US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics
I have had the opportunity to speak with many groups of people over the years and share my Olympic Experiences with them. Normally, during these talks I have a time at the end of the presentation for questions and answers. By far, here is the question that I am asked the most often.
Did you get nervous? And if you did, how did you control your nerves?
This is a great question and because it is so fundamental to successful performance, I thought I would take the opportunity to answer.
First of all, yes I did get nervous. Now here is the important part of the answer. Being nervous before a big game means that you are alive. I choose to look at this “nervousness” as a level of readiness. The key is to be able to control that level of readiness.
I will never forget an incident that happened right before our first game in the 1984 Olympic Games. Our team was in the ready room. We were basically waiting in a quiet room to be called out for introductions prior to our first game in the Olympics. Almost our entire team had been a part of the 1980 Olympic Team. We never had a chance to play in 80’ due to the Olympic boycott. We had all trained four more years to get to the 1984 Games. We had all sacrificed a good part of our lives to make the team, represent our country and hopefully win a medal. The 84’ Games were at home in LA and for me the water polo competition was at Pepperdine - my home pool. Finally, we were one of the favorites to win the gold. Talk about pressure. So in that ready room we sat for about 30 minutes. Drew McDonald (a great center defender on the 84’ team) came over and sat by me. Out of the blue he asked me “Are you nervous?” I thought for a moment and then I said “no not really. I feel ready”. I knew that we had done everything we could to prepare for these games. I also knew that I had done everything that I could have done. I was ready.
This is one of the biggest keys to finding that proper level of readiness. That key is having the confidence in your preparation. When you are properly prepared – when you can look yourself in the mirror and honestly say to yourself that you prepared the best you could have. Then you have no reason to be overly nervous. However, when you look in the mirror and you know that you have cheated yourself on your training by cheating the drills or not working hard in every workout. Then you should be nervous. Proper preparation in training gives you the confidence to show up ready without being overly nervous. Knowing that you have trained well makes it easier to show up and compete with great success.
Showing up ready to practice hard and get the most out of every drill is the athlete’s responsibility. This takes self discipline and a commitment to excellence. Most all of us have “off days”. This is human nature. Accept it. Your best may not be the same every day. But showing up and doing your best no matter how you feel is all you can control. So realize that you may have some bad days – work through these days and keep working on improving. The more consistent that you are with this principle the more confidence you should have come game day.
Here is the key to showing up with that proper level of readiness. The coach must plan workouts to be as game like as possible. When athletes practice in a game like situation over and over again they become ready for what they will face come game day.
My coaching philosophy includes as many game situation drills as possible. Sure we work on conditioning and fundamentals but even these drills are as game like as possible. For example; if I want to train legs. We can do jumping drills that are set up as if the athlete if playing X1 or X3 on the back line in the 5 man defense. On the whistle the players will jump out as if they were shot blocking at 1 or 6 (depending if he/she is playing X1 or X3). They jump out and shot block, imagining as game like as possible that they are shot blocking on an important 6 on 5 in a game. On the second whistle they will jump back into the post player and control the post while preparing their bodies for the next jump out. This is a game situation drill. You will get conditioning of the legs, good fundamental training and game like work. Another example would be to set up a scrimmage where there is 2 minutes left in the game. One team has a 6 on 5 and is down by 1 goal. Start the game as if you are coming out of a time out. Play out the final 2 minutes of the game. Make sure that your players know that you expect them to play like it is an important game.
When your team is used to practicing like it is a game, they will show up ready to play without too much nervous energy. They will be confident that they are ready because you prepared them properly.
I know when I have not prepared properly and I have been excessively nervous and have not played my best. I also know that when I have showed up and felt that the game really did not mean that much my level of readiness has not been great and I have not played my best either. There really is a good level of nervousness or readiness. It takes practice to find what this level is for you. Part of this responsibility rests entirely on the athletes shoulders. The athlete that wants to achieve greatness will show up everyday ready to give his/her best. The other part is the coach’s responsibility. The coach must create an environment that allows the athletes on the team to feel as though they have prepared for the game in practice before the game even happens. When you have both of these keys working together you can show up ready to play without being nervous.
Remember – it is a game. Enjoy what you do. Yes work as hard as you can but remember that even the best athletes miss big free throws, miss big puts, strike out with runners on base and miss penalty shots. You are human – you are going to make mistakes. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and focus on what is really important - going out there and consistently giving your best to the team. Chances are that if you and your team mates are doing this you will win a lot more games then you lose.
Here is one last important note about getting nervous. When you are on a team that is really functioning together as a unit you will always have shared responsibility. This means that all the weight of the game is never on your shoulders alone. You can go out and compete knowing that your team mates always have your back (and you have there’s). This is the beauty of a team sport like water polo. When you have all worked hard together you will know that each of your team mates is as ready as you are. This boils down to “team confidence” which should calm your nerves and help each team member be at that optimum level of readiness.
I hope that this answers this important question. As always feel free to email me if you have any questions at [email protected]
See you at the pool.
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