Water Polo Contact Rules Explained (+How Fouls are Penalized)


If you’ve ever watched a water polo match firsthand, there’s no doubt that you have noticed the extreme physical nature of the game. The rules regarding this physicality can be quite confusing, as this contact can be completely ignored, lightly penalized, or harshly penalized depending upon the circumstances.

It is illegal in water polo to kick, strike, shove, or hold a player while they’re not holding the ball. Penalties can range from a free throw to permanent exclusion with a delayed substitution. The severity of the punishment is reflective of the severity of the violation.

This article will teach you more about water polo rules, including when it is acceptable to make contact and why some players get away with being physical. You will also learn about penalties incurred by foul play and ways to contact opponents legally.

Is Water Polo a Contact Sport?

Contact rules are simple for non-contact sports where all types of contact are penalized. However, water polo is a full-contact sport. Therefore, you can expect players to have their hands on other players for most of the game. 

This doesn’t mean that the contact involved is equivalent to that of a combat sport. Taking control of the ball and preventing goals is the priority of all contact during a water polo game, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the players’ health and well-being.

If you’re concerned about the risks associated with playing water polo, click over to The Dangers of Water Polo: How Safe Is It Really?

What are the Rules Governing Contact in Water Polo?

Upon learning that physically connecting with opponents is allowed in the sport, it is prudent to ask what kind of contact is permitted, what type is forbidden, and what the penalties of the fouls are. In this section, we will explore the contact rules of water polo.

You Can’t Kick or Strike an Opponent

How contact is viewed in water polo may change based on whether your opponent is holding the ball. Generally, kicking and striking an opponent is such a serious offense in this sport that it is considered a major foul regardless of whether your opponent is carrying the ball or not.

The problem is that the referees cannot clearly see what goes on underwater. Consequently, there’s a high likelihood that a player can get away with kicking or striking another player underwater as the referees shift their attention to the play at hand.

The referee will temporarily remove any player caught in the act from the game for 20 seconds. However, if the referee can infer intent to harm, you may be penalized for brutality. Brutality fouls result in a longer exclusion—for the remainder of the current game and the next game at the very least. Brutality is discussed to a greater extent later in the article.

Back to the subject of strikes, you should make sure that the actual game itself is your main priority. Deliberate, malicious contact will do everyone involved more harm than good. Inadvertent kicks or strikes are only penalized with a 20-second long suspension.

If you’re taking your chances with the referee not noticing, you should still avoid strikes at all costs, as they’re more visible than kicks and likely to draw a penalty. Some players rely on heads-up freestyle swimming to create a diversion that disguises their strikes. By having their elbows point upwards as they swim, they get away with elbowing defenders.

You Cannot Hold, Sink, or Pull Back Players Not Carrying the Ball

Since this can lead to exclusion from the rest of the game, you should pay attention to its nuances. Holding and sinking opponents has been a major foul since the 1970s. While most contact would get you ejected from the game in the 1930s, the 1970s NCAA rules singled out this type of contact as an ejection foul. As the sport has progressed, more contact has been allowed, which brings us to the rules as they stand today.

Instead of a blanket ban on pulling back and holding, you’re now prohibited from doing so as long as the opponent is not physically lifting, carrying, or touching the ball. Put simply, in the few moments when an attacking player lifts the ball to score or pass, you can theoretically get away with such contact. It’s still a significant risk, however, as the referee may interpret and classify such behavior as brutality.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that you cannot simply pass the ball over to your nearest opponent so that you can sink them as soon as they touch the ball. Such visible displays of spite could be grounds for exclusion.

Furthermore, this move doesn’t prioritize gameplay, which can take away your deniability of intent. Instead, let the pulling and holding happen when it’s your instinctive reaction, like when your opponent is lifting the ball for a shot or a pass.

You Cannot Physically Block an Opponent That Isn’t Holding the Ball

This is by far the trickiest rule to interpret and leaves the referee with enough power to either ignore or classify the act as brutality. There are two ways that FINA rules cover physical contact under impeding opponents not holding the ball rule, as derived from the overarching rule on impeding players (source).

