Day 70 of 100: 10 Things I Learned from Water Polo

This weekend I played 6 water polo games with a wonderful group of women at the Master’s National Tournament in Riverside, CA. It was an exhausting weekend (and I was the goalie, I can’t even imagine how tired all them field players were), but I’m so happy and I miss playing water polo a lot.

My water polo coach in college used to say all the time that water polo will develop character qualities that will be helpful in post-college life. And now that I’m in post-college life, I understand what he means. So this post will be a tribute to my 8 years playing water polo.

1) How to stick with it and get back up again despite consistent failure. Turns out I’m continuously being tested in this area, because science. Being a goalie is a mentally and emotionally difficult position, because it is very difficult to have a perfect game where you block every shot and nobody scores on you (even when us as a Division III school played USC, with all their Olympian glory, we still scored). In that same USC game, I was scored on 27 times, the most in my career. You better believe it was hard to think to myself, “I’ll get the next one” after 27. But you have to learn to develop that hopeful attitude, or else you’ll end up getting really down on yourself or you’ll start angrily blaming your teammates. Resilience is a powerful character trait that comes from athletics.

2) Blame isn’t helpful. In water polo, we like to blame things on crappy referee calls, the other girl was kicking me and pulling my suit, my teammate doesn’t know what she’s doing, coach made a bad decision. Sometimes, I see these thought tendencies show up in my work: nobody told me how to do this, that’s not my responsibility, it’s because she didn’t do her part. It’s difficult to own up to your own mistakes. Sometimes, I think everything is my fault and I’m no good and I can never get it right, which is another unhealthy thought process. Navigating that tension between blaming others and blaming yourself is very, very difficult to do well. In the end, we have to rationally figure out what went wrong and what we need to do about it: whether we need to do more conditioning or a certain kind of drill, whether we all just need an attitude check, etc.

3) Grace is always helpful. Move on. Goalies, if you made a mistake and a goal scored, recognize that it was your mistake and do your best to get the next one. Extend yourself grace. If your teammates weren’t in the right position, let them know what they can do better next time, but extend them grace. People are more than the mistakes they make, in and out of the pool. Everyone’s working hard and doing their best (and if they’re not, that’s going to come back to hurt them in the end).

4) How to not be selfish. That’s the beauty of team sports: it’s not about you. It’s about the team. It’s about working together as a team. If you only care about you, your team will only be as strong as, well, you. And one person does not win games.

5) Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Bring out other people’s strengths, allow them to help you in the places where you’re weak, and let your strengths shine. I don’t want us to think that we’re a bunch of worms and we’re nothing without other people. Sure, we need other people. But we’re gifted and strong in certain areas, while others are strong in others. As a goalie, I was good at blocking stuff, but my passing was pretty bad. So my teammates made sure that they got the ball from me before they swam too far down the pool that I couldn’t pass it accurately. It was a beautiful thing that they “accepted” my weakness and celebrated my strength, instead of getting annoyed at me for not being able to consistently have beautiful passes and expecting me to block everything.

6) People blossom under trust and encouragement. I knew that I would love my team this weekend when people were encouraging each other to work hard and have a positive attitude. I also feel really good about myself when my teammates were starting to say things like, take off to offense early, we trust our goalie to block this shot. It doesn’t so much freak me out and put pressure on me, but it sure makes me want to support my team because they trust me. It’s pretty empowering. People often live up or down to what’s expected of them, so might as well treat them like you expect good things from them.

7) How to show up and work hard even when you don’t feel like it. Not going to practice because you “didn’t feel like it” wasn’t an option, unlike some classes in college. The nice thing about the athletic culture is that it wasn’t “cool” to not show up. You earn respect by consistently showing up and working hard. That’s a valuable trait to take into any relationship or job.

8) All of life is connected. If you’re out all night partying, morning practice will be extremely difficult. You will get pretty miserable if you don’t let yourself have fun and play every once in a while. If you’re not eating or sleeping well or if you’re not doing well in your classes or if you’re having relationship/friendship problems, it shows up in the game or practice. That’s the nice thing about athletics: who you really are shows up. My struggles with confidence have shown up in various places in my athletic career, and so I developed some measure of confidence partially because it helped me in the game.

9) Focus on what matters. Goalies can get caught off guard if they’re not watching the ball. It’s a simple metaphor. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Sure, hindsight is 20/20 and we all wish we could have done things differently. But if we realize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we can start learning how to use our time wisely by prioritizing what is important to us.

10) You can’t always sit back and wait for things to come to you. Sometimes you have to go out and get it. Sure, you have to be flexible and ready for whatever comes your way. Sometimes it’s in a goalie’s best interest to go out of the goal to make a steal, but sometimes that’s not the wisest decision. You have to make the judgment of when to act and when to wait. This is applicable in job hunting, dating, doing something you’ve always wanted to do, etc. I’ve found that in life, listening to God is helpful here.

Athletics are great. I’ll probably make my kids do some sort of team sport. There’s certainly a lot more to be gleaned from the world of athletics, but here’s the 1st 10 things that came to mind.

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