Water polo is a physical game. The physicality of water polo seems to be a constant topic of discussion on message boards and elsewhere. Usually, the topic is thoughtful and targeted at the interaction between the degree of physicality in water polo and the future prospects of the sport. Sometimes the topic devolves into “Thugs and Slugs” types of exchanges. Not surprisingly, and certainly of interest to me, these kinds of discussions often end up with referee criticisms: “the referees lost control of the game” or some such objection. As a referee, I thought it was time to address this issue. So, from the perspective of a referee, is water polo too physical, not physical enough, or as Goldilocks once declared, “just right?”
Let’s start with a brief description of physicality, shall we? First of all, let’s be clear on one thing. Water polo is a contact sport, but is not supposed to be a collision sport. Contact is, and is supposed to be, part of the game. However, collisions, at least purposeful collisions, kicking, striking, violence in general, are not. So, what does physicality, or contact, really mean? And therefore, what kinds of contact should we consider to be normal and acceptable physicality?
Baby Bear's Reasonable Interpretation of Physicality
Let’s consider three examples to make the point:
The center backs down, the center defender makes contact and pushes back, or pushes to a side, taking the other side, the center pushes back, trying to gain or regain position, and all this occurs as a normal part of the game. What we would all like to see is a good entry pass, the center stepping to the ball, and either making an exciting move towards a shot, or a pass to the hand of a moving teammate for a quick shot. Sometimes the shot goes in and sometimes it is blocked. Either way, there is offense, there is passing, there are shots on goal, and generally exciting water polo.
A driver beats a defender, slows down, makes hip-to-shoulder contact, holds the defender behind with the hips, waiting for a pass, and all this is similarly normal. Again, with a good pass, there can be a shot, and either a goal or a block, but either way, exciting water polo.
The ball is at point, the player is looking to pass, the defender leans on the off shoulder until the attacker picks up the ball to pass, at which time the defender grabs and holds the off arm, hoping to force a bad pass, and this too is quite normal. Eventually, a pass is made to a teammate close enough to the goal to either get a shot directly or at least be working for a shot.
All of these are “just right.” There is contact, there are not collisions, it looks like water polo, and we expect the better player and better team to thrive in each situation.
Papa Bear's Carved in Stone Interpretation of Physicality
Let’s reconsider each of those situations, but when they are occurring in a way most of us would view as “too physical.”
The center defender grabs both shoulders of the center, sinking the center as the ball is entering. We all would like to see an exclusion foul here. But what the exclusion foul does NOT do is restore the opportunity to have one of the most exciting things in water polo: the center handling the entry pass and getting off a shot. Certainly, the exclusion foul is certainly better than simply allowing the sinking to go unpunished. But even if this foul is always called, eventually, it is not unlikely for this kind of contact to wear down, even completely wear out, the center. This is not what anyone wants to see.
The defender grabs and pulls back just as the pass arrives, or worse, reaches up and comes down, hard, hitting the attacker just as the pass arrives. Easy, right? Most of us expect to see the referee call an exclusion, penalty, or even misconduct foul, right? Fine, but what did we miss? We missed another exciting play, the quick inside pass for a quick weak-side shot, and replaced it with a static 6-on-5.
The defender takes a hard swing at the ball to get it, or worse, buries the attacker in a push-off to drop down and front the center. Again, everyone expects an exclusion and the referee dutifully does so. But again, what did we miss? We missed the pinpoint pass from the point to a teammate up high near the post for a quick one-timer into the top corner. Some type of exciting play has been replaced, again, by a boring and static 6-on-5. But worse, unless the attacking team is extremely good at the extra, the fouling, as opposed to the fouled, team is able to benefit. This is not good for the game.
Mama Bear's Wish in One Hand and... Interpretation of Physicality
Finally, what about not physical enough? Is there such a thing? What happens here?
As the defender makes contact during the entry pass, the referee calls a minor foul so the defender stops pushing and shoving and the center can control the ball. Great. We have turned a possible shooter into a passer, and even worse, have (in effect) told the center there is no obligation to develop leg support or ball handling skills. Alternatively, before the entry pass is even made, the referee decides the pushing and shoving has gone on long enough and excludes the defender. OK, physicality is reduced, but again, the center is no longer a threat to handle the entry pass and make a play, nor does the center have any obligation to develop leg support or develop ball skills because there will always be an exclusion. Sure, there can be a kick-out pass to a driver, or worse, another static 6-on-5, but we do NOT have exciting water polo to watch.
In this situation, what if the referee identifies the situation and calls a quick exclusion, before the driver has done much more than take a few strokes. Fine, a pass from center to the now undefended driver results in a shot, but the goaltender knows it is coming, has slid over to block the shot, and initiates a counter off the miss.
Finally, here, the referee calls a quick foul to allow the pass to be made. But the defenders know this, they all front the drivers, and the point is left with only two unsatisfying options: a direct shot from the 8 meter line through lots of one-armed shot-blockers or to pop the ball, put it in play, wait for a V-back from a teammate, and start over again, with the possession clock now winding down. Again, in all these cases, the fouling, as opposed to the fouled, team is able to benefit. This is not good for the game.
Let's Hear Goldilock's Solution to the Problem
By now, I have made the case that there IS such a thing as an optimal amount of physicality. Let’s look at it another way, and address this issue from the simplest perspective: one ball and two opposing players. The attacker possesses (not yet holding) the ball and, of course, the defender wants the ball. If the defender makes a move to the ball, going around one side of the attacker, the attacker simply slides the other way, keeping possession of the ball. Hmmm… ok, now the defender goes directly at the ball via a path through the attacker’s shoulders. If the defender goes far enough, and sinks and/or strikes the attacker, the referee can exclude the defender. If this happens, the fouled team gets a 6-on-5, everything is static, yada yada yada. But let’s imagine that the referee does NOT call this as a foul. Now what? The defender KNOWS the coach wants the ball stolen. So the defender makes a harder move to the ball. If the attacker is good, the defender gets left behind after a slick turn move, and now the attack is 6-on-5 with the attacker moving towards the goal. This is exciting. If the attacker is not so good, there is still the opportunity for the exclusion and the static 6-on-5. By NOT calling the first (real) foul, if the attacker can absorb a little bit of contact, we have a more exciting play. In this case, the excitement depends on a combination of attacker skill, attacker ability to absorb a little contact, and referee patience. So, there just may be such a thing as an optimal amount of physicality, after all. It just depends on the skill set of the player(s) and the ability of the referee(s) to discriminate between physicality that a good player can use for benefit and physicality that may be injurious.
Sure, it is extremely simple to call a foul EVERY time there is contact (and let me assure you, if there is ANYONE who knows what a game looks like when that happens, I do). However, if you do this, the result is neither a game that resembles water polo nor is it likely that such a game will necessarily end up with the more skilled team winning. So, despite what many (coaches included) might argue, it is NOT true that simply dialing down the threshold of physicality makes for a better game.
If We Want Water Polo to Live Happy Ever After Then We Had Better Get Our Act Together
So what do we do now? We work, together, to understand all this, and we work, together, to craft a set of instructions to coaches and referees about to what degree physicality should (or should not) be present at different levels of play, different age groups, and also perhaps for different genders. Recently, I have had some very interesting conversations about this very topic, and am extremely optimistic that such an agreement (at least within the USA Water Polo universe) can be reached. Nonetheless, whatever we do, we must always make decisions with an eye towards two goals:
increasing the appeal of our sport to prospective players;
increasing the likelihood of the players we do attract being put into settings where they can develop water polo skills as rapidly as possible.
To do this, in combination, will result in the kinds of growth of this sport we all want to experience.