Swimming Across an Opponent’s Legs as They Dribble

When you swim across another opponent’s legs, your chest and arms inevitably contact their legs. Assuming no violence, you may get excluded for 20 seconds of gameplay upon making this mistake.

Blocking Off Defenders with Your Elbows When Possessing the Ball

Unlike situations where the opponent is dribbling the ball but not physically touching it, you don’t have plausible deniability upon contact. You cannot protest with the excuse that you thought the opponent was holding the ball.

If you use your elbow to block an opponent, for instance, by placing it against their chest as they come towards the ball on your other side, you might get excluded from the game temporarily. On the other hand, if you have your elbows high while swimming and the opponent slams into you with their chest, they would be the one getting penalized. Here, the referee has room to interpret.

You Cannot Engage or Initiate Fights

Finally, you cannot engage in any physical contact occurring from an obvious place of malice. Whether it’s a harmless shove or a full-blown kick to the chest, you will be excluded from the game and later substituted if the referee can infer intent on your part.

It is worth noting that most referees do not infer intent on small scuffles. Still, if any significant violence happens during gameplay or other portions of the game, they typically use a broad interpretation of brutality.

As a player, it is wiser to avoid all physical contact when vexed. If you’ve been hit underwater and the referee hasn’t noticed, do not retaliate visibly. Occasionally, players adopt the risky approach of initiating minor physical contact underwater with the sole intention of goading the other opponent into a fight.

While the player assumes the risk of being spotted and temporarily excluded, they gamble on the reward of baiting a rival player into full-fledged brutality, which would permanently exclude their opponent from the game. 

If your team relies on you for scoring or long-distance passes, you should watch out for this kind of tactic. On the other hand, if you plan to use this tactic on a star opponent, you better hide your actions from the referee!

How are Fouls Penalized in Water Polo?

The majority of water polo fouls shift the ball’s possession or temporarily suspend a player for 20 seconds. However, it’s always better to be familiar with the exact types of penalties that can happen during live gameplay. Below, we’ll explore the various penalties on a case-by-case basis and go over the physical contact offenses that lead to such penalties.

Free Throw is Awarded for Ordinary Fouls

If you don’t want the game reset with your opponents at an advantage, stay clear of ordinary fouls. With that said, these minor fouls are quite common and sometimes even go unnoticed. Players can get away with an unlimited number of ordinary fouls.

If you’ve ever been to a water polo game before, this is the reason why you constantly hear the single ring of the whistle. Since there’s no cap to how many ordinary fouls a player can commit, defenses use this to their advantage.

As a quick reference, a free throw is the means of restarting play after a foul.

With a free throw, the fouled player can put the ball back into play by putting it in the water or passing it to another teammate. If the foul occurred beyond the 5-meter line, the player could shoot the ball, so long as it’s performed in one fluid motion.

Harmlessly pushing away an opponent is a common type of ordinary foul. With this type of contact, the opponent must have sufficiently contributed to the result, or your ‘shove’ will be seen as a strike and penalized accordingly. 

If you’re on the attack and an opponent is swimming towards you, you may get away with a slight shove, as most referees dismiss it as an instinctive reaction. On the other hand, swimming up to an opponent who doesn’t have the ball and shoving them will land you in trouble.

It is worth keeping in mind that you will almost always be given some benefit of the doubt when you contact an opponent in possession of the ball. In contrast, you’re less likely to be noticed contacting another player who doesn’t have the ball.

‘Impeding’ is another kind of ordinary foul. Blocking an opponent with your elbow could be considered impeding and penalized with a free throw. Nevertheless, particularly reckless contact could result in temporary or permanent exclusion based on whether the referee views the contact as incidental or purposeful.

20 Seconds Exclusion for Holding, Pulling, or Sinking an Opponent Not Touching the Ball

When it comes to major fouls, one of the consequences is being temporarily majored. When majored, a player is excluded from the gameplay and play area for 20 seconds of gameplay. The announcement of a penalty leads to the other team receiving a free throw. The offender swims out of the game area and through the rest of the length of boundary until they reach the entry area closest to their goal.

