Water polo may be one of the most physically demanding sports, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. If you’re interested in learning how to play, you’ll need to master a few necessary skills first.
Basic water polo skills include the following:
- Swimming without any breaks
- Catching the ball with one hand
- Passing with careful precision
- Shooting with power and accuracy
- Communicating loudly and effectively
- Strategizing on the fly
- Maintaining constant field awareness
Practice might not make you the perfect water polo player, but improving your skill set is a surefire way to grow stronger, faster, and better. You can’t practice your skills if you’re not sure what they are! Without further ado, let’s jump right into this brief guide to basic water polo skills.
Skill #1: Swimming Without Any Breaks
The first and primary skill that any beginner will need to master is swimming. Water polo is played in large swimming pools, and players will need to float and tread water to participate in gameplay.
If you’re not a confident swimmer, now might be the ideal time to change that. There are quite a few opportunities for adults to learn necessary swimming skills, and there are far more chances for children to take lessons and classes.
If you are athletically-inclined but uncomfortable with the idea of swimming, try taking a class or two. You may find that your fear begins to fade away as you grow into a more competent and confident swimmer. Besides, there’s no shame in admitting you don’t know how to do something. The real shame is never overcoming that doubt and mastering a new skill.
To address your swimming fears, click over to How to Get Over the Fear of Swimming: 9-Step Guide to receive helpful information on how to go about approaching this issue.
You can also use your preferred search engine to find swim lessons near you, or you could visit your local YMCA and recreation center. Most recreational complexes host swimming lessons from time to time, especially during the spring and summer seasons.
When you’re feeling confident in your swimming, doggy paddling, and backstroking skills, you can move onto the most vital swimming technique used during water polo matches: the eggbeater kick method.
Eggbeater Kick Method
This technique might have a slightly awkward name, but that’s only because it’s a somewhat awkward technique. Still, there’s something to be said for the eggbeater method’s efficacy. It can keep players afloat without causing them to expend excessive amounts of energy.
To perform this unique movement, you’d need to swim into waters deep enough to force you into treading water. You’d then need to take a deep breath of air and extend your legs outward toward your sides, angled so that your knees are parallel to the swimming pool floor.
Once in this position, players kick and spin their feet and lower legs. This motion is very similar to the one eggbeaters do when powered by an electric mixer. The method generates enough force and lift to keep players above the waterline.
Altering the positioning of the legs can also transform this technique into one that propels players along. This movement could be helpful when attempting to block a pass or shot, as it grants players a small boost of speed.
Skill #2: Catching the Ball with One Hand
Those who’ve played baseball or basketball might feel more immediately confident about catching the ball in a game of water polo. That sort of confidence may or may not be earned, as capturing a wet ball is far different from catching a dry one.
Additionally, the standard-sized men’s water polo ball is larger than a baseball and smaller than a basketball, making it uniquely sized. If you haven’t taken the time to familiarize yourself with the feel and weight of dry water polo balls, you may struggle to catch and handle them in the water.
By rule, field players may only contact the ball with a single hand. This not only applies to catching, but passing and shooting as well. For this reason, it may take a fair amount time to get into the habit of playing with one hand as opposed to two.
Practicing your catching skills is one of the most important things you could do to prepare for a match. Water polo is very much a team sport, and no one player will triumph without the passing and catching skills of their teammates.
Also, speaking of passing, it’s equally as crucial as catching. After all, you might be great at catching slippery throws or long tosses, but if you can’t lob them at your teammates, you aren’t going to be a particularly helpful or high-performing player.
Skill #3: Passing with Careful Precision
Correctly passing the ball can make or break a game. One wrong slip could give the opposing team the upper hand, allowing them to score the winning points against you and your team.
Consequently, many professional water polo players spend just as much time practicing their passing as they do their shooting and catching. Some might even spend the majority of their practice time working on various passing drills (source). That’s how essential this skill is to the game.
