The modern game originated as a
form of rugby football played in rivers and lakes in England and
Scotland with a ball constructed of Indian rubber. This "water
rugby" came to be called "water polo" based on the English
pronunciation of the Balti word for ball, pulu.
The rules of water polo were
originally developed in the late nineteenth century in Great
Britain by William Wilson.
To deal with variations in
regional rules, in 1888, the London Water Polo League was founded
and approved a set of rules to allow team competition, forming the
basis of the present game. The first English championships were
played in 1888. In 1890, the first international water polo game
was played; Scotland defeated England, 4-0.
The annual Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge
Universities is the sport's longest running rivalry, first played
Men's water polo at the Olympics
was the first team sport introduced at the 1900 games, along with
cricket, rugby, soccer, polo (with horses), rowing and tug of
Between 1890 and 1900, the game developed in Europe, with teams
competing in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Hungary and Italy,
using British rules. A different game was being played in the
United States, characterized by rough play, holding, diving
underwater, and soft, semi-inflated ball that could be gripped
tightly and carried underwater. As a result, European teams did not
compete in the 1904 Olympic championships in St. Louis. By 1914,
most US teams agreed to conform to international rules. An
international water polo committee was formed in 1929, consisting
of representatives from Great Britain and the International Amateur
Swimming Federation (FINA). Rules were developed for international
matches and put into effect in 1930; FINA has been the
international governing body for the sport since that time.
Women's water polo became an
Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games after political
protests from the Australian women's team.
Every two to four years since
1973, a men's Water Polo World Championship is organized within the
FINA World Aquatics Championships. Women's water polo was added in
1986. A second tournament series, the FINA Water Polo World Cup,
has been held every other year since 1979. In 2002, FINA organized
the sport's first international league, the FINA Water Polo World
Over the years, both technical and
rule changes affected the character of the game. In 1928, Hungarian
water polo coach Bela Komjadi invented the "air pass," or "dry
pass", a technique in which a player directly passes the ball
through the air to another player, who receives it without the ball
hitting the water. Previously, players would let the ball drop in
the water first and then reach out for it, but the dry pass made
the offensive game more dynamic, and contributed to Hungarian
dominance of water polo for 60 years. In 1936, James R. ("Jimmy")
Smith, California water polo coach and author of several books on
water polo mechanics, developed a water polo ball made with an
inflatable bladder and a rubber fabric cover, which improved
performance. The previous leather ball absorbed water and became
heavier during the game. In 1949, rule changes allowed play to
continue uninterrupted after a referee whistled an ordinary foul,
speeding up play. In the 1970s, the exclusion foul replaced a point
system for major fouls; players guilty of this foul were excluded
for a 1 minute penalty and their team forced to play with fewer
players. Possession of the ball was limited to 45 seconds before a
scoring attempt. Time of penalties and possession have been reduced
since then. The direct shot on goal from the seven (7) meter line
after a free throw was allowed in 1994, and changed to a five meter
throw in 2005.
There are six field player
positions and a goalkeeper on each team. Unlike most common team
sports, there is not any positional play; field players often will
fill several positions throughout the game as situations demand.
Players who are skilled at several offensive or defensive roles are
called utility players. Utility players tend to come off of the
bench, though this isn't absolute. Certain body types are more
suited for particular positions, and left-handed players are
especially coveted, allowing teams to launch 2-sided attacks.
The offensive positions include: 1
center (a.k.a. hole set, 2-meter offense, pit player or pit-man), 2
wings, 2 drivers (also called "flats"), and 1 "point" man. The hole
set directs the attack, and on defense is known as hole check, hole
D, pit defense or 2-meter defense, defending the opposing team's
center forward. The wings, drivers and point are often called the
perimeter players. The most basic positional set up is known as a
3-3, due to the fact that there are two lines both containing 3
players. Another set up, used more by professional teams, is known
as an "arc", umbrella, or mushroom, because the perimeter players
form the shape of an arc, umbrella or mushroom around the goal with
the center forward as the handle or stalk. The center forward,
known by players as hole set or 2-meter is the center player in the
middle of the umbrella who is closest to the opposing teams goal.
This player sets up in front of the opposing team's goalie and
usually scores the most individually (especially during lower level
play where arc or perimeter players do not have the required leg
strength to drop effectively onto the pit player) or contributes
most often to initiating plays. The five perimeter players often
swim the most and interchange their positions several times during
a single offensive play. They contribute to the actual execution of
plays, and cumulatively score the most points for the team. The
point player's position provides opportunities to pass to teammates
and communicate among the offense, like the point guard in
basketball. The center forward also plays a big role offensively
because they sit closest to the goal and usually attempt to shoot
from close-range as frequently as possible with "Step-out"(a.k.a
Roll-out), "Sweep", or "Backhand" shots.
