Water polo has a reputation as one of the toughest, most physically demanding team sports in the world. It is a game that combines the tactical elements and the physicality of such diverse sports as swimming, soccer, basketball, ice hockey, and rugby. The object of water polo is to throw a ball into a net defended by a goal keeper and six teammates who use physical means to hinder the offensive team's attack. The ball is advanced using passing plays and other offensive tactics. All of this takes place in water that is 6 ft (1.8 m) deep. Players move in the water at all times and are without swimming aids.
Water polo was born as an aquatic version of rugby in England in the 1870s. The early versions of the game were brutal contests that permitted almost any tactic in the stopping of an opponent, including blows, kicks, and grappling maneuvers. Eventually, water polo evolved to a greater emphasis being placed on the swimming abilities of the players; speed and passing ability gained a corresponding importance in the game. Water polo has the distinction of being the first team sport included in the Olympic Games, played for the first time in 1900 as a men's sport; women's water polo was added to the Olympics in 2000.
The Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) is the international body responsible for the governance of water polo and sponsors a popular World Water Polo League, where national water polo teams compete for an annual championship. In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has sanctioned a water polo championship since 1969, an event historically dominated by Californian universities.
Water polo is played in an pool that is generally between 66 ft and 100 ft (20-30 m) long, and 33 ft to 66 ft (10 m to 20 m) wide. In international play, the pool must be at least 6 ft (1.8 m) deep. There are six players per side plus a goalkeeper, who defends a net that is 10 ft (3 m) wide and 3 ft (90 cm) high.
The water polo ball has the approximate dimensions of a soccer ball; it may only be carried in, or thrown with, one hand by the players. Within the 5 m line (16 ft) of the goal, the goalkeeper may play the ball with two hands. The goalkeeper may also use a fist to strike the ball. The other players may move with the ball pushing ahead of them in the water, an action described as "dribbling" the ball. The ball may be passed between the players using one hand on the throw and the catch.
To succeed in water polo, the player must have a number of physical skills, the most important of which is strong swimming ability. The player must be able to tread water using their legs only, to maintain a consistent body position above the water, for minutes at a time. The player must also have extremely well developed hand eye coordination, in order to both follow and handle the ball from a variety of angles and positions.
The offensive tactics employed in water polo require precise perimeter passing and accurate shooting. The "point" is the player with the most offensive responsibility, this player functions much like a point guard directing a basketball offence. The point distributes the ball to teammates, seeking to create advantageous angles in which a shot may be delivered. Shots in water polo may be a power shot, where the player delivers the ball with maximum velocity towards the goal, or as a skip shot, where the ball is fired to create a deflection off the water near the goal, making the ball difficult to handle for the goalkeeper.
The defensive tactics used in water polo are at the heart of its deserved reputation as a rugged, physical sport. There is virtually continuous body contact as the ball is played, much of it occurring below the surface of the water. A minor foul will result in possession of the ball to the opposing team. A major foul, such as holding or "sinking" an opponent, will result in a 20-second penalty, where the player must leave the play and remain at the side of the pool, in a fashion similar to an ice hockey infraction. If a penalty is committed against an offensive player within the 5 m area of the goal, the offensive player will be awarded a penalty shot.
The nature of water polo requires a comprehensive off season physical training regime. In an Olympic level game, composed of four 8 minute quarters, a water polo player will swim as far as 3 mi (4 km to 5 km). Elite players will usually divide their fitness programs between aerobic training, anaerobic training, and weight workouts, with stretching and flexibility training incorporated into each division. A useful training technique designed to build the player's ability to tread water for extended periods is to hold a weight over the players head while they tread water for minutes at a time.