How to become a stronger swimmer? (An introduction to water polo)

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May 16, 2011

How to become a stronger swimmer? (An introduction to water polo)

After Matthew shared his swimming suggestions with us, I thought it would be interesting if he'd also shed some light on the game of water polo for the Swimator Blog readers.

Even though swimming is a wonderful and healthy sport, there is no doubt about it that it can also be quite dull and boring. If you really think about it, going up and down the pool from wall to wall is a bit nuts. The best coaches know this, however, and try to motivate their swimmers and spice up swim practices with new swimming drills, or with the use of technique swim equipment (aka swimming toys), or have the team play an occasional game of water polo. When I was younger, we even had a water polo tournament within our swim team and the winning team would get a t-shirt. This definitely got us work far harder and beyond what we'd do in practice.
water polo players in action by arboc

Apart from getting swimmers out of the monotony of daily swim practices, water polo also serves as a great team building activity. Swimmers have to think as a team and play as a team in order to win. In swimming this is sometimes overlooked as the focus is mainly on individuals unless you are talking about US college and high school swimming. Water polo is also an awesome way to whip swimmers into shape. The sport is much more demanding on stamina and sprint power than swimming itself, so having a routinely scheduled water polo game in practice at the beginning of the season will get swimmers into shape quicker rather than only focusing on the usual off-season drylands. And finally, it is just plain fun to play water polo:).

This is a guest post by Matthew White from

Enter Matthew White:
Water Polo is a fast dynamic sport played by people around the world. It was actually one of the original events in the first modern Olympics. The simplistic idea of the game is to throw a ball, the same size as a football, but slightly heavier, into a small goal at opposite ends of the swimming pool. Usually, and at all high standard games, the pool is all deep which means players have to tread water at all times. Treading water coupled with the swimming aspect means that elite water polo players along with ice hockey players are generally regarded as some of the best all round athletes in the world. This is due to the sheer power, strength, endurance, as well as flexibility and swimming fitness needed during water polo. In fact, water polo professional players train sometimes even for 6 hours a day.

The teams

A Water Polo team consists of 6 outfield players and 1 goalkeeper in the pool and a further 6 people on the bench. In total, 13 players who can all go in and out of the game as many times as they want. The tactical set up is very similar to basketball. Five players form a virtual arc around the opposition team's goal and a power centre forward takes position in front of the goal (see image below). The beginning of a game starts with a race to the centre of the pool to retrieve the ball. So, the fastest sprinter always wins.

In many cases, the first aim in an attack is to win an exclusion, which means an opposition player is deemed to have fouled your player in a manner where they are excluded from the play for 20 seconds. Offences for exclusion include: any form of a foul on the centre forward (if they are near enough to the goal), head tackles, over aggressive tackles, pulling players back and dangerous play. However, the best way to force an exclusion is to play the ball to the centre forward.

When the one man up advantage is won (this would be called Power Play in ice hockey), the team will then operate a tactical move to work the opposition's players hard enough to score a goal. I must point out that this is far from the only way to score, but very important to know.

There are many ways to play a 'man up' advantage, but I would say the below drawing shows the standard player setup:

What is a foul?

Well, here in the UK we do often wonder, but usually if you are holding the ball your opponent can legally grab and push you and try to steal the ball. As soon as you let go of the ball, however, the opponent has to release you, if they do not, then it is a foul.

Why take up water polo?

As already discussed, apart from the obvious great health benefits in terms of endurance and stamina building, water polo can also serve as an outlet for swimmers. Let's put one myth to rest though. There is a common misconception, in the UK at least, that water polo ruins swimmers strokes, this just isn’t true, and I don’t know where it has come from. (Note from Swimator Blog: The misconception is probably rooted in the way a water polo player swims with the head out of the water which is not a proper swimming technique for swimmers) From my experience water polo keeps swimmers swimming; I certainly would have given up if not for the game.

There is a huge dropout rate in competitive swimming when the swimmers get to their late teens, and in the UK I think it is because coaches (and I’m generalising) take the sport very seriously even at local low level clubs. Young swimmers who will never make the Olympics, train 4 hours a day and are forced to think they have failed when they don’t make it. The irony here is that they are still great swimmers in comparison to majority of our planet's population. It is such a shame they give up. Between swimmers this is sometimes called 'burn out'. I think being a team game, water polo helps the players keep it up. We swim as a team and motivate each other, and ultimately we never give up the game or swimming and just try to have fun!

More about Matthew White: He is a water polo enthusiast who writes on behalf of The Sanctuary Spa who sell gift vouchers for swim, sauna and steam days.

From Swimator Blog: If you have never played water polo with your team, why not suggest to your coach to try a game. You just need a ball. Instead of the goals, you can use the swimming blocks or just standing kickboards. If you don't have a team, try mimicking some of the water polo player's moves, treading water for a few seconds, sprinting 10 meters, then treading water again and repeating it 5 times. You will be shocked how hard this game is. Being out of breath will never have the same meaning :). If you would rather stick to swimming, then learn to swim more efficiently in your next session.
Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.


Anonymous said...

5 Years later and I'm still playing water polo and swimming :)

All the best,
Matthew White

Swimator said...

Good for you :). Matthew.