This article was published in the USA Water Polo Skipshot Magazine Article Archives
When athletes perform their best, all of their mental and physical resources are directed to the present play. Research is discovering that athletes who perform at or near their peak potential have developed skills and strategies to continuously reset to now and find a type of cognitive and physiological rhythmic flow. There is a cadence to the speed at which peak performance occurs dependent on the demands of the sport and skills but more importantly the amount of information the athlete processes mentally.
While the game of water polo is full of mental challenges, the number one challenge that seems to surface most is present-moment focus. Athletes struggling to manage their emotions, work with their nerves, and let go of mistakes find it difficult to play present. In a dynamic, fast-moving sport there are many variable competing for athlete’s attention. Present-moment focus is a continuous practice that starts before entering the pool.
The ability to read the play and anticipate what could and will happen is also a reflection of one’s presence. By anticipating, athletes need to be connected to the present play in an external sensory manner. They manage their mental time travel so as not to become emotionally attached to outcomes of plays that already happened or to the outcomes that might happen in the end. They are seeing, hearing, feeling, and completely experiencing what they are doing now through full immersion in the flow of the play. Mental time travel interferes with their ability to quiet their mind and simplify the information they are receiving while in the present play.
Athletes need to understand that the mind does have a tendency to wander. The mind will want to find an explanation or a safe guard for what just happened. However, there is a time and place to learn, reflect, and analyze. That time just isn’t during the play. Through acceptance athletes can find ways to act more compassionately toward themselves when their minds do wander to the last result or future possibilities. By accepting what has happened non-judgementally, athletes can use specific reset routines to move into next play speed more efficiently.
Self-talk matters tremendously in the constant practice of present-moment focus. Using motivational or instructional self-talk helps athletes direct their attention toward what they can control in the moment and what’s most important right now. Distractions happen when attention is directed to irrelevant bits of information for the task at hand. To focus on the present-play using self-talk emphasize what can be done now rather than how good or bad it is.
As always, becoming an expert of one’s own mental and physical game can be a challenge alone. Seeking out the perspective and guidance of others can broaden horizons and increase understanding of what is possible. Through trust and vulnerability athletes discover the courage to seek help from coaches, parents, and mentors so they grow and learning continues.