Sports Psychology
Brian Alexander, USA Water Polo ODP Athlete Mental Skills Coach
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Identifying Pressures & Finding Peak Performances

The idea of embracing pressure and persevering through it seems to be a common challenge with athletes and teams. When the opportunities present themselves to realize goals, missions, and dreams, athletes can feel pressure to perform over potential fears and stressors related to whether or not they reach their desired outcomes. It’s easy to see how doubts can creep into one’s mind before, during, and after important games or critical moments within games.

Psychological pressure can be defined as serious demands—real or perceived—imposed on one person by another individual, group, or environment ( It’s interesting that perception of the demands is what drives athletes into states of mental or physical fatigue. Depending on their coping skills, fatigue and stress can limit athletes’ ability to perform at their highest levels.

Finding peak performance is mostly about developing an awareness of moments when the mind is consumed by the pressure and distractions from the physical and social environment—and then developing a way to detach from that “noise” and redirect attention to the task at hand. Have you ever heard commentators or fans reflect on athletes’ performances by saying they were “unconscious”? Usually that means that athletes are playing “out of their minds” by controlling focus on the task at hand while being aware of mental time travel. Energy is targeted on the present moment. You might even call this mental toughness.

Elite athletes preview situations or scenarios they know bring them unnecessary pressures and interfere with their ability to play at their peak levels. By creating a list of pressures and identifying the importance of each pressure, athletes understand the meaning they attach to the situations and can decide if they’re as important as they thought. They may find that their perception and emotional attachment to situations interferes with their ability to perform. But building knowledge that allows you to take ownership over your state of mind can set the focus you want. 

Even if you identify your pressures, you still need to develop the skills necessary to cope with the situations’ demands. Here are some mental skills that other athletes have found useful to help “normalize” the pressure to perform:

Shift your focus: Usually the answer to what’s important now (a.k.a. W.I.N.) is focusing on things within your control. Decide to narrow your thoughts to the most important focus now or what you believe are the most critical cues to accomplish the task at hand.

Adjust your goals: If you want to be the absolute best you can be while preparing yourself with a mindset of resilience and perseverance toward the ultimate goals that drive you, set performance goals in terms of constant and continuous improvement. Outcome-driven athletes usually find they’re ill-equipped to persevere and overcome pressure with the same drive and desire. Thus, a greater importance needs to be associated with the process of improving the details of the sport and your position.

Imagine/visualize yourself there before you arrive. Imagery is the creation or recreation of an experience in your mind using all your senses with as much detail as possible. It’s important to control the image to see it exactly as you want—the ideal. The five senses include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. Practicing imagery is like putting in the mental “reps” that train your mind to perceive pressure or anxieties as working to your advantage as you perform.

Develop a release. Distractions surround us in today’s technologically advanced world, and pressure is one of those distractions that comes and goes as it’s perceived. Developing a focus cue that’s either auditory (e.g., “Now”) or kinesthetic (e.g., snapping fingers) will help you positively respond to the pressure as it rises so you can regain your focus on the thought you want or what you want to do in the moment. Not on what you want to avoid.

Practice mindfulness. Being mindful is simply the process of recognizing if and when your mind wanders toward anything other than the present moment—without judgment or labeling the non-present thought—and redirecting your attention back to the here and now. The present moment is the only moment you can control now. Think of the present moment as this play. Performing mindfully helps you maximize the process that will lead you to the results you want to achieve. Succumbing to pressure takes your mind out of the present; redirecting your attention and awareness to your breath will bring you right back. Breathe with intention.

You may feel that pressure manifests when you feel the need to rise to the occasion. Remember that you’ll never play better than your best, so if you expect something miraculous to happen that hasn’t been practiced before, then you may have false hope. The true performance miracles happen when you see athletes playing their best water polo on the biggest stages while others succumb to the situation because they lack the ability or capacity to handle the pressure. Practice these mental skills and you’ll develop the capacity to handle pressure.

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The Demands Of Leadership

You must lead yourself first before you lead others. In some way or another, you are making an influence on your teammates either through your actions or your words. Leading by example and vocally leading others presents unique challenges. Your personality type impacts how likely you are to gravitate toward one leadership style over another or a combination of the two. However, the most effective team leaders recognize the need to step out of their personality styles and find a combination of both that meets others where they are.

Leaders in sport are commonly viewed as captains or the best players. But just because you’re a great player doesn’t mean you’re a great leader. The best players frequently demonstrate opposing characteristics to those great leaders demonstrate. A team may even have different types of leaders—including leaders in the water, on the bench, and social leaders outside the pool. Any time you are positively influencing the well-being and performance of others, you are in the act of leadership.

Leadership demands a we mentality to action and communication. On a team there are formal leaders who are appointed to the positions and informal leaders who do not have the titles but serve and support their teammates. Great coaches and successful teams build a team culture that includes leaders for different situations.

