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Water Polo

About Water Polo - The Rules

The playing area is 30 X 20 meters with a minimum of 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) of depth.


Each team is allowed 13 players, with seven (a goalkeeper and six field players) participating at any one time. Players tread water the entire game and cannot touch the bottom or sides of the pool. Except for the goalkeeper, players may handle the ball with only one hand.


The game is played in four quarters, each quarter being eight minutes in length with two-minute intervals between quarters (32 minutes of stopped time). In the case of a tie, two three-minute periods of overtime are played. If the score is tied after overtime, sudden-death overtime is played.


Substitutions are most common after a goal is scored, between periods, or for an ejected player. Players can also substitute by swimming to their bench corner and tagging an entering player.


Each team is allowed two time-outs during regulation.


Physical contact is the rule rather than the exception, as the players manoeuvre for position in front of the goal. The referee indicates fouls by blowing a whistle and using hand signals to point out the location of the foul and the attacking direction of the fouled player. Unlike most sports that stop on a whistle, action in water polo is initiated by the whistle.


A goal (1 point) is scored when the ball is thrown or pushed completely past the face of the goal.

Time Clocks

As in basketball, two clocks are used to time a water polo game. One indicates the time remaining in the quarter and the other, called the shot clock or 30-second clock, indicates how much time remains for the offensive team to shoot the ball (the team is allowed 30 seconds to shoot the ball).


Each quarter is started with the teams lined up on opposite goal lines. On a signal (whistle) from the referee, the teams sprint toward centre pool where the referee tosses the ball into the water. The team gaining possession of the ball advances it toward its offensive end of the pool by swimming, dribbling or passing the ball.


There are two types of fouls in water polo -- ordinary fouls, which account for approximately 90 percent of the whistles during the game, and major fouls. Players are allowed three major fouls before they foul out of the match. Major fouls include exclusion and penalty fouls.

Common ordinary fouls include:

  • Touching the ball with two hands;

  • Taking the ball underwater when tackled;

  • Impeding an opponent who is not holding the ball;

  • Pushing off an opponent; and,

  • Stalling (failing to shoot or advance the ball within 35 seconds).

  • When the referee calls an ordinary foul, the offended team is awarded a free throw at the point of the foul, or behind the point of the foul if the free throw is taken immediately. The offended team must put the ball in play within three seconds by releasing, swimming or passing the ball. A player cannot shoot the ball on a free throw unless the foul occurred beyond five meters away from the goal.

  • Common exclusion fouls include:

  • Kicking or striking;

  • Deliberate splashing in the face;

  • An ordinary foul committed by the defence during dead time (after a foul occurs, but before the offended player has put the ball into play);

  • Interfering with a free throw;

  • Misconduct or disrespect to the referee;

  • Holding, sinking or pulling back an opponent not holding the ball.

  • Exclusion fouls result in a player being excluded for 20 seconds.


The excluded player (or his/her substitute) may not return until the 20 second exclusion time expires, a goal is scored or a change of possession takes place, whichever occurs first. A player with three major fouls is removed from the game with substitution. Deliberate kicking or striking with intent to injure (brutality) results in ejection of the offending player for the remainder of the game, substitution allowed after 4 minutes.

Penalty fouls are committed within the five-meter area where a goal probably would have resulted. The offensive player fouled while in control of the ball and facing the goal inside the five-meter line is usually awarded the penalty throw. A penalty foul is recorded against the player committing the foul. Any player in the game from the offended team can take the penalty throw. The shot is taken from the five-meter line, with only the goalie defending.

The award of a penalty throw most commonly occurs in the following situation within the five-meter area:

  • Any player, including the goalkeeper, pulling down or pushing away the goal;

  • Any player, except the goalkeeper, playing the ball with both hands or a clenched fist;

  • The goalkeeper or a defensive player taking the ball underwater;

  • When an offensive player in control of the ball and facing the goal is fouled by holding, sinking or pulling back.

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