The Dangers of Water Polo: How Safe Is It Really?


Whether you’re a regular fan, a parent, or a soon-to-be water polo player, it is important to know how safe the sport is. What are the dangers of water polo, and how safe is it? 

Water polo is relatively dangerous and can lead to bruises, scratches, broken bones, head injuries, or even drowning. However, you can decrease the chances of injury if you stay in shape, use the proper protective gear, and follow the rules. 

Any sport that involves water is bound to have some safety concerns. This article will outline the primary dangers of the sport and describe the various rules in place to help prevent such dangers. Read until the end to know if you should be concerned at all to partake in it yourself or watch a loved one play for the first time.

The Main Dangers of Playing Water Polo

There are several inherent dangers of playing water polo that must be considered by those who are looking to join. The most prominent of these dangers are described in further detail below.

Danger #1: Possibility of Drowning Underwater

Drowning is always a realistic danger whenever you enter any body of water, regardless of how good a swimmer you are.

Many people are under the impression that talented athletes trained for the pool could never drown. This assumption is false. No matter how skilled or athletic a swimmer may be, accidents can happen when you least expect it.

Due to the physically intense nature of the sport, water polo tends to push players to the limits of their swimming skills. There aren’t too many other water sports where players have to tread water throughout the entire game.

For this reason, excess fatigue could become a major issue for certain water polo players. It’s fairly easy to get exhausted during a water polo match since players must expend so much energy just to keep themselves afloat.

Plus, water polo players are expected to perform several other physically demanding activities on top of treading, such as:

  • catching and passing the ball
  • preventing the opposing team from scoring
  • putting themselves in better position to score
  • swimming up and down the length of the pool

To learn more about what water polo players are expected to do during games, click over to Basic Water Polo Skills: A Complete Beginner’s Guide.

Water polo players often execute all of these skills in a condensed period of time. With each and every move they make, they have less energy available to devote towards keeping their head above water. This is the underlying reason why excess fatigue is so inextricably linked to an increased risk of drowning.

To make matters worse, excess fatigue may also cause players to pass out. If a player passes out in the water, it would be a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, the likelihood of drowning during a water polo game is relatively low since the pool is under constant vigilance by coaches, referees, players, and fans. Nonetheless, it is still possible that all of these onlookers could miss a player passing out due to all of the nearby action and splashing going on in the pool. 

Danger #2: Experiencing Secondary Drowning

Another possible danger of playing water polo is secondary drowning.

For those of you that do not know, secondary drowning is when someone swallows too much water. This water is then trapped in the lungs, resulting in irritation and excess fluid build-up, giving way to another condition called a pulmonary edema (source). This condition describes a state where the lungs fill up with fluid as opposed to oxygen when someone takes a breath (source).

If left untreated, the condition can be fatal. However, dying from secondary drowning is extremely rare.

Still, it is an important danger to watch out for if you’re in any way affiliated with the sport. Since water polo teams are in the water so often, there’s likely to be at least one rare health occurrence over the course of the season.

Danger #3: Physical Injury

Lastly, the most prevalent danger of playing water polo is physical injury.

Many players will hit, kick, scratch, and push other players underneath the water. Water polo players are known to end up with broken bones, scratch marks, or bruises.

Needless to say, the game is heavily contact-oriented, with players doing practically everything within their power to stop their opponents from scoring. When you round up a bunch of competitive players and confine them to one pool, there are bound to be some sort of injuries. 

Interestingly enough, there has not been much research on head injuries during water polo matches since most of the research attention is currently devoted to football.

Though, in one study conducted by the University of California, it was found that water polo players received an average of 18 head hits per game (source).

This information was somewhat shocking, in that it revealed water polo to be just as dangerous as soccer in regards to possible head injuries. Further surveys indicated that out of 1500 water polo players, 36% experienced at least one concussion in their career.

How the Rules of Water Polo Promote Safer Play

The water polo community is well aware that water polo players are at the greatest risk for drowning and physical injury above all else. For this reason, certain rules have been instituted to reduce these risks and encourage a safer environment for players.

Dangerous play is primarily discouraged by harsh penalties issued by referees. The punishment for dangerous play varies depending on the severity of the transgression. There’s a specific hierarchy to these fouls:

Minor Foul

  • Level of Danger – Low
  • Foul Description – Also known as an ordinary foul, this is an umbrella term for a variety of petty violations.
  • Example(s) – Impeding an opponent’s ability to move off-ball or pushing an opponent out of the way.
  • Resulting Penalty – Possession awarded to opposing team.

