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Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships

Volume 3 Number 3 November 15, 2010
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.

This is a continuation of the open letter to Gianni Lonzi, Chairman of the FINA Technical Water Polo Committee (TWPC), about proposed water polo rule changes.

Let’s face it. The sport of water polo is in trouble. Worldwide participation is dropping, despite the addition of women’s water polo. Outside of a half-dozen European countries, and small pockets of the Southern California coast, the popularity of the sport is declining. In many games and tournaments throughout the world, the only people watching the games are the relatives and friends of the players. Empty stadiums are common in many countries, even for International events and FINA World Championships. Check out the number of people in the stands at the recent World Youth Championships in Istanbul. That was embarrassing!

The game is difficult to understand and boring to watch. There is a constant barrage of whistles. It has become a wrestling match in front of the goal and a game of holding and fouling away from the goal. It’s the same old thing in every game. The ball is passed into 2-meters, exclusion, 6 on 5. That’s it! That’s what the game of water polo has become. It has become a static and vertical game with little horizontal movement in front of the goal; and where scoring goals depends almost entirely on the extra man attack that occurs after the exclusion of defenders at the 2-meter position in front of the goal.

First we have to agree that changes have to be made in water polo in order to make it a more attractive game to watch; and subsequently to make it a more popular game in the world. In order to draw participants and fans, we need to revitalize the game. Everyone agrees that we have to change the game; but no one is willing to do anything about it.

It seems that we are under the influence of what I call the “big people” countries of water polo. Countries like Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary don’t want to change the rules because the current rules favor their style of play, and the big players who come from their countries. The average size of the players on the Croatian Olympic Gold medal team was somewhere around 6’6” and 230 pounds.

As long as those countries are successful and win medals, who cares about the rest of the world! We need to create a game that can be played by everyone around the world, and not just a few select countries in Europe. If we don’t make changes, then it will become a regional sport that will not be played in the Olympic games; or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

If FINA is going to make cosmetic rule changes like a smaller pool, less players, smaller ball, etc., then why stop there? If we are going to save the game at the Olympics and around the world, WE NEED TO CHANGE THE PLAYING RULES. Otherwise it is going to be the same game that is being played now. Nothing will change except for the size of the pool, the size of the team and the size of the ball. The game will become more physical, not less physical. This will give the “big people” countries even more of an advantage than they have now.

We need to create a NEW GAME OF WATER POLO. A game that is more up-tempo and with more movement, a game that is less physical, a game that depends on speed, quickness, skill, ingenuity, creativity and individual and team tactics, a game with less interruptions, less fouling and less exclusions. We need a game that everyone can play, a game where size and how hard you shoot the ball are NOT the most important factors. In order to do this we are going to have to eliminate or change a few of the “sacred” rules of water polo that have been around for years. Not everyone is going to want to do this (see “big people” countries above); but is necessary if we want to save the game.

Following are a few ideas that have been presented as possible changes in the playing rules. Hopefully they can stimulate a meaningful discussion, and maybe even possible changes. They are not perfect by any means; but it is an attempt to address the MAJOR PROBLEMS in the game today — too much fouling and too many whistles, the wrestling match at 2-meters, static zone play, lack of movement, and too many stoppages of the game.


One of the biggest problems with our sport is that there is no penalty for fouling, except for awarding a free pass to the offended player. The “shot after foul outside 5-meters was an attempt to rectify this problem; but up until this year defenders where allowed to hold up an arm in the shooters face. That’s fine outside 5 meters; but what about the area inside 5-meters? A player fouled within 5-meters of the goal, the area where he has the best chance of scoring a goal, is ONLY awarded a free pass.  As a consequence of these rules, players foul other players all over the pool. Even when it is not a foul, the referee blows the whistle and awards free passes like giving out candy to kids at Halloween.

The result of these fouls, genuine or not, is a barrage of whistles and stoppages of play that don’t make any sense to the people watching the game. Not to mention taking away numerous scoring opportunities within the 5-meter area. Fouls should create scoring opportunities; not take away scoring opportunities. At the very least there should be a penalty for fouling. A player can commit 20 fouls in a game and only suffer the consequences of 20 free passes  


I have thought a lot about this problem, and have come up with a solution that I think would work and could easily be administered by the referee. Part of it comes from basketball; where a player gets a free shot (or two) at the basket when he is fouled. If you want players to stop fouling, allow a fouled player to shoot from anywhere in the pool, from the spot of the foul. At the same time the defender is not allowed to hold up either hand after a foul in an attempt to block the shot. Create even more excitement with a USA rule from the 90’s; any goal scored from inside 5 or 7-meters counts as one point, while a goal scored from outside 5 or 7-meters counts as 2 points.

Can you imagine the number of scoring opportunities that will be created in front of the goal? An attacking player can actually be rewarded for making a good move to free him self for a shot on goal. Defenders would be forced to make a choice in front of the goal (or anywhere in the pool actually). Do I play good position defense with a hand up to block a shot; or do I foul and give my opponent a free shot on goal? This would force players to actually play defense, rather than just grab and hold as they do now.

