Rules Rule #6: A Spectator's Guide to Water Polo (A Parody)
How to understand the game: for a new spectator from a former player, coach and referee.

Wolf Wigo
BA from Stanford University,
Coach of UCSB, Four Times NCAA All American,
Three Time Olympian, and Cofounder of Kap7

The rules of water polo are not such that you can simply read them and expect to understand this game when watching it for the first time (or first few times).

Here are the basics.  Each team is made of 7 players; 6 field players and 1 goalkeeper.  The object of the game is to score by throwing the ball into the opponent’s goal.  Like in basketball, there is a shot clock.  In water polo, teams have 30 seconds from the time they gain possession of the ball to take a shot. 

Now that you understand the object of the game, I suggest you forget everything you know about other sports – because water polo is unlike other sports. 

As you will also see holding, sinking, and pulling back of players is permitted throughout the pool at any time, by any player.  You will see this constantly, throughout the pool. Quite often, the player who has just received the ball, or is about to receive the ball will be held or sunk and a whistle is blown. This is generally called an ‘ordinary foul’.  Unlike in most other sports, defenders can foul an opponent an unlimited number of times without any consequence.  Also contrary to other sports, it is usually in the defensive players best interest to commit a foul, as it can disrupt the offensive player from making a pass to an open player.  You will hear these whistles constantly, every 4 or 5 seconds or less, when a team is in frontcourt offense.  One thing to keep in mind is that play does not stop on a whistle – there is no personal foul to record and play just keeps going.  While you are constantly hearing whistles you should just try to ignore them and understand that it means nothing bad for the defense, and usually is a good thing if you are cheering for that team – this takes a while to get used to as a sports fan or parent.

Every once in a while a whistle signifies a major foul.  You will know when this takes place because the referee will toot the whistle more than once with some short blasts and long ones.  A major foul is usually called when a player on defense uses excessive force or exuberance to sink or hold a player.  There is a fine line between the call of an ”ordinary” foul and a “major” foul.  You must watch many games or have been a player to even begin to understand why sometimes a foul is a major foul and sometimes it’s not.  Even the most experienced players and coaches quite often dispute the difference, so as someone new to the game it is probably something you will not master any time soon.  Throughout the game you will see the coaches questioning these calls.

Once you have watched a number of games, perhaps one hundred games, you will begin to grasp when a foul is a major one or not.  However you will still find that you cannot quite understand some calls for whatever reason. This is where it gets really tricky.  For example, the ball will come into 2m and the defensive player has both hands clearly up, but is called for a major foul.  Or a player will drive and is barely touched but the defense is called for a major foul, despite the fact you have seen much more contact on other plays during the game where no call was made.  This can be attributed to a few things:

  1. First and foremost since there is constant holding and sinking everywhere in the pool, (and strange as it may seem the actual rules of water polo say it is a major foul to hold sink or pull back at any time) it is quite easy to find one player doing it during any one possession.  In this way the referee is given the extraordinary power in this sport during any possession to determine whether they want to make an exclusion foul or not. I was a referee so I am well aware of this special power given to the referees!

  2. The other team had a few major fouls called against them recently. The referees, not wanting to seem biased, call a foul to event things out.

  3. There was just a really bad call for the other team at the other end and this is a make up call.

  4. One team is winning by a lot, so the referees feel bad for the losing team and start awarding major fouls at one end and not calling fouls at the other.

  5. It is the end of a close game and during the previous possession a major foul was called for the other team – at this point both referees will be looking for ANY excuse to call a major foul.  And since there is constant holding and sinking it is quite easy for referees to find some kind of justification to call a major foul.

In addition, sometimes you will see a defensive player foul very hard and not even be whistled for a foul.  This is a little easier to understand.  In this situation it is generally deemed by the referee that other players from the defensive team were about to steal the ball so a hard foul by the other player does not need to be called. Other times, when the referee deems the ball was passed to high or too short for the offensive player to get to the ball there is also no call despite obvious holding or sinking. 

Also, quite often, on the outside, you will see a whistle blown when a player is not even touched.  Don’t worry about this.  The referees have a very large pool to watch and 12 players who are constantly holding each other.  They cannot be expected to be watching the ball at all times and the easiest thing for them to do if they do not see what is going on is to call a quick harmless foul (this can be done because unlike other sports, ordinary fouls are meaningless and are of no penalty to the defense).  

Other times you will see a player repeatedly fouled but no whistle is called.  This is another tricky one.  Usually this occurs near the 5m line. In some games, it is very hard to get a foul in this area of the pool.  This is another type of judgment call, which gives the referee a lot of power to either make a call, or not.  A shot from 5 meters away is very dangerous, so usually most referees hesitate to call a quick foul, even when the foul is obvious; whereas in other parts of the pool there would be no question that it is a foul. 

Here are a few of the most common ‘special situations’ for the novice spectator that you should familiarize yourself with:

  1. When a player shoots the ball and misses. If the defender is playing tight on them at the time of shot, they usually have a special right to climb over, sink, kick and dunk the player who just shot the ball; and despite the player who shot being 3 feet under the water being kicked and desperately trying to put both hands up – it is that player who is whistled for an exclusion foul.  This one always confuses a new spectator but is one of the many unwritten rules of the game that takes a while to get used to.

