Water polo is often left out of discussions for the most difficult sport to play because it doesn't have the mainstream appeal like boxing or football. Yet, water polo was the first team sport introduced at the modern Olympic games in 1900. Believe it or not, water polo was actually more ruthless then as it resembled underwater football. You could take the ball underwater, and most of the game consisted of people wrestling and fighting underwater. Early play allowed brute strength, wrestling and holding opposing players underwater to recover the ball. Players were held underwater for lengthy periods of time and usually surrendered possession of the ball to come up for air. The goalie stood on the pool deck outside the playing area and defended the goal by jumping in on any opponent attempting to score by placing the ball on the deck. While the game has evolved immensely, it still has some of the barbaric roots of the original game.
Today, you can’t bring the ball underwater (to an extent), but there is still a lot of kicking, punching, wrestling, grabbing, and scratching going on underneath the surface. But what makes water polo so difficult is the amount of endurance, speed, and strength required to sprint down a 25 to 30 (women vs men) meter pool, guard and wrestle your opponent without touching the bottom, and not having true stoppage time besides 3 timeouts. A water polo game consists of four- 8 minute quarters and it’s typical for an athlete to swim over a mile in a game.
The amount of training to be in “water polo shape” is also overlooked. It’s not uncommon for water polo players to spend roughly half of their training time swimming. In some cases, they swim more yards than their respective swim team. Swim shape is only one aspect, leg strength is just as important. Most water polo players can elevate out to their hips when they shoot or pass, which requires hours of treading water and leg drills. Then you have to wrestle. When you’re guarding your opponent you aren’t just floating next to this person; you’re grabbing, pulling, hitting, and wrestling them for position. When you’re sprinting down the pool, you’re not just swimming side by side; you’re cutting them off, and having them on your back jousting for position, you’re kicking them and getting pulled back. Finally, you combine hand eye coordination, fast twitch muscles, and arm strength to be able to throw the ball upwards of 45 miles per hour, while treading water. The concept of using your entire body to elevate out of the water and throw a ball requires activation and strength from your entire body.
The comparisons that are made are a combination of football, ruby, wrestling, swimming, and hockey all in one, and it’s 100% true. There's a reason why there aren’t “pick-up” games at the local pool, you have to be in top physical shape to even play the game.
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