Head impacts are common in water polo. While these don’t always cause concussion, it’s important to understand what risks athletes face to help ensure play is as safe as possible.
A new study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) maps out the frequency of head injuries in the sport and reveals which positions are the most vulnerable.
James Hicks and colleagues tracked three cohorts of Division 1 NCAA Men’s Water Polo players, who wore caps embedded with impact sensors during official American Water Polo sanctioned games and practices throughout the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Over the course of the study, every participant took a blow to the head from balls or rival players, but some fared worse than others.
Offensive players were more likely to get hit than defensive and transition positions (60% versus 23% and 17%, respectively). Interestingly, swimmers attacking from the left side of the goal suffered more head hits than players on the right. This may be because right-handed athletes commonly throw shots from the left zone, so there’s more activity in that area, the researchers suggested.
The most unsafe position was found to be offensive centre, with these players enduring nearly seven blows to the skull per game — over a third (37%) of all head impacts recorded in the study. In contrast, the second-most vulnerable position, defensive centre, averaged two head strikes per game.
Overall, the researchers counted an average of 18 head hits per game. Although no concussions were diagnosed, the force of the blows was “similar to those observed in collegiate soccer, another sport that is commonly studied for the risks associated with repeated head impact exposure,” Hicks said.
Hicks started researching injury risks in water polo after watching his three sons play the sport and finding a lack of studies.
“For years, water polo’s head trauma risks have been downplayed or overshadowed by football-related brain injuries,” he said. “Our data quantifies the extent of the problem and sets the stage for additional research and possible rule changes or protective gear to improve water polo safety.”
The findings of the study have been published in the journal PLOS One.