The Future of Water Polo
HaBaWaBa: The European Entry to Youth Development

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet

Water Polo.  Wasserball.  Pallanuoto. Viszilabda.

Dateline Serbia;  water polo coaches make personal appearances in  kindergartens and first grade classes to sell the kids on the benefits of water polo. Aided by the status of the water polo as the Serbian National sport and a popular spectator event across the country, recruiting is simple.

Dateline Croatia;  a water polo player carries the national flag of Croatia at the Olympics indicating its position in the athletic hierarchy of the nation.

Dateline Barcelona;  every family belongs to one of the citys numerous athletic clubs in which most offer water polo classes for youngsters, often coached by well known Barcelona and National Team water polo stars.

The common denominator of these successful water polo nations is the fact that the sport already enjoys a prominent position in the athletic history and culture of the nation.  Kids in these areas are exposed to professional water polo players as cultural icons.  Kids and their families choose water polo at an early age without the competition of a myriad of alternative choices and in most cases, water polo exists within an established infrastructure of established youth activities.

Here in the US, kids are faced with myriad choices, many of which require little parental support for participation and requiring little infrastructure.  Youth soccer, T-Ball and Little League, Pop Warner Football, youth basketball leagues and of late, tennis are readily available in almost every minor city of 25,000 or more.  Water Polo and competitive swimming on the other hand, occupy a niche with ice hockey that  is dependent on facilities which are, in most cases, not available in every locale. This presents the added barriers of distance and cost to a sport which is already at the bottom tier of participation nationally.

All of these factors combine to cause frustration and lack of direction, causing us to lament  “How do we grow the sport?”
As much as we mourn our numbers here in the USA, coaches and water polo administrators throughout the rest of the world look at THE SAME NUMBERS in awe. The United States currently has more kids playing water polo than any other nation in the world.  While the numbers reflect a far smaller fraction of our total population, most Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and Spaniards are certain that having total numbers similar to ours would make them the undisputed world leader in water polo.

Regardless of these facts,  for the first time in history, Europe is facing declining numbers in youth water polo.  Whether that be from the growing computer competition (the upcoming generation is sometimes known as Vidiots) or from competition as tennis, basketball and other sports grow, the fact remains that the water polo community needs to address the declining numbers now.

Growing the sport in the US is often a 2 pronged problem (1) exposing kids to the sport and (2) making the sport attractive to the 5-10 year old age group who have already entered the competitive swimming route.  Red Cross and YMCA swimming lessons are an age old tradition in our culture which exposes our kids to the water beginning at age 6.  Nearly every pool little Johnny and Susie enter at age 6 has the mystical allure of “the diving board” holding itself out as a prize to be earned by swimming accomplishment.  In many areas, our swimming instructors are current or former competitive swimmers who cherry pick the cream of the crop of our young kids for competitive swimming programs.  These often unremarkable facts expose our kids to both competitive swimming and diving at age 6-8 …and is  part of the reason that water polo falls off the map early on.

As USA Water Polo moves forward, one of its key goals is to increase participation in the sport and one of the most urgent imperatives is to look at and choose an entry level program to use to attract young players. Among those being considered  are Splash Ball (being used in SoPac) and Noodle Ball being used at American River. We previewed the SoPac Splashball Program last month on our home page.

As noted in his article,  Sopacs Marold Kamai stresses the need for an entry level program:

In this article, I will look at the entry level game HabaWaba which was introduced 3 years ago in Europe. as a joint project of LEN and Water Polo Development to increase game participation in Europe.

Haba Waba is a co-ed game for 5-9 year olds. The goal of the game is to;

HaBa WaBa intends to motivate kids from all around the world, and create with all European clubs and Federations an opportunity of:

While the acronym Haba Waba seems to work in Europe,  it would likely be anathema to kids in the US...HAppy BAby WAter Ball is just not going to make it with the tough 6-10 year old American audience.  Nonetheless,  the game is encountering a great deal of success throughout Europe and most countries involved are seeing numbers rise.  The relaxed rules, flexibility of pool requirements and coed nature of the sport puts little strain on infrastructure, reduces the total number of coaches needed and eliminates the cost of professional referees thus lowering the cost of participation.

For most age groups, Haba Waba is played in shallow water, with players swimming or standing depending on their swimming development. The smaller ball and confidence building of the shallow pool allows kids to develop game awareness, ball handling skills and tactical understanding without the distraction of deep water swimming or the impediments of a flotation device.

The success of the game in Europe may indicate that we should look at the rules and conduct of this game as a potential entry into the pool of beginner games albeit perhaps under a more attractive name!

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Haba Waba Rules **


  • 6 players (5 + goalkeeper) in the water and 7 substitutes and 2 team managers. They can be all boys or girls or mixed. Each team will be composed by 8 players minimum to 13 players maximum.

  • Players shall be born either in years 2001/2002 and following for the first category or in years 1999/2000 for the second category.

  • Players cannot change caps during the match


  • Competition field 25 x 21 meters maximum and 20 x 12.5 meters minimum.
  • Competition field for kids born 2001 and following is 16.0 x 10.0 meters.
  • Pool depth from 1.10 to 1.30-1.40 meters minimum (for born in 2001 and following) and 2.0 meters  maximum.
  • Penalty area 4 meters (green).
  • Area offside 2 meters (red).
  • Goalpost dimensions: 2.15 meters x 0.74 meters
  • Ball Number 3


  • 2 periods of 12 min. with a 3-minute interval between the periods.
  • Time is continuous. Time clock will be stopped after each goal only during semi-final and final matches.>
  • Coaches can ask for one time-out per each period only during semi-final and final matches.<
  • The team in possession of the ball has no limit of 30 seconds.
  • The referee can change ball possession when there is an evident loss of time.


  • A player with 4 major fouls cannot re-enter the game.

  • An excluded player can re-enter after having touched the corner opposed to the secretariat, close to his team bench, and another player of the same team can replace him.

  • Only for kids born in 2001 and following: a player is allowed to receive the ball with 2 hands but he must throw the ball with only one hand.

  • A player do not can shoot directly following a free throw

  • The corner throw is suppressed


  • 2 points for victory.
  • 1 point for a draw.
  • 0 points for a defeat.
  • In the case of draw between two or more teams at the end of preliminary rounds it will be applied the following criteria to fix the results:

    1. higher number of points obtained in the group match played among the teams in question;
    2. superior goal difference;
    3. higher number of goals scored;
    4. by lot.


  • One referee per game (one coach chosen among the coaches of other participant teams).

** Important: Water Polo general rules are applied with the above mentioned exceptions.