Kayak polo combines boating and ball-handling skills with a contact team game, where tactics and positional play are as important as the speed and fitness of the individual athletes. The game requires excellent teamwork and promotes both general canoeing skills and a range of other techniques unique to the sport.
There are two referees (one on each side-line) and they are on foot rather than in boats. The score is kept by the scorekeeper and the timekeeper monitors the playing time and sending-off times. The goal lines are monitored by two line judges. Before play commences scrutineers check all kit for compliance with regulations.
Canoe polo is played either indoors in swimming pools or outdoors on a pitch which should measure 35 meters by 23 meters. The boundaries of the pitch are ideally marked using floating ropes (similar to lane markers in swimming), although for smaller venues the edges of the pool are frequently used. The area approximately 6 meters in front of each the goal can be defined as the Zone. This area is where defending players create formations to defend the goal from attackers.
There are several attacking and defensive tactics all with different variations.
- Overload: 1 or 2 players attack the side of the zone, pushing the defensive players together and creating space for a 3rd player to sprint into the newly created space, receive a pass from the 4th player and take a direct shot on the goal.
- Box player: A player positions themselves directly under the goal, next to the keeper. The aim is to keep this position and to receive a quick pass and then have a short, direct shot at the goal or pass to another player who takes the opportunity to break through the defence.
- Star: The players position themselves around the zone and sprint in consecutively, a defensive player moves to block each player as they sprint in, the attacking team move the ball around as the players sprint in, threatening to take a shot. If done correctly the fifth player is able to sprint into the zone, will have no defensive player to block them, receive the pass from the 4th player and be able to take a direct shot on goal.
- 3–1: Three players form a row above the goal keeper, 1 to each side and 1 directly above the keeper. This formation can provide a very solid defensive line, by protecting the sides and the middle. The remaining player patrols the top of the zone with the aim of pressuring the ball and stopping players running into gaps in the defensive line.
- 2–2: Two players position themselves in front, and to the side of the goal keeper, and block attacking players threatening the goal from the side. The two other players go further forward and towards the middle with the aim of stopping players running in to the zone and to place pressure of the attackers. Looked on from above, it is not dissimilar to a Christmas tree formation. The aim is to force long-shots and errors from the attackers to win the ball back, while protecting the goal.
- Five or out: Every player, including the goal keeper, marks a player and pressures the ball and every pass, trying to force a mistake or gain an interception.
Most of the rules concern the safety of the players involved or are designed to keep the game fast-paced and exciting to play and watch.
- Illegal substitution and entry into the playing area: Only 5 players are allowed in the playing area at once. During a substitution a player must be completely off the pitch (including all kit) before another player can come on.
- Illegal possession: A player must dispose of the ball within five (5) seconds of gaining possession, either by passing it to another player or by performing one throw causing the ball to travel by at least one metre measured horizontally from the point of release.
- Illegal hand tackle: Types of hand tackle include any hand-tackle where the tackled player does not have possession of the ball or is sharing possession of the ball with another player or any body-contact other than one open hand to the opponents’ back, upper arm or side or any hand tackle which endangers the tackled player.
- Illegal kayak tackle: Any kayak-tackle that results in significant contact between the tackler’s kayak and the head or body of an opposing player, or endangering a player, tackling a player not within 3 metres of the ball or who is not competing for the ball.
- Illegal use of the paddle: Playing, or attempting to play, the ball with a paddle when the ball is within arm’s reach of an opponent, contacting an opponent’s person or any use of a paddle that endangers a player.
- Illegal jostle: When a player is stationary or attempting to maintain a position and their body is moved by more than half a metre by sustained contact from an opponent’s kayak or jostling the player behind the goal line.
- Illegal screen/obstruction: A player actively or deliberately impeding the progress of an opponent when neither player is within three metres of the ball or a player who is not competing for the ball who actively impedes the progress of an opponent who is competing for the ball on the water and not in the air.
- Illegal holding: A player gaining support or propulsion by placing their hand, arm, body or paddle on an opponent’s kayak, or holding the opposing player or their equipment or using surrounding pitch equipment (goal, side-lines, pool wall), fending off an opponent.
- Unsporting behaviour: Players showing dissent, retaliation, foul or abusive language, delaying tactics, interference with opponents equipment, bouncing the ball out of play or any action that the referees consider detrimental to the game.
Three general principles can be applied when determining the severity of a foul.
Deliberate foul – A foul where no effort was made to avoid the illegal play. Any deliberate foul should receive a minimum of a green card- either immediately or at the next break in play if playing advantage.
Dangerous foul – Is significant contact with the opponent’s arm, head or body that may result in personal injury and is illegal.
Significant contact – Any high impact or continuous contact, that may result in equipment damage or personal injury.