Adam Saucedo, M.A., a practicing Sport Psychology Consultant, consults with individual athletes and exercisers in the greater Bay Area of Northern California. His clients participate in all competition levels from juniors to masters, ranging in age from 13 to 60 years old. In conjunction with his work with his private clients, Adam works with individual athletes and teams at Santa Clara University. This academic school year, he completed his third season working with the SCU Men's Water Polo program and his second season working with the SCU Women's Water Polo program. He has gained a great deal of experience working with both programs under the coaching of Keith Wilbur. Along with the water polo programs, Adam works closely with four other athletic programs at SCU. In addition, he will be facilitating a leadership program for all 19 sports at SCU in the coming months. For more information visit his website: www.saucedosportpsych.com
I have been asked to write articles on a regular basis on the importance of mental toughness in the sport of water polo. For this first article, my purpose is to have you, the reader, understand why you should be aware of your mental state during competition and to provide you with a starting point for your mental training.
Think back to the last time you found yourself dwelling on a mistake or a bad call during a game. Maybe you had made a bad pass that had led to a counter-attack for the other team or maybe you were in a state of disbelief that you had been kicked-out. Whatever the situation may be, when you dwell on the past, you are unable to remain focused and stay present in the game. When you do this, you harm not only your own performance, but the performance of your entire team. Those are precious seconds you waste while you allow yourself to get upset or frustrated. When you are stuck on that last possession, you are not able to focus on the next possession and you limit your ability to play to your full potential.
Now think about how well you play when you are focused and present in the moment. You are able to focus on your role, read the defensive or offensive situations and be a productive teammate. This is the ideal state for your performance. As an athlete, you may strive to play this way consistently, however, it maybe difficult to do so currently due to certain circumstances, which take you out of your game-time focus. My goal is for you to understand how to maintain your focus in those moments so that you can set yourself up for a successful performance.
It takes a great deal of practice and hard work to adjust and maintain the proper mindset during competition. The first step is awareness. Every athlete reacts differently when things happen to not go his or her way. Begin to identify those times when you find yourself focusing on negative situations. It is important to write down those times so that you have a concrete record of those situations to which you can always refer. Next, review your list to see which situations are ultimately within your control and which situations are outside of your control.
For example, making a decision to make a pass that ultimately gets stolen may fall more within your control because you made the decision to make the pass. Instead of getting upset “in the moment”, you can learn to remind yourself to have a short-term memory and to take the first stroke to get back on defense immediately. When there is a break in play or after the game is over, you can reflect back on this situation and learn how to prevent it from happening again. By dwelling on the bad pass “in the moment”, you are not allowing yourself to focus fully on the next defensive possession. Consequently, it can also even effect your future decisions on the offensive side if you allow the error to effect your confidence. By having a clean slate after making an error, you set yourself up for future success in the game.
The previous example of making a bad pass is one that falls within your control. In contrast, for example a questionable call by a referee falls outside of your control. The mental approach here is similar to the first situation. Once again, reminding yourself that arguing over this decision detracts from your performance because it draws your focus from staying “in the moment” to a situation you ultimately cannot change. Since the play resumes immediately after any call, if you find yourself dwelling on the referee’s decision with which you do not agree, you are unable to remain present and positive, a mindset that would assist your performance. Again, if you can use a break in play to discuss the call with your coach or teammates, you will have more focus to perform optimally on the next possession. It is out of your control at that moment to change the decision, so it is critical to let go of this focus and shift your focus onto things that you can control, such as getting yourself prepared for the next possession.
Both of these situations call on you to learn how to reset yourself and focus on the next task at hand. Creating a consistent routine around reminding yourself to shift your focus, provides you with a vital tool to consistently maintain the proper mindset to play to your full potential. Every athlete will approach this differently, so creating a unique routine for yourself will benefit you greatly. Your routine may include a physical reminder, a verbal reminder or a combination of the two. Once you decide on a routine, try it out for a while, making adjustments as needed. It takes a great deal of practice and time for your routine to work efficiently and effectively. However, the more you practice this routine at practice and in competition, the more comfortable and confident you will be to use it when you need it most.
In the articles to follow, we will go more in depth as to how to increase your mental toughness in water polo. I hope this is a great starting point for your mental training. Remember, the more you practice staying present and positive, the more consistent your performance will be in the future. Good luck!