Water Polo — It's hockey...minus GRAVITY!
Water polo is the coolest sport imaginable. Really. Take everything boring away from competitive swimming (like, say, the 500 yard/400 meter freestyle), everything interesting about hockey (minus Canadians), everything awesome about wrestling
(minus the Ho Yay), and put everyone in a pool. It's a fast, violent sport that could only be made cooler by adding sharks. Like most sports, there are several (five) major tiers (but no tears) in the sport: summer, age-group, high school, collegiate, and international.
Most, if not all, competitive water polo players start from swim team, and most begin actually playing the game in middle school. Often, summer swim teams will have a water polo team, usually after summer league is over, but summer water polo is less about the actual game than it is about "hey, let's toss some ten-year-olds in a pool and watch them beat each other up!" So most players begin true water polo play in middle school. Unless you live in California, Florida, or Europe, whatever middle school team you play on will probably end up going to the Junior Olympics, which sounds much cooler if you leave off the "Nationals" part. If you do live in California, you'll be schooled by Commerce, whose 14-year-old ("grommet") team regularly beat out Washington, Oregon, and Canada's 18-and-under teams.
High school is typically divided up between junior varsity and varsity, like most sports. However, unlike most sports, JV may have slightly different rules than varsity. Most teams can field a varsity and JV team, although JV2 teams are vastly more commonly seen in California, where people play water polo like crazy.
In college, at least in AMERICA, collegiate water polo comes down to four schools: Stanford, USC, UC, and UCLA, in that order. They make water polo. Seriously—we do drills called "the Stanford drill" and stuff like that. Internationally, water polo comes down to a bitch fight between Hungary, Italy, and the US for both sexes, with Croatia and Serbia also thrown in on the men's side.
The basic game changes slightly between men, women, and youth teams. All water polo is played in four quarters, with shot clocks, a yellow (though now yellow-and-some-other-color) ball, two goals, six field players, and a goalie. The players wear those weird wrestling looking caps to protect our ears, and we can't wear goggles. And we play in a pool. A deep one.
- Youth teams (twelve-and-under) play with a very small ball that is always colored green. There are no definitive sizes for these players. In most tournaments, youth teams play with women's balls (that's what she said). They play five-minute quarters, making a 20-minute game that goes by faster than your summer vacation did.
- High School
- Boys' High School teams (listed first because they traditionally play in the fall) play with a dude's sized ball (that's what she said) that is 28" in diameter. It is yellow-and-black striped, though that's a new addition. (There was a big rule change about five years ago to make the sport more watchable.) Girls' teams play with a ball that's 26.5" in diameter, and yellow-and-pink striped. JV teams play six-minute quarters, and varsity teams play seven achingly long minute quarters.
- Collegiate teams follow the same rules as high school, except club teams play seven-minute quarters and varsity teams play eight (!!!) minute ones. That is 32 minutes of actual game time, but as will be explained below, this often stretches out to almost 45 minutes at least.
- Olympics and FINA World Cup
- Eight-minute quarters, 30-second shot clock. There is one big difference here, though—men play in 30 meter pools instead of the traditional 25. This is sometimes observed in high school and collegiate levels, but because most pools are only 25 meters, the rule gets fudged a bit. This is also one of the reasons why the Beijing pool was called the "Water Cube".
The Shot Clock
Like other sports, water polo has a 30-second shot clock, which means that each team can only hold onto the ball for 30 seconds. On national and collegiate teams, this means at each possession you'll have about 22 seconds to run an offense and shoot. On high school teams, this means you'll have about 18 seconds to run an offense and shoot. I have seen this (rarely) be set at 35 for JV and 14-and-unders, because unless you can get from the two to the two (more on that later) in under 12 seconds, you're screwed.
The shot clock—and game clock—is stopped during fouls, and starts again once the pass is made. You'd think this wouldn't affect the game time, but because water polo relies heavily on fouls, it can stretch most games out to 40 minutes. The shot clock is reset—giving the offensive team 30 more seconds—when a player is ejected, the ball goes out of bounds (and goes to the other team), or the people controlling the clock are retarded. If one team gets eight or so points up (and I don't know if this is a legit rule or if it's just something high schools do) it's called "running clock", because the ref takes pity and just keeps the clock running through fouls, shortening the game. It is a lifesaver, running clock. Especially when you have games on spring tolo.
There are three types of fouls: regular, exclusion, and dude-what-the-fuck. Regular fouls happen all the time. This really messes with people, especially that fat guy with a handlebar mustache up in the stands yelling at the ref, because they don't understand that, when the ref calls a foul, nine times out of ten if was the offensive person "drawing a foul", which means pretending to be unable to break away.
