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Underwater Tactics for Water Polo

Above the surface, water polo requires ball-handling, swimming, and good communication between teammates. Underwater, it calls for an entirely different set of skills. Although technically illegal, many water polo players hold, grab, pull, or even occasionally hit the opposing team underwater in order to gain an advantage. Especially at advanced levels of play, this hidden game of aggressive grappling and wrestling goes on constantly below the surface.

Because the referees cannot always see what goes on under the water, it is important for every player to know how to employ and defend against these tactics. Read on for the most common underwater moves and how to approach them for both offense and defense.

Mental Edge

It is easy for underwater violence to escalate quickly. As players get more frustrated, they tend to retaliate with greater and greater aggression. Remain calm and focus on the ball and the game, not just the person you’re playing against.

The Grab-and-go

The grab-and-go is also often referred to as a “gross-and-go.” Offensive players use this underwater pull to compromise their defender's body position and get ahead of them on a drive. To perform a grab-and-go, reach across your body to grab your defender’s arm (right to right, left to left) around the wrist. While keeping your arms underwater, yank the defender behind you and use the momentum from the pull to get a head-start toward the goal. The grab-and-go works best on defenders whose hips are down, and who are already making contact with you underwater.

How to Prevent the Grab-and-go

The best way to avoid the grab-and-go while on defense is to play good defense. Defenders should keep their hips up and away from the player they are guarding, and keep their hands on top of the water. If it becomes necessary to maintain contact with a player, you should place one hand high on their shoulder and keep the other one out of reach.

Suit-grabbing

Suit-grabbing is a tactic used by both offensive and defensive players. Offensive players often grab a defensive player’s suit around the hips and use it to keep them low and hold them in place as they turn a defender. Defenders — especially the two-meter defender — use suit-grabbing to keep their players close and their hips down. This prevents them from running drives, getting up out of the water to receive a pass, or making a shot.

How to Prevent Suit-grabbing

It’s hard to avoid suit grabbing, but the main way to prevent it is to keep your hips up. This makes it hard for other player to get a hold your suit initially. Females may occasionally get their shoulder straps grabbed, but treading up and getting the referee’s attention should get a foul called.

The other option is, after the suit has been grabbed, to twist out of a suit hold. Spin away from the player who is holding you so that they are forced to release their grip, and then position yourself so that they can no longer easily latch on.

Wrist-holding

Wrist holds are used keep a player nearby and low to the water. It is important to be careful to break your grip quickly if the other player raises their hand out of the water. If a ref sees it they may call a foul or a turnover.

How to Prevent Wrist-holding

Both offensive and defensive players often grab the wrists of the player opposite them in an effort to keep them nearby and still. Even of the opposing player has a vise-like grip, breaking this hold is actually quite easy:

  1. Slide one of your hands under your other hand so that your thumb is below your wrist.
  2. Push up below your own wrist to break the other player's grip.
  3. Quickly grab the other player by their forearm, elbow, or upper arm and pull past them.

There is also the option to twist the hand around and break the grip where the wrists cross. Another way to break a grip is to cross an elbow over the other player’s forearm and press down. Lastly, try to get out of the water so the hold is clear to a referee. It is a good idea to practice twisting out of these holds so that the movements become automatic.

Kicking

It’s easy to disguise a targeted kick as part of an eggbeater kick, drive, or counterattack. Kicking is often used by players counterattacking on offense to discourage defenders from swimming too closely. Kicking out is also used in pressure-passing situations to keep defenders from getting too close.

In order to use your legs to keep a defender at bay, pull them in close your torso. Next, push your knees out toward your defender to create a barrier. Lay back in the water to create even more space between the defender if you need to protect the ball.

How to Prevent Kicking

There’s not much that can be done to prevent getting kicked in a game of water polo (honestly, it’s just part of the game). You can do your best to avoid kicking by giving players — especially ones known for violence — a little bit of extra space. Don’t stay so far from them that they’re completely open, but do maintain a foot or two of space to take away their ability to lash out with their legs.

Brutality

Note that although a certain amount of underwater play is to be expected, excessive violence should be reported to your team captain, coach, or the referees. In the cases of punching, excessive scratching, bone-breaking (usually fingers or ribs), or drawing blood, the situation has become unsafe and the officials need to be alerted.

Don’t allow a violent player to go unnoticed, and don’t retaliate in kind. In these extreme cases, the player should be ejected from the game. The best way to avoid violence is to play as cleanly as possible. This will showcase your water polo skills as well as your good sportsmanship.

Use It, Don’t Abuse It

Water polo is a contact sport and these below-the-surface maneuvers are simply a part of the game. Bruises and scratches are inevitable. It is fine to use an underwater move from time to time, but using them to injure another player or to cause unnecessary frustration is poor form. Knowing how to both use and defend against these moves will take your water polo game to a whole new level.

Water polo is famous for what goes on below the surface of the water. This guide includes the most common holds, grabs, and maneuvers, as well as how to avoid them.
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