How Difficult Is It to Learn Water Polo? (What to Expect)

Water polo is often considered one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. While it isn’t as impact-heavy as rugby or American football, it’s no less strenuous or challenging to master. This inherent quality begs the question—how difficult is it to learn water polo?

It isn’t particularly difficult to learn water polo, though mastering the sport requires superior endurance and strength. You can learn how water polo works and how to play in less than one day. Though, learning how to become a skillful player requires dedication, hard work, and repetition.

This article will explore the difficulties you may face when learning to play water polo for the first time. Water polo is a strenuous sport that requires total body strength, high levels of stamina, and an abundance of swimming skills. As a result, it’s not uncommon for new players to find learning rules far easier than running practice drills.

Difficulty #1: Learning the Rules

The first hurdle you’ll need to overcome when learning how to play water polo is learning how to play water polo. This fact might seem obvious, but it’s only too easy to jump headlong into a new sport without fully comprehending its rules, regulations, and means of scoring. 

Inexperience and unfamiliarity can get you into big trouble when you finally hit the field—or, in this case, the water. So, before you strap on your swimming pool goggles, cap, and suit, you’ll want to check out the basic rules of water polo.

A Brief Overview of Water Polo

Water polo is a sport played in swimming pools. It was invented in the 1800s by a Scotsman named William Wilson. It’s played between two teams, each attempting to score points by successfully throwing a ball into their opponent’s goals.

These goals float on the surface of the water, and they’re typically anchored into place to prevent them from drifting away or rotating. Each team of players consists of seven people, six of whom actively play the so-called “field.” 

The seventh team member is the goalie. Their job is to protect their team’s goal from oncoming volleys. This task can be challenging, as goalies must move through the water with exceptional agility and grace to block potential game-scoring goals.

Each match or game of water polo lasts approximately one hour or less and consists of four distinct eight-minute periods. Still, as with basketball or football, players and coaches pause the game clock when play is at a standstill. Consequently, the average period lasts slightly longer than eight minutes.

If you would like a more detailed explanation about how water polo works, click over to Basic Rules of Water Polo Explained: A Beginner’s Guide.

Difficulty #2: Getting Started the Right Way

To play water polo, you’ll need to follow a specific series of steps. If you fail to complete these steps in succession, you may not have a successful or enjoyable time playing water polo. For example, if you don’t have a private swimming pool at home, you’ll need to figure out a public location that might be suitable for a water polo game. 

If you don’t own a water polo ball or a swimsuit, you’ll need to go shopping before you can begin playing. And, perhaps most importantly, if you’ve never seen a water polo match before, you may want to take the time to watch a quick guide and video on the subject:

Unless you’re hoping to become an Olympic athlete, learning how to play water polo should be relatively straightforward. You’ll need to:

  1. Get a Form-Fitting Swimsuit
  2. Purchase the Right-Sized Ball
  3. Find the Right People
  4. Choose a Location
  5. Commit to Practice Sessions
  6. Persevere

Others who are more serious about your water polo aspirations may also want to consider hiring a personal trainer or coach to fast track your results. That said, let’s explore the six steps mentioned above in greater detail to discover how the average person might be able to start playing water polo.

Get a Form-Fitting Swimsuit

The first thing you’ll need to do is invest in a snug, form-fitting swimsuit. Though you might feel more comfortable in a baggy option, you won’t be quite as fast or capable if you’re wearing something that hangs from your body.

That’s because water produces more drag on the body than air (source). When you turn around in circles outside of a swimming pool, you’ll likely notice little resistance as you spin. But when you’re in the water, each spin requires more energy and effort. 

That’s because water is far denser than oxygen. It generates more resistance. As such, body-hugging swimsuits tend to work to the advantage of water polo players.

Purchase the Right-Sized Ball

After getting the right suit, you’ll need to choose the right ball. Water polo balls come in several sizes, and novice players may have trouble picking the best one. Generally, water polo balls come in five standard sizes (source)

Size-zero is the smallest possible ball, while size-five is the standard international men’s water polo ball. Children learning how to play water polo for the first time may want to start with size-zero or size-one balls. 

