Can you dunk players in water polo?

Can You Dunk Players in Water Polo?

Water polo is an exciting sport that combines the skills of swimming, throwing, and teamwork. Two teams of seven players each try to score goals by throwing the ball into the opponent’s net. It’s a fast-paced game with lots of splashing as players swim after the ball and each other. But can players be dunked or held underwater in water polo? Let’s take a look at the rules.

The Basics of Water Polo

Water polo is played in a pool that is at least 6 feet (2 meters) deep. Each team has seven players in the water at a time, including a goalkeeper. Players wear swimsuits and caps, and may wear protective gear like earplugs. The game has four 8-minute quarters, with a short break in between. Teams switch sides halfway through the game.

The ball is made of waterproof material that floats on the surface. Players pass and shoot the ball using one hand or two. They can catch it with one or two hands. Other than the goalkeeper, players are not allowed to touch the ball with closed fists.

Players advance the ball by swimming while holding it, or passing to teammates. The objective is to throw the ball into the opponent’s goal net to score. Teams try to defend their goal while attempting to score on the other end. It’s a fast-paced game requiring endurance, as players are constantly swimming during play.

Rules About Dunking and Holding in Water Polo

So can you dunk or hold players underwater in water polo? The short answer is no. The rules prohibit holding, sinking, pulling back, or pushing opponents who don’t have the ball. Players also cannot splash water in opponents’ faces. Any of these fouls will result in a free throw or penalty shot for the opposing team.

Here are some specifics on the water polo rules about holding and dunking:

  • Players cannot hold or sink an opponent who doesn’t have possession of the ball. This includes dunking them under the water.
  • Players cannot pull back or hold onto opponents who are not holding the ball. This helps prevent injuries.
  • Marking, or defending, opponents is allowed. But players cannot push or hold the opponent, only stand in their way.
  • Splashing water into an opponent’s face is not permitted, even if done accidentally.

These rules against holding, sinking, and splashing aim to keep water polo safe and fair. Excessive physical play like dunking could cause injuries or alter the outcome unfairly. The referees watch closely for holding and sinking infractions, and will call fouls when they occur.

What Happens If a Player Holds or Dunks an Opponent

Given the rules prohibiting holding and dunking opponents, what happens when a player breaks the rules? There are a few possible consequences if a water polo player illegally holds, sinks, or dunks an opponent:

  • The referee will blow the whistle, stopping play immediately.
  • The offending player’s team has to give up possession of the ball.
  • The fouled player’s team gets a free throw or penalty shot from the location of the foul.
  • If the foul is deemed serious, the offending player may be excluded from the remainder of the game.
  • The referee has discretion to award additional penalty throws if the foul prevented a likely goal.

In other words, illegally holding, sinking, or dunking an opponent will result in a turnover and likely give the other team a free scoring chance. So players have a big incentive to avoid these types of fouls!

Major Fouls vs. Ordinary Fouls

Referees categorize illegal grabbing, pulling, sinking, and splashing as either ordinary fouls or major fouls. What’s the difference between the two?

  • Ordinary fouls – Minimally illegal grabbing, holding, and splashing are deemed ordinary fouls. The opponent gets a free throw but no other penalty.
  • Major fouls – Dangerous offenses like dunking, excessive holding, and pulling back are major fouls. The offending player may be excluded and the other team gets a penalty shot.

The referee decides whether an illegal hold or sink is an ordinary versus major foul based on factors like:

  • How aggressive and intentional the illegal hold seemed
  • If it prevented a likely goal scoring opportunity
  • If it risked injury to the fouled player
  • How much it impacted continued play

Major fouls get tougher penalties since they have a bigger influence on the game and put players at greater risk for injury. Dunking and aggressively holding someone underwater will almost always draw a major foul.

What Tactics Are Legal in Water Polo?

Given all the rules about what you can’t do, what aggressive defensive moves are actually legal in water polo? Here are some tactics players can use to thwart opponents, within the rules:

  • Stealing – Players can reach in and steal the ball from an opponent who has possession.
  • Blocking passes – Defensive players may position themselves in passing lanes to intercept throws.
  • Marking – Closely defending or blocking an opponent’s progress, without illegal holding.
  • Double teaming – Two defenders can team up to pressure the ball carrier.

Good defenders know how to strategically steal, intercept, mark, and double team to prevent scoring, without committing fouls. This makes water polo exciting for players and fans alike!

Key Rules That Prohibit Dunking and Holding

Let’s summarize some of the main water polo rules that forbid players from dunking, holding, and sinking opponents:

  • Players cannot hold, sink or pull back an opponent who doesn’t have the ball.
  • Holding or sinking a player without the ball will result in a turnover and likely a free throw or penalty shot.
  • Splashing water in an opponent’s face is illegal, even accidentally.
  • Marking or guarding opponents is allowed, but no pushing, holding, or sinking.
  • Dangerous dunking or holding will draw a major foul and can warrant ejection.

Referees watch vigilantly for illegal holding that could harm players or impact the game. While water polo is a rough, contact sport, certain moves like dunking cross the line and are strictly prohibited.

Famous Water Polo Dunking Incidents

Most water polo games proceed safely without any outrageous holding or dunking. But every so often, a player loses their cool and breaks the rules. Here are some notorious water polo dunking incidents from past competitions:

2000 Sydney Olympics – Russia vs. USA

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Russian and American men’s teams got into a scuffle that turned ugly. Russian player Alexander Mourikov repeatedly tried to dunk American Chris Von Saltza underwater, grabbing his trunks and pulling him down forcefully. The referee called multiple fouls to no avail. Finally, the referee showed Mourikov a red card, ejecting him from the game.

2013 Junior Olympics – SoCal vs. Diablo

In a heated men’s water polo match at the 2013 Junior Olympics, two California teams squared off. A player from SoCal illegally dunked an opponent from Diablo Water Polo underwater. The referee immediately called a major foul, but angry parents stormed onto the pool deck in protest. After 10 minutes of confusion, order was restored and Diablo was awarded a penalty shot.

2015 FINA World Championships – Canada vs. Greece

At the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, the Canadian and Greek women’s teams got into an altercation. A Greek player held a Canadian’s head underwater for an extended period, nearly drowning her. Once freed, the Canadian emerged coughing and in tears. The referee called a major foul and ejected the Greek player from the match.

These notorious incidents remind us that even elite players can sometimes lose control. Thankfully, most water polo games are safely refereed to penalize dangerous play like dunking before injuries occur.

Safety Tips to Prevent Dunking

For water polo players and officials, what are some best practices that help prevent dunking and holding fouls during games?

  • Referees should vigilantly monitor grabbing, holding, and sinking, calling fouls promptly. This discourages excessive physicality.
  • Players must keep their cool, avoiding retaliation after fouls are called. Let the referee levy penalties.
  • Lifeguards and officials on pool decks should watch for scuffles and be prepared to intervene.
  • Coaches should set expectations for clean play and leading by example.
  • Review game tapes later to identify any concerning behaviors that need addressing.

By empowering referees, promoting clean play, and reviewing incidents after the fact, water polo organizers can uphold safety standards. With proper oversight, the risk of dunking injuries can be minimized.


Dunking and holding opponents underwater is clearly prohibited in water polo. The rules explicitly forbid sinking or pulling back players who don’t have the ball. Dangerous dunking will draw major fouls, penalty shots, and possible ejection. While water polo is a rugged, full-contact sport, certain aggressive actions cross the line and won’t be tolerated. With strong officiating and safe play, games can be thrilling for players and fans alike, without undue risk of harm.

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