Too Many Whistles!

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
05/01/14

One of the chief complaints about today’s water polo game is that there are too many whistles.  This view seems to be held widely among coaches, players and spectators. Rightly or wrongly, most people seem to blame the referees for it. If we exclude the over-zealous rookies who may feel the need to assert themselves, or those personages who seem to think the game is not about the game but rather about themselves, one would naturally assume that the rest of the referees whistle the game as it should be, and therefore there are just as many whistles as are needed, no more no less.
                            
If that is indeed the case, then why the perception that water polo has more whistles than any other team sport? Is there something about the rules that makes water polo “unique” in that regard? Can something be done to reduce the number of whistles while at the same time improving both the game and the viewer experience?

Let’s first look at some numbers. In a typical East Coast collegiate game there are approximately 4.6 whistles per possession [1]. This figure includes ordinary, exclusion and contra fouls only. The figures are lower for age-group at about 4.2 whistles per possession [2], and probably higher on the West Coast where it seems that referees tend to whistle more ordinary fouls. For comparison purposes, the number of whistles per possession during the 2012 London Olympics men’s competition was roughly 3.8. Since the average number of possessions per team was 39, this amounts to about 300 whistles per game! [3]

As I was pondering this issue, I recalled an article I read some time ago on ESPN.com titled: “When the whistle blows too often”. The article referred specifically to Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Final between Miami and Boston, when LeBron James fouled out with less than two minutes left on the clock. Since (for reasons I have yet to comprehend) water polo is often compared to basketball, it stands to reason that there could be some common cause, and perhaps a common “cure”, to this seemingly common problem. A quick on-line search revealed literally hundreds of articles, both recent and old, that decry the fact there are too many whistles in basketball, and quite a number of blogs posts dedicated to the same topic.

Some of the authors actually tried to figure out why that is, and in the process identified the following possible causes:

  • Too many “iffy” fouls are called, particularly non-shooting or fouls away from the ball

  • There is no consistency on how fouls are called during the game or between the teams

  • East Coast referees let too many fouls go, and therefore have to call more fouls because
    the teams in those leagues are more physical (sic!)

  • The rules make too many unnecessary calls “mandatory”

  • The referees are too involved in the game

  • There are too many fouls called late in the game that were not called earlier on

Oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to be a new problem. A poll published in Sports Illustrated on January 17, 1955 asked if the rules permit the calling of too many fouls. One of the respondents was UCLA’s legendary coach, John Wooden, who argued that ordinary fouls should be a one-shot foul, and that double fouls should only be awarded for “roughness and fouling the man who is shooting”. Others said it was not the rules but the players who were responsible for the number of fouls being called, and that it all “gets down to proper coaching and proper playing”.

Irrespective of their particular position on the subject, most authors seem to agree on one essential point: the whistles slow down the game and ruin the spectators’ experience. Not just because games drag on needlessly, but also because more points are scored from fouls rather than from “natural” goals. The 2013-2014 collegiate basketball season started with a number of new rules ostensibly meant to “increase scoring by limiting defense contact and allowing greater freedom of movement”. The result, particularly early on, was quite the opposite: from the beginning of the season the number of fouls and free throws increased as did the amount of dead-time during the game, which prompted West Virginia’s coach Bob Huggins to remark that this “will help beer sales tremendously”.

So how does all this apply to water polo? If we substitute “water polo” for “basketball” and “ejection” for “free throw” in the articles and comment about basketball, we end up with a pretty good description of the present state of water polo: games that drag on, far more goals scored as a result of 6-on-5 than “natural” goals, a poor spectator experience and way too many darned whistles!

Of course, water polo’s rule makes are not blind to this issue, so FINA’s TWPC decided to revise the rules last year with the intent of: “producing more movement, creativity and explosive speed in the game.” This sounds strangely familiar… And if that goal was not lofty enough, they also added that: “these rule changes will also assist in removing static situations and providing more clarity for the correct application of the rules” (sic). Clear enough? To add even more “clarity” there were not one, but two sets of interpretations published shortly thereafter. While USAWP has already adopted the new rules, the NCAA has yet to do so.

In reality, any attempt to “improve” water polo by simply changing rules is likely doomed to fail. What seems to be primarily wrong with water polo is not the rules, but rather “proper coaching and proper playing” or the lack thereof. While all coaches and players will try to use the rules to their advantage whenever possible, some seem more focused on how to break the rules and get away with it, rather than on how to play the game to the best of their ability. Until that mentality changes, it is likely that the number of whistles will, at best, stay the same.

So if we go back to “When the whistle blows too often” and look Beckley Mason and Henry Abbott’s closing remarks, we find that they apply as much to water polo as they do to basketball, perhaps even more (I took the liberty of making the necessary substitutions in the original text):

“So, what is your solution? It seems clear FINA needs two things, which at first may seem contradictory:

  • Stronger discouragement:  Players foul so much because it works. Either because referees are reluctant to call every by-the-book foul, and/or because the penalties aren't harsh enough, it's a good strategy to play harder than the rulebook allows. So players grab, hold, sink and pull, all the while daring the referees to exclude them, which they only sometimes do.

  • Different punishments:  Exclusions and foul trouble punish players and teams, to some degree. But they punish fans most of all, making the game more boring every way imaginable. 1) 6-on-5 goals are the least entertaining part of the game. 2) People tune in to see superstars, which they don't get when the rules remove them from the pool. 3) Fouls, called and not, prevent a lot of the game's most exciting plays, especially drives, fast breaks and natural goals.

We find ourselves needing more ways to get players not to foul, but at the same time less of the old punishment for fouling. In short, we need new ideas. New incentives to get players more focused on playing water polo and less focused on the referee games.

Sound like a job for Water Polo Planet.”

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For the past 30+ years we had a little recreational water polo league in Long Beach, NY. We play in a 24ft X 36ft diving tank with undersize goals. Years ago we played for one hour every Monday and Thursday, and managed to field two teams of 10-12 players every time. Most of the players only started playing water polo in their adulthood, but that didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. Occasionally we even hosted the teams of Queens College and St. Francis College. Back then we enforced only two “official” rules: two hands and ball under. In addition, we had two rules of our own: the ball was always put back in play with a corner throw when it went out of bounds over the endline (marvelous idea, don’t you think?), and there had to be two passes from the goalie before a shot. Needless to say cuts, bruises and the occasional black eye were a relatively common occurrence, but nothing that couldn’t be settled by buying the injured party a cold beer after the game.

These days we only play for about one hour on Wednesdays and, except of one or two from the original group, most of us have been replaced by our kids and their friends. Well, some of those kids are out of college and playing for NYAC on their “off” days! In the past few years we gradually started enforcing rules such as sinking (which we whistle as an ordinary), with some of the players taking turns at refereeing. However, as the number of rules increased, some players became disenchanted with our game and even stopped playing altogether. This was a little disconcerting, so we asked what was going on. The answer, somehow not surprising, was invariably the same: too many whistles!

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[1] Statistic compiled by the author during the 2012-2013 women’s and men’s seasons
[2] Statistic compiled by the author during the 2013 NEZ JO Qualifiers
[3] Statistic compiled by the author from the 2012 London OG broadcasts