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Head-up Freestyle in Water Polo


The most obvious difference between swimming and water polo is the presence of a ball. In order to efficiently move the ball from one end of the pool to the other, swimmers need to learn to swim freestyle with their head up. Head-up freestyle swimming is important to the game of water polo for a number of reasons:

  • It allows the player to keep his eye on the ball at all times.
  • It gives the player control over where the ball goes.
  • It keeps the player aware of the playing environment.
  • It allows for communication with other teammates.

In this guide, the beginner water polo player will learn how to swim head-up freestyle with confidence! It may prove challenging at first, but like all new things, will get easier with practice. This new skill will put any swimmer well on their way to being a successful water polo player.

Chop it Up

In order to swim head-up freestyle, players should start swimming freestyle like they normally would, then simply pick up their head so the chin is above the water. Once your head is up, practice taking shorter, choppier, more rapid strokes. Try stopping your pull-down a bit short of where you normally would; if you normally pull all the way down to your upper thigh, try stopping at your waist. Pull out of the water and start your stroke again like you usually would, but be sure to emphasize the ‘paddle' formation of your hand, as this will propel you through the water at a faster rate. This allows for more ball control and stability in your upper body.

Hot Tip: The Splash

Water polo strokes are much messier than the basic freestyle strokes, so don't be surprised if you create more splash.

It's All in Your Head

Try to keep your head as still as possible; no swiveling from side to side. Your head will automatically want to move around once you take it out of the water, but keep in mind that the faster you move your arms, the more stable your head will become. Once you learn to control your head movement, you'll be able to loosen up a bit. Eventually, you'll need to swivel your head here and there in order to pass and shoot, but the idea is to be able to control those movements and turn your head whichever way you'd like it to go. This takes practice! Even the greatest water polo players had to work at this skill.

Up to Your Elbows

In the recovery phase of your new shorter, faster stroke, learn to maintain high elbows. Instead of swinging out wide with your arms on their way back into the water, bring your elbows up to your ears. This allows for ball control and creates a wake on which the ball travels along with your body. Your higher arms also protect against players attempting to steal the ball. Remember, water polo is much more physical than swimming, so don't be afraid to use your body to protect the ball.

Hot Tip: Control is Key

Think of your higher arms as a cradle in which you keep your ball. As you swim, the ball stays in the nook your arms have created.

The Line-Up

Because your head is now out of the water, your hips and legs will want to follow suit and keep a straight line by sinking low into the water. When you're swimming basic freestyle your body is in complete alignment. Lifting your head out of the water disrupts this alignment and the rest of your body will try to compensate for that. Head-up freestyle can dramatically slow you down, because you're instantly less hydrodynamic. However, water polo players make up for that by kicking much faster than they normally would when swimming basic freestyle.

Kicking at a faster rate elevates your hips and legs and keeps you horizontal in the water. Maintaining a horizontal position in the water is vital to water polo because it's your ‘ready' position. When you're horizontal, you're ready for anything! Change of possession and change of position are constants in the game of water polo, so being in the ‘ready' position puts you at an advantage over a player in the vertical position.

Persistence is Key

If you can't get the hang of head-up freestyle at first, don't get discouraged! Water Polo is an intense sport and even the most decorated players had to keep at it in order to make the team. Remember to keep your strokes choppy, keep a steady head, maintain high elbows and that it is simply impossible to kick too fast.

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