Many people only become aware of the existence of water polo briefly every four years during the Summer Olympics. Consequently, they are unfamiliar with the exact rules and structure of this sport. Water polo is much more than simply treading water and throwing a ball across a pool. Water polo is a contact sport, much like rugby or football at times.
Water polo is a contact sport and—as such—allows tackling. Tackling in water polo is not explicitly defined by the rules, but most physical contact is strictly limited to the player in possession of the ball and regulated in terms of severity. Both of which affect any tackling a player may do.
The rules of water polo can be somewhat confusing, especially because this sport doesn’t have the widespread notoriety of soccer or football. However, by the end of this article, you will understand everything there is to know about tackling in water polo, providing you with a much better grasp of the game overall.
What Exactly Do the Rules Say about Tackling in Water Polo?
Unfortunately, the short answer to this question is not much. The official FINA (the international organization in charge of water sports) rules for water polo only use the word tackle in two instances (source). This makes it challenging to paint a vivid picture of its role in the sport.
The first time tackling is mentioned, it is to say that you are not allowed to tackle another player by jumping from the bottom of the pool. However, since you are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool during play anyways, this rule is almost unnecessary.
The only other time the rules mention tackling is that you are not allowed to take the ball underwater when being tackled. There are no other uses of the word tackle in the rest of the 38-page FINA water polo rule book.
If the rules do not define tackling, how do we know when tackling is allowed and how rough a tackle can be before it becomes a foul?
Many other rules place restrictions on water polo contact that we can assume apply to tackling.
If you’re looking for a general overview of the fundamental rules that govern water polo, click over to Basic Rules of Water Polo Explained: A Beginner’s Guide.
What Is Tackling Practically in Water Polo?
Since the rules do not define tackling, let’s pause for a moment to consider what type of physical contact is explicitly mentioned in the rules. After all, in water polo, without the ability to tackle from the bottom of the pool, it might be hard to imagine what a tackle really looks like.
People generally consider tackling in a sport as physically colliding with an opponent to stop them in their tracks. In the water, however, this action is bound to look different. So to understand tackling in water polo, you should think of tackling by a broader definition.
If you look at tackling in that way, then you can look at the rules of water polo again, which say that a player can do certain things to other players, such as:
- pull back
- generally impede them
Of course, this only applies to those that are holding the ball. That being said, a player may not kick or strike an opponent at any time. Therefore, if tackling is stopping an opponent, then we can assume that the actions of holding, sinking, and pulling all fall under the category of an appropriate tackle.
Who Can Be Tackled in Water Polo?
Water polo has a game flow that is more similar to soccer or basketball than football or rugby, which are the sports where we normally find tackling. Due to this slightly different flow, tackling looks different in another large way in water polo. You may only tackle one person: the player with the ball.
The rules of water polo state that you cannot hold, sink, pull, or impede an opposing player who does not hold the ball, which effectively means you cannot tackle them. The intention behind this rule is to keep the sport from becoming too physical and hard to monitor.
The effect of this rule can make a water polo game extremely confusing for new spectators. Since opponents can only tackle other players if they hold the ball, what exactly counts as holding the ball becomes a matter of great importance.
Holding means physically having a hand on the ball. You must be touching it in some way. However, dribbling the ball between your arms as you swim is not considered holding.
What This Leads To
You can guess where this definition and ruleset often lead. Players try to let go of the ball before they are tackled so that the referee will call a foul on their opponent. Referees have to keep a sharp eye to track all of the back and forth as a player alternately holds and drops the ball. In response, defensive players are a constant back and forth of grasping and letting go of the possessing player.
This issue has become a subject of controversy within the water polo community. It’s tough for referees to judge, which essentially leaves the physical conduct of the game up to their discretion. Certain water polo players and coaches have even gone as far as to say that—in some ways—it has completely changed the structure of the game.
For this reason, there have been those advocating for the rules surrounding water polo contact to be changed (source). They feel that the back and forth battle of holding and not holding disrupts the natural rhythm of the game, which can be a turn-off for the players and fans.
If you’ve ever gone to a water polo match, you’ve likely witnessed—or more accurately, heard—this firsthand. The referees never stray too far from their whistles because of how often they need to regulate the physical contact between players. So seemingly every play, you can hear the high-pitched sound of the whistle.
Only time will tell if any rule changes will be forthcoming. As of now, however, it looks like these rules are here to stay.
Penalties for Taking Tackling Too Far
Occasionally, tackling and related actions go too far. There are two types of fouls in water polo for when that happens: ordinary and major (source).
- Ordinary fouls result in free throws for the opposing team
- Major fouls (also called exclusion fouls) count against a particular player
Major fouls force a player to sit out of the game temporarily for 20 seconds. If a player receives three major fouls over the course of a game, they’re suspended for the remainder of the game.
Taking your tackling too far is almost always a major foul. Some of the instances that count as a major foul are:
- Sinking, pulling, or holding a player who does not have the ball.
- Striking or kicking another player, often resulting in immediate expulsion from the game.
- Performing any type of brutish behavior. This essentially acts as a catch-all.
Thus, if tackling ever becomes particularly aggressive, targeted, or vicious, it will almost always result in a major foul. Under severe circumstances, it may very well result in immediate expulsion from the game.
Water polo is not a game that revolves around tackling. The sport is meant to reward players who employ technique and finesse, not brute force. Thus, there are certain limitations in place to keep the physical contact from getting out of hand.
For a complete overview of how physical contact works in water polo, click over to Water Polo Contact Rules Explained (+How Fouls are Penalized).
Is Tackling a Useful Term for Water Polo?
This discussion of who can be tackled brings us to a larger question about the viability of using the term tackling in water polo at all. Does it even make sense to talk about tackling in water polo?
On the one hand, water polo is considered to be a contact sport. Consequently, tackling seems to be an inevitable part of the makeup of water polo. On the other hand, however, what we generally think of as tackling can hardly be done effectively in a sport that takes place entirely in water.
The fact of the matter is that the term “tackling” isn’t descriptive of what’s actually occurring in water polo. This vague term may be useful in the context of other contact sports, like football and rugby, but it isn’t that helpful in water polo.
This is mainly because players do not really tackle each other. Instead, they pull, hold, sink, and generally try to get in each other’s way, but full-speed collisions are not a particularly effective water polo tactic.
In short, it may be best to consider tackling as a rather unsuitable term for explaining the different rules and actions that happen during a water polo game. At best, tackling is simply a vague generalization for the many different actions used to impede an opponent.