One of the first questions while watching a match of water polo with a friend that may not know the rules is “What just happened?”. While players and fans of the sport may know what is going on, sometimes a crash course on the rules is needed for someone to actually enjoy and understand what exactly they are seeing, especially if they are lacking knowledge on the sport. There is always the question of “Is this just water soccer?” or a comparison to other sports and rules that may be similar.

While some rules and situations are close, water polo is much different, and much more difficult when you take into consideration this is all done while treading water. Here is a brief overview of the rules and regulations of water polo to get you on track.


While a player is in possession of the ball, they are allowed to pass the ball forwards, sideways, or backward. Any player, apart from the goalie, is not allowed to touch the floor of the pool. This means they have to be treading water at all times! The goalie, however, may be able to use the floor to give them the right push they need to get to the ball.

The players are able to move with the ball if they are “dribbling”, which means that the ball must be between their arms while they swim forward with their head above water. If they wanted to move without swimming they can only handle the ball with one hand at a time. The only person that this rule does not pertain to is, once again, the goalie. Once your team has possession of the ball, you have 30 seconds to shoot. If there is no shot attempted within 30 seconds, the ball is transferred to the opposing team, which requires even more speed in this fast-paced sport.


In water polo, there are indeed referees, who make judgment calls based on what they see to make sure play is fair for both sides, just like you see in most sports.  There are three different types of fouls in the sport: ordinary, major, and penalty.

Ordinary fouls result in the other team gaining the ball and requires a free throw to be completed from the spot of foul play. Major fouls, which as the name implies, are a more severe foul being committed. This means that the result of the penalty is more severe as well. The player who commits this foul is sent out of the zone of play for 20 seconds, which requires the team to play a man down. When a player receives 3 major fouls, they are removed from the game altogether and a substitution comes in.

Ordinary Fouls

  • When a player touches the ball with two hands instead of one.
  • Taking the ball underwater while being tackled.
  • Blocking a player who does not have possession of the ball.
  • A player uses another player to push off to increase momentum.
  • And the aforementioned failing to shoot the ball within that 30-second mark.

Major Fouls

  • Kicking or striking another player, this also covers deliberate splashing another player in the face.
  • If a player interferes with a free throw.
  • If a player holds, pulls, or tries to hold another player underwater who isn’t holding the ball. This one is close to the ordinary foul but slightly more aggressive.

Penalty fouls mainly occur within a zone called the 5m zone, which is the zone in front of the goal. If something is a deliberate attempt to impede a player from making a goal outside of what you are able to do within the rules, this is considered a penalty. The player who the foul was committed against may perform a free throw on the goal with only the goalie blocking, heavily increasing their chances of scoring.

These are just a few of the basics to get you on the right track of understanding the rules and regulations of water polo. For anyone considering joining or forming a water polo team of their own, my first advice is to brush up on your swimming and water treading skills. Increasing your stamina in the water is a great place to start. Once you have that down, the rest will be much easier!