  2. After the center takes a shot, the center defender is often granted the ability to pull by, stop and give one strong kick into the back of the center before swimming down to offense. Now if the kick is too excessive or too high or out of the water, then that player can have an offensive foul called against them, and sometimes even an exclusion foul. But most of the time nothing is called, so don’t look like a novice fan and scream at the referee when your kid gets kicked after taking a center shot – if you do, it will immediately tip everyone off that you don’t really know “the game”.

  3. After a turnover you will often see 2 opposing players go under water and maul each other for a couple seconds. When they come up, the referee will call nothing and signal with a small cupping motion of the hand that play should continue with no foul. This one is especially hard for someone new to the game to understand.  They have probably looked online and read the “Official” rules of water polo where it says that no holding, sinking or pulling back is allowed.  How can 2 players be literally fighting for so long without a call either way from the referee? Novice spectators from both sides love to scream at the referee for this one - again this just shows that you don’t really know “the game” so save your breath on this one as well.

Each player gets 3 major fouls before they are excluded from the game. 

A penalty foul is a major foul that is located near the goal that prevents a probable goal.  Many times someone new to the game has trouble discerning when a penalty should be assessed or just a major foul.  You should not try to understand this one.  Sometimes a center will clearly turn a player at 3 meters center cage and be fouled hard. One game it will be a penalty, another an exclusion and sometimes, nothing.  The same goes for a counterattack player heading towards the goal with the ball.  Sometimes it will be major foul, sometimes a penalty.  You will quite often at games hear the coaches yelling that such and such call should have been a penalty and not an exclusion.  More often than not this has to do with whether the other referee has already called a penalty – if he has, then any borderline call after that will be a penalty for the other team. If the referees both opt to not call a penalty than there will likely not be one called later in the game.

Another part of the game, the sprint for the ball at each quarter, highlights an important aspect of water polo understanding.   In this instance, it is rarely the faster player that wins the sprint but the one who has cheated off the line the most.  At no level in water polo including the Olympic Games is the sprint fairly contested (exception – very small pools where players push off the wall to start).

In water polo, to be successful you must be constantly pushing the envelope of cheating.  As we stated earlier you are not supposed to hold, sink or pull back, but players are doing it constantly.  It is the player that can do it the most without drawing extra attention from the referee that is most successful.  You need to remember that in water polo there is no black and white foul – everything is a gray area, so you can go for the most you can get away with, without getting caught.  And since it is gray you can always be called for something… or not!

It is important to not get mad at the referees when watching a game – even if it seems like your son or daughter or favorite player got the bad end of a call.  These referees are being asked to make thousands of judgment calls during the game.   As noted above, the actual written rules of the game state that players cannot hold, sink or pull back, however referees are secretly (as in not known to the general public) instructed to ignore certain types of holding and in certain circumstances that usually change every couple of years or so.  For example in the center position referees are told that holding is generally okay (despite what the rules say!) but if it is out of the water then they need to call a foul.  Or if the offensive player is facing the defender and the ball is passed in, an offensive foul should be called – even if no offensive foul occurred.  These kinds of calls can really confuse you as a novice spectator and since you don’t know the secret rules of the game, you should not waste your time getting mad at the official.  Even if you suspect that the referee is using their enormous powers of calling grey area situations to improperly sway the game in one way – well in that case you could be a little upset - it is always important to remember that there are a number of unwritten rules that you probably don’t know, so in the end it is better not to say anything.  Coaches can yell at referees because they are usually privy to the secret rules that no one else is told.

My first experience with understanding that the referees can call what they want at any time was at a world championship in the early 1990’s.  I was watching a game with a veteran referee who seemed to know about 5-10 seconds before anything happened when a major foul, or offensive foul would occur.  He was right about 8 times in a row throughout the course of watching the game.  I was amazed, what were the odds of that?  He was in the secret club of people who know all the nuances of when and why certain fouls should be called despite what is actually happening in the pool (For the record I was a high level player, having played for over 10 years by that time, but at that point was not yet a member of the secret society).  Today I am proud to say that I can with 90% certainty predict certain calls well before they are called, to the amazement of novice spectators I sit next to, as if I am a magician.   If you are very dedicated and stick with this sport, you too may one day master this art, and once you have done so you can enjoy water polo for all its beauty.  At this point you will realize that, among many other wonderful things, many teams do not even try to score in offense but simply play for exclusion foul.  They may opt to take a long-range shot just before the shot clock expires, but this just gives them time to get back on defense and wait until the next time they have an opportunity to get an exclusion.  When referees don’t call exclusions, you generally see very low scoring games.

I wish you luck in understanding this magically unique game of water polo.  After reading this you may wonder why so many of the rules of water polo are in complete opposition with all mainstream sports, and also why there would be such a confusing set of rules to the game – well, that is water polo and if you don’t like it you don’t need to watch it – an option most people around the world chose  - even parents and players after they stop playing - so you would not be alone. 

It may also cross your mind to wonder why in water polo they don’t just call a foul every time someone is held, sunk or pulled back as ironically that is what the official rules of water polo state.   Don’t even think about that option – that could never be done – really, so don’t even think about it. 

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