Fortunately, you can practice your passing without outside assistance. Simply grab a water polo ball and a laundry hamper and begin working on “passing” the ball to the laundry hamper. Be sure to aim for the same spot each time.
There’s almost nothing worse than throwing the ball directly into your teammate’s face, so always imagine that you’re aiming for their hands. Once you feel comfortable with this drill, you can move it out onto the field, also known as the swimming pool.
If you’re using a plastic laundry basket, it should be able to float along the surface of the water. This basket will provide a low-cost moving target that can help you align your passes and throttle your power, making for the perfect pass each time.
Skill #4: Shooting with Power & Accuracy
Without shooting, water polo would be a long, drawn-out game of monkey-in-the-middle. Shooting makes scoring possible, and scoring determines a losing and winning team at the end of the final fourth period.
While this skill wouldn’t be possible without swimming, catching, and passing skills, shooting is still an essential water polo skill. Luckily, most players will start with moderate shooting skills, so long as they’ve already practiced handling and passing techniques.
Ideally, you’ll have a water polo goal to practice with when improving your shooting skill. If not, you can still attempt to better your shots by using a makeshift goal. Either way, you’ll want to practice this skill while in the water. Otherwise, you won’t be able to calibrate your shots against the water’s drag and pull.
More importantly, the water is a central character within the game of water polo. Not only does it surround and engulf all players and equipment, but it can also act as a strategic tool. Players can bounce their shots off the surface of the pool’s water to make trick shots that spin and jump away from the goalie’s fingers.
As such, practicing your shooting on dry land might be a waste of time. If you’re attempting to get an initial feel for water polo balls and the motion of shooting, you may want to try a few drills in a quiet bedroom or living area. Still, the swimming pool will allow for the most significant strides in shooting skill and technique.
Skill #5: Communicating Loudly & Effectively
Water polo isn’t a solo sport. To be a successful water polo player, you’ll need to master the art of teamwork and communication. This task might sound simple enough, but it only takes one bad attitude to throw an entire team out of whack. In this way, a successful water polo team is very much like a watch.
Each player acts as a vital component or cog, turning dutifully in its place to keep the machine working, but if one single player or piece begins to malfunction, the entire watch breaks down and becomes useless. Water polo teams aren’t carried or supported by any single player. Instead, they’re the culmination of many people’s efforts, talents, and skills.
If you’re unwilling to sacrifice a moment of personal glory for the greater good of your team, then water polo may not be for you. If you’re not able to compromise on practice times and dates, locations, or the little things (like team swimsuit colors and designs), you might not be a great addition to any water polo team, even if you’re athletic and talented.
Those who take the time to listen deeply to others tend to make excellent communicators, as they’re more concerned with sharing ideas with others than expressing their own. Volunteering around your community is also a fantastic idea.
Volunteering allows you the opportunity to work with lots of different people from many different backgrounds. Without the pressure of earning money or higher status, you may find yourself relaxing around fellow volunteer workers and learning how to participate in teamwork exercises more readily.
Skill #6: Strategizing on the Fly
Strategizing is an often-overlooked aspect of water polo. However, it’s a significant part of the game and one that should never be ignored or forgotten. After all, a team’s chosen strategy and positioning could mean the difference between failure and victory.
When it comes to water polo, there are two primary player positions. First off, there’s the goalie. Their single objective is to protect their team’s goal from incoming volleys and shots. Secondly, there are field players.
This lot is responsible for moving the ball up and down the field and scoring goals. However, field players don’t adhere to a single objective, purpose, or position on the field. As such, their roles can be broken down further.
One of the most critical components of water polo strategy is understanding the purpose of the different playing positions. There are several field positions that players can take up during gameplay (source). Some of the most common are:
- center back
- center forward
You might have a rough understanding of what these positions entail, but for this article, let’s suppose that you don’t. What does it mean to be a center forward, and how does its fundamental skillset differ from being a center back? Let’s find out.
