Men’s water polo is offered at 49 NCAA schools primarily located in the Northeast region and California, as well as at one NAIA institution in Arizona and 31 junior colleges in California. These programs are highly competitive and focus their recruiting efforts on top high school talent, but student-athletes have to be more than just talented water polo athletes. College water polo coaches put a great deal of emphasis on academics when recruiting talent.
The NCAA requires student-athletes to meet certain academic eligibility requirements. Starting freshman year, athletes should set academic goals for themselves that are aligned with the NCAA’s eligibility standards to ensure that they are eligible to compete at the collegiate level when the time comes. Institutions also have their own academic standards that student-athletes must meet to be admitted. These standards include GPA requirements and ACT/SAT test scores. Student-athletes should familiarize themselves with these standards. The NAIA has its own academic eligibility requirements that student-athletes can access on the NAIA website.
Of the 22,500 men’s high school water polo players, 1,600 go on to play at one of the 50 NCAA and NAIA collegiate water polo programs. These athletes are elite competitors, many of which were All-Americans and competitors on a Junior National Team, who are able to adjust seamlessly to the transition from high school to college water polo.
While high school water polo is played in a 25-yard course, college water polo teams compete in a 30-meter course. Student-athletes must have the speed and swimming skills to quickly adjust to the eight-yard difference without any impact to their technique and ability to compete at an elite level. Experience is another factor that plays into an athlete’s successful transition from high school to college water polo. Prior to playing at the collegiate level, athletes have developed a strong water polo IQ from their time competing on elite water polo teams at the high school, club and junior national levels.
Collegiate athletes must also keep up with a rigorous training schedule, both in the pool and in the weight room, while juggling academics and extracurricular activities.
While completing at the high school level is important, student-athletes need to play for a club water polo team during the offseason. Club water polo allows student-athletes to remain focused on developing their skillset and gain valuable experience in competition year-round. However, the most important benefit of competing on a club team for college-bound student-athletes is the visibility and access to college coaches that high school water polo does not give student-athletes.
Local and travel club water polo tournaments give student-athletes the opportunity to compete in front of college coaches who attend these tournaments to evaluate and recruit athletes. Student-athletes who compete outside of California and the Northeast region, in areas where college coaches typically don’t travel to recruit, can especially benefit from these travel tournaments.
In 2019, the NCAA updated the recruiting rules to prohibit communication between college coaches and student-athletes until after June 15 of their sophomore year.
The NCAA Division 1 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee surveyed 15,454 recruited Division 1 student-athletes on their recruiting experience. While the majority of athletes reported that their overall recruiting experience was positive, the survey also revealed a trend of early recruiting. The survey concluded that the later recruiting began, the most positive of an experience the student-athletes had during the recruiting process.
Before June 15 of a recruit’s sophomore year, college coaches will build a prospective students list by evaluating athletes at tournaments, camps and showcases. During this time, student-athletes should focus on researching water polo programs and marketing themselves with a recruiting profile and highlight video.
Communication between college coaches and student-athletes may be prohibited prior to June 15 after the athlete’s sophomore year, but the recruiting process can start as early as 8th grade. Below is an outline of the college water polo recruiting process from early recruiting to National Signing Day.
Recruiting video plays a large role in water polo, especially for student-athletes who live outside of the Northeast region and California, where the majority of water polo programs are located. Depending on the position that an athlete plays, college coaches’ expectations vary. Student-athletes will need to understand what position-specific skills college coaches look for and capture footage that highlights the athlete performing these skills in varsity-level competition.
Recruiting video should be no longer than three to four minutes and include roughly 20–30 clips that showcase the athlete’s talent. Student-athletes should start their video off with their most impressive plays to capture a coach’s attention within the first 30 seconds. Below we outline the skills that goalies, utility players, center forwards, center backs and drivers should focus on when shooting and selecting recruiting video footage.
Instead of the typical competition footage, recruiting experts are suggesting a different type of highlight video that includes film of dryland training to demonstrate how the recruit is still working towards their water polo goals.
Below are tips to create a dryland training video that recruits can send to college coaches:
After the video has been edited, the recruit should add it to their recruiting profile and send a link to college coaches in an introductory email.
To make the most impact on college coaches, the video needs to be high quality, engaging and highlight all of the skills that the coaches are looking for in that position. Before we go into the position-specific video tips, we’ve listed a few general tips on how to capture, edit and promote a recruiting video.
