By Connor Predmore
In the time I’ve spent playing and coaching Water Polo, ‘Beach Polo’ was never much more than a fun game to play at the pool on the occasional low-key summer practice. However, there have been several major governing bodies and officials in recent years, across both domestic and international communities, which have made concerted efforts to change this. These efforts have been specifically geared towards the implementation of Beach Water Polo as a separate division of the regular sport of Water Polo. The idea is to institute a relationship similar to the coexistence of Volleyball and Beach volleyball: though they are technically the same sport and the game operates on identical fundamentals, there are two different rule sets which share some spiritual common ground. Most importantly, though, Beach Volleyball and regular Volleyball are treated with equal amounts of respect and seriousness.
It is important to note that Beach Water Polo has already been recognized as a different sport, hence my stress on the merits of a more concrete implementation. FINA drew up a separate rule book for ‘Beach’ water polo, and it was adopted by USAWP in 2017. The new guidelines gave coaches and referees common ground upon which to host and run ‘Beach’ tournaments in the future; a decision which turned out to be quite forward-thinking. ‘Beach’, until that point, had generally been run by every team or region a bit differently, somewhat akin to ‘house-rules’ in a card or board game, or ‘street rules’ for pick-up basketball. While the many unique rule sets and different gameplay modifiers were certainly fun to experiment with, it made running an event difficult, inconsistent and unfair. By giving everyone some common water to float in, it turned out that FINA and by proxy USAWP made a very intelligent decision by choosing to adopt this new rule book.
Given the date of the aforementioned decision to officially adopt an enforceable rule set, it is unsurprising that I had not personally heard of a ‘Beach’ tournament until a few years ago. There had always been Splashball events for younger kids which certainly varied in their application of standard rules, but never had there been such a dramatic departure for age-group athletes and those that were older.
The first tournament I heard of in my region was in 2019 down in the Tampa, Fl area. Coach Zacchary Kappos of Tampa Bay Water Polo Club and Next Level Water Polo decided to host an Opens’ Beach Water Polo tournament, drawing in collegiate and high school players from around the entire Southeast region. As of spring 2020, the now annual tournament has been a huge success for him and his team, at least in part due to how he has chosen to run it. Teams enter with up to 7 players and play in brackets for a winner’s purse. As a sanctioned event, competing athletes are USAWP members and games are appropriately officiated. Players who want to compete, but may not have a full team roster, are offered the opportunity to enter as individuals. Those players are then put into a team either with others in the same boat or into a team that needs an extra person. This ‘individual-entry’ system breaks down many of the barriers an athlete may have, making the game much more accessible.
Honestly, I had never considered that ‘Beach’ Polo could become much more than a fun drill to kill a beautiful practice day with. Despite my initial misgivings, further consideration and clearly successful examples helped me isolate several reasons why implementing ‘Beach Polo’ as an entirely different sport might help increase the number of people playing and watching all types of Water Polo.
1. ‘Beach Polo’ is much less complex, and a great tool to attract new players
If you go into your local gym to play Basketball as a non-Basketball player, chances are you won’t play a full court, 5 on 5 game right out of the gate. It is objectively true that any team sports gets exponentially more complicated when the player-count increases. If you can imagine the difficulty a non-Basketball player would have if they were suddenly dropped in a fully-fledged game complete with referees and a scoreboard, you can say for certain a brand new Water Polo player may feel at least just as lost.
Any sport is difficult to learn from scratch, but this is especially true for Water Polo. Even someone that has never played basketball will still know how to run, stand still, and at least be able to see what is going on in its entirety. A new Water Polo player must first learn how to swim and be extremely comfortable in the water to even remain afloat. In order to simply see what is happening, they must then learn how to stay high above the water’s surface by egg-beating effectively; a difficult skill to pick up even for some very experienced swimmers. It will then slowly become apparent to that new player that one can only ever see an entire HALF of what is going on in a game: either above or below the water’s surface. The sum of these challenges is a rather daunting barrier to entry to even begin learning the sport. This is a big part of the reason why so many Water Polo players start as swimmers. To expect an individual that is still learning any of those skills to also begin to comprehend the intricacies of a front-court offense, or power play transition is unrealistic.
I wanted to explain this difficulty not to diminish the skill required to play another other sport like Basketball, but to illustrate just how large the learning curve is for taking up Water Polo. With ‘Beach’, the complexity is cut in half. There are fewer players, fewer calls, and a lot less going on in the water at once. This makes for a much less intimidating first impression for a new player. However, that does NOT mean ‘Beach’ takes away from the required level of athleticism and skill to be proficient in the water. ‘Beach’ should not be seen as “Water Polo-Lite”. As a matter of fact, ‘Beach’ highlights individual fundamentals even more so than the original sport, at the expense of deemphasizing more nuanced team-coordination. Beach allows less room for an individual’s error because there is less time, space and fewer teammates to pick up the slack.
