • Lots of fast action, swimming, treading water (aka eggbeater), physical contact between players, bright yellow ball, coaches directing the action, referees blowing whistles a lot, teams playing offense and defense

  • Game looks similar to NBA basketball (4 quarters, shot clock), with a touch of soccer and hockey mixed in

Players and pool markings

  • 6 field players and 1 goalie per team in the water at the same time

  • Substitute players and coaches sit on a team bench on the pool deck

  • Ejection area is located in the water in front of the team bench

  • Cones marking 2-meter (red), 5-meter (yellow) and mid-pool (white)

People at the table (the “desk”)

  • Just like basketball, these folks operate the game clock, the shot clock, record a summary of the game, and record ejections

  • Usually volunteers

  • Work the desk, it will help you understand more about the game


  • Taken a rules test and gone to clinics to improve skills

  • Calling the game to protect players against injury and maintain integrity of the game

  • Use whistles to communicate to players

  • Use hand signals to indicate/point the direction that the ball is going

More referee stuff

  • Ideally, 2 referees for each game

  • If possible, the 2 referees stand on opposite sides of the pool

  • During play, 1 watches the front court and 1 watches the back court

  • Referees strive to be consistent in their calls for the entire game and tournament


  • 1 whistle = defensive foul, offense gets a free pass (no defense)

  • 2 whistles = offensive foul, defense gets possession and a free pass (turnover)

  • Many whistles means something big just happened, usually a defensive player has been ejected for 20 seconds

Fouls? Like the NBA?

  • No, actually in water polo a whistle means GO!

  • Offense tries to score right after a foul especially at the center forward position (low post in basketball)

  • Should be a lot of movement by offensive players who are trying to use their temporary advantage

What kind of fouls are there in water polo?

  • Ordinary (free pass): minor fouls like reaching for the ball over an opponent who is not holding the ball and who is facing away from the goal

  • Ejection/exclusion/kickout (player removed, plus a free pass): typically, a defensive player who holds, sinks, or pulls back an offensive player who has offensive advantage

  • Penalty (penalty shot): any foul that prevents a probable goal

I saw a foul but the referee did not call it

  • The “Advantage Rule”

  • Referee has to determine the intention of the offense. Where is the next pass? Who is the likely scorer?

  • Referee will not call an ordinary foul if there still is a possibility to play the ball

  • Referees are looking at position, possession and probable goal

  • If the foul will reward the defense, that foul should NOT be called

Ball under

  • The ball CAN go underwater! The rule: to take the whole ball underwater when tackled

  • Tackled?

    • If a player is forced to take the ball under water or they take it under on their own and a defender touches the arm that is holding the ball, then

    • The referee will blow the whistle (twice) and the ball is awarded to the defense (turnover)

Scoring in water polo

  • ENTIRE ball must pass over the goal line in order for a goal to be scored

  • The referee in the front court will usually be standing on or near the goal line as the shot is taken to make sure the entire ball has passed over the goal line

Free throws

  • When taking a free throw, player has time to get balanced and look for a teammate to pass to (referee discretion on the amount of time needed)

  • Defense on the free throw results in an ejection or a penalty shot

  • Free throw awarded outside of 5 meters can be shot (except new JO rules for 12U and 10U age-groups)


  • Wear a different color cap than field players

  • Special privileges:

    • Can touch the ball with two hands

    • Cannot advance beyond the half line

Can a player get kicked out of the entire game?

  • Yes, a player can be removed for the rest of the game for:

    • Misconduct: use of obscene language or gestures, to show disobedience or disrespect to a referee

    • Overaggressive fouling: brutality and fighting

What are the red and yellow cards for?

  • Yellow card is a visible warning to the coach, player or the team for disruptive behavior

  • Red card is issued for disruptive behavior; anyone receiving a red card is removed from the bench and must also miss the next game

What else can I do?

  • Have fun and cheer for your child and team!

  • Volunteer to work the desk

  • Thank your coach!