With the resemblance of water polo to the basic mechanics of football, you’d likely know that much like football, water polo is a team sport. And the basic goal of team sports? Work together as a team to reach the goal! Water polo works in the same way, with roles assigned to each team member and counting on them to perform their job well along with the rest of the team. In this blog post, I’ll be discussing the basic water polo positions and how each role works in the play of the game.
In a regular game of water polo, each team has 7 players. 6 of them playing as fielders, and the other one playing the role of the goalkeeper. These 6 fielders have certain water polo positions designated to them during play, and they are numbered according to how they are placed. These roles are the center forward (or hole-set), the wings/passers, the drivers, and the point man. Let’s get to know them, shall we?
The goalkeeper is one of the most important, and not to mention, the most challenging roles in the game. They take the position right near the goal, which makes them responsible for keeping the goal in check and making sure that they prevent opponents from taking a point.
Aside from blocking shots, goalies are also in charge of communicating the defense strategy with their team when assuming a defensive stance. On the offensive side, the goalie becomes the “quarterback” as they are usually the ones who begin offensive plays, requiring them to be able to make long passes for counter-attacks.
Apart from these responsibilities, goalkeepers are given special privileges. Unlike all other players, they are the only ones in the game given permission to hold the ball with two hands, to stop a ball with clenched fists, and to touch the bottom of the pool. However, goalies are not allowed to push balls from underwater unlike fielders and are instead penalized when it’s done.
Having this much responsibility, goalkeepers must have the core and leg strength to remain in their position at the goal, while at the same time having the reflexes to lunge after shots and block them. Being given an important role both in the defensive and the offensive side of the pool, goalies must be assertive in formulating and communicating defensive strategies, while also having the skill of making long passes on offense.
Center-forward (aka Hole-set, Set, Setter, or Two Meter Specialist)
The center-forward, positioned closest to the opponent’s goal, is one of the most crucial players in the game, especially on the offensive side. Their objective is to anticipate a pass from the other players in order to take a close shot at the goal. Because of the center-forward’s positional advantage, they are usually heavily guarded by opposing members, exposing them to unavoidable physical plays.
Usually assigned to the strongest and smartest player in a team, the center-forward must have the endurance to be able to hold their position on the water all while being attentive to incoming passes and making quick in-shot goals. Apart from this, they must have a strong sense of the game as they are also the ones in charge of communicating strategies with the rest of the team.
The Perimeter Players
Outside the goalkeeper and the center-forward, the wings/passers, the flats/drivers, and the point man are regarded as the perimeter players. They are positioned around the goal in a “U” fashion, which is why the formation is sometimes called “the Umbrella.”
Wings or Passers
Positioned within the 2-meter zone at either side of the center-forward, they are the second closest players to the goal. Assigned next to the center-forward, they are usually responsible for passing the ball to them should an opening be available.
Flats or Drivers
Positioned within the 5-meter line, drivers share similar roles with the wings, passing the ball either in defense or offense. In charge of keeping the ball away or toward the goal, they’re one of the most involved players in the whole playthrough.
Positioned furthest from the goal, just behind the 5-meter line, the point man is given the positional advantage to pass and communicate with the team in offense. Sound familiar? Their role is quite similar to point guards in basketball.
To become an effective perimeter player, players must have strong knowledge of drives and ball picks as well as having the speed and upper body strength to shoot and pass the ball even under pressure. Not to mention, they must also be attentive to the offensive or defensive direction of the goalkeepers and the center-forwards.
Players capable of assuming the roles of all players be it in defense or offense are called Utility Players. With them having the overall knowledge for all water polo positions, utility players are often one of the powerful players in a team and are called off the bench when their skills are needed.
Offensive Water Polo Positions
In an offensive setup, the center-forward is the leading player that directs offensive attacks. Being the closest opponent to the goal, the center forward’s vantage point provides it the most opportunity to score shots. Next to the center-forward, the perimeter players play a crucial role in moving past the opponent’s defenses in order to score a point. To do this, perimeter players must be quick on the water with excellent hand-eye coordination.
When playing in offense, you’ll soon notice that players are designated at certain points in-game. Three of the most common offensive sets include the following:
- 3-3 Offensive Setup. One of the most common offensive setups, a 3-3 formation is where three players stand parallel to each other on the 2-meter line, and another three are set up just outside the 5-meter line. On the 2-meter line stands the center-forward and the two wings, while on the 5-meter line stands the point man and the two drivers.