The center back, also called center defender, is the team’s primary defensive player. Their role is to help protect their team’s goalie and goal while also providing a little extra support to perimeter players and drivers.
These players tend to stay closest to their own team’s goal rather than straying across the field. If they become too aggressive during a game, opposing players can seize the opportunity to attack the unprotected goalie.
The center forward typically garners a lot of praise and attention. That’s because the player in this position makes the majority of the shots during each game. If a team earns points, it’s most likely thanks to the efforts of the center forward.
If you were to play as the center forward for a water polo team, you might not move around the field as much as your other teammates. Instead, you’d stay near to your opposing team’s goal, only waiting and watching for the opportunity to catch the ball and shoot a goal.
Still, the center forward cannot afford to lose focus or stop paying attention. Just as with the goalie, every second of action matters and could affect the match’s outcome. Center forwards tend to keep their eye on their team’s drivers, as these players are most likely to have the ball at any given time.
The driver—also called a flat—drives the action of each game. Their primary goal is to propel the ball down the field toward the opposing team’s goal. This means swimming like a fish, throwing like a baseball pitcher, and catching like a football receiver.
Drivers are often the players that catch the eyes of the crowd, as they’re the ones pushing for more action at all times. Still, drivers wouldn’t be able to move the ball up and down the field without the constant assistance of perimeter players.
Those on the field’s wings are critical, ensuring fast passing and catching that allows the driver to give the center forward the chance to score.
When players flank the sides of the goals, they’re taking on the wings positioning. This position can be played both offensively and defensively, though wing players tend to be in a slightly more aggressive role than their nearby counterparts, flats players.
Players who do well in this position tend to be tall, have muscular legs, and jump high out of the water to block or make shots. They should also be adept at catching and passing, as these skills will become noticeably crucial as players move closer to the scoring areas.
Those who propel themselves into these sensitive perimeter areas should also be skillful strategists. Otherwise, they may move into shoddy positions, allowing the opposing team to gain ground and move the ball to the opposite end of the field. Perimeter players—which describes the wing, driver, and point players—practically exercise all of the considerable skills involved in water polo, including attentiveness.
The goalie is responsible for protecting their team’s goal from the opposing team’s shot. Goalies must be masters of the eggbeater kick, absurdly agile, and extremely alert. A water polo goalie (also called a keeper) who loses focus for even a moment might fail to block a shot, resulting in an easy goal for the other team.
As with soccer goalies, water polo goalies must also be strong enough to make long passes back down the playing field. They should also be excellent communicators that are capable of voicing suggestions or demands from vast distances away. In short, a loud goalie is an effective goalie.
Skill #7: Maintaining Constant Field Awareness
You may not think of awareness as a skill, but it is in water polo. Just as mindfulness can be practiced, attention is something that can come to you with time, patience, and repetition. Additionally, focus and attentiveness are vital to performing well during a water polo game.
Water polo matches are fast-paced, high-energy sporting events that require constant vigilance on the player’s part. Within a matter of seconds, the ball could go from one end of the field to the other and into a team’s goal. If players aren’t alert enough, they can quickly become overwhelmed and lose the game.
However, maintaining field awareness doesn’t boil down to caffeine. While stimulants may help players focus during a match, they’re not entirely responsible for an individual’s level of alertness.
Aside from acquiring game experience, an unconventional way to improve your field awareness and foster this skill is to do puzzles during your free time. The trick is to tune out all distractions and remain focused on the task at hand. Timing yourself is a smart way to gauge your progress and improvement. The faster you can complete your puzzles, the stronger your alertness skill will become.
Anyone hoping to get into water polo should be willing to practice several skills. Some essential water polo skills to master include swimming, catching, passing, and shooting. However, players must also have exceptional teamwork and communication skills.
Additionally, those wanting to play water polo should study water polo tactics. Doing so could help them gain the upper hand on lesser-informed opposing players. Lastly, water polo players must be alert and attentive to perform well. Focus is a skill that should be fostered in tandem with these other skills.