Water Polo Analysis

Introducing the game of WATER POLO FIVES (5’s)

water polo fives

Dear coaches, players, and fans of water polo,

Sports are constantly looking for new and better ways to play their game in order to make it easier to play and easier to understand, while at the same time make the sport more enjoyable to watch. Even sports who are doing well, and don’t need to make changes, will still add new rules to try to make their game more palatable to their fans. Basketball, hockey, and rugby are all sports that have made changes to help make their sports even more enjoyable.

Even FINA, the governing body that controls aquatic sports is looking to make changes in the most popular and income producing sport that they govern; and that is swimming. Even with all of the success that swimming has had, especially at the Olympic level, they are not standing on their laurels and maintaining the status quo. For the 2020 Olympic game in Japan, FINA is proposing that two new swimming events be added to those games, 4 x 100 meter mixed gender men and women freestyle and medley relays. This is indeed a bold proposal from FINA; for as far as I know this is the only sport besides doubles figure skating that will have men and women competing together in the same event.

When a sport is struggling for survival, as water polo is, it is even more imperative that we need to inject new ideas and concepts into our game as well. We cannot stand still and simply accept things the way that they are now; or the world will pass us by. If FINA is willing to change their biggest drawing sport in swimming, perhaps they would be willing to look to make changes in water polo as well.

This article introduces a new and different way to play water polo that is designed to make the game better. It is an effort to make our sport more dynamic and increase it’s popularity around the world. The game that I propose is a start to what I hope will become meaningful changes to our sport.

I urge coaches and teams around the world to at least give this game a try and see if it truly is a better game than what we are doing now. Please use these proposed water polo fives rules and play an experimental game among yourselves or with a neighboring team, perhaps during the off-season. I encourage coaches to respond with ideas and suggestions on what works and what doesn’t work; but only after trying Water Polo 5’s first (you can contact me through Facebook comments on this article).

Thanks,  Dante Dettamanti




The purpose of the game of Water Polo Fives (5’s) is to create a continuous fast moving and more dynamic game of traditional water polo, without all of the fouls and stoppages and static play that occurs in the present FINA game. The name Water Polo 5’s is chosen to represent the similarities of Rugby 7’s, a fast-faced, slimmed down version of traditional Rugby; but is viewed as an entirely separate sport, rather than a wholesale set of ‘rule changes’ to the more traditional sport.


In order to spend less time in transition and more time in the frontcourt attack, the Water Polo 5’s field of play has been reduced to 25 meters for men and 22 meters for women. To create a more dynamic game of non-stop action, stoppages of the game have been eliminated. Water Polo 5’s consists of four 12-minute quarters with 3 minutes of stop time between quarters, or 48 minutes of continuous action.

During play, there is no stoppage of the game clock or re-start at half court after goals are scored, no stoppage for substitutions, and there are no longer any time-outs. Substitutions can be made at any time in the re-entry area behind a team’s own goal. The game will continue after a goal is scored, with the referee immediately giving the ball to the goalkeeper to put the ball into play. In Water Polo Fives (5’s), there will be only FIVE players (hence the name) and one goalkeeper in the water at any one time, creating more room in front of the goal to run a motion attack.

Major changes in the rules include:

  1. a 5×6 meter penalty box where fouls will be penalized with a 5-meter penalty shot,
  2. team fouls and exclusion fouls outside of the penalty box,
  3. immediate re-entry after an exclusion,
  4. a no-zone rule,
  5. emphasis on creating movement.


Similar to many sports (soccer, basketball, team handball, lacrosse, hockey), there is a 5 x 6 meter ‘crease’ or ‘penalty box’ area directly in front of the goal, an area in which movement will be mandatory. Players may enter and transition through this area; but may NOT STOP (post-up) unless they are in the act of receiving and/or making an attempt to shoot the ball. If attackers want to score, they now must do so by maneuvering into and through the penalty box.


Any foul inside the penalty box area for which A GOAL PROBABLY WOULD HAVE SCORED results in an immediate 5-METER PENALTY shot by the player who is fouled. Under present FINA Water Polo rules, defenders can foul as often as they want to stop a shot on goal, because the penalty of a free pass is not severe enough to deter defenders from fouling. The threat of an exclusion foul (FINA Rule 7.3) in front of the goal is also not enough of a penalty to keep defenders from fouling to prevent the center from shooting.

In the Water Polo 5’s penalty box, a 5-meter penalty for all fouls will be a major deterrent that keeps players from the constant fouling that occurs in today’s game. The penalty foul will supersede ordinary fouls, as well as exclusion fouls in front of the goal. By NOT allowing players to stop in front of the goal to draw exclusion fouls, there will no longer be a need to play a center forward at that position; and no longer will there be a need for FINA Rule 7.3, the advantage rule. Both will no longer be part of the game of Water Polo Fives (5’s).


