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Fan's Guide to Water Polo Rules and Basics Page 2 of 5

water polo player1- History & Object
2- The Essentials (Offense & Defense, Scoring, Etc.)
3- Fouls
4- Field Diagram and Positions
5- Glossary of Water Polo Terms

The Essentials

Game Length

A game of water polo is divided into four seven-minute quarters. A game clock counts down the time left in each quarter. A shot clock, which starts at 35 seconds, counts down the time that the offense has to shoot the ball on each possession. Both clocks stop immediately following a foul and do not start until the ball is put back into play. With the clock constantly stopping, and with the breaks between quarters, you can expect a water polo game to last over an hour.

Start of the game

At the beginning of each quarter, each team lines up on the goal line. Once the referee blows the whistle to signal the start of each quarter, the players sprint towards mid-pool, where the referee drops the ball. Whoever wins the sprint is the first to be on offense.

Offense and Defense

Players advance by swimming and passing the ball. With the exception of the goalie, they can only touch the ball with one hand at a time. Most offenses organize themselves into a similar configuration each time they prepare to score a goal (see diagram). The offense surrounds the hole-set, who is positioned directly in front of the opponent’s goal. Perimeter players, also known as drivers, try to take a shot at the goal or attempt a wet-pass into the hole-set’a strategy called setting the hole. The hole-set shoots the ball if given the opportunity, but is often strategically fouled by the hole-guard, who chooses to foul the hole-set and force a free-pass, rather than allow him to shoot the ball. Immediately following a foul, there are three seconds of dead-time, in which the fouled player must put the ball in play. During dead-time, perimeter players drive towards the goal to either become available to take a shot, or ’draw a foul,’ which results in the defender’s exclusion from the game for 20 seconds. During the 20 second exclusion, the offensive team is in a power play that creates a high probability for scoring.


A goal is scored once the ball completely passes over the goal line. If a goal is scored, the teams line up mid-pool and the non-scoring team takes possession of the ball.

Counter-attack and transition

The counter-attack is the transition between when the defensive team obtains possession of the ball and when it sets up its offense in front of its opponent’s goal. During the counterattack, the goalkeeper looks for an outlet to an open player downfield who either runs a fast break or sets up the offense.


There is minimal equipment in water polo. Players wear swimsuits and caps. Additionally, there is a yellow ball and several goals. The women’s ball is slightly smaller than the men’s ball.

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