Major Foul

  • Level of Danger – Medium
  • Foul Description – This is a step up from a minor foul, typically involving a higher degree of illegal physical contact or disruption of fair play.
  • Example(s) – Recklessly holding an opponent underwater.
  • Resulting Penalty – Offending player must sit out of the game for 20 seconds. Fouls that take place within the 5-meter line may be awarded with a penalty throw.

Misconduct Foul

  • Level of Danger – High
  • Foul Description – These fouls are issued when a player disrespects or seriously endangers another player’s safety, often involving a considerable degree of recklessness or violence.
  • Example(s) – Serious, repetitive illegal contact directed toward another player on the opposing team.
  • Resulting Penalty – Disqualification of the offending player for the remainder of the game, plus the next game, in order to uphold the safety standards of the sport.

Brutality Foul

  • Level of Danger – Extreme
  • Foul Description – When a player deliberately injures another player by hitting them, a brutality foul is called. This type of foul is the most hazardous to players, which is why it’s the most severely penalized.
  • Example(s) – Intentionally punching another player in the face while the opponent is away from the play.
  • Resulting Penalty – The offending player is disqualified for the remainder of the game, along with the following game at the very least.

The escalating severity of punishment for more serious transgressions helps to dissuade players from letting their emotions get the best of them. Although this penalty system is the best we can hope for, there are still underlying flaws that adds an element of danger to the sport, as we will see next.

If you would like to learn more about how water polo is meant to be played, click over to Basic Rules of Water Polo Explained: A Beginner’s Guide.

Is Water Polo an Aggressive Sport?

In a perfect world, water polo would not be a very aggressive game, since the referees would be able to put an end to any and all unnecessary contact.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. Referees can only catch so many fouls. Often times, fouls happen underneath the water (source). Thus, it is somewhat easy for players to hide their fouls. For this reason, players may kick, punch, or scratch other players underwater when they become highly defensive or aggressive.

You can see the proof of this in the following clip from women’s water polo.

So even though the rules explicitly state that players cannot push, pull, or sink another player or commit any violent action done with malicious intent, there are many underwater transgressions that go unnoticed.

In short, water polo is a very brutal and aggressive sport, with players rarely ever coming out of games unscathed.

Common Water Polo Injuries

Since the rules of water polo can only help to reduce the dangers of the sport and not effectively eliminate them, injuries do occur on a regular basis, just like any other sport. Let’s take a look at some of the most prevalent forms of physical abuse—both minor and major—that water polo players endure during competitive gameplay (source).

  • Eye Irritation – Water polo regulations prohibit players from wearing goggles. Consequently, it is common to experience eye redness or irritation from the chlorine in the pool.
  • Facial Injuries – Bruises on the face, black eyes, and split lips are all common injuries that result from water polo. Regardless of certain rules and fouls, players will hit others in the face during a rough play. Plus, the ball could also hit a player in the face and leave a mark.
  • Hip & Knee Injuries: The main swimming kick that water polo players use is the eggbeater. This kick requires a considerable amount of strength from both the hips and the knees. Kicking in this manner for prolonged periods could induce mild irritation or injury due to overuse of these joints.
  • Hypothermia: While many pools maintain proper temperatures, teams may play games in much colder pools, like the ones outdoors for example. Even though the players are moving around constantly, the frigid water may still pose as a risk for hypothermia.
  • Scratches: This is one of the most notorious injuries in water polo. It has reached a point where it’s not uncommon for referees to check each player’s fingernails prior games, since some players would sharpen them with the intent of injuring other players.
  • Shoulder Injuries: The majority of shoulder injuries happen when players attempt to block an attack. These injuries often have to do with the rotator cuff. Put simply, the rotator cuff is the group of joints and muscles surrounding the shoulder (source).
  • Sunburn: Under certain circumstances, a water polo game may be played outdoors. If a player fails to put on proper sunscreen, they could experience bad sunburns.
  • Swimmer’s Ear: This is a fairly common infection that causes the external auditory parts of the ear to inflame. When one ear remains in the water for an extended time interval, certain parts of the ear get wet and stay wet. This type of moist environment provides bacteria with ideal conditions to grow. The good news is that doctors can treat this infection quite easily. 

Factors That Can Increase the Danger of Water Polo

If a player is not careful, they may fall into certain habits that actually put them at greater risk for injury. Being aware of these factors is the first step in preventing further injury. Lucky for you, the foremost of these risk factors are described in the subsequent sections.

