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THE MENTAL GAME: THE INVISIBLE ENEMY ON FIELD 1 TODAY

PoloChannel Staff | 12/16/18

Believe it or not, La Dolfina and Las Monjitas have more to worry about than each other in the Argentine Open final today. Their biggest enemy is themselves.

All elite athletes and mega-teams are vulnerable to what sports psychologists call the “Paradox of Success.” Simply put, the higher you climb, the more it can mess with your head (and in turn, your performance).

After the initial high of making it to the final (or even better, winning) the biggest polo tournament in the world subsides, reality sets in: now what?

You’d better have an answer for that, or you won’t stay on top long. Defending champion La Dolfina has been grappling with that year upon year in Palermo. As their coach Milo Fernandez Araujo said after their first game this season in Tortugas, “Every year it’s harder to stay focused. It’s harder when you win, and you win, and you win than when you did not win. We have to keep changing our thinking.”

That may mean changing a particular player’s position, mixing up which opponent they mark, or revamping the overall plan of attack. Whatever it takes, the pressure to win remains. A team or athlete who sets a crazy-high bar of excellence will be expected to maintain (and even exceed) that standard. It’s unfair to expect Adolfo to “out-Cambiaso” himself, but every time he rides onto the field that’s what he’s facing. The same goes for La Dolfina.

And in a sense it’s not all that different for Las Monjitas. They did the “impossible” by beating Ellerstina, and now they need to do the absolute inconceivable: snatch the trophy from arguably the top-performing polo team in history, and on their first try, no less. (Other than Hilario Ulloa, none of the Las Monjitas players has been a finalist in Palermo.) Ulloa, by the way, has exhibited an excellent attitude. He said it would be a dream come true to win today but that winning the Open would not be “utopia.”

That’s conducive to success because experts say all elite players have to keep setting higher goals in order to keep motivated. But what if you’re La Dolfina? How do you stay hungry when you’ve already won everything from multiple Argentine Opens to the Triple Crown? Isn’t that every polo player’s ultimate goal?

Of course, says Bill Cole, a mental game coach in California who has worked with high-goal players and teams. That’s why he advises top teams to get creative in their goal-making. Some of his suggestions:

  • “Once at the top, staying there for an extended time is a cool goal. Looking back at the history books gives great sources for new, juicy goals. What is the longest polo winning streak in history? In that event?”

 

  • “Then a team can look at scoring: What teams scored the most points ever, and can we beat that? How many shut-outs in how many chukkers have existed? Can we be the first to do that? Or if done before, how many times? Can we beat that? How many goals have been scored in a short space of time? Can we beat that?”

     

On top of that, say experts, you have to keep playing polo fun in and of itself, or you may as well hang up your mallet for good. As Dr. Jim Taylor noted in a 2017 “Psychology Today” article, having fun being at the top is important because “Without fun, success has little value or meaning.” And that is a recipe for burnout and poor performance.

Las Monjitas has far less to worry about in that regard, at least today. They’re still the proverbial kid in the candy store, so it’s easier for them to look at this final as fun. Cole says that “correct thinking” for them is: “We have nothing to lose. Let's just go for it! We have had a great season and even if we lose, we have zero to be ashamed about. We got here once; we can do it again, and next time we’ll win.”

 

Photography: Helen Cruden