Adults attempting to play for the first time may want to begin with size-three water polo balls before graduating to more extensive options. If you’re not sure what type of ball works best for you and your level, you may want to start seeking like-minded friends and athletes.

Find the Right People

Water polo is not an individualist’s sport. It requires a lot of teamwork and communication, and anyone interested in playing it must be willing to invest the time in forming a great group of players. 

To do this, you may need to start reaching out to friends and loved ones. You could also try posting personal ads online and in local newspapers. It might also be worthwhile to search clubs near you that may be looking for new team members.

Choose a Location

When you’ve got your crew together, you’ll need to make one of the first of many significant decisions as a team: where to practice and play. Should one of your teammates own a home swimming pool, you could potentially save some money on space rental fees. 

Still, backyard swimming pools aren’t typically as large as public ones or those belonging to gyms. As such, players who practice in at-home pools may not be as prepared as those who practice in regulation-size swimming pools.

There are tons of different swimming locations you might want to investigate. Local pools, gyms, or even friends’ houses could become ideal for water polo practice sessions and games. Naturally, smaller spaces necessitate smaller, tighter games.

However, larger practice areas may be more costly. For example, the cost to rent an Olympic-sized swimming pool for two hours is likely far more than the price to travel to a friend’s backyard pool for the afternoon.

Commit to Practice Sessions

After you’ve equipped yourself with the right gear and found a great group of people to play with, you’ll need to commit to practicing and playing. You likely won’t become a world-class water polo player overnight, so practice is crucial to enjoying an improved performance.

This step is one of the most difficult to abide by. It might be easy to give up after a few sessions, especially for those who aren’t in peak physical shape. However, after one or two games, your body might begin to ache and cry out for mercy. 

The only way to fix this problem is to allow yourself some rest and then hit the water again. Perseverance makes the difference between an experienced and confident water polo player and a frustrated fan.


Finally, you’ll need to persevere if you plan on learning water polo. It’s not a sport for the weak of heart. While it’s not as consistently violent as hockey or gruesome like rugby, it’s just as intense. 

If you want to learn how to play by gaining first-hand experience, you’ll need to be patient with yourself. You’ll also need to be unwilling to surrender. 

Practice might not make you the perfect water polo player, but it’s bound to make you a better one. Familiarizing yourself with equipment may also help.

Difficulty #3: Familiarizing Yourself With the Equipment

If you don’t already own water polo equipment, now might be a good time to start saving up or investing in some. On the other hand, if you’re hoping to spend $20 and start playing water polo, you may want to rethink things a little.

Purchasing New Equipment

Goals can be pricey, typically ranging between $300 and $1,000. Professional-grade goals can be far more costly.

Still, if you need a budget-friendly alternative, you could always purchase something like the GoSports Floating Water Polo Game Set. It contains an inflatable goal post, a hand pump for quick inflation, and three small water polo balls. 

Of course, if you do choose this option, you’ll need to figure out a way to anchor it down, and you’ll need to purchase two to have dual goals. The cost of pool weights and rope also varies, but the average price for this route is about $100.

Water polo balls range in price and size and can cost between $5 and $20. Swimsuit styles, prices, and sizes also vary greatly. Still, suits explicitly designed for water polo tend to go for $20 to $200. 

As such, the essential cost of familiarizing yourself with at-home equipment ranges from about $120 to $1,300. You could purchase used sports equipment or find a public team willing to let you use their gear if you’re determined to experience water polo before investing a decent amount of money into it.

Standard Equipment

As mentioned above, there are quite a few standard pieces of equipment you’ll need to get comfortable working with if you want to learn water polo. Still, we can condense these items into two crucial pieces of gear:

  • goals posts
  • water polo balls

Without these two items, players cannot successfully attempt or play a game of water polo. If you’re not comfortable with this gear or familiar with how to use it, you might not play your best on the day of the big game. 

Learning how to play water polo means learning how to handle the ball correctly. It means closing your eyes and seeing the opposite team’s goal in your mind’s eye. To do these things, you’ll need to spend time with your water polo equipment. 

