Dipping A Toe In Water Polo For The First Time? Here's A Handy Guide

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Proof the sport used to be pretty weird: a game of water polo, circa 1880. Although the barrels and mallets of the sport's early versions look quite unlike what's played today, note that even then there was one thing missing: actual horses.

At some point, possibly when wandering the remote landscape of NBC's outer channels, you will stumble upon that elusive Olympic creature: water polo.

Do not be alarmed.

It's a sport, not an exotic predator. And no matter how strange it may appear to the novice, with its dome-eared caps, neon ball and whistle-happy refs, water polo is not chaos in a pool; it has rules.

That's where this article comes in. Consider it a handy guide for those new to the game to make sense of what may seem to be inscrutable splashing. You owe it at least to the American women, who have their sights on a second consecutive gold, to have some sense of just what it is, exactly, that they're favored to win.

And you owe it to every water polo player and fan, worldwide, to refrain from making a joke about horses. Let's call that Rule No. 1.

There are no horses in water polo

There have never been horses in water polo — not even back in the weird old days of the sport's infancy, in the 19th century, when players rode barrels painted like horses and whacked at a ball with mallets. Yes, this happened. The Library of Congress has pictures.

Thankfully, people came to their senses pretty quickly. The game as it's played today, sans barrels and mallets, came of age first in Great Britain and migrated to the rest of Europe. By 1900, water polo had gotten so popular it was added to the Olympic catalog in Paris, among the first crop of team sports to be given that honor. And, with the exception of the 1904 games, water polo has kept its place in the Olympics ever since — eventually adding women's teams to the bill at the 2000 Games.

But you were promised rules, not history.

So, here are a few more

When playing at even strength, each team fields six players at a time, plus a goalie. Though the goal of the game is to, well, score goals — more, at least, than the other team by the end of four quarters.

And, while they're at it, they've got to do it one-handed. Passing, shooting, even flailing haplessly — if it involves a ball, each player but the goalie must do it with just one hand or risk a referee-mandated turnover.

In terms of playing style and strategy, the sport is something of a watery cross between soccer and basketball. It borrows the oversize rectangular goals of the soccer pitch, though in water poloese, they're often called cages. But once an offense has settled into its attack on either side, its strategy comes to resemble that of a basketball team: Before the shot clock runs out, try to get the ball to the big man (or woman) set up front and center in front of the opposing goal, and in the meantime, keep moving on the perimeter.

The defenders, for their part, do their best to keep that big guy (a hole set) covered, while also smothering the outside guys (drivers) or at least getting a hand up to block their view.

There is no standing in water polo

Players compete without the assistance of even a single sorry toe touching solid ground. Instead, they get their knees up, ankles out and legs circling in a treading motion called eggbeater. Think here of a kind of breaststroke kick, except with each leg working in alternation rather than both at once.

Want to lift yourself higher, grapple with your opponent, or just keep breathing oxygen? Better get those knees up and treading faster, friend.

But then, you likely know this already from Olympic coverage. What may be a tad less clear is why, exactly. Sure, standing is illegal for field players, and sure, most pools, especially those used for Olympic play, are too deep for any but the mythical giants among us to stand in easily. But that's not really all there is to it. Even if you could stand — if, say, were playing in a 4-foot pool, or if your name were Hagrid — you probably still wouldn't want to.

That's because of a fun physics principle called leverage, finely translated into aquatics.

The closer your hips are to the surface, the more strength you'll be able to apply in pushing your opponents around or getting the jump on them when it's time to move. That's not to mention that, when your hips are closer to the surface, they're also farther from the wayward kicks and kidney jabs (and worse, believe me) that your opponents would like to toss your way underwater, where the refs can't see.

As soon as you plant your feet on the bottom, you drop your hips with them, leaving you upright, as flimsy as a straw in the wind — and far likelier to get another kind of wind knocked out of you.

But hey, you say, wouldn't such unsportsmanlike kicks get penalized? Funny you should ask.

Penalties work a bit curiously in water polo

Amid the churn and turmoil of a typical water polo game, it can be tough for even discerning eyes to tell exactly what's going on from the pool deck. Perhaps that's why penalties aren't really about what the penalized player did wrong, as in most other sports. Rather, they're more about what the player who drew the penalty did right.

True, you aren't supposed to be kicking someone beneath the water, yanking a person back by the Speedo, or even just getting too aggressive in reaching for a steal. And if you do those things sloppily enough for a ref to notice, that ref will call a foul or kick you out of play for a 20-second penalty.

But more often than not, that foul or kickout came because the other player was doing something a bit slippery himself. These little moments can range from the petty (a hint of soccer-like flopping) to the truly impressive — like maneuvering an opponent into an awkward position, then holding him there, where it looks for all the world as if he's the one doing the holding.

That's not to say I'm encouraging any illegal behavior, of course. It's only to say that when watching water polo, it's best to remember this truism: All is not quite as it seems.

NPR producer Colin Dwyer played water polo in college.

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