Scoring goals from outside the penalty box will still be part of the game; but once again a more severe penalty for fouling will have to replace the often-abused ordinary foul. Ordinary fouls outside the penalty box will be recorded as TEAM FOULS, with a 5-METER PENALTY awarded for an accumulation of five (5) team fouls. Defenders will have to be more selective in their fouling, as well as have to decide tactically the best time to foul or not to foul. Unlimited fouling will no longer be the case in Water Polo 5’s.

Even though the number of total game exclusion fouls will be greatly reduced by eliminating exclusions inside the penalty box; there will still be situations where exclusion fouls will be necessary for certain infractions outside the penalty box that cannot be controlled simply by team fouls. A more severe punishment is required in order to control the type of fouling that takes away a team’s OPPORTUNITY TO SCORE outside the penalty box.

These situations require EXCLUSION FOULS that punish five distinct types of actions; many of which are already stipulated in the current FINA rules. In Water Polo fives (5’s),
exclusion fouls can be called in all areas outside the penalty box for 1) pulling back on a player from behind who has gained advantage, 2) interfering with a free pass, 3) a forceful hard foul committed with the intent of breaking up an intended pass or shot, 4) holding an opponent without the ball with two hands, and 5) game misconduct. NOTE: Inside the penalty box, exclusion type fouls are called as 5-meter penalty fouls.


Exclusion Fouls are penalized by creating a ‘player advantage’ to the offensive team; whereby the offending player is sent off for the period of time it takes for the player to swim to the exclusion area, and immediately return to the field of play; or until a goal is scored, whichever is first. Each player is allowed two (2) exclusion fouls before they are dismissed from the game entirely. Note: Exclusion fouls are not recorded as team fouls.


Instead of the static extra-man 6 on 5 zone play that now occurs under FINA rules, the Water Polo 5’s extra-man 5 on 4 attack will have a lot more movement, and as a result be more exciting to watch. Because the excluded player can return immediately from the re-entry area; and the attacking team’s players cannot enter the penalty box and stop and wait for the ball; the extra-man attack with five players will have to be executed quickly and with movement against the four-man defensive zone. Teams with an extra man will have to try and score before the defense can drop back into a zone; or they will have to time their passes to players who are attacking in and out of the penalty box before the excluded player returns to the field of play.


The intent of Water Polo 5’s is to reward movement, anticipation and initiative. To encourage movement and attacking the goal, attackers (drivers) will be allowed to make contact with a defender, as long as they are attempting to go around the defender to gain the advantage; and they do not drive directly into the chest of the static defender. Referees are encouraged to NOT call contra fouls on drivers unless an obvious foul has been committed and clearly observed by the referee.

Screens will be encouraged that allow a player who is screening to make body contact and block the path of a defender; as long as the screener does not use his hands to “set the screen”. Holding fouls that inhibit movement inside the penalty box (5-meter penalty), and holding fouls anywhere in the pool outside the penalty box (team foul) all need to be enforced. Referees are encouraged to be aware of the “two-handed holding” that stops forward movement by an attacker, and should be called as an exclusion foul outside of the penalty box.


A player on defense must guard an attacking player, and must be in a defensive position of not more than ONE-METER away from the player that he is guarding. Defenders cannot drop back and guard water, except when the team is playing with a man less because of an excluded player. Switches and double teams will be allowed; but not drop back zones that stifle attacking drivers.

Because of the no-zone rule, defenders will no longer start the counterattack from a drop-back position; but will be more likely to free themselves to counterattack from a defensive press (man-to-man) position. The result should be in increase in goals scored from one of the most exciting parts of the game, the counterattack.


Water Polo Fives (5’s) is not created to abolish FINA Water Polo, but to grow the participation of athletes and countries worldwide in a new and exciting format of water polo. In Water Polo Fives 5’s, a greater number of athletes will be incented to participate as ‘specialization’ or ‘size’ of the athletes participating will be greatly diminished as a requirement for success. It will be a game where everyone gets involved, a game that everyone can play, and a game that will draw more young people in more countries into the sport.

Water Polo 5’s will replace the current vertical game with a more dynamic game of aggressive drives to the goal. Instead of the current FINA game of static passing by five players who surround a static center situated in front of the goal, Water Polo 5’s will replace the center with five mobile and equal players who will all fully participate in the attack on the goal. Rather than a static zone, the game will pit player against player in a more exciting man-on-man attack and counterattack.

Water Polo 5’s will fully reward the principal elements of our sport: speed, quickness, endurance, movement, passing, teamwork, shooting, and executing multiple skills and creative maneuvers. In short, Water Polo 5’s will be a new and dynamic game of water polo!