How do great leaders do their jobs? Here are some of the characteristics of leaders who bring their teams to a higher level:

Lead to serve rather than be served
- Develop a mindset that demonstrates to others that your leadership is not about you.

Earn respect through your actions
- Teammates won’t respect your status as much as they respect what you do.

Walk your talk and earn trust
- Trust is the cornerstone of great teams, and leaders must match their actions to what they ask of others.

Make yourself available for challenging teammate conversations
- Some of the most important conversations for leaders occur outside of regular practice and game times. Be willing to listen to your teammates’ needs.

Put the needs of the team above your own
- Leaders have to put the needs of the team above their own personal demands and make the team the top priority.

Make selfless decisions rather than selfish ones
- It takes a great amount of self-awareness to recognize if your actions are driven by self-fulfilling needs or what’s in the best interest of the team.

Take the heat even if you’re not at fault
- Leadership is not always a glamorous role. Sometimes you need to take responsibility for negative stuff and bring everyone on the team together in owning the repercussions.

Learn to adjust your communication style to the needs of others
- It’s a one-size-fits-one approach to communication. Learn to become emotionally intelligent enough to understand where your teammates are coming from.

Bring an attitude of gratitude and learning every day
- Teammates will gravitate toward you when you’re pleasant to be around and humble enough to realize there is more to learn.

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Controlling the Controllables in Water Polo

Do you ever wonder how athletes stay calm when under immense amounts of pressure? How about when athletes seem to "rise to the occasion" and make a clutch play when the game is on the line. There are a number of ways that peak performances happen but usually it has a lot to do with your focus on controlling what you can control.

When training your own or your athlete's ability to play mentally tough, it is important to develop communication strategies and models which are memorable and can be translated easily to the pool. Mental skills training is an intentional approach to training the mind to perform that helps athletes develop a deeper level of self awareness and self-control. They learn the mental skills that help them prepare to repeat their peak level of performance. A key area to address is the management of energy and emotions.

Every sport has specific physical skills, techniques, and tactics that are unique to successful execution. Water polo probably has the most unique physical skills of any sport due to the uncertainty that the water brings in terms of balance and the motion of the lower body. However, a lot of mental skills are similar across sports with the common factor being that they are people skills first. Think about how the skills of resilience, perseverance, ambition, and motivation translate to the classroom and the workplace. Energy and emotions are two attributes that every person has. In order for a water polo athlete to be successful they need to develop ways to establish a level of self-control that puts them in the driver seat.

Controlling the controllables teaches athletes to shift their focus away from the aspects of the game that zap their energy and spin their emotions downward in a negative direction. It teaches them how to invest their energy supply into the areas where they will see the largest return on their investment. In every game and practice they will not always have 100% of their max but they can decide to give 100% of the energy they do have toward the aspects that yield the best results. What can you control 100% of the time that will increase your impact in the pool?

Attitude -Athletes who have an attitude of optimism and generally see their progress in their sport as positive tend to improve steadily. They also seem to enjoy their sport with the rate of burnout decreasing.

Effort - Everyone has to show some form of effort to simply jump in the pool but the athletes who do more than what's expected on a constant and continual basis will continue to find mastery in the pool. This controllable is about maximum effort and sacrifice of the "me" for the "we".

Energy - Your energy tank can be controlled by the amount and type of fuel you fill it with (i.e. nutrition, hydration, sleep, etc…) and you can use the right attitude and effort to use the energy you have. (Hint: we often underestimate how much energy we have and mood plays a role!) What was your energy when you had your best game? Were you relaxed, in the middle, or hyper before and during?

Enjoyment - As the stress of expectations and competition rises this controllable usually is forgotten. The majority of athletes start and stick with their sport because it's fun. Think of this as your "why". You can always control your motivation for playing and competing. It's important to remind yourself when the going gets tough.

Confidence - One of the myths about confidence is that you either have it or you don't. You are not born with confidence. It is a skill that is developed through a controlled conscious effort to acknowledge micro-successes in your play and also affirm your abilities through self-talk. What do you say to yourself to give yourself a "pep-talk"?

Have a look at these controllables. Challenge yourself to manage your emotions when a referee makes a questionable call or when the coach yells to make sure you know you made a mistake. Are you making excuses as to why something happened the way it did based on aspects out of your control? Aspects out of your control are usually other people or parts of the pool environment.

Exercise: Before the next important game and/or tournament make a list of all the thoughts that bring you anxiety or nerves. Write this out as a team or on your own. Once you have the list cross out all the thoughts that you do not have 100% control over and circle the ones that you do. Use the circled items to remind yourself of where to focus during the game or tournament when you recognize that you are focusing on the uncontrollables that you crossed off.

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