Exclusion fouls are when the player is physically being held from doing something. Like regular fouls, these can be faked (you just pretend you are drowning). They result in an ejection for twenty seconds, and the team moves into "man-up" or "power-play" situations.
Dude-what-the-fuck fouls (sometimes called "brutality fouls") are rarely faked, because it's hard to give yourself a bloody nose and make the ref think it was the other player's fault. These are fouls with the intent to injure, like when the Canadian player punched the US player in the US. vs. Canada in the FINA World Champ Gold Medal round. The player is kicked out of the rest of the game, and the other team has to play for four unbearable minutes man-down.
Every time the ball goes in the net and nothing stupid happened, you get a point. Yay! Water polo is a low-scoring game; the best games will end 2-3 or something like that.
In water polo, players set up in an umbrella/rainbow (for the girls, you know) shape. Twelve players are in the playing area at a time, six on each team, and two goalies. Each position has a number and a name, but typically I've never heard the drivers be called anything but their numbers. Here is a picture:
In water polo, the sides are referred to by their number—the 21 side and the 45 side.
21 Side Drivers
The 21 Side Drivers are always right-handed, fast, and shooters. They run drives from the 2 down to the 1, with the two either receiving the pass and making a straight shot, or the one wrapping up around the back and taking a more traditional shot. The 21 side runs more drives—and faster drives—than the 45 side, unless a team has two really good left handers and two really terrible right handers, in which it would be switched. Rarely do players only go to one spot (say, 1), instead they will just play a side, because drives will always switch things up.
45 Side Drivers
If a coach is lucky, the 45 side drivers will be left-handed, but they typically aren't. The four spot is sometimes the quarterback of water polo, and most big drives (as in, opposed to just the 21 or 45 players switching) start from the four. The four spot is where a coach sticks his best passer. The five spot is where he sticks his worst player, unless they are doing something funky like posting up (putting two people in center), in which this person would be a good player.
Hole Set, Hole, Set, Center
The hole player is the closest to the goal and has the best shooting range. These players are typically the best on the team—they are fast, strong, and big. Most ejection fouls come from hole-set because the hole-guard (coming up next) will guard heavily. It is the most brutal spot in water polo. The good thing is, though, that hole set is rarely involved in drives, so if you've got a really good but really stupid player, stick her in here. This position is so vital that often the defenders at the two and four will "drop off" and help guard set.
The point player, despite having the best angle to do so, rarely shoots. She is a passer—a pressure passer. She needs to be able to hold onto the ball while her defender is doing everything in her power to slow point down. Unlike all the other positions, however, point has a specific defense spot—she is, nine times out of ten, guard. Defensive-wise, she guards set. Comparison-wise, she comes home with the coolest bruises. This player usually has long arms, like set, but doesn't have to be the fastest on the team.
The goalie blocks the ball. She also yells out "yellow!" when the shot clock gets under ten seconds, and "RED!!!!!!!" when it gets under five. She is vital in a counter-attack.
Water polo players don't get to wear goggles (they could break and cut our eyes). Instead, we get ear goggles. I am dead serious. Girls wear suits that are four sizes too small, zip up either the back or the front, and chafe like crazy. Guys wear speedos. Most players—men and women—wear two suits. Outside of the caps, there is no padding. The game starts with six players lining up—three on each side of the goalie—and a sprint for the ball, though sometimes the sprint comes from inside the cage.
If you haven't figured out by now, water polo involves a lot of swimming and treading ("egg-beater"). However, unlike competitive swim team, water polo is not at all based around a specific time. There is no magic number for how fast a swimmer must be, though I've heard most coaches say they would be wary about putting in a player who couldn't break 30 seconds in the fifty free.
Why does speed not matter so much? Because water polo is a game of quickness and understanding. There is a reason why the USA Water Polo Men's team doesn't just grab Michael Phelps and stick him in the game—he'd suck.
Case in point (and I know this will turn into a sort-of troper tales like thing but it's the best example I have): My fastest fifty freestyle time is 30.12 seconds—that's pretty damn slow. I also happen to be five feet tall and weigh probably half of what a typical hole set would weigh. These all put me at a disadvantage compared to the typical six-foot-tall-26-second-fifty-players out there. In warm up, I trail behind our other starters, in fact, I trail behind JV players. However, the moment we switch to doing whistle drills (switching directions on a whistle) and counter-attacks, I beat out the fastest players. This is solely because my turn-around times are faster and my first three strokes are faster. I have a better understanding of the game than the JV players who are faster than me and I have better reactions than most of the other varsity players, which is why I'm able to keep up despite being the slowest varsity starter.
In the media:
- The manhwa My Heart is Beating is all about a boy blackmailed into joining the girls' water polo team.
- In Star Trek: Enterprise, Captain Jonathan Archer is a huge fan of the game, having played it in college.