Water polo is quite a challenging sport with elements that bring together ball-possession skills, shooting accuracy, and swimming efficiency, among other things. These demands can be overwhelming to novice players that wish to speed up their improvement.
You can get good at water polo fast by improving your one-handed catch, enhancing your long-distance passing skills, mastering heads-up freestyle swimming, and developing a powerful shot. Various swimming exercises and wrist strengthening drills all help in this regard.
Below, we will explore several strategies and drills that both successful water polo players and coaches swear by. If you actually absorb these tips and incorporate these drills into your practice regimen, you’re bound to rapidly progress your water polo game.
Refine Your One-Handed Catching Ability
In contrast to other popular sports—like basketball or football—water polo players don’t have the luxury of catching the ball with two hands. Water polo players can only legally catch with one hand.
You can find more detailed information on this specific rule and others by clicking over to Basic Rules of Water Polo Explained: A Beginner’s Guide.
Since many water polo beginners transition from these other popular sports, their first instinct is to put both hands up to catch the ball. It takes time for these players to neglect this instinct and re-teach themselves how to catch.
If you plan on becoming a goalkeeper, you may not have to worry about re-teaching yourself how to catch the ball. For the rest of you, though, it may be a bit of a struggle to learn how to catch the ball with one hand, particularly if you don’t have the biggest hands to begin with.
The key to the one-handed catch is to cup your hand and leave it soft enough to accept the ball into your grasp. By giving with the ball, you stop the ball from hitting your hands and immediately bouncing away.
Some beginners have trouble developing this delicate touch. Fortunately, there’s a drill to help with this very issue.
Soft Hands Drill to Improve One-Handed Catching
- Find a wall or thick flat post in a place where you will not be interrupted.
- Stand half a meter away from the wall and face towards it.
- Take the ball and use your wrist to flick it at the wall. Your arm should be in the same position as it would be during a game.
- As the ball bounces off the wall, catch it with a single hand.
- Repeat this process. Gradually increase the distance between you and the wall as you begin to progress.
Not only is this drill helpful for developing soft hands, but it also helps with overcoming your instinct to use both hands to catch the ball.
When you’re performing this drill for the first time, you may drop the ball every few repetitions. This is normal, but you should make sure that you make the necessary adjustments after each drop.
For example, if you’re prone to tightening up your body under pressure, you may need extra time to unlearn this habit. This way, you can relax your hand as the ball makes initial contact.
As a final tip, make sure to aim the ball slightly higher on the wall as you start to move away. Gravity will take its due course the farther you’re positioned from the wall.
Improve Your Passing Precision
Passing the ball is easier said than done. Not only are the distances of your passes completely dictated by the positions of your teammates, but the direction of your passes is also continuously shifting.
Unfortunately, you may not always have the luxury of being comfortably situated when throwing a pass. As a matter of fact, you will rarely ever be comfortably situated when throwing passes since water polo defenders are extremely aggressive with their pressure.
For these reasons, you have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, whether it be passing long distances or throwing from unorthodox positions. The following exercise will help do exactly that.
Passing Drill to Improve Precision & Accuracy
- Take a water polo ball and bring a friend with you to the pool.
- Head towards the deep end of the pool and distance yourselves so that you have about five to ten yards of separation from each other.
- Pass the ball to your partner and begin actively moving to a different area in the pool. Your partner should do the same.
- After about five seconds, your partner will throw the ball back at you. Catch the ball and repeat the process of moving to a different area in the pool.
- While you’re on the move, try not to touch the ball. Instead, use both arms to swim and create waves to push the ball forward along with you. This is the basic premise behind dribbling in water polo.
- Make sure to vary the distances and angles of your passes so that you’re well-versed in a variety of throwing styles.
This drill may seem simple from an outside perspective, but many beginners make the mistake of repeating the same old throwing motion with little to no variation. In the sport of water polo, you need to prepare for the unexpected because defensive pressure will always be nearby.
While performing this drill, make sure to warm up with a couple of short throws first. Then, once your muscles and joints are warmed up, gradually work your way up to the longer throws.
