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Love the Game? Train the Right Way

This article originally appeared in the USA Water Polo SkipShot Magazine.

Is passion over-rated? Sometimes, but when you need to push yourself outside your comfort zone to train for something you love to do then it becomes necessary. The environment in which results occur usually is not the environment in which we spend the majority of our day. Elite level performers must enter uncomfortable environments in training. With a love for training and the game like water polo, they must push themselves outside their comfort zones again and again until it becomes comfortable. Water polo is one of the hardest sports in the world which is why training does not come easily. Elite level athletes fall in love with the process of training.

If you are wondering how you might fall in love with the process, think about how you view achievement. If you consider that all athletes have some reason for playing the game then you can quickly learn about motivation too. However, there are many influences (individual and environmental) which dictate what it might take to achieve success. Some of your outlooks might be focused on comparison to others in the form of competition or how your ability matches with others. Some of your outlooks might also just be focused on yourself and your skillset in the game in terms of fundamentals and game strategies. The most important awareness is understanding how to balance these views of success to keep pushing through the difficult nature of training without instantaneous successful results.

Mastering your craft should be something you love to do in and out of the pool. The science behind orientations to goal setting (Achievement Goal Theory, Nicholls, 1989) has two dimensions to it. On the one hand, you can set your aspirations and expectations on measures of success defined by being better than other players or teams. You could set goals on being the best, earning awards, making the team, or gaining the most recognition from your coach. The drawback of only focusing on this type of “ego orientation” to success and goal setting is that much of it is out of your control. Athletes basing their confidence on this orientation will also find less consistency in their perceived confidence and more emotional “roller coaster” rides. The highs and lows tend to occur quite often with too much ego involved.

On the other hand, if you balance your ego orientation with a high “task/mastery orientation” then you are headed in the right direction. Operating through a mastery focus helps you develop tangible tasks and measurements of improvement to track. You will tend to have something to work at day in and day out that is more in your control with an emphasis on the quality of your work ethic. Athletes who visualize (and use imagery) away from the pool to put work into improving their shooting technique, their defensive positioning, their counter attack speed, or passing fundamentals tend to find more stability in their emotional response to failure or nervousness about success happening. You can redirect moments of failure as learning opportunities as you pursue mastery.

As mentioned, both orientations need to be used to get the most out of yourself. The ego orientation includes many elements of a competitive mindset toward the way you play. However, the task/mastery orientation helps you decide where to direct your intensity and effort as you compete so you gain the most satisfaction and return on your investment of energy. Loving the game fuels your motivation to continue to explore your competitive side and capacity to improve skills. The type of belief statements you use to boost your self-confidence impacts your competitive drive as small results occur in the flow of the game.

Remember that the greatest value proposition in the game will not be what you earned but rather what you learned throughout your time playing the game.


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