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Gold medalist Jessica Steffens explains how to watch water polo

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The way I like to describe and talk about water polo is that it is a blend of basketball and soccer.

Jessica Steffens

People who have never played water polo may be confused watching a game for the first time. Many questions come up like why are there so many whistles and what is an exclusion? Two-time Olympian, and 2012 gold medalist, Jessica Steffens may not be competing in the Rio Games, but she will be there cheering on her sister, this year's captain Maggie Steffens. She recently spoke about what new fans of the game can expect.

How would you describe water polo?

The way I like to describe and talk about water polo is that it’s a blend of basketball and soccer. It’s similar to soccer because there’s a goal and a goalie and a lot of the concepts on like chasing people down on a counter attack or a fast break. There’s also an offsides rule with the two-meter line. Those are helpful from a soccer perspective. It’s similar to basketball in that everyone plays offense and everyone plays defense. You can play a zone defense… there’s lots of different ways to play defenses and offenses systematically like that. Like plays set-ups. It’s usually not quite as many plays as you would expect in basketball. It’s more like soccer and more free-flowing from that perspective.

How long is the game?

The quarters are eight minutes, which doesn’t feel incredibly long, but because you don’t get a break unless there’s a goal, even when there is a break, you don’t get to rest on the ground. You’re still holding yourself above water. You’re swimming really fast, or drowning someone, or being drowned. Those eight minutes can feel really long if there aren’t any goals being scored.

Why are there so many whistles?

There’s a lot of whistling because there are a lot of clearly insignificant fouls that happen. Anytime I’m playing I’m touching someone pretty heavy. And they are not touching the ball but the ball is in the vicinity then that could be considered a foul. All that means is that they now get a free pass.

What are the different types of fouls?

There are two types of fouls. There’s regular fouls. I can foul as many of those kinds of fouls as I want in a game, those are not tracked. It’s a fairly normal part of the game. The second part – or the other type of fouling is called an exclusion foul… If I’m pushing down on someone really hard or I’m fouling them really hard when they don’t have the ball, or they’re in really good position and I prevent them from having an opportunity to take a shot on goal – that’s when an exclusion call is usually made…. So when there’s an exclusion foul, it’s like hockey when there’s a power play. The offense gets an extra, or they get a new shot clock and they get 20 seconds of a power play where they’re ahead one person. And the defense usually has to play some kind of zone to cover because they’re now playing 5-on-6.

What’s going through a player’s head during an exclusion?

Twenty seconds isn’t very long but it can feel like a long time because your teammates are working really hard. Usually what happens in that box is that hopefully you’re doing a quick mental check. You have to get that exclusion out of your mind so that you’re ready to go back in and play the rest of the game. Usually either in a 6-on-5 situation there’s a shot. So either there’s a goal or there’s a shot where the shot clock will then start again, so when you come back you might be playing a lot more defense. Or there’s a shot and a miss and a turnover. So when you go back in you’re countering really fast the other way… Being able to shift your mindset really quickly from like ‘oh! I messed up!’ or 'that didn’t go as I was hoping' to what’s the next step.

What’s different about the game in this Olympics?

Instead of having two time outs per game, now each team gets a time out per quarter. It expires in the quarter. It will just allow more TV timeouts and more breaks for commentators to explain what’s going on… There will be more set plays that we see because they’re coming off of more time outs.

Interview done by Rachel Lutz 


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