Open Letter Concerning the Use of FINA Rules for High School and Age Group Games

Date:   January 9, 2006

To:       Water Polo Coaches and Administrators in the USWP & NISCA

From:   Scott Hinman

            Head Girls Water Polo Coach Irvine High School &

            Former USA Women’s National Team Coach

Re:       Rules Discussion and Reasons for Separating of High School and Age Group from FINA


The sport of water polo has undergone constant rule changes over the past 40 years. Some of these changes have had a positive effect while others have proven to be failed experiments. The mere fact that the rules undergo major changes every 2 – 4 years is a testament to these failed experiments. High School rules have generally adopted most of the rules enacted by FINA and then adopted by USWP. This trickle down effect is the result of the water polo community committing to the philosophy that all levels, be they age group, high school, college, national and international, should conduct themselves under a single common set of rules. It is interesting and worth consideration that water polo is one of the only team sports that follow this philosophy.

Baseball, Basketball, and Football are all examples of sports that have commitments to adapting the rules to the level of age and skill as well as the physical and emotional maturity of the participants while still maintaining the integrity of the highest levels of the sport.

There are numerous models of sports with progressive rules. I feel baseball presents the best example of this developmental philosophy. Professional baseball has seen very few rule changes throughout its’ entire history. At the same time, baseball rules differ in a progressive manner depending on the developmental levels of the participants. Little league, Pony league, High School and College all play under rules relative to the participant’s abilities, experience and maturity. This progression in rules allows the athletes an optimum opportunity to experience success while still developing toward the highest level.

We in the water polo community need to explore the implementation of this model both philosophically and practically. The thought that the European model is the only valid model needs to be challenged. The idea that all American water polo athletes need to be playing under the same rules as the highest level has kept us from offering developmental opportunities that are consistent, safe and with developmental purpose.

FINA rules and all the changes this body continues to make, should not be of major concern to the High School level of water polo development. High School coaches and administrators need to seriously explore setting rules apart from FINA so as to ensure the safety and integrity of water polo at this level. The FINA rule changes that have been adopted by High Schools in the past 12 years has led to an escalation in the violence and inability of players, coaches and officials to keep the game safe and accessible to a wide range of athletic abilities. We are seeing the 2 meter game disintegrating into a virtually uncontrollable wrestling match and stagnation of offensive mobility. No more is there a place for the smaller, quick driver. The game is now dominated by brute force, size and strength. Even at the international level, most former Olympians of the USA medal days will tell you that they would not have made those Olympic teams under today’s FINA rules.

USWP Arguments for Maintaining a Common Set of Rules

There have been two dominate arguments made by USWP administrators, coaches and referees in support of maintaining one common set of rules for the entire world.

Argument # 1

“All players need to play under the FINA rules in order to have the USA be an Olympic medal contender. Coaches and Athletes playing under different rules will be confused and unable to adapt to FINA rules.” Seeing as contending for a gold medal is a high USWP mission statement priority, this would seem to have some level of validity.

Rebuttal to #1

There are over 42,000* High School, 5,600* Collegiate and thousands of age group water polo participants. I find it difficult to fathom that the top 30 Senior National / Olympic Team contending candidates would be unable to adapt to FINA Rules. The common makeup of our Olympic team participants  are either post collegiate or taking time away from school to train full time under these rules. The Olympic team coaching staff is devoted only to that level and those rules. To say that these coaches and athletes are incapable of adapting is insulting. In addition, seeing as how frequent FINA makes major rules changes, these coaches and athletes will constantly be adapting regardless of the current rules.

*statistics provided by Dr. Pete Snyder

Argument #2

“Referees will have difficulty keeping up with separate rules and interpretations”.

Rebuttal to #2

This statement is somewhat valid if in fact the vast majority of referees are doing it to officiate at the FINA level. Seeing as how there are approximately 20 referees (if that) that are truly in this potential “pool” for consideration of FINA involvement, I don’t see this as a problem. I believe that if we adopt rules that fit the skills, emotional and physical maturity of the athletes, referees with wide ranges of experience and ability will then have a higher probability of being able to maintain control of the game. The vast majority of officials doing high school and age group games are not looking to move to the FINA level. Those that are can track in that direction. One of the greatest contributors to inconsistency and lack of control is that we are evaluating officials based on FINA standards of interpretation rather than the level of the athletes and experience level of the official. Case in point: The instructional chairmen of our local officials associations are trying to get officials to follow interpretations based on what high school coaches wish to see in the game. However, officials that attempt to implement these interpretations are “dinged” and given poor evaluations because they are being evaluated by USWP members sold only on the FINA Rubric of interpretation. Quite often, the evaluators rarely attend the meetings held by the instructional chairmen.

