Water Polo Offense

The Set Up

During a water polo match, all players (with the exception of the goalie) play both offense and defense. This guide explains each position and what that position does in a typical water polo offense. The most typical offense is known as a “set offense,” called such because it revolves around the player in front of the goal known as the “hole set,” the “set,” or the “hole.” Because this player has the most desirable shooting and passing position, they are also often the most heavily guarded.

The Positions

The six field players consist of a hole set, two wings, two flats, and a point. Each position is numbered, starting with the left wing (position one) and moving counterclockwise around the “umbrella” of players to end at the right wing (position five). Although technically position six the hole set is rarely called by its number. The position names, numbers, and where they set up during offense are explained below:

  • Position one: This player stays on or near the two-meter mark lined up with the left post. This position is also known as a “wing.”
  • Position two: This player stays on or near the five-meter mark lined up with the left post. This position is also known as a “flat.”
  • Position three: This player remains centered in front of the goal but past the five-meter mark. They are referred to as the “point.”
  • Position four: This player stays on or near the five-meter mark lined up with the right post. This position is also known as a “flat.”
  • Position five: This player stays on or near the two-meter mark lined up with the right post. This position is also known as a “wing.”
  • Position six: This player remains centered in front of the goal, on or near the two-meter mark. They are referred to as the “hole set.”


Where Should I Look?

It may seem obvious to always concentrate on the ball during the game, but in water polo there are usually lots of things going on simultaneously. Referees need to monitor every player, whether they have the ball or not. Learning to look at the entire field makes many calls easier to understand.

What Are Those Red and Yellow Markers?

The Red marker indicates the 2-Meter line: The two-meter line is two meters from the front of the goal. Defensive players and offensive players with the ball can move into this stretch between the ball and the two-meter mark freely. Players on offense without possession of the ball cannot go inside the two-meter line. If they do, they will be called for a foul, which will result in a turn over.
The Yellow marker indicates the 5-Meter line: The five-meter line is five meters from the front of the goal. Players on offense who are fouled on or outside of the five-meter line can immediately shoot instead of making a pass. If they do decide to shoot, it must be the first motion they make with the ball after the foul is called. That means no pump fakes and no waiting with the ball in the air for several seconds.

Whistle Breakdown & The Guys In White

Referee Calls and Whistles

Water polo referees communicate mainly through whistle blasts and arm signals. The number of whistle blasts from a referee, the direction of their arms, and the numbers they convey to the desk all mean something different. There are a few calls that are repeated many times over the course of one water polo game, the most common of which are explained below.
Officiating a water polo match can be very trying, as a referee is responsible for handling multiple duties at the same time:

  • Keeping track of what goes on underwater.
  • Constantly monitoring player actions.
  • Watching the rapid movement of the ball.
  • Handling/ignoring comments from the coaches, players, and spectators on deck. 

They’re also often criticized for making unfair or incorrect calls during the game (as most sports officials are). However, their role is undeniably important: Without their supervision, the game would quickly deteriorate into a free-for-all of wrestling, grabbing, and yelling. Learning the basic referee calls below will lead to a better understanding of water polo, and a greater appreciation for the job of the referee.


Fouls are a minor offense committed by one player. They result in a free throw for the opposing team, who has a few seconds in which to make a pass before their defender can guard them again. A foul call is announced with one whistle blast. The referee will point at the location of the foul with one hand, and toward the goal of the team who received the foul with the other hand.


An exclusion or “ejection” call is made for a more major offense, such as swimming over another players’ back, or holding them intentionally. In this case, the offending player is ejected from the field of play for 20 seconds. Exclusion calls are made with three short whistle blasts. The referee will then point to the player who committed the foul and then to the boundary of the pool or the ejection corner. Directly after that the referee will show the cap number of the player with their fingers for the desk and the field players.


The most common offensive fouls are holding, head-butting, and elbowing. Because it is rare for a foul to be called on an offensive player, the referee illustrates this by also forming the hands into fists (holding), jerking the head once (head-butting), or swinging an elbow back (elbowing). Offensive player fouls are rare since most fouls are the result of a defensive player going after an offensive player who has the ball.