Try purchasing a small water polo ball to play with throughout the day. You can keep this ball in your bag or backpack and roll it between your hands during work, on your bus ride home, or while you’re watching television. These simple actions may help you grow more comfortable with handling the ball during play.

As for the goals, well, they can be a bit trickier to get to know. The best way to become more familiar with the floating goal posts is to practice water polo with them in play. But, of course, to do that, you’ll need a high-quality, low-drag swimsuit.

Suiting Up

The best possible swimsuit for your water polo games depends on your body shape and size, as well as your preferences. Typically, women don a full-body swimsuit that covers their chest, back, abdomen, and bottom. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to find men wearing small speedos.

The most crucial aspect of any swimsuit is reduced drag. Baggy suits catch onto the water as players move through the pool, creating drag against the body. This resistance slows swimmers down, resulting in decreased play performance. Conversely, sleek, skin-tight suits are less likely to generate drag force, helping players remain agile.

Some water polo players also choose to shave their bodies before a game. Each hair follicle on the body acts as a tiny thread-like dragging agent while swimming, reducing speed. By shaving everything but for the hair on the head (most of which can be neatly covered with a swimming cap), players may optimize their swimming speed.

To learn more information about exactly how shaving makes swimmers faster, check out Why Do Swimmers Shave Their Bodies? (Easy Explanation).

But a high-quality, low-drag swimsuit won’t be enough to ensure that players are safe and comfortable in the water. For that, you’ll need to double up on swimming lessons and embrace a slightly more aquatic lifestyle.

Difficulty #4: Keeping Your Head Above Water

If you’re in great physical shape, you might feel that you could easily take on water polo and master it within weeks. However, if you’re not a great swimmer, you’ll need to think again. 

Even the most formidable and most robust athletes can struggle with water polo because it requires players to swim and stay afloat throughout the game. While keeping your head above water might not seem like a remarkable feat in and of itself, doing so while defending a goal, catching a heavy ball, or volleying a throw to a far-away teammate is impressive.

If you’re not confident in your swimming skills or abilities, you’ll need to brush up on those before committing to water polo. Otherwise, you could put yourself and others at risk during a game. Additionally, it’s crucial to get back into cardio if you haven’t already.

Difficulty #5: Working on Your Cardio

Physical therapists and physicians often recommend water aerobics to those with arthritis and spinal conditions. That’s because exercising in water is easier on the joints and bones than exercising on dry land. However, that doesn’t mean it’s more straightforward or less draining.

When you’re moving at lightning-fast speeds, twisting your body to catch, throw, or block, you must move against the water. The water doesn’t part and allows you to move through it. The amount of force required to displace the water you’re pushing against ensures that your body and muscles work harder to get the job done.

This feature is great news for those hoping to build lean muscle but terrible news for those with lackluster circulatory systems. Muscles need fresh blood flow to operate efficiently and effectively, which is why water polo players must perform cardio training alongside traditional drills and exercises.

Difficulty #6: Mastering Game Strategy

Like many other team-based sports, water polo requires a certain amount of strategy. The water’s surface can act as a springboard to help score goals, or it can be a deterrent that pulls the ball in an unwanted direction. 

The positioning of players is also of strategic importance. Like soccer or basketball (and, to a lesser extent, football), players are expected to pass the ball and move it up or down the field. 

Poor positioning is a guaranteed way for a team to lose possession of the ball and fail to score goals. Players must concoct a strategy before and during each game to combat their opposing team’s strategy and positioning. 

Coming up with reliable solutions requires time, patience, and a ton of experience. It’s not something you can purchase or hire, which may frustrate beginners. Fortunately, you can research water polo tactics earlier rather than later, which may help give you an edge against less passionate or studious players.

The Bottom Line

Learning water polo isn’t the easiest thing to do. Most players could probably learn the rules in about a day, but water polo terminology, technique, and strategy could take months to master fully.

Players must be physically and mentally fit to play. In addition to staying afloat during play, athletes must have a remarkable amount of upper body strength to pass the ball to players or score goals against the opposing team. 

Players must also work in tandem, necessitating seamless teamwork and strategic planning. In short, it is challenging to master water polo.

Sources: 1 2 3

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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