US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics
I have often been asked about the importance of mental preparation in water polo. Because water polo is such a physically demanding sport, we as coaches often times spend the majority of our time and energy trying to get our teams in the best possible physical shape. There is great value in being the best conditioned team, however I believe that it is equally important to focus on the mental preparation. I believe that for most athletes the mental game is even more important than the physical part of the game. What separates the good from the great? It is the definitely the mental game that makes the difference when two athletes are similar in skill.
As a young swimmer, I learned some valuable lessons about mental preparation. When I first began my career as a young swimmer, I would often psyche myself out before a race. The results were never good. In fact, I can look back now and say that I lost many races before the competition even started.
Fortunately, I had very supportive parents who just loved watching their kids participate in sports. Sure they wanted us to do well (sometimes more than we did) but they were always there supporting us. I will never forget one swimming race when I was 8 years old. It was a 50 yard backstroke in my home town of Santa Barbara. I slipped on the wall on the start and then I hit my head at the turn. Because tears were filling my eyes I became tangled in the lane line and fell farther and father behind. I finished second from the last and I was embarrassed when it was over. I had failed miserably. I wanted to hide my face but as I headed for my towel my Dad intercepted me and just gave me a great big hug. He looked me in the eye and said “Terry, we love you – you did your best and that’s really all that matters”. I felt a sense of calmness pour over me. I wanted to win so badly but as the days passed after that meet, I came to realize that I will never win every race or game that I am in and secondly, that the most important part of competition is showing up and giving it your best effort. This philosophy has shaped my career as an athlete and now as a coach.
It has also created a reality in my mind that says – when I know in my heart that I have done my best, I can be happy. This is the message that I also wish to pass onto my athletes. With this philosophy in mind “mental preparation” becomes easier. The variables are controlled. You don’t have to worry about the officials or the opponents. You really only have to worry about getting yourself prepared and showing up and doing your best. Yes, you will have off days and no, you will not win every race or every game. But prepare yourself to show up and give it your best effort. Then, you can walk away knowing that win or lose, you gave your best effort.
Another area that I feel helps tremendously with mental preparation is self discipline. When an athlete has good self discipline they are usually able to stay focused and prepare physically and mentally for the competition. Self discipline gives you confidence and it helps to build your belief system. Without self discipline you will find that you can not fool yourself or cheat yourself. What do I mean by this? If I don’t have the self discipline to do what I need to do, when I need to do it to prepare for my competition then there is no way that I will be able to convince myself (fool my mind) that I am 100% ready to give my best. In this case, I will fail before the competition even begins. In this regard having self discipline is one of the first elements that an athlete needs to possess for good mental preparation.
The next big step is building a positive belief system. You can not do well unless you believe in yourself and your team mates. So how do you find this strong belief? I think that the best way develop a strong belief system is to celebrate the small successes that you or your team experience. This was one of the greatest things to witness with our 2008 Olympic team. This was a team that had not experienced great success over the past decade and yet as we went into the Olympic year, with each small success they gained more and more confidence. At first we had to look for successes but we kept building on the small things, even things that we saw in practice. In May of 2008, we experienced a breakthrough and beat Croatia in an official game. Since they were the reigning world champions this was a bid success. Our confidence and belief grew from there and as you know we did pretty well in Beijing. It was fun to be a part of that journey and much of the success had to do with building a positive belief system step by step.
As a young swimmer, I began to have some small successes and as my confidence grew I got to the point where I would stand up on the starting blocks and look to my left and to my right at the other swimmers in the race and just say to myself “I can beat these guys”. This is what happens when you begin to believe – your self talk changes from negative to positive. You begin to lose doubt and your mind begins to stay focused on the good things. Who usually wins the battle in your head? Do you hear that chatter that goes on? If you allow the negative self talk to beat you then once again you are defeated before you even begin the race. Focus on what you say to yourself. Focus on the successes that you have experienced. Keep it positive. That positive self talk goes a long ways to helping you be successful. This is a part of believing in yourself.
One other widely used technique for getting yourself ready mentally is to do mental imagery. Find a quiet place to do this. I have a strong opinion, that one of the biggest problems we face today is the lack of quiet time. I challenge you to find time to read, relax, meditate or pray without the noise of the world. This is a time to focus on you and get in touch with what your body needs. When you are used to finding the quiet time you will be more successful in utilizing mental imaging. You may find it easier to do at the beach or in a park away from the noise of life. When you begin these exercises it is important that you can see yourself being successful. Go through your race or the game and see yourself (even feel yourself) doing good things. I believe that you have to be able to see this before you can actually do it. I have used mental imagery for years and find it helpful in sport as well as other areas of my life. Positive mental imagery is a great tool for preparing for a competition.
Finally, since water polo is a team game. You have to learn to relay on your team mates. It is amazing when a team mate cares about your success as much as their own. It is powerful when you know this and learn to rely on it even before the competition begins. In this way being a part of a team can help you mentally prepare for the competition. When you know that you have an entire team behind you it makes you feel stronger. I enjoy this part about a team and I have learned to trust my team mates over the years. I know that they will be there for me – primarily because I will be there for each of them.
There is no doubt in my mind that we as athletes and coaches need to focus on the mental aspect of the game as much as we focus on the physical side. This is another fundamental for success. As always please feel free to email me if you have any questions regarding this article. I can be reached at [email protected]
See you at the pool.
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