Improper Swimming Technique

Water polo players with poor swimming technique have to work considerably harder than other players to move the same distance.

Swimming already demands an exorbitant amount of energy. Once you add sloppy technique to the equation, you’re setting yourself up to be completely void of energy by the end of the game. As mentioned previously, excess fatigue is directly correlated to drowning risk.

A water polo player should master both the front stroke and the eggbeater kick not only to ensure their own personal safety, but to become a better water polo player.

In addition to greater drowning risk, improper swimming technique also puts additional strain on the muscles and joints. This additional strain might not seem like much after one practice or one game, but it can emerge into a major issue when compounded over the course of the season.

For all these reasons, it’s important to address your swimming technique early on to avoid further facilitating bad habits.

Low Fitness Level

When reading through the heading above, you might have silently thought to yourself, “How can a water polo player be anything but fit?”

Younger water polo teams or players that are fairly new to the sport will not be fit overnight. As younger or inexperienced players get used to the sport, there will be an adjustment period where they’re at an increased risk for the dangers mentioned earlier.

This is mainly due to the fact that these players are not yet aware of their own personal limits. Knowing your personal limits is especially critical in water sports. Players cannot simply stop moving like in land-based sports whenever they feel exhausted. They have to keep treading water, otherwise they may not be able to keep their head above water.

Experienced players are conditioned to handle the rigors of the sport. Plus they are well aware of the difference between pushing themselves and over-exerting themselves. They’re more apt to substitute themselves if they feel their energy levels are depleted.

Younger, less experienced players are typically not optimally conditioned for water polo yet. Moreover, they likely have yet to define the difference between hard work and overexertion, leading to excess strain and subsequent injury.

Improper Protective Equipment

Proper water polo safety equipment includes a cap with ear guards and a mouth guard. If players fail to wear the proper safety equipment, the likelihood of injury rises considerably.

The purpose of the cap with ear guards is to protect the ears from potential dangers, like flying elbows and water-related infections.

Mouth guards serve several functions, such as:

  • safeguarding against any dental-related issues, such as broken teeth
  • protecting the tongue and mouth tissue, like the cheek lining for instance
  • limiting the severity of concussions (source)

If you’re looking for a reliable mouth guard, check out the Professional Sport Mouth Guard for under $10. If you or your child are getting serious about water polo, you may want to consider asking your dentist for a personalized mouthguard. These personalized mouth guards are noticeably more comfortable than the ones made in bulk. It should be noted, however, that they are a bit more expensive.

How to Stay Safe as a Water Polo Player

Although there are several things that can go wrong while playing water polo, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent such injuries. 

  • Keep Your Cardiovascular Health in Check – Your cardiovascular fitness should be relatively easy to maintain if you’re on a competitive team. On the other hand, if you like to take part in community games here and there, be sure to stay in cardiovascular shape to ward off exhaustion or injury.
  • Implement a Personal Fitness Routine – This tip goes hand in hand with the previous tip. An easy way to uphold solid cardiovascular levels is to follow a personalized fitness regime. This plan may include pool days mixed with gym days to improve both strength and conditioning. The focus of your workouts should be on the muscles emphasized the most during water polo.
  • Warm Up & Cool Down – To prevent injury, it’s imperative that you warm up before a practice a game and cool down afterwards. If you belong to a water polo team, your coach will probably have a warm-up and cool-down routine for the team to follow. If you’re not on a team, make sure to swim a few slow laps to warm up and stretch afterwards to cool down.
  • Drink Water Before, During, & After Games – Since the game is so physically demanding, it will be easy to become dehydrated, particularly in outdoor pools under a hot sun. Contrary to popular opinion, swimmers are at a greater risk for dehydration since they’re not aware of how much fluid they’ve lost through sweat.
  • Apply a Water-Resistant Sunscreen – If you have several outdoor games listed on your schedule, make sure to invest in water-resistant sunscreen. You will thank yourself later when all of your teammates are complaining of sunburns, while you’re still in game shape.
  • Ask Your Coach for Advice – If you’re on a team, your coach is an invaluable resource for pointers on how to play the right way. You should pay close attention to instructions given by your coach regarding technique and how to avoid injury during live gameplay.
  • Clip Your Fingernails & Toenails – This should honestly go without saying. Not only do referees check for this, accidentally scratching another player will attract more trouble than it’s worth.

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

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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