2. Games are shorter and easier to manage
As per the rules, each game consists of two halves of 10 minutes a 5 min halftime break. This means a regulation ‘Beach’ game usually takes around half the time as a normal Water Polo game. Given how it’s played, there are also far fewer stoppages. There is no reset period after a goal is scored, and therefore no ‘dead-time’ in the water; much like how Basketball is played in the NBA. This translates to a higher volume of matches in the same timeframe as a normal Water Polo tournament. While this fact may seem trivial, it affords the ability to have double the amount of brackets or to give a team double the amount of games than a normal tournament would otherwise allow for. When a team would normally play 3-4 games in a weekend, in a ‘Beach’ tournament a 7-player team would play 4-6 games.
The game-management aspect of the job is a big part of the reason why coaching any team sport is so difficult. Paying close attention to timeouts, clocks, the situation in the water and the players on the bench all at once is very difficult to do properly. Cutting all of those concerns in half by volume does make doing that job much easier. ‘Beach’ focuses much more intensely on players’ individual skill sets and physicality. Where normally a coach may have to worry about utilizing an important timeout or making a key substitution at a particular point in a game, those concerns lose relevance in this context. There is simply less big-picture strategy involved, so the ability a coach would normally have to influence an in-progress game is dramatically reduced. ‘Beach’ also reduces the required general output of a head coach and their staff for any one particular game. At the club level especially, this makes it more practical for those coaches to effectively divide their attention at tournaments between multiple teams of varying age groups and sexes.
3. It can be much more viewer-friendly
If we can establish that an important component to making Water Polo bigger is increasing people’s viewership, ‘Beach Polo’ has a lot to offer. For someone who is unfamiliar with Water Polo, watching a game, as its stands today, is difficult at best. Games are usually at least an hour long and are rarely broadcast with high-quality video. To get someone to deal with that while they also try to learn a completely alien system of rules, without context, is a hard ask. Of course, this does not even take into account the fact that there is no way a particularly new viewer will know who the players in the water are. So, there really is no personal investment on the part of the viewer to begin with.
‘Beach’ has answers to all of these issues. As has been established already, games are much shorter and therefore much more digestible to an initially only mildly-intrigued viewer. They are generally higher-scoring and more offense-heavy in nature, which also means that scoreboards fluctuate much more frequently. This quick-scoring characteristic is similar to Tennis and Basketball in the sense that once the ball is put in play, all eyes are completely focused on the game because a point could happen at any second. Even to me, someone who has never played either sport a day in my life, the back-and-forth ‘someone-could-score-at-any-second’ allure of a tennis match or basketball game is enough to get me to watch a match if I see one in passing.
The simplicity of the game compared to normal water polo, and most other team sports, means an unfamiliar viewer would feel much less excluded from the standpoint of game knowledge or ‘Water Polo -IQ’. While a popular sport like Football may have an extremely complicated set of rules for which special slow motion cameras are relied upon to enforce, many people still watch because they are cheering for a team, coach or a particular athlete. ‘Beach’ would operate much more like MMA.
The UFC has been able to host several of the single highest grossing sporting events in history. This is certainly not because most people know literally anything about Wrestling or Muay Thai. The UFC recognized that people watch sports to see skill and athleticism. They put the focus of a fight entirely on the athletes and perhaps even more importantly made the rules of MMA very simple and easy to communicate. The UFC has been able to attract literally hundreds of millions of people to watch a main event that often lasts no more than 10 minutes. The success of the UFC and MMA is a particularly interesting journey to examine. It has exploded in popularity in the past 20 years from near absolute obscurity; a status that domestic Water Polo at this time, frankly, only barely escapes. It would behoove the sport to take a few pages out of the UFC’s playbook.
Accessibility is key when it comes to expanding the sport of Water Polo. Even for areas of the country with plenty of pool space, starting a club and getting athletes to give it a try is a difficult process made even more difficult if the reliance for players is focused almost exclusively on ex-swimmers. I believe Beach Water Polo is the key to getting our sport “out there”. Beach does not require expensive timing equipment or several expert referees to play. It’s a pick-up version of the sport that can be played anywhere there is water. Imagine going to the beach and just as there is usually a public-use Volleyball net, there would also be a Beach Water Polo course. If not, then perhaps people would bring their own equipment and set it up just off-shore. Playing this version of pick up Water Polo out in the open where anyone can see is already a step in the right direction. Think how common it is to see people playing Soccer or Football in any open field. As of now, no one is going to see Water Polo in their daily lives; it is restricted to pool decks, away from public eyes. Though any version of Water Polo will almost certainly be trained for in the pool, that doesn’t mean it can’t be played elsewhere.
Those of us already in love with Water Polo know how much it has to offer. The combination of teamwork, mental toughness and athletic ability required to play the sport is truly unique. The best way to spread the sport is to make Water Polo as accessible to as many people as possible and I believe Beach Water Polo is the best way to accomplish this.