Swimming. You know it’s good for you. It develops your general strength, cardiovascular fitness and endurance, it cushions knees that are celebrating their half-centenary and works practically all the muscles in the body. It’s also what they call ‘a lifetime sport’, meaning you can do it from toddler years to codgerhood.
That said, if you’re the sociable type, swimming for fitness can be more of a self-punishment than a workout for mind, body and spirit. For life’s team players, the very thought is a turn-off, conjuring up images of solitary and Calvinistically joyless lengths of the pool, trying not to collide with the aerobics-for-fat-ladies group at the shallow end. Which is where water polo comes into its own.
The best way to describe water polo is as a blend of marathon running, hockey and chess, all played out in a swimming pool. Even that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the thing. It‘s better, maybe, to think of it as a kind of chlorinated handball. With added violence.
Violence? Well, here’s a clue. It has a punishment for ‘brutality’. Even rugby union doesn’t have that. The rules include penalties for being a bit too aggressive, which means ducking or smacking an opponent. A ‘brutality’ is given if, for instance, you intentionally punch someone, resulting in water polo’s equivalent of a red card.
Getting kicked or elbowed is common. It must be the only sport where, male or female, you wear more on your head than your body; a cap with protective padding for the ears is essential. Clearly this is no activity for milquetoasts.
Apart from that, the set-up is simple enough. A team consists of six players and a goalie, and whichever team scores the most goals wins. The action involves swimming, treading water and passing a ball while opponents obstruct you in any way they can, not necessarily legally. You score by throwing the ball into the net. At its best, the action is non-stop and it’s not unusual to swim at least a mile during a match. Which makes it the best team sport for weight loss (half an hour of it can burn 400 calories or more).
Is it a sport for those of more mature years?
Absolutely, if you’re a strong and confident swimmer and don’t have a problem with your head being underwater. One basic requirement is stamina (which, hooray, is one of those things that improves with age) because water polo is physically demanding. Like all ball sports, good hand-eye coordination helps, too.
You also need a feel for strategy, and the kind of awareness and anticipation that comes in useful for football: knowing where your team-mates and opponents are and where they’re going to be next.
But it’s not for you if you don’t like contact. During the course of the game, a lot of holding and pushing goes on, some of it tolerated by the referee and some unnoticed because it’s being sneakily inflicted below the waterline.
Your kind of thing? Find a club on Sport Focus. On the other hand, if it all seems a bit too exhausting for you, you can always watch: it’s an Olympic sport this year. For the best description of what to expect at the high performance end – and more dwelling on the ‘brutality’ theme – you can find a lovely piece by Simon Barnes on the Times’ free-access Olympics page.