A set of rules on fouling must be clearly stated by the rules committee. It cannot be a guess by the referee as to what is a foul and what isn’t a foul. Is it one hand grab, is it two hands under water, is it impeding? What exactly constitutes a foul? Do we keep the rule that allows a player to foul another player with the ball in his hand? They don’t do that in basketball. A player who is fouled in the act of shooting is awarded two free shots at the basket. This is another area that has to be discussed, and where the committee has to come to some kind of logical solution.

What about a player who is WITHOUT the ball and maneuvering for position in front of the goal; but is being held? Simple. Any player fouled WITH the ball is awarded a free shot on goal from the spot of the foul; while any player who is fouled WITHOUT the ball is awarded the ball, and allowed a free shot on goal from the spot where he was fouled. This would keep defenders from fouling “away from the ball” in order to keep another player from maneuvering into shooting position. 

This rule would also eliminate the need for most major fouls, like exclusions and penalty shots. There is no need to award an exclusion or penalty shot when the fouled player has the option to shoot the ball after he is fouled. Under current rules, teams don’t even care if one of their players gets excluded from the game; as long as they are able to stop a goal from being scored. They are willing to take the chance that their man-down defense can effectively keep the other team from scoring anyway. They will have to definitely think twice before they commit a foul that gives their opponent a free shot on the goal from directly in front of the goal.

What to do about a deliberate foul to harm someone; or a hard foul that would draw an exclusion or brutality call under today’s rules? The penalties for these types of fouls have to stay in the game in order to keep the physicality down to a manageable level. If we want to control brutality and rough play, perhaps we need to award a penalty shot (5-meter) instead of an exclusion; and also exclude the player permanently from the game for committing such a foul. The penalty of playing a man down for 20 seconds is simply not severe enough to discourage this sort of play. Awarding a penalty shot for a brutality might help referees control the game. 

The penalty for committing a “hard foul” should probably still remain an exclusion. How the exclusion is handled and for how long is still a subject for debate. One idea is to have the player swim to the penalty box, an then have him come immediately back into the field of play, while the team that is a man up must quickly try to score a goal. The 20-second exclusion should probably become a thing of the past. The quick extra-man attempt would be a lot more exciting to watch.

A definition of, and the differences between “intent to harm” and “brutality”, and between “normal” foul and “hard” foul must be clearly stated by the committee so that the correct call, either a penalty shot, exclusion or normal foul, can be made.          
We still have the problem of what to do about fouls outside of the scoring area, and fouls in the backcourt. Under the shot after foul rule, a player could attempt to shoot from 15-20 meters away from the goal after he is fouled; but his chances of scoring are not very good. So we are just going to have to live with fouls outside the scoring area that award a player a free pass. The fouled player will still have the option of pass or shoot anywhere in the pool. I can’t think of any other way to keep players from fouling outside of the 7-10 meter scoring area.

So then you may ask, what is to keep a defender from committing a pull back foul in the backcourt to stop the counterattack, especially if the penalty is only a free pass? This may be the only area of the pool where a foul of this type has to be an exclusion foul, and where a team has to play a man-down. We will probably still see a few man-down situations as a result of this kind of foul; but it will be nowhere close to the 20-30 exclusions that we see in today’s game. Again, as described above, the quick exclusion and immediate re-entry would be in affect for this kind of foul.   


The most “sacred cow” of them all is the concept of the 2-meter player, the big person who stations his big body in front of the goal, wrestling for position with another big body while the rest of the team maneuvers the ball so that they can finally pass it into that big person. As I mentioned in my previous article “Do We Really Need a 2-meter Player”, the concept is not only outmoded; but it is an inefficient and ineffective way to play the game. The time wasted trying to get the ball into the big center can be used to create a more exciting movement game that people want to watch.

The concept of the 2-meter player is so ingrained in the sport of water polo, that I’m sure that changing this part of the game will meet the most resistance of all; especially from the countries that have a lot of big people playing the game. I’m not saying that we eliminate the 2-meter player entirely; let’s just make him move and not plant himself in front of the goal.


So under the “free shot” after foul rule described above, what’s to prevent a team from stationing their biggest player in front of the goal, drawing foul after foul and being awarded free shot after free shot. Simple, you don’t allow him to stop in front of the goal without receiving the ball. How long can he stop and wait for the ball? Take your pick-- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 seconds? To me the ideal time would be about 3 seconds. Once any player enters the area between the goalposts and inside the 5-meter line (strike area), he cannot stop for more than 3 seconds. The referee starts counting 3 seconds with a visible hand count as soon as the player stops. We would have to experiment to see if 3 seconds is too short. In basketball it’s 3 seconds; but it is a faster game. Maybe 4-5 seconds is better?