We need to be OK with developing officials, rules and interpretations devoted to a specific level and have instruction and evaluation based of their performance and abilities for that level.

Officials that have an aptitude and desire for continued development to the FINA level will be found regardless of the set of rules. These officials will demonstrate the ability to adapt and control as they will have to as FINA changes rules anyway.

If the argument is that we need these “FINA” level officials due to shortage, I have to believe that the “best of the best” are able to adapt. After all, officials in other sports do.

Another aspect to be considered here is that if there is a true concern for the development of  high school and age group officials (with rules they can handle), we will see more enter and stay in the sport thereby expanding the pool of officials dedicated to that level. Officials that enter the sport for the purpose of youth sports participation and not for personal ego need to be commended and supported for their contribution. Let’s not forget that Little League baseball officials are all volunteers with a good support system and there seems to be enough of them to cover games.

Some Major Rules Adaptations for High School and Age Group Water Polo

Let me begin by saying that none of the new FINA rules changes should be implemented in the high school programs. This includes period times as well as playing rules. My understanding is that the new FINA rules are intended to speed play and reduce the physical battles. Here’s my take:

We don’t need water polo to turn into “Team Handball”. If you want to play team handball, then leave water polo and become a team handball player. The major rule changes all mimic team handball rules and/or will lead to strategies that resemble this court sport.

The 5 meter rule:

We are told that since a player fouled at 5m will be allowed to take a direct shot, this will reduce the physical nature of fouling. Players will not foul as quickly or as forcefully. This will increase offensive scoring opportunities.   

Reality:    First of all, if teams play a pressing defense, this will do little to decrease the battle for position which is what leads to the escalation of force and eventually injury. The defender will have a larger area to control with even more difficulty. Officials have already demonstrated a reluctance to control the “center forward” position without the ball and this rule will do nothing to change that. All the official will be able to do is eject the defender with the ball outside or call a quick foul when the ball enters. This will lead to teams playing behind the “center forward” and dropping back from the top to prevent the ball from entering. This will diminish the need for the defender to wage a physical war but at the same time neutralize the position altogether. This “drop” will also lead to an “arc” type outside balance (just as in team handball) except that now the entire “arc” will be 9 to 11 meters away from the goal. All you will see are defensive zones, perimeter passing and outside shooting (team handball). There will be no driving (of course there wasn’t much under the previous rules), no counter attack opportunities (how can you counter from zone defenses) and a stagnant yet boring game. Reducing the shot clock will be irrelevant.

The Deflection Rule:

The rule is designed to reward good defensive field play with another team handball type rule.

The rule will also speed play as it will decrease the number of corner throws. Not such a bad idea.

Reality:    This will further reinforce the “hand up” zone defenses and further reduce the opportunity to score especially since now the shots will be from 9 to 11 meters out.

Two Hands up Exclusion Rule:

The rule is designed to prevent teams with good legs from taking the shooting lanes away when using zone defenses. It also takes the pressure off the official in determining whether a two hand block was made.

Reality:    There will be too much subjective interpretation as to what constitutes two hands up and when it has actually affected play. Heck, we can’t even get officials to call the 2 meter line anymore because somehow that once black and white rule is now subjective.

A Rule to Re-implement

Back in the day when water polo actually showcased speed, quickness, basketball type strategies as well as strength and power, there was a rule which dealt with free throws and the point of the foul. This rule stated that the ball must be put in play at the point of the foul. The FINA establishment changed this rule in order to “speed play”. Funny how all these rules to “speed play” have led to a slower and more physical game. This rule needs to be brought back into the high school and age group game. The effect of implementation would be as follows:

Reduction of the 2 meter battle:

Officials used to be able to keep the 2m position under control by calling an ordinary foul before the battle for position escalated out of control. The mere fact that the ball came forward for a free throw in front of the goal encouraged the official to make the call as well as deterring the defense from committing it. Under the current rule, an ordinary foul at 2m does nothing but create dead time which might be OK if the defender was excluded if they didn’t release the 2m player. The reality is that officials are reluctant to call this as it creates some confusion and to follow it with a quick dead time exclusion call would severely penalize the defense fighting for position. There are those that will tell you that the official will exclude the defender for physically taking position away but in the same breath they will also say one of the following:

            “I was waiting for the ball to come in”

            “I was waiting for the ball to be in position to come in”

            “As long as there is equal force between both players, there’s nothing to call”

The problem with these statements is that they all lead to a physical escalation that gets out of control. Well seasoned, excellent officials have the ability to control this potential escalation however our concern is that the vast majority do not have this ability.

