This is Part 2 of our sports psychology series on how developing a “quiet eye” can improve the accuracy of your swing. A leading expert who has worked with polo players of all levels explains how you can develop a quiet eye—and it all starts in your head.
When 10-goaler Sapo Caset is winding up to take a penalty shot, especially at a critical moment in the game, what does he think about? “Nothing,” he says. “I don’t think before I hit the ball. I concentrate on my breathing, and it just happens.”
That comes as no surprise to mental coach Bill Cole, who has worked with polo players. “Elite players play on the body level, not on the conscious level,” he says. “They don’t think about their technique. It’s automatic.
Thinking about something is not the same as experiencing it, he adds. “If you’re thinking about it, you’re one level removed from being aware of it. If you’re up in your head, you’re just distracting yourself with the noise inside you. Your mind is interfering with your ability to really be ‘in’ the game.”
Cole points to three types of mental noise that ruin sports performance: thoughts; physical tension caused by worry; and negative emotions. “The anxiety hits us at all three levels simultaneously. We’re a system,” he says.
Cole’s extensive field research has shown that alleviating anxiety requires “getting out of your head and into your body”— or in other words, having a quiet mind. “Mental focus is internal; visual focus is external. You can look at the ball but not really see the ball because your mental focus is interfering with your visual focus,” he says. “That’s faulty concentration, and it happens all the time with athletes.”
There are several ways to get yourself into the quiet mind state, including mental coaching, hypnosis, yoga, meditation or a combination. Or, if your mind works like Sugar Erskine’s does, you may be able to give yourself a good talking to and just go for it.
Erskine taught himself to quiet his mind—although he was unaware that he was doing so—while preparing for his comeback in the 2018 Florida high-goal season. The previous year he had suffered a serious injury that sidelined him for months. Doctors said he may never be able to play again. Erskine was determined to get back on the field, and he did. But it wasn’t easy.
“The hardest part was the mental side, just forgetting about what had happened. Sometimes you think about it too much,” he says. While trying to extinguish his anxiety and concentrate his focus on the ball, Erskine found himself fighting a running commentary in his head: “Be careful, don’t get hurt again . . . you aren’t the same player you were . . . the other team is so much better . . . what if you mess up?”
“I went right out there and was focusing on trying to hit the ball and at the same time worrying about letting the team down. After a while I realized that I was the problem, not my skills,” says Erskine. “I thought, ‘Man, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Why am I even worried about hitting the ball?’ I had to get out of my own head. Once I forgot about what happened, it was easier to get back in the game.”
Six months later the invincible Sugar Erskine was back playing for the Coca-Cola polo team.
Next in Part 3: A do-it-yourself kit: exercises you can use to quiet your mind and up your game
Photography: Helen Cruden and Liz Lamont Images