Increase Your Swimming Speed
It should go without saying, but swimming with efficiency is a vital skill in water polo. After all, it is a water sport.
You can have all the tools when it comes to passing and catching, but it won’t matter all that much if you can’t put yourself in a position to do so. By mastering your swimming technique, you give yourself a tremendous advantage over the opposition. You’ll be capable of doing things like quickly putting yourself in scoring position, racing against opponents for possession, and moving between the ends of the pool with ease.
Even if you think you know how to swim well, water polo demands an altogether different style of swimming called heads-up freestyle.
This swimming style resembles the traditional freestyle stroke in many ways, but there are a few key differences that every beginner should know. These subtle technique modifications will be analyzed in further detail below, along with strategies on how to easily integrate these changes into your swimming repertoire.
Keep Your Head Still & Above Water
As the name suggests, the foremost difference between the heads-up freestyle stroke and the traditional freestyle stroke is your head position. Since water polo players need to pay close attention to the whereabouts of the ball, their teammates, and their opponents, their heads need to be up and out of the water.
Generally, you want to keep your head facing toward where you intend to go. You should only rotate your head when you’re not strictly swimming in a linear direction. Otherwise, you’re likely to lose speed or drift off course.
While practicing this technique, it often helps to focus your eyes on a single point and swim towards it. As you gather more experience with this technique, you can begin experimenting with rotating your head as necessary.
Keep Your Elbows High
In traditional freestyle, swimmers are advised to stretch their arms out as far as possible to push themselves forward quicker. This may work in a swimming race, but it won’t work in a water polo game.
Instead, water polo players need to swim with their elbows high to keep their strokes short and quick. Short, quick strokes are better for water polo for several reasons.
For one, it minimizes the time that a player keeps their arms underwater. When a player has their arms underwater, they’re not capable of making quick plays with the ball. Water polo athletes need to keep their arms close to the water’s surface to react immediately to current play developments.
Another overlooked benefit to this modality is that it deters defenders from venturing too close. Defenders may think twice about entering your personal space if your elbows are flying high.
Lastly, maintaining a high elbow position also helps you to better control the ball while dribbling. The constant ripples created by short and quick strokes will help to keep the ball directly in front of you. With longer and slower strokes, the ball is more apt to slip past your guard.
Make Better Use of Your Legs
In the standard freestyle stroke, your body position is almost parallel to the bottom of the pool. In contrast, the heads-up freestyle stroke features a slightly more vertical position. This is because as you bring up your head, the rest of the body tends to follow, causing your feet to angle more towards the ground.
Although this may allow you to better see what’s happening above the surface, it comes at the expense of more water drag. To counteract this, you cannot rely solely on your arms. Your legs need to pull their weight as well.
Your feet should act as a propeller, performing hard flutter kicks at a rapid rate. This should take a little bit of the swimming burden off of your upper body so that you can conserve your energy and make plays when they count the most.
Widen Your Catch
Finally, you need to catch water with your arms wide apart. For those who do not know, the “catch” phase describes the point in a swimming stroke where the hand enters the water (source).
When your hands are too close to each other, you’re prioritizing speed but compromising your ability to perform short strokes and dribble the ball. This is why you should catch the water with your hands at least shoulder-width apart.
Other Quick Tips to Increase Swimming Speed
- Increase Stroke Frequency – While your strokes may be short and choppy, they shouldn’t be fewer in number. Progressively build up your stamina to strike the water at a high rate and you’ll see a noticeable difference in how fast you move.
- Prioritize Leg Training – Even though your entire body is involved in swimming, heads-up freestyle can exact a heavy toll on the upper body. For this reason, it’s even more important for your leg strength to get sufficiently involved. The greater the impact of your kicks, the faster you will swim.
- Practice Makes Perfect – Although all these tips are valuable, there’s no better way to get better at heads-up freestyle than to actually jump into the pool and practice heads-up freestyle. There’s no magic way around this. If you genuinely want to swim fast during water polo games, putting in the practice hours is the only way to do so.