Emotional and Physical Maturity of the Players:

We must also consider the emotional and physical maturity of the players. Most age groupers don’t have the strength to remain offensively productive under this pressure. They have little chance of avoiding being manhandled.

Most high school players that may have the physical strength do not yet have the skill to play either the offensive or defensive position under these rules without extensive holding and what amounts to wrestling. Their lack of physical skill, balance and control leads to safety issues.

Let’s also remember that these adolescents have a wide range of emotional maturity or lack thereof and putting them in this physical context will only lead to violence. Unfortunately, we also have many coaches who lack the skills to maintain the emotional control of their athletes or themselves. There is already one high school section in California whose CIF governing board has placed boys’ water polo on probation for too much violence. The sport will be dropped in that section if it continues.

We also see young kids and their parents come “check out” this water polo sport since he/she is already a good swimmer only to have them walk away with their notion of a brutal game reinforced. What 12 year old in their right mind would want to be a 2m player after watching an out of control game? How will that affect our Gold Medal Chances?

The physical nature of the current 2m game also leads to “cheap shot” attacks away from the action usually in retaliation for something that occurred earlier at 2m.

If High School and Age Group re-implemented the point of foul rule, the following would occur:

1. Officials could drastically reduce the physical escalation by awarding a free throw at that spot.

2. Officials could still exclude players that are over aggressive.

3. The free throw awarded in front of the goal would lead to “Dead Time” driving and        motion oriented offenses where defensive holding is penalized.

4. Rules leading to offenses that encourage motion and athleticism will lead to a more well rounded and skilled water polo athlete.

5. The game will be accessible to more athletes of various shapes and sizes.

6. The seasonal swim/polo player could actually survive.

7. Coaches could become innovative again.

8. Greater respectability for the sport

Water Polo in This Country Is About More Than Winning an Olympic Gold Medal

The game of water polo is a contact sport and there will always be physical play. This is one of the things that make it fun and challenging. However, as much as people outside the inner circle of the sport would talk about how rough a sport it is, those of us in the sport know that physical play did not necessarily equate to unsafe, cheap shot or brutal play. In fact, I believe a study done in the early 1980’s showed water polo as being in the BOTTOM FOUR in injury insurance claims for all the USOC Sports while swimming was in the top five. I don’t believe we have less competent officials, coaches or disrespectful players. I do believe that the great rules experiment has created this long range problem. I also understand that there may be reluctance from US Water Polo to address this issue and actually encourage what I propose. However, all of us that are High School Coaches need to be reminded that we have a greater responsibility for the safety and welfare of the High School Athlete than we do for winning the Olympic Gold Medal.

I encourage your input and support for the philosophy and potential solutions I have put forth. I hope that this will be the beginning of meaningful dialogue within and between those involved in the decision process for High School as well as Age Group Rules Development and implementation.

(Scott Hinman coached the UC Santa Barbara Women's College Team from 1975 - 79 when the team won the US National Women's Collegiate Championship in '78 and '79. He is one of the pioneers of womes' collegiate water polo.

He was the coach of the Industry Hills Aquatic women's team which won four USWP National Women's Senior Championships, and was the Assistant Coach of the men's team which won an USWP National Men's Senior Championship. He founded and coached both the men's and women's teams at the Hacker Water Polo Club from 1982 - 84 which won an USWP National Men's Senior Championship once and the USWP National Women's Senior Championships twice. He was the first coach to win both the Men's and Women's USWP National Senior Championships in a single year.

From 1982 - 88 he was an Assistant Coach of the US National Women's Senior Team. Currently he is the coach of the Irvine High School girls team which played in the CIFSS Division I finals twice, and he was selected as the 2000 CIFSS Div. I Girls' "Coach of the Year". - Doc)