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Mental Preparation in the Space Between Play

This article was originally published on Waterpolo Planet.

Every athlete is aware that they need to prepare to the best of their abilities to play their best. The word prepare is something every water polo athlete hears in other forms such as training and practice. But preparation is not often explained in detail for competition. The best players can trust their preparation and training in games so that they can just play as they have practiced. But even the best prepare in specific ways at specific times during the spaces between action during games.

The most obvious time comes before the game where each team member is encouraged and expected to take complete ownership over their preparation. Preparation leading up to a game can be broken down into four areas:

Technical: this includes mental and physical preparation of the fundamentals and technique required to play your position and the sport of water polo – think basic movements such as legs, body position, leverage moves, swimming, etc.…

Tactical: this includes all the game tactics and systems that the team is coached to execute – most coaches will hold pre-game meetings with the team to review and fine tune this area of preparation including specific player match-ups and scouting reports

Physical: this primarily involves the physical preparation before games that engages blood flow to muscle groups throughout your body such as stretches, warm-up swimming, passing, and shooting – other contributors to physical preparation could include food and sleep from the night before which have some overlap with mental preparation

Mental: this is a comprehensive area of preparation that would include many aspects of the other three; the primary focus in mental preparation has a lot to do with priming and setting the intention through visualization/imagery of success, positive and performance enhancing self-talk, relaxation or energizing techniques, and narrow focus on execution cues

Other times to prepare that are often overlooked are between stoppages in play such as whistles, after goals, and between quarters. You may be asking how does that classify as preparation? The common mistake players and coaches make is that they address the last play in order to prepare for this next play. I call this mental time travel or coaching backward because you can easily become stuck with emotion on what just happened that can no longer be controlled.

In order to play your best, you have to prepare to play in the present and the best way to do that is to develop mental releases that help your mind stay present. Using a mental release requires you to practice self-awareness of when your mind has wandered so you can redirect it to now. If your physical energy flows wherever your attention goes then you will be more efficient with the amount of energy you have by directing all of it at the present play rather than the last.

Here is one way to use a mental release as part of your preparation in the space between plays:

Breathe: this is your anchor and every time you breathe you do it in the present moment – your breath also regulates your autonomic nervous system which is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response – try a belly breath with one hand on your stomach to feel your diaphragm expand and contract

Affirm: this is a personal pep-talk you can give yourself that directs your concentration to what you intend to achieve and believe – start with “I am…” “I can…” or “I will…” and fill in the blank

Release: this is part of the affirmation process where you can visualize yourself literally letting go of whatever you are holding onto that is weighing you down or holding you back from being present – think “What’s important now?”

Reset: this is the last step that directs you into the next play and assures your mind is clear and your effort is maximally directed into the technique and tactics of the situation

Again, this is an example of a mental release that you can complete in a couple seconds or less so that you don’t miss a play or slide down the negative mental spiral that brings multiple mistakes in a row. The most important take-away to remember is that you need to develop a way to prepare for each space between each moment so that you can allow yourself the opportunity to find peak performance. Take the time in training and practice to identify the spaces between drills, whistles, and plays that are most important to prepare for this next play.

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