Student-athletes should also send their recruiting video to college coaches in a recruiting letter. This letter serves as a starting point for student-athletes to build relationships with college coaches. In the recruiting letter, student-athletes should express their interest in the water polo program and explain to the coach why they are a good fit for the team. They should include their general information, academic and athletic stats, as well as their recruiting video to introduce college coaches to their skillset. The letter should end with a clear next step, whether that be stating when the athlete plans to call the coach or inviting the coach to watch the athlete compete.
In one of the most challenging water polo positions, goalies must have a strong core, leg strength and quick reflexes. College coaches want a goalie that is able to cover the entire cage with quick lateral movements, anticipate a shot, track the ball and explode out of the water to stop the shot. Goalies also need to serve as a leader for the defense as they set up to protect the game and call out gaps in the defense to prevent offensive breakaways. These athletes must also have strong passing ability, as they will need to clear the ball to their offense after making a stop.
Utility players are the most versatile athletes on the team. These athletes are comfortable playing offense and defense, which means they’ll need to spend an equal amount of time highlighting play on both ends of the pool. Utility players should include footage of them switching from defense to offense quickly when given an opportunity to score. These athletes have remarkable pool vision and awareness and should show their ability to find open players to create scoring opportunities. Utility players should also demonstrate their ability to drive and the range of shots they are able to shoot.
Playing center forward requires great physical strength, endurance and vision. Center forwards should demonstrate their strong swimming ability and physical presence. College coaches want to see these athletes lead the offense, communicate clearly with teammates and execute strategic plays. Generally, center forwards lead the team in goals and assists, but they are also the most closely guarded position. In their recruiting video, center forwards should highlight their ability to gain position over defenders, handle the ball, absorb fouls and shoot to score at a variety of angles.
Center backs are tough athletes with the physical advantages of a wide wingspan. College coaches are looking for center backs with strong swimming skills who can move quickly from one side of the course to the other and have the endurance to support themselves throughout the game. Center backs should include clips of defending center forwards from both in front of and behind this player and successfully stealing the ball. They should also demonstrate their ability to execute both zone and man-to-man defense.
Drivers are quick, alert and persistent in the water, which is exactly what college coaches want to see in their recruiting video. Drivers should focus on highlighting their explosive starts and ability to quickly change directions. They should include footage that shows their ability to lead the offense and their persistent efforts to get free of defenders, gain possession of the ball with good hand skills and drive to the goal to score. Drivers need to demonstrate their understanding of and ability to execute all drive shots.
College coaches may already have their eye on an athlete after seeing them perform at camps, tournaments and high school games, but athletes should not expect that they are already on a college coach’s radar. Student-athletes need to take initiative and reach out to college coaches at their prospective schools. While college coaches are not allowed to contact or respond to student-athletes until June 15 after the athlete’s sophomore year, student-athletes are encouraged to send a recruiting letter to introduce themselves to college coaches and get on their list of prospective recruits.
A strong recruiting letter begins with a statement that explains why the student-athlete is interested in the water polo program or a fact about the team that interests them. This beginning statement should be followed by an explanation of why the student-athlete is a good fit for the program and the following information:
General information: Name, graduation year, high school and club name
Academics: GPA, test scores
Athletics: sport specific stats and relevant measurables
Contact information: phone number and email, as well as your club and high school coach contact information
The letter should end with a clear next step, whether that’s setting a specific time the student-athlete will call the coach or inviting them to watch the athlete compete in a tournament or game. Before sending, athletes should craft an eye-catching subject line that will stand out from the other subject lines in the coach’s inbox. We suggest using numbers and stats, such as your graduation year, position, height and weight, ACT score, etc.
Every year, the Collegiate Commissioners Association releases the national signing day dates on the National Letter of Intent website. National signing day is the first date in which student-athletes can sign their NLI—a binding agreement that guarantees the athlete’s scholarship for one year. Student-athletes do not have to sign an NLI on the first day of the signing period, but many choose to sign on National Signing Day to bring the recruiting process to an end. Once a student-athlete has signed an NLI, they can no longer be recruited by other programs.
Max Irving, former UCLA and current USA Water Polo Player, shares the importance of incorporating swimming in your training plan for water polo athletes. As the foundation of the sport, being a strong swimmer is an advantage for college recruits, especially those with their sights set on competitive collegiate programs. Check out the video below for more water polo recruiting advice.