The goalkeeper is given several
privileges above those of the other players, but only if he or she
is within the five meter area in front of his goal:
ability to touch the ball with two hands.
Not all water polo rules are the
same. For example, overtime is different on the international
level and in college. In FINA (international) rules, if the
score is tied at the end of regulation play, two overtime periods
of three minutes each are played. If the tie is not broken after
two overtime periods, a penalty shootout will determine the winner,
much like in hockey. Five players and a goalkeeper are chosen by
the coaches of each team. Players shoot from the 5 meter line
alternately at either end of the pool in turn until all five have
taken a shot. If the score is still tied, the same players shoot
alternately until one team misses and the other scores. Overtime
periods are common in tournament play due to the high level of
skill of these superior teams; Team USA defeated Hungary in the
2004 Women's Water Polo World League Super Final when US goalie
Jackie Frank made 2 stops on penalty shots.
Differing from FINA rules, overtime in American college varsity
water polo play is sudden victory, first team to score wins, after
the two three minute overtime periods. There are no shootouts, the
overtimes simply continue until a team scores.
All water polo is not the same,
either, as the game has developed into different variations.
Inner tube water polo is a style
of water polo with the important difference that players, excluding
the goalkeeper, are required to float in inner tubes. By floating
in an inner tube players expend less energy than traditional water
polo players, not having to tread water. This allows casual players
to enjoy water polo without undertaking the intense conditioning
required for conventional water polo. This sport is predominantly
played at universities/colleges by intramural coed teams. The
sport's rules resemble those of water polo, however, with no
governing body the rules vary across different leagues. For
example, while the winner is determined by the team which scores
the most goals, some leagues award one point for a male goal, and
two points for a female goal, while others award one for either.
The game was invented in 1969 by now retired UC Davis associate
athletic director of intramural sports and sport clubs, Gary
Colberg. Noticing how much fun the water polo team was having, Mr.
Colberg thought up the idea of using tubes so that people with no
experience in water polo could still enjoy the game.
Surf polo, another variation of
water polo, is played on surfboards. First played on the beaches of
Waikiki in Hawaii in the 1930s and 1940s, it is credited to Louis
Kahanamoku, Duke Kahanamoku's brother.
Canoe Polo or kayak polo is one of
the eight disciplines of canoeing pursued in the UK, known simply
as "polo" by its aficionados. Polo combines paddling and ball
handling skills with an exciting contact team game, where tactics
and positional play are as important as the speed and fitness of
the individual athletes.
Water polo is a team water sport
requiring an ability to swim. Field players must swim end to end of
a 30-meter pool non-stop many times during a game without touching
the sides or bottom of the pool. The front crawl stroke used in
water polo differs from the usual swimming style in that water polo
players swim with the head out of water at all times to observe the
field. The arm stroke used is also a lot shorter and quicker and is
used to protect the ball at all times. Backstroke is used by
defending field players to track advancing attackers and by the
goalie to track the ball after passing. Water polo backstroke
differs from swimming backstroke; the player sits almost upright in
the water, using eggbeater leg motions with short arm strokes to
the side instead of long straight arm strokes. This allows the
player to see the play and quickly switch positions. It also allows
the player to quickly catch an on coming pass with a free
As all field players are only
allowed to touch the ball with one hand at a time, they must
develop the ability to catch and throw the ball with either hand
and also the ability to catch a ball from any direction, including
across the body using the momentum of the incoming ball.
Experienced water polo players can catch and release a pass or
shoot with a single motion.
The most common form of water
treading is generally referred to as "egg-beatering" named because
the circular movement of the legs resembles the motion of an
egg-beater. Egg beater is used for most of the match as the players
cannot touch the bottom of the pool. The advantage of egg-beater is
that it allows the player to maintain a constant position to the
water level, and uses less energy than other forms of treading
water such as the scissor kick, which result in the player bobbing
up and down. It can be used vertically or horizontally. Horizontal
egg-beater is used to resist forward motion of an attacking player.
Vertical eggbeater is used to maintain a position higher than the
opponent. By kicking faster for a brief period the player can get
high out of the water (as high as their suit—below their
waistline) for a block, pass, or shot.
In 1999, the Peter J. Cutino Award
was established by the San Francisco Olympic Club, and is presented
annually to the top American male and female collegiate water polo
Musician Sean Paul is a former member of Jamaica's national
water polo team.
Former major league baseball
commissioner and US Olympic Committee chair Peter Ueberroth was a
water polo player at San Jose State.
Prince William of England was the
captain of his collegiate water polo team at St Andrew's
Captain Jonathan Archer (played by actor Scott Bakula), a
fictional character in the television series Star Trek: Enterprise,
played water polo for Stanford University and competed in the 2134
North American Water Polo Regionals against Princeton