This is the first in a monthly series on sports psychology for polo. Experts and players discuss ways improve your mental game. This month Adam Snow, Sapo Caset, Diego Cavanagh and Memo Gracida talk about moving forward from defeat.
Four dejected players who just lost a major polo tournament ride solemnly off the field. When they get to the team tent the one who had missed what would have been the winning goal collapses into his chair, tosses a towel over his head and weeps. A teammate paces around cursing while another is silent, staring blankly into the distance. The fourth raises his fist in the air and vows, “La próxima! La próxima!” (Next time!)
That cauldron of emotions erupted after a high-stakes final in Argentina a few years ago. Even though polo players know that someone has to win and someone has to lose, that doesn’t make defeat any easier to cope with.
“Athletes hate to lose. Where losing hurts more is in the core of their existence, considering the sweat they put in to get to the final. It can be overwhelming, but losing a big final is not a matter of life and death, while it might be a matter of losing a big bonus,” says Stiliani “Ani” Chroni, Ph.D., professor of sport psychology and sports coaching at Inland Norway School of Sport Sciences in Elverum, Norway.
“To thrive in sport you have to manage your emotions, accept the result and move on,” she says.
That’s easier said than done in polo, which comes with a unique set of pressures that other sports don’t have, says Kristen Dieffenbach, associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University and an executive board member at the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
Polo has a multi-generational legacy, especially in Argentina, that can trigger deep-rooted emotions, notes Dieffenbach, who has studied and counseled polo players.
“Polo is a sport with a rich family dynasty component, so you may have family dynamics mixed with the family business in addition to the performance intensity an elite team has. That creates the added pressure of meeting the expectation of teammates as well as upholding a family legacy,” she says.
“It’s devastating to lose the winning shot. Raw emotion is okay as long as you’re not doing something that harms yourself or others. But take a reality check. Reflect honestly on your performance. Rarely do you lose a game because you were terrible. You may have made a serious mistake, but probably the rest of the game you performed well.”
It is important to put the loss in perspective.“Any loss is just a moment in time. It may feel very bitter, but it’s a point in the development and progress of the athlete, says Chroni. “I have not seen losses that were detrimental to an athlete’s career. It could be detrimental for the day or a few days, but not for his entire career.”
Chroni is one of the few sports psychologists in the world to have worked extensively with professional polo players.Among them is former 10-goaler Adam Snow, who attributes a significant part of his career success to his 13 years of work with her. (See “In His Own Words” below.)
Nine-goaler Diego Cavanagh says a loss can end up in the “win” column if you look at it logically. “Usually you learn more from losing than winning. You have to look at your mistakes but not beat yourself up,” he says. “Of course losing hurts a lot, but we are sportsmen and we believe in our team. We know we are going to keep losing sometimes and having those tough moments. We just have to keep going and fight and come back stronger.”
Everyone has the right to feel lousy the day of a loss or even a couple days afterward, but if a player stays in a blue funk it can tank his self-esteem and confidence in the long run.
“Separating self worth from a [poor] result is key to an athlete’s career. His level of confidence cannot be dependent on the result or his performance that day because it’s not indicative of who he is, what he is and what he can actually accomplish in the future as a polo player,” says Chroni.
Memo Gracida sees it this way: “Some players lose a game and you see their shoulders slump, and they feel like the world has come to an end. Those players are never going to be champions because a champion knows how to rebound.”
The Pieres brothers are a prime example of rebounding. When they didn’t advance beyond the quarterfinals of the 2017 Queen’s Cup in the UK, Gonzalito Pieres said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but we’re not playing like we usually do.” A couple weeks later their King Power Foxes won their third consecutive Gold Cup and became the first team to do so in 30 years.
The secret? Turn lemons into lemonade, suggests a world champion in another sport (martial arts): “Use the emotions of loss as the fuel for your fire. Now you know what needs to be worked on. Anger, emotion, embarrassment is a motivator you cannot put a price on.”
IN HIS OWN WORDS: ADAM SNOW
I think it wouldn’t be so exhilarating to win if it wasn’t so hard [on you] to lose. It felt brutal when we lost the Westchester Cup in 2009 on our home turf in Florida. I was captain and had been involved in choosing the team. But when I learned to shift my focus to what is in my control and leave out what is not, it became easier to accept tough losses and move on to the next game.
There’s not much to stem the pain of a major loss, but for me time is always a healer. Maybe you can’t sleep that night or even two nights after, but with a couple days, a little exercise and maybe a practice game, your focus shifts to where it needs to be: preparing for the next game.
Learn from the loss. Watch the tapes. You may realize, “Oh, it didn’t work because we were lining up this way on the set plays,” or “Maybe I should be playing 3, not 2.”
I learned that it’s more about the playing than the result. I used to say I would prefer to win and play badly than to play well and lose. Winning at all costs was all that mattered to me, even if I played terrible.” (Editor’s note: His wife and co-author, Shelley Onderdonk, DVM, observed in their book, “During tournaments the atmosphere [at home] resonated with his win-loss record.”)
Ani [Chroni] changed my thinking. She said, ‘The only thing in your control is playing, so how can you not be happy when you play your best, regardless of the result?’ Putting my focus on playing and not on winning was key to me being able to achieve what I have in the sport.
There are seven other players out there with me who are trying as hard as they can. I just need to do the best I can with what I’ve got and be happy with that. If I wasn’t able to do my best, then I’m looking for ways to change it in the next game.
(Snow and Onderdonk discuss his journey in sports psychology in their book, “Polo Life: Horses, Sport, 10 and Zen,” available at pololife.co.)
IN HIS OWN WORDS: SAPO CASET
It’s really hard when you lose a major game. It takes time to recover, especially from a big loss in Argentina, because you put everything into it all year. When you’re in Florida or England, of course you focus on that, but your head is always a little bit in Argentina. The whole year you’re thinking about those games, and it’s really disappointing to lose by [almost] nothing when it was so close and the game could have gone either way, for us or for them—for example, our losses in the final of Hurlingham and the semifinals of Palermo [in 2017].
When you ride onto the field you are sure you’re going to win. But whether you do or you don’t, life continues. And as painful as it is to go through those moments when you’re having a hard time, afterward you can use those things in a positive way. That’s how I have done it. After losing [the Argentine triple crown] I felt that I was going to come back stronger and better, and I think I did.
Photography: Liz Lamont Images and David Lominska
Written by: Darlene Ricker