* This is a basic framework of major game rules only. This does not address minor technical rules that are currently attributed to the FINA game.


Pool layout and marking:

The playing field shall be 25 meters long (22 meters for women), measured between the goal faces, and 18 meters in width between the two sideline markers.
There shall be a Penalty Box of 5 x 6 meters designated in front of each goal, extending out from the goal line to the 5-meter line, and 1.5 meters extended on both sides of the 3-meter wide goal.

Markings that designate the 6-meter width of the penalty box should be a wooden or plastic red marker that is 20 inches high and 4 inches wide, attached either to the wall directly behind the goal or on the lane line that attaches the goal to the wall.


  1. Teams shall consist of eleven players, with five field players and one goalkeeper in the water at any one time.
  2. Substitution can be made at any time during the game in the designated re-entry area in front of the team bench and behind the goal that a team is defending. The player leaving the field of play must appear in the penalty area and touch hands with the player who is to enter the playing area.
  3. Substitutions may also be made in between quarters, and for an injured player during the time that the game is stopped by the referee in order to remove the injured player.


  1. The game will consist of four 12-minute continuous quarters, where the game clock will not stop except by direction of the referee for an injury. There will be a period of 3-minutes between each quarter. The start of each quarter shall be with a swim-off at half court as per current FINA rules.
  2. There will be a 30-second shot clock that will commence when the ball is put in play after a turnover, or put in play by the goalkeeper after a goal is scored. The shot clock will stop when a whistle blows to signify a foul, and re-start when the ball is put in play (leaves the hand of the passer).
  3. Overtime will be a 5-minute continuous “sudden-death” period in which the first goal wins.
  4. If no goals are scored after one-overtime period, 5-meter penalty shots will be attempted; alternating between each team until one team misses. Four different players will be chosen by each team to take the penalty shots.
  5. There will be no timeouts during the game.
  6. After a goal is scored, the goalkeeper must immediately retrieve the ball and give it to the referee. The players from each team may start swimming towards the opposite goal. After ascertaining that the attacking team does not have an advantage, the referee shall give the ball to the goalkeeper, who then puts the ball in play to start the shot clock.


  1. A player is considered to have entered the penalty box when his head clearly crosses and is inside one of the boundary lines. Note: More than one player may enter the penalty box at any time.
  2. Once a player enters the penalty box, he must continue his movement (swimming). He may change direction as often as he wants to; but he cannot stop unless he is receiving the ball (pass) from a teammate. If he fouls the defender who is guarding him, a contra foul will be assessed. NOTE: Swimming away from the defender on his back is allowed unless he has VISIBLY pushed off with his hands or legs.
  3. The player in the penalty box may only stop to catch the ball that is directed to him, and has left the hand of the player who is passing the ball. If the player stops without the ball, or before the ball is passed to him, the ball is awarded to the goalkeeper of the opposing team.
  4. Once the player in the Penalty Box receives the ball, he must maintain control of the ball and “continue the action of attempting to shoot” the ball. If he losses control of the ball (ball not in his hand), and it lands on the water, the ball is awarded to the goalkeeper.
  5. The player with the ball cannot place the ball on the water and wait for a foul to be called. He may place the ball on the water only if he is moving towards the goal (swimming) and in control of and attempting to shoot the ball.
  6. Off-sides- No offensive player may enter the area inside the 2-meter line without or ahead of the ball. A violation results in the ball being awarded to the goalkeeper.
  7. NOTE: The attacking team must maintain the integrity of the penalty box (no stopping), even if they have an extra-man five against four advantage.


  1. If an offensive player is fouled inside the penalty box with A SURE CHANCE TO SCORE, a 5-METER PENALTY FOUL is awarded to the offensive player. ALL fouls inside the penalty box, whether a player has possession of the ball or not, are assessed a penalty foul; including such fouls as holding, sinking, pulling back, impeding, as well as fouls that are normally recorded as exclusion fouls outside the penalty box (See Exclusion fouls, below).
  2. Penalty fouls should also be called for committing minor fouls (i.e. ball under water, blocking with two hands); but FOR WHICH A GOAL WOULD PROBABLY HAVE SCORED. For the purposes of this rule, minor fouls committed inside the penalty box by the goalkeeper (taking ball under, pulling goal down) are also a violation of this rule. Note: For the purposes of assessing fouls, the area inside the 2-meter line is considered part of the penalty box.