Seven Lines Swimming Drill
Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals of the heads-up freestyle technique, let’s look at an effective practice routine so that you can improve at an accelerated rate (source):
- Mark seven points across the pool so that they’re about five to seven feet apart from each other. The distances should be relatively uniform.
- Swim to the first mark using the heads-up freestyle technique. As soon as you reach the spot, turn around and swim back to your original starting point.
- Once you’re back to where you started, turn around and swim to the second mark
- With each lap, you should cover a line you have not previously done.
- Do this until you have completed all the seven lines.
The purpose of this drill is to distract your mind from the fact that you’re performing heads-up freestyle. Since your mind is so occupied by the lines and conventions of the exercise, your only focus is moving from one mark to the next.
Plus, this drill improves upon your ability to switch directions at a moment’s notice, which is an essential skill for a water polo player.
Develop a Robust & Accurate Shot
Whether you can advance the ball or not, your ability to deliver an accurate and powerful shot when it matters will be a great asset to your team. Every water polo player needs to be an active scoring threat in the game. Any player that’s not a real scoring threat will be an offensive liability to their team.
To improve your shot, you must be aware of the common issues that novices run into when learning how to shoot.
For one, many players try to pack power into their shot by relying heavily on their biceps. While this can help add distance to your shot, it comes at the expense of stability. As a result, it’s much more likely that you will lose ball possession and misplace your shot. Accuracy should take precedence over power.
Aside from an over-reliance on the biceps, players also tend to incorporate shooting habits from other sports, which can actually end up doing more harm than good.
If you have personally played handball or basketball, you’re prone to keeping a rigid wrist with your long-distance throws. Although this may have worked in handball or basketball, it won’t work in water polo.
Consequently, you will have to unlearn these habits and build flexibility in your wrist to improve your shooting technique. During a practice shooting session, your biceps and triceps shouldn’t be on fire. Instead, your shoulder and wrist strength are the ones that should feel the strain.
It is for this reason that wrist isolation exercises help so much with shooting in water polo.
Warm-Up Stretch to Improve Wrist Flexibility
- Start by stretching out your arm in front of you with your palm up.
- Gradually open your wrist, moving your fingers towards the floor.
- Continue lowering your fingers until you feel a stretch.
- With your other hand, pull the fingers down until they’re pointing at the floor.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds.
- Release the position so that your fingers point outward and away again.
- Repeat these steps three times for each hand.
Isolation Exercises to Improve Wrist Strength
While wrist flexibility will increase your ability to flick the ball with broad accuracy over long distances, the goal of any drill is to simulate game conditions as much as possible. This very next drill does exactly that by mimicking the shooting motion used in water polo:
- Find an open location with a pillar or post.
- Get an exercise band with enough resistance to test your wrist strength.
- Tie one end of the band to the post and attach the other end onto your wrist.
- Walk a sufficient distance away until there’s tension in the band.
- Raise your arm by your side until your triceps are parallel to the ground. Your forearm should be perpendicular to the ground.
- Gradually flex your wrist back until it is 90 degrees. It should look as though you’re holding a pizza box.
- Flex your wrist forward without moving your arm.
- End the rep with a flick forward, stopping when your fingers point towards the imaginary goal.
- Perform three sets of 10-12 repetitions with each wrist.
Not only does this exercise build on your wrist strength and flexibility, but it also enhances the stability of your shoulder as well.
While performing this exercise, take care to maintain an upright posture. Leaning backward or sideways will take the stress off of your core. Also, by growing accustomed to this movement pattern now, you’re less likely to stray from an upright stance while you’re actually shooting the ball.
Once you’ve made sufficient progress, you can add an extra layer of difficulty by balancing on an exercise ball or Bosu ball. This added instability better simulates the conditions of being in the water.
Just take care not to push yourself too far beyond your limits, though with the band resistance and exercise ball instability. Otherwise, you may unknowingly put excess strain on your wrists and injure yourself.
After you’ve mastered the fundamental motion of shooting with these exercises, then you can go to a local pool and actually apply this hard work. If you don’t have a goal nearby, even a laundry basket can suffice! As long as you aiming your shot at something, you’re bound to improve.