After 3 seconds, the player must then directly move outside of the area without stopping again. A player may only stop once inside the “strike” area. A player who fails to move after 3 seconds; or stops more than once inside the area will cause a turnover of the ball to the other team, and loss of possession. With this rule I envision the area of the shooting zone in front of the goal to be one of constant movement and constant action.

This is in contrast with the game today, which consists of one stationary player wrestling with another stationary player, and stationary perimeter players shooting against stationary zone defenders. Just think of the plays that coaches could draw up to free a player in front of the goal; and the timing and skills involved in getting the ball to him in 3 seconds.

If he doesn’t get the ball, he moves out and someone else will drive in and try to get free for the shot. Picks and screens could also be run between players in the strike area or just outside the strike area. For example, the player leaving the strike area after 3 seconds can set a screen for a wing player, or any other player in the front court area.


The game has become a “zone” type of game, where players in a static position defend other players in a static position by guarding an area instead of a person. To me, one of the most exciting parts of the game are the “man to man” match-ups where a defender directly challenges a player one on one; rather than defend an area of water. There is reason why the NBA banned zone defenses for years. Man to man was more exciting to watch. Instead of just “ball movement”, there was actually “player movement”. Movement is what people want to see. Movement is what we need in the sport of water polo!


Have a rule where players must play man-to man. If a player drops back towards the goal more than one meter away from his opponent, a foul is called and the team is penalized with a technical foul. If a team accumulates a total of three “no-zone” technical fouls, a penalty shot is awarded (unless you can think of an appropriate penalty). In basketball, one technical violation of this sort results in a free shot at the basket.

Defenders are allowed to switch and help an opponent, or leave their man to double team; but they have to be guarding someone. They cannot just fall back and guard an area. Think about all of the exciting one-on-one matchups that can occur when players are guarding each other man-to-man instead of playing a zone where they only guard water.


There are simply too many stoppages in today’s game. With 20 line-ups at center after goals are scored, 8 time-outs, and 3 quarter/half time breaks, that’s over 30 times a game without any action occurring (With the small ball it could be up to 50 times per game). Just think of the constant action of a soccer match or the excitement of the no-huddle fast offense in football. Without stoppages, the result would be a more dynamic and constantly moving game that people actually enjoy watching.


No stoppage after a goal. After a goal is scored, the ball goes to the referee, who immediately throws the ball back to the goalie. In the meantime the team that was scored on is counterattacking down the pool. The 30-second clock starts when the goalie puts the ball in play. Because his team is countering to the other end of the pool, the goalie has the incentive to retrieve the ball after a goal is scored; and quickly get the ball to the referee so that he can pass it down the pool to the attacking team. Shot over the goal? No need to spend time retrieving the ball. The goal judge (or coach) gives a new counter ball to the referee to start play again.


There should be a continuous clock, similar to soccer. The only thing that we would have to decide is how long to play the game and the length of the playing periods. If you want to make the game just over an hour long, we could play two 30-minute continuous halves with five minutes break between halves, or three continuous 20-minute periods with four minutes between periods, or four continuous 15-minute periods with three minutes between periods. A longer game would require longer continuous periods.

There would be no time-outs. Players could substitute between periods, or substitute on the fly at half court like they do in hockey. Swim to half court, tag a player and make a substitution (You would want to do this when your team is on the attack, of course). An injured player can be substituted for. The clock would stop (as in soccer); but the injured player could not return to the game (This might help prevent the fake injury to stop the clock).


On a tip-out of bounds by the goalie or a field player; a corner throw is awarded. The clock will still keep moving during the execution of the corner throw. There is no need to retrieve the ball that has gone out of bounds. The goal judge simply gives a new ball to the referee, and he places it on the two-meter line at the side of the pool for the corner throw. Because the clock is moving, it is imperative that the team that is on offense quickly gets to the corner and takes the throw. The corner throw in water polo has the potential to create a lot of exciting plays in front of the goal similar to the ones in soccer that occur with a corner kick. We may lose a few counterattacks with this rule; but remember that we will have a new counterattack every time a goal is scored.

What I propose with the above rule changes is a dynamic game where everyone is moving. It could be a constantly moving game with minimal interruptions or stoppages; and with exciting one-on-one matchups all over the pool. Instead of having a static 2-meter player, it would be a game of drives and post-ups in front of the goal. The 2-meter player can still post-up in front of the goal; he just can’t plant himself in that position for very long. He could actually stop just outside 5-meters and become a passer to players who drive to the open water behind him; or could move to the left or right, just outside the posts, stop and receive the ball and pass to players cutting to the goal behind him. Again, this would be much more like basketball, with a moving center, rather than a stationary center.

With these changes, there would be all kinds of possibilities in attacking the goal and creating scoring opportunities. It could open up a whole new world of exciting water polo for coaches, players and fans of the game. Before making any changes in the rules, however (including the FINA proposed changes), we should have much more dialogue and discussion about rule changes between the TWPC, and players, coaches and administrators that are involved in the sport around the world.



[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]