Can You Go Underwater in Water Polo? (Rules Explanation)


Just like many other sports, water polo has an extensive rulebook that attempts to cover every detailed scenario that could possibly happen during the game. Although this helps to keep the integrity of the game, understanding some of the more intricate rules can be a bit overwhelming for beginners, like trying to interpret whether going underwater is legal or illegal.

Players can go underwater in water polo, but they cannot bring the ball with them underwater. Not many players swim underwater since there is no real advantage to it. When players go under to gain any sort of advantage, the referee will call a foul. 

Below, we will discuss why water polo players rarely ever test their luck underwater. Afterwards, we will go over the various penalties that involve illegal underwater play. Read until the end to see what exactly goes on underwater during a water polo game.

Circumstances Where Water Polo Players Swim Underwater

Swimming underwater is not a commonly used tactic in water polo, but there are a few rare exceptions to the rule. These game strategies may be effective occasionally, but they’re not considered to be the fundamental blueprints for success.

Pinning Fouls on Opposing Players

Since officials do not have a clear view of what goes on underwater, it can be rather difficult to call fouls based on what they can barely see.

If an official is inexperienced, a water polo player may try to exploit this by swimming underneath an opponent and trying to set them up for a foul.

From the referee’s perspective, it may seem like the opposing player is intentionally holding them underwater or climbing on top of them. In either case, the official would be forced to make a call.

Players do not usually implement this tactic at the more competitive tiers since the referees can easily see through this folly. The referee may even go so far as to punish the player for attempting to deceive them, which ruins the purpose of performing this whole act in the first place.

Hiding Underwater to Steal the Ball

In addition, players may also swim underwater to catch their opponent off-guard and steal away possession.

Typically, this sort of deceptive defensive strategy only works with inexperienced water polo teams. Most players will have the presence of mind to know exactly where their opponents are, even when they attempt to hide underwater.

This sort of gamble relies heavily on the element of surprise. Without that, this defensive maneuver will fail miserably before it even has a chance to get off the ground.

Discreetly Hitting Opponents

Unfortunately, there are a few players that swim underwater with the sole intent to injure an opponent without exposing themselves to the watchful eyes of the referee.

As aforementioned, it can be extremely difficult for the officials to keep track of what goes on underwater, with all the movement, flailing, and splashing happening simultaneously. If a water polo player loses their control and intends to take it out on an opponent, they typically do so underwater.

This sort of behavior is prohibited by water polo rules and would be punished accordingly. These types of violent plays are on the upper echelon of the penalty hierarchy. They’re either treated as misconduct fouls or brutality fouls. In each case, the offending player is ejected for the duration of the game and disqualified for the subsequent game.

You can find further information on the what’s forbidden in the sport of water polo by reading through Basic Rules of Water Polo Explained: A Beginner’s Guide.

Needless to say, the water polo community wants to discourage this type of malicious play as much as possible to ensure player safety.

Why Water Polo Players Can Swim Underwater, But Rarely Ever Do

As aforementioned, water polo players do not swim underwater often because it’s not to their advantage to do so. Players are able to contribute to their team much more when they keep themselves at the water’s surface for the following reasons.

Poor Underwater Visibility

If you’ve ever seen a water polo match before, you know that every single player is constantly moving. Even if it looks like they’re stationary, their legs are churning underwater to keep themselves afloat and in the thick of things.

Since there’s so much movement underwater, it’s troublesome for players to see clearly underwater. The water is in a perpetual state of distortion as players swim and move according to where the ball is.

Plus, water polo players are not allowed to wear goggles, so they have to rely on their naked eyesight to look underwater. The high concentration of chlorine in the pool is not the most gentle on the eyes. Thus, swimming underwater typically does more harm than good since it impairs vision significantly.

Higher Likelihood of Injury

Furthermore, players that swim underwater put themselves at an increased risk of injury.

Since players are constantly treading water with their arms and legs, there’s a considerable amount of movement occurring below the water’s surface. If a player ventures too close to another player, regardless of whether it’s a teammate or an opponent, they may accidentally catch an elbow or kick to the face.

Under such circumstances, there’s simply too much happening at once for players to be completely aware of their immediate surroundings.

Sadly, opponents may also take advantage of this chaos to mask deliberate blows inflicted on players swimming underwater. A forceful hit to the head or neck region never feels good, which is why few players choose to take their chances underwater.

In combination with the low underwater visibility, the risk is just not worth the reward.

Takes Themselves Out of the Play

Lastly, swimming underwater essentially deems a player useless during live gameplay. A player that’s underwater won’t know even the most basic information about what’s currently happening, since the ball moves so fast during games. If a player stays underwater for a few seconds, it’s possible that they may not know:

  • where the ball is
  • who has the ball
  • what team has the ball (in extreme cases)
  • whether or not the play is over

This lack of awareness puts both the player underwater and their team at a marked disadvantage. After all, how can a player react appropriately to a play if they don’t even know which team has possession?

For this reason, experienced water polo players try to keep their head above water as much as humanly possibly. They’re well acquainted with the fact that the more they can see the play, the better they can positively contribute to their team.

Fouls that Involve Players Swimming Underwater

Now that you know the underlying reasons why seasoned water polo players avoid swimming underwater, you’re probably curious as to what types of illegal plays can result from swimming underwater.

Holding the Ball Underwater

Players cannot hold the ball underwater for any reason, regardless of whether or the not the player themselves is swimming underwater themselves (source).

Defenders must have the opportunity to steal the ball from the offense. When the ball is hidden away beneath the water, the possessing team has an unfair advantage. This is the underlying reason why referees penalize any player that decides to bring the ball underwater with them.

This rule also explains why water polo players move with the ball in the manner that they do. If you look closely, you will see that players gently push the ball with their fingertips each time they stroke. This way, players can maintain control over the ball while still keeping it above water.

Ducking Under to Gain Positional Advantage

Another foul, called ducking under, also involves swimming underwater. With this foul, however, the location of the ball is not the main point of concern.

In this type of scenario, two players from opposing teams vie for superior positioning in the water. If one of these players decides to swim underwater in an attempt to outcompete their opponent for positioning, this is seen as hindering the opponent’s ability to move (source). For this reason, the referees must penalize the player who swam underwater accordingly.

It should be noted that this can be done while both players are in a relatively static position or while they’re both moving in the pool. It’s not exclusive to one or the other.

Examples of “Dirty” Underwater Plays in Water Polo

If you’re wondering exactly what occurs beneath the water, you may be shocked at what you find. The cheap shots that players take at opponents are fairly aggressive, to the point where it’s almost hard to believe.

You can get an inside glimpse at what sort of dirty play goes on underwater by watching the clip below:

As you can see, it’s uncharted territory beneath the water’s surface during a water polo match. Of course, none of these dirty plays are legal, but players are able to get away with it anyway due to the lack of underwater visibility.

With all that kicking, pushing, and shoving, it’s obvious why players are not too keen on dipping their head below the surface. You have to be a little crazy to voluntarily stick your head out in that mess.

Sources: 1

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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