This discourages foul play in the following ways.

Loss of 20 Seconds in a Fast-Paced Game

With attacks lasting 30 seconds, losing out on 20 seconds of active game time as a player is equivalent to being out of action for two-thirds of an offense or defense position (source). Thus, the offending player puts their team in a precarious position but cannot contribute, despite it being a time when their team needs them the most.

Loss of Possession

Exclusion usually comes with a free throw. Having a player removed from the game while the ball is turned over to the other team is devastating, especially if the offensive team hasn’t dropped to a defense already.

Loss of a Key Player Position

If your strategy involves self-positioning and long-distance passes, then you can’t afford any key players being excluded and forced to swim to the re-entry area. The rest of the team likely will not function properly with one of their key positions vacant. Teams have to improvise on the spot, making them extremely susceptible to defensive or offensive breakdowns.

Loss of Strategic Anonymity

Although it often goes overlooked, water polo is just as much a mental game as a physical game. Many attack schemes and defensive maneuvers involve different players taking on certain positions. Each team may feature a certain star player, but every active player fulfills a certain role. With such a scheme in place, every player can be an active scoring threat, which provides the offense with the element of unpredictability.

If the opposing team is not certain of who will pass the ball to whom, they’re far less likely to intercept passes. In the event that a player in a key position is majored, the value of said position is now exposed to the other team. The team’s intentions become much more predictable, which won’t fare well at all for that team’s scoring chances.

Penalty Throw for Fouls within 5 Meters of the Goal

Attackers are usually at a disadvantage when being physical, as fouls lead to turning over possession to the other team. In the 5-meter threshold around your own goal, it’s a different story. Any foul that takes place so close to the goal will warrant a penalty throw (source).

In short, a penalty throw (or shot) is a free, unimpeded shot from the 5-meter line on the goal. Only the opposing goalkeeper may attempt to defend the shot. The rest of the players on the other team cannot disrupt this shot attempt.

There are multiple ways that a referee can judge a foul to prevent a probable goal. Examples of fouls within the 5-meter line that could result in a penalty throw include:

  • impeding players who do not have the ball
  • forcefully kicking another player beneath the water
  • physically contacting a player before they lift the ball
  • pulling on an attacker from behind

Any of these transgressions could award your opponent a free penalty throw, which could lead to a high percentage scoring opportunity that may not have even been possible in the first place.

Since any interference inside the 5-meter line is a high risk, it’s best to keep attackers out of the 5-meter threshold. If players enter this threshold, you must double your efforts and defend without fouling. The last thing you want to do is give the other team a chance at an easy goal.

Permanent Exclusion is Issued for Violence with Intent To Injure

Brutality is a major taboo in water polo, even though it is a sport with excessive contact. Players must be able to trust each other not to injure each other deliberately. A player found guilty of striking, pulling, shoving, or kicking another with the obvious intent to injure is excluded from that game and even subsequent ones.

To further deter this behavior, the offending team must play for four minutes without a substitute. The offended team also receives a penalty throw. Due to this strict attitude against intentional violence, brutality fouls rarely occur, even during professional gameplay.

Best Practices for Contact in Water Polo

Now that we have covered the rules and penalties of contact in water polo, let’s go over some of the best practices that will put your team in the best position to win.

  • The defending team has less to lose by making physical contact as opposed to the attacking team. This is true outside the 5 meter range of the defending team’s goal. Therefore, minimize all contact when you’re in attack mode so you don’t end up turning over the ball.
  • You can avoid being flagged for intent if your natural swimming rhythm leads to contact. Swimmers who position their elbows high while making choppy strokes can deter defenders as their elbows might connect with those who come too close. If this contact happens, though, they might be granted a free throw.
  • Underwater contact is a high risk strategy but can sufficiently pester the other party. Avoid doing this if there are two referees in the game. In games with a single referee, players not in possession of the ball can get away with pestering opponents far away from the action.

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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