Basic Water Polo Rules

The rules below are provided as guidelines to basic rules of water polo. These should assist you in understanding water polo. For official USA Water Polo rules, click USA Water Polo Ruler.

Starting play

At the start of each period, teams (7 players) line up on their own goal line. Three players on either side of the goal with the goalkeeper in the goal. At the referee's whistle, both teams swim to midpoint of the field (known as the sprint or the swim-off); the referee drops the ball near the side of the pool. The first team to recover the ball becomes the attacker until a goal is scored, the defenders recover the ball or the 30 second shot clock expires. After a goal is scored, the teams line up anywhere within their halves of play, but usually along the midpoint of the pool. Play resumes when the team not scoring the goal puts the ball in play by passing it to a teammate.

Advancing the ball

When the offense takes possession of the ball, the strategy is to advance the ball down the field of play and to score a goal. Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming while pushing the ball in front of them ("dribbling"). If an attacker uses his arm to push away a defending player and free up space for a pass or shot, the referee will rule a turnover and the defense will take possession of the ball. If an attacker advances inside the 2-meter line without the ball or before the ball is inside the 2-meter area, he is ruled off-side and the ball is turned over to the defense. This is often overlooked if the attacker is well to the side of the pool or when the ball is at the other side of the pool.

Center forward

When the attacking team cannot score through their counter attack the team will set up a half-court offense. Passing the ball to the center forward or hole set, positioned directly in front of the goal, is typically a primary objective. Perimeter players attempt to enter the ball into this area as the center forward position is in close proximity to the opponents goal and scoring opportunities are probable. The center forward will typically attempt to shoot therefore forcing their defender (center back or 2 meter defender) to foul. A minor foul is called if the defender attempts to impede movement before the hole set has possession. The referee indicates the foul with one short whistle blow and points one hand to the spot of the foul and the other hand in the direction of the attack of the team to whom the free throw has been awarded. The center forward then has a "reasonable amount of time" (typically about three seconds) to re-commence play by making a free pass to one of their teammates. The defensive team cannot hinder the center forward until the free throw has been taken, but the center forward cannot shoot a goal once the foul has been awarded until the ball has been played by at least one other player. If the center forward attempts to shot their free pass (inside of 5M) without the free throw, the goal is not counted and the defense takes possession of the ball. As soon as the center forward has a free pass, the other attacking players attempt to swim or drive away from their defenders towards the goal. The players at the flat position will attempt to set a screen (also known as a pick) for the driver. If a driver gets free from a defender, the player calls for the pass from the center forward and attempts a shot on goal.

Man-up (6 on 5)

If a defender interferes with a free throw, holds or sinks an attacker who is not in possession or splashes water into the face of an opponent, the defensive player is excluded from the game for twenty seconds (informally called a 'kick-out' or an ejection). The attacking team typically positions 4 players on the 2 meter line, and 2 players on 5 meter line (4-2), passing the ball around until an open player attempts a shot. The five defending players try to pressure the attackers, block shots and prevent a goal being scored for the 20 seconds while they are a player down. The other defenders can only block the ball with one hand to help the goalie. The defensive player is allowed to return immediately if the offense scores, or if the defense recovers the ball before the twenty seconds expires.

Five meter penalty

If a defender commits a foul within the five meter area that prevents a likely goal, the attacking team is awarded a penalty shot. An attacking player lines up on the five meter line in front of the opposing goal. No other player may be in front of him. The defending goalkeeper must be between the goal posts with their head on the goal line (floating goals.....or hips on the goal line for wall goals). The referee signals with a whistle and by lowering his arm, and the player taking the penalty shot must immediately throw the ball with an uninterrupted motion toward the goal. Penalty shots are often successful, but the goalkeeper who blocks a "five meter" can expect a chorus of cheers from the stands.


A shot is successful if the ball completely passes between the goal posts and underneath the crossbar. If a shot bounces off a goal post back into the field of play, the ball is rebounded by the players and the shot clock is reset. If the shot goes outside the goal and on to the deck (outside the field of play) then the ball is automatically recovered by the defense. If the goalie, however, is the last to touch the ball before it goes out of play behind the goal line, or if a defender purposely sends the ball out, then the offense receives the ball at the two meter line for a corner throw.


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. 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.

Defense strategy

Water Polo Defense: A defender may only hold, block or pull an opponent who is touching or holding the ball.

On defense, the players work to regain possession of the ball and prevent a goal. The defense attempts to knock away or steal the ball from the offense or commit a foul in order to stop an offensive player from taking a goal shot. The defender attempts to stay between the attacker and the goal, a position known as inside water.

Definitions: Minor or Major Fouls and Referee Signals

Minor Foul

The whistle is blown once and play stops. If the player who is fouled has the ball, they get a free throw. If the player who is fouled is a defender, they are awarded the ball and get a free throw. The referee will point to the player who has the free throw with one arm and the direction of the team with the other.

Major Foul

The whistle is blown twice. Play stops, and the player who commits the foul gets ejected for 20 seconds. This usually happens to a defensive player. The referee will point to the player who commits the foul (and blow the whistle), point to the ejection area (and blow the whistle again) and then show the excluded players cap number (#10 is a closed #14 would look like closed fist + 4 fingers).


A brutality is called when a player kicks or strikes (or attempts to kick or strike) an opponent or official with malicious intent. The player who is charged with a brutality is excluded from the rest of the game. (See WP 21.10).

Important Rules:

  1. Players can touch the ball with only ONE HAND
  2. Players cannot stand on the bottom of the pool.
  3. Players are allowed only TWO major fouls during a game. On the third, the player is ejected.
  4. If a defender interferes with a free throw, it is a MAJOR foul (ejection).

Examples of Minor Fouls:

  1. When a player pushes off the side of the pool (or the bottom).
  2. A "False Start" at the beginning of play.
  3. Holding the ball under water (even if the defensive player is holding your arm down)
  4. Touching the ball with two hands.
  5. Hitting the arm or body of an offensive player who has the ball.
  6. Hitting the ball with a clenched fist.
  7. Pushing off of a defensive player:
  8. When a player is within 2 meters of their opponent's goal (and the ball is behind them). (This is considered off-sides).
  9. When the player throws the ball out of bounds.
  10. If the team keeps the ball for more than 35 seconds (the length of the shot clock) without taking a shot on goal.

Examples of Major Fouls:

  1. If the offensive player intentionally comes in contact with the defensive player.
  2. Holding on to the offensive player.
  3. Interfering with a free throw.
  4. Pulling back on a player.
  5. Sinking a player.
  6. Misconduct (foul language, etc.)
  7. Leaving the ejection area illegally.

A misconduct foul

For unacceptable language, violent or persistent fouls, taking part in the game after being excluded or showing disrespect, a player is ejected for the remainder of the game with substitution after 20 seconds have elapsed. This type of foul is often called a roll because the referee signals the foul by rolling his hands around one another. If a player commits a violent foul with intention to harm, the player is ejected from the game without substitution. The opponents are awarded a penalty shot, and the ejected player's team plays one man down for the next four minutes of game time. This type of foul is called a brutality and is signaled by the referee by crossing the arms in the form of an X.


USA Water Polo Rules

These are the official USA Water Polo Rules in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. Here you will find the complete rules for Water Polo. You need to have Acrobat Reader installed on your computer.