  1. The player who is awarded the penalty foul inside the penalty box must take the penalty shot. On direction from the referee, the player must immediately move to the 5-meter line directly opposite the position where the foul occurred. All other players must move outside of the 5-meter area (without hesitation) and cannot interfere with the taking of the penalty (same as present FINA rules). Interference results in a second penalty being awarded.
  2. Upon the signal from the referee, the player takes the penalty shot without hesitation. There are the same restrictions on the shooter and goalkeeper as in present FINA Rules; except that the goalkeeper is not allowed a balk before the whistle blows. A balk results in a second penalty being awarded. The ball is live if the shot is missed.


  1. Ordinary fouls that are committed anywhere in the field of play outside of the penalty box will be rewarded with a free pass to the player who is fouled. If that player is not in possession of the ball, the free pass is awarded to the player closest to the ball.
  2. All Ordinary fouls are recorded as TEAM FOULS against the offending team. For every five (5) team fouls accumulated by the offending team, the opposing team shall be awarded a 5-meter penalty shot that can be taken by any player on the team.
  3. To signify a team foul, the referee will hold his fist in the air as he is blowing the whistle. Team fouls are visibly displayed on the scoring table by numbered (diving score cards) for each team that can be flipped over to display the individual numbers 1-5. On the 5th team foul, the scoring table must immediately blow a horn to alert the referee, who then blows his whistle to award the 5-meter penalty.


  1. FINA exclusion fouls for infractions outside the penalty box will remain in affect under WP5’s rules. They include:
    a. Pulling back from behind on a player who has achieved a position of advantage.
    b. Interfering with a free pass. The defender may only hold up one arm to block the pass, but must back away after committing the foul so as to not interfere with the throwing motion of the passer.
    c. A force-full “hard” foul committed with the intent to break up an intended pass or shot on goal.
    d. Misconduct- Includes purposely kicking or striking an opponent and disrespect of the official.
    e. Upon the exclusion signal from the referee, the excluded player will swim to the re-entry area behind his own goal. Once his head appears inside the re-entry area, he or a substitute may IMMEDIATELY RETURN back into the field of play.
    f. Players are allowed two (2) exclusion (personal) fouls before being excluded from the game (with substitution).
    g. Exclusion fouls will NOT be recorded as “Team Fouls”.


Major fouls for acts of violence or obvious intent to do harm (brutality) are awarded the same penalties as present FINA Rules allow. Guidelines for issuing of yellow and red cards are the same as FINA rules.


  1. A player on defense must be guarding an attacking player, and must be in a defensive position of not more than ONE-METER away from the player that he is guarding. Defenders cannot drop back and simply guard water.
  2. A defensive player who is guarding a player without the ball may leave that player to double team a player with the ball. Goalkeepers may leave the goal area and double team an attacking player.
  3. Defensive players are allowed to switch between two attacking players, as long as they do not fall back into a zone position; but must take a direct path from one attacker to another.
  4. An infraction of the “no zone” rule results in a team foul outside the penalty box (PB), and a 5-meter penalty foul inside the penalty box (PB).
  5. Defenders may play a zone only when their team is a man-down from an exclusion; but must return to man-to-man defense when the teams become even.


By definition, contra-fouls are ordinary fouls that are called against the offensive team. It is during the attack, however, that the referee must insure that the contra-foul does not take away a player’s opportunity to score. Making body contact or gaining an advantage does not necessarily mean that the attacker has committed a foul to gain that advantage.

In these situations, the referee should try to promote the attack. Aggressive play (driving) by the attacking team must be encouraged, not penalized by the referee who assumes that the attacker gained an advantage by fouling.

Referees have to understand that the awarding of a contra-foul gives the benefit of a counterattack to the defending team. The defense should have to earn the counterattack man-up advantage, and not be rewarded by a contra-foul that has not been clearly committed by the attacker, or clearly observed by the referee.

With this interpretation in mind we must look at the two attacking situations where contra-fouls need to be defined:
1. Driving attack
a. The first move by the attacking player against a stationary defender must be an attempt to swim around to either side of the defender. INCIDENTAL contact between the players that does not include hold, sink, pull back or impede should be allowed. The referee should refrain from calling a foul on either player in this situation.
b. If the attacker drives forward and directly into the chest of the defender, and contact is made, the referee should call a contra-foul.
c. If the defender reaches out with his arm, or slides his body over to block or stop the forward movement of the attacker, the foul must be called against the defender.
d. The defender is allowed to turn and swim with the attacking player. A foul should not be called in this situation.
e. Inside the penalty box, this infraction against the defense should be a 5-meter penalty foul. Outside the penalty box, this infraction should be a team foul.

2. Screen attack
The attacking player who is providing the screen by blocking the path of the defender should be allowed to STOP and place any part of his body next to the defender (to make contact with him) without a contra foul being called. If the attacker faces the defender with his hands, then a contra-foul should be called against the attacker, whether he is holding or not.



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