- Arc or Umbrella Setup. The umbrella setup is named after how players are aligned. Resembling an umbrella, this setup is similar to the 3-3 formation, only this time, the point man stands a little outside the 5-meter line while the drivers stand within it. As a result, the formation would look like an arc that surrounds the center-forward.
- 4-2 Offensive Setup (aka Double set). As its title suggests, this setup involves four players aligned on the 2-meter line, while the remaining 2 players are positioned at the 5-meter line. It’s also called the double set because this setup involves two center-forwards positioned at the 2-meter line in front of the goal.
Defensive Water Polo Positions
On the opposite side, a defensive setup involves all 7 water polo positions, including the goalkeeper. Not much is different in terms of the fielders’ positions on the water, however, because in playing as defense, fielders stand next to their opponent’s fielders in an attempt to guard their moves. Naturally, when playing defense, the goal of the players is to keep the ball out of their opponent’s hands and prevent them from scoring a goal. With the usual defense setups, defenders are expected to stand guard against their offensive counterparts unless situations require them to do otherwise.
Similar to offensive setups, there are formations assumed by the defenders in-game to avoid the offensive side from scoring a goal. The most common sets are the following:
- Man to Man Defense. As its title suggests, this defensive formation positions a defender to guard their offensive counterparts. During the whole play, defenders stick close to the opposing team’s players to block their shots and prevent them from taking the ball.
In a defensive setup, a defender responsible for the opposing team’s center-forward is called a ‘Hole D,’ and their main responsibility is to prevent the center-forward from taking passes and making a goal. Because players are expected to guard their opponents, defensive players often have to use their strength to one-up their counterparts. This formation is not always set in stone, however, as some circumstances would require players to change positions according to what the situation requires.
- Zone Defense. On the other hand, zone defense is less high-pressure. As its title states, the zone defense assigns defenders to opponents within their zone instead of making them guard just one person during play. Working under the impression that the strongest player assumes the role of the center forward, leaving weaker players around the perimeters, perimeter defenders are not as dead-set to guard their offensive counterparts.
Instead, they *slough off these players from time to time in order to keep an eye on the bigger threat—the center forward—and help *crash when they’re needed.
*Slough – In water polo terms, a defender that “slough” or “slough off” means that they are leaving the counterpart that they’re supposed to guard in order to assist another teammate in defending.
*Crash – Meanwhile, “crash” is a term that is used to describe defensive perimeter players who decide to move towards the center-forward in an attempt to support the Hole D.
- M-drop Defense. Lastly, an M-drop defense is a type of combination between the man-to-man and zone defense where defending players are assigned to their counterpart players but sloughs off from time to time into a zone in order to defend against the center-forward.
This type of defense strategy is often used when the offensive side has strong players, which would require defenders to constantly keep their perimeter counterparts in check, all while moving to support the Hole D and defend against the center-forward. The M-drop defense is executed by letting one perimeter player *drop in front of the center-forward for support, while the wing defenders split their area as far away as possible from the goal.
From this execution, defenders make an M letter formation in the process, which is where the title is derived from. Apart from forcing opponents to take shots easily blocked by the goalie, this strategy also allows defenders to take a clear lane for counter-attacks.
*Drop – A “drop” in water polo is basically a crash that remains all throughout the game. Instead of swimming back and forth to play support, a player that “drops” stays on their spot in front of the center-forward after leaving their offensive counterpart.
Passing & Shooting
Knowing water polo positions and strategies is not enough. There are several in-game techniques that all water polo players must be able to get a hang of if they want to take the win.
With passing and shooting, well, it is pretty obvious. Since most of what you’ll be doing in water polo is trying to get a hold of the ball and making attempts to score a goal, learning how to pass and shoot effectively should be one of the skills you need to prioritize.
You’ll need to not only have the upper arm strength to throw the ball, but you’ll also need to have the accuracy to throw them in the right direction. Additionally, you’ll soon need to master other shooting techniques such as backhand shots and sweep shots for offensive plays.
Communication is key
Whether you’re on the offensive side or the defensive side of the pool, what makes a huge difference in the success of your team is how you communicate with them. Apart from your team’s physical skills, making sure that all team members understand their position and the strategy to go with should be honed as well.
For better identification and easier direction, water polo positions are numbered according to how they are usually positioned in the pool. I’ve included a little diagram below for reference. Players in colored in red with their numbers are on the offense, while players in blue are on the defense.