If you can picture a soccer game happening in a swimming pool, you have an idea of what a water polo team does. Players must be able to tread water and swim, handle a ball, work as a team, and defend a goal—plenty of challenges even for a hard-working, well-trained athlete!
The basics: A water polo team consists of six players plus a goalie, who defends a floating goal (3 meters wide and made of netting) secured at one end of the playing area. The opposing team's goal is positioned 20 to 30 meters away. Players may only grasp the ball with one hand at a time, and it can't be fully submerged during play. Players may not touch the walls or floor of the pool, or its rope boundaries, with their hands or feet. Play lasts for 28 minutes (four seven-minute quarters).
Age kids can start: Kids as young as 5 can take classes to learn water polo skills (these are often called "Splashball" programs).
Skills needed/used: Swimming, strength, teamwork, hand-eye coordination.
Best for kids who are: Strong swimmers with good ball-handling skills.
Season/when played: Year-round, as long as a swimming pool is available; high school and club tournament scheduled vary by region. Water polo is a summer Olympic sport.
Team or individual? Team, usually single-sex once athletes are playing competitively. Beginners may play on co-ed teams.
Levels: Clubs may organize informal, developmental teams for kids about 8 years old and up. Competitive play begins with 12-and-under and 14-and-under teams and continues through high school, college, and masters levels. The most elite players compete in national and Olympic teams.
Appropriate for kids with special needs: Adaptive swimming classes and programs are prevalent, but it's difficult to find water polo programs designed for children with special needs. If your child is interested, talk to clubs, therapists, coaches or other parents in your area to see if you can form a class or team. Or consider whether a Splashball program would work for your child.
Fitness factor: High. An adult or teen weighing 150 pounds can burn almost 700 calories per hour playing water polo. Players use strong core and leg muscles to stay upright in the water using an "eggbeater-style" of treading water. They use their upper bodies to catch and throw the ball. Like basketball, there are bursts of activity when a player has the ball. But like soccer or hockey, players must remain in almost constant motion even when they don't have control of the ball.
Equipment: Swimsuit and protective headgear; accessories such as flip-flops and team gear (t-shirts, warm-up suits).
Costs: A short series of lessons will cost about $50. Club and team fees start at about $150 per season and rise from there, to $500 or more for travel teams. Registration fees for tournaments, plus travel costs, are extra. Many clubs require parents to volunteer their time at tournaments or other club events or else pay an additional fee.
Time commitment required: Beginners usually meet once a week for an hour. Older kids and those on more competitive teams may practice a few times a week and have games about once a week. Clubs often have their practice schedule posted online so you'll know what's required in advance.
Potential for injury: Medium. Drowning is always a risk anytime a child is in the water. Reputable coaches, teams, and facilities will have rigorous safety procedures in place. As with any sport, overuse injuries, sprains and strains (in this case, often to the shoulders) are possible, as are acute injuries like dislocations. You can get a tip sheet on preventing water polo injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
How to find water polo clubs, and teams:
- USA Water Polo club finder
- YMCA of the USA (first look for a Y near you, then check if your local Y offers water polo)
Associations and governing bodies: