The sport of water polo is quickly becoming hotter than the water it’s played in. USA Water Polo and the National Federation of High School Association are reporting the sport is now one of the fastest growing sports with an all-time high in membership.
So we asked two-time Olympic gold medalist Maggie Steffens to share why she thinks everyone should try the sport, including which interpersonal skills it will enhance outside the water.
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1. It’s A Great Sport For Getting Comfortable In The Water
“Unintentional drownings are the leading cause of youth deaths right now,” said Steffens, who recently learned this fact in a social entrepreneurship class she is taking at Stanford University. “I feel so dumb that I didn’t even know it was an issue.”
“I was so naïve. It was something I would have never even thought of because at 2 years old I could swim.”
She realizes not everyone has that opportunity, but with “water polo and its association with swimming, it’s going to help prevent unintentional drownings and get people comfortable in water,” she said.
It’s also a sport where “it doesn’t matter if you’re from California or Texas, just getting in the water and being exposed to water safety is going to allow you to feel comfortable — whether you’re in a lake or an ocean, or fall in a pool,” she said. “And it’s also going to inspire your younger siblings to want to learn to swim, which is going to help them be comfortable if they fall in a pool, or are in the ocean by themselves.”
2. You Can Be Any Size Or Shape And Be The Best Player In The World
“I think one of the best things about water polo is that any body type can be the best player in the world because the water evens out the playing field,” she said. “You can be tall, you can be short, you can be smaller or you can be lanky.”
According to Steffens, you need to be fit and strong in order to play water polo, but she said, “for example, look at Brenda Villa. She was player of the decade and she’s 5-4 and Hispanic. Ashleigh Johnson, who’s probably like 6-2, really strong and muscular, African American and one of the best players in the world right now. And then there’s Kiley Neushul who’s 5-8, white and really muscular but not that long.
“I think that’s something so cool and incredible for young girls to help them grow that confidence and be proud of their body type. To know that their body type can excel in this sport and be proud of it. There are no stereotypes when it comes to water polo and that’s a cool thing that gets overlooked about the sport.”
3. It Will Make You Tough — Just Ask The Navy SEALs
Water polo might not look like a sport that’s riddled with injuries but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be tough to play it. Steffens admitted that you actually have to be tough mentally to play this sport.
When playing water polo, she said, “you are basically trying to solve problems intellectually while trying to stay above water while swimming up and down the pool while using every muscle in your body while someone is trying to physically beat you down. You have to mentally stay stable and emotionally poised.”
“Mental toughness is something that’s extremely important in competition and in sport, but it’s also something that’s going to help you be successful in life — whether it be adversity with family or personal issues or trying to overcome a challenge in the business world,” the 23-year-old said.
That explains why “a lot of Navy SEALs were water polo players,” she said. “Personally, I think that they have to be the most mentally tough people on the planet.”
4. It Will Teach You To Be A Great Communicator
Communication is key in water polo, and the sport will improve communication skills out of the water as well. With so much going on in the water at once – and 14 athletes in the pool at a time (seven per team) – it’s important to communicate efficiently with your teammates.
“Our sport is probably one of the most necessary sports to have strong communication,” Steffens deduced. “You have to communicate so much because you’re in the water and things are moving so fast.
“You have to be able to communicate your vision, whether your vision is a goal or hey, there’s someone behind you, or hey, I need the ball here instead of there. I know personally my communication skills outside of the water have improved tremendously because of water polo,” she said.
It’s something she has seen even with her teammate and older sister, Jessica. “My sister and I are a lot more open with one another because of water polo,” she said. “Before the London Olympics we lived together, and there would be something unrelated to sport, like the dishes, and instead of being silent about it and acting like it wasn’t a big deal, instead we’d be like, Hey, I need you to do this. Or, why are you being so annoying?”
“Go to one practice of water polo and I guarantee it will help strengthen a relationship – at least make it more open and honest, that’s for sure!”
5. Because Fewer People Play, There Is More Opportunity For Growth — And Scholarships
Even though water polo is a growing sport, Steffens said, “It’s still a smaller sport.” But that’s just one more reason why she would suggest kids get into the sport of water polo.
“People are definitely starting to realize how fun and amazing water polo is. But because it’s a smaller sport, there is a smaller pool that people are choosing from in terms of colleges.”
That also means that opportunity for scholarships is more of a possibility with fewer people to give them to. “So why not put yourself in an area that’s not as popular?” Steffens suggested. And then, “hopefully as the sport grows and gets more awareness, more and more colleges will pick it up as a NCAA sport.”
USA Water Polo is hoping to grow the sport with a program they created called Splash Ball. Steffens explained it as “a game for 10-and-unders, and it’s mainly swimming and learning the rules of water polo. Mostly it’s to get you comfortable with a water polo ball, being on a team and seeing the nets.”
It’s something she wishes was around when she was first starting the sport.
“When I started back in 2000, I was 7 years old but playing with 18-and-under, because that’s all we had at the time. Was I good? No, not at all. I was awful, and playing with 17-year-olds. But I got to touch the ball. And I would recommend that to young people – just to get the exposure to water polo. It’s so important.”
6. If You Have Ever Loved Playing Any Sport, You’ll Love Water Polo
Most people liken water polo to swimming, but Steffens disagrees with that comparison.
“It’s actually very similar to basketball,” she said. “It’s like basketball in that everyone plays defense, everyone plays offense and there’s a 30 second shot clock.”
And truthfully, she continued, “Water polo encompasses so many different sports. It also has the swimming factor, a lot of factors come from soccer, there’s a wrestling factor. And there’s also the hockey factor in terms of man up, man down and moving the puck or the ball up and down the court.”
Because so many sports are tied into it, it makes it fun for people to try — and watch.
“A lot of people will say, I don’t know water polo that well so I’m not going to watch it,” she said. “But if you’ve ever played — or watched — a basketball game or a soccer game or a hockey game, you’re going to love playing and watching water polo!”