Polo is a sport of extremeness. The combination of a stick, a ball, an opponent, and a horse make every game a challenge. The fine line between soft hands and raw muscle power and the ability to sync with an animal is something every player must master. Being a polo player is about balancing aggressiveness, self-confidence, and rebelliousness with passion, discipline, and a strong commitment to animal welfare. We have to manage our horse, the opponent, the ball, and the pressure. It requires good mental skills and mental toughness to stay calm and perform under such circumstances. It is rough, fast, and incredibly difficult. This is why polo is considered to be one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
The mental game of the rider often determines one’s performance, but not all of us are born this way, including myself. It requires practice, dedication, teamwork, and an excellent routine to manage anxiety and fear. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to play with lots of outstanding players—opponents, patrons, and pros, who have all pushed me to become better on the field.
Along with the community of great players, I also acquired takeaways from my encounters with them that helped my physical and mental self in check. Here, I list down three strategies I learned from the sport of polo that will help one perform under pressure—as a leader in business, team player, and in life.
Learn to stay calm yet sharp
Being afraid is not fun. However, it is a part of being human and is supposed to protect us from danger. In polo, we are all aware of the risk of falling off the horse or getting hurt. Other factors such as not living up to the expectations of coaches and teammates can also take its toll on our emotions. It can shrink our confidence and make us hesitate. This will not only affect our performance, as it will quickly become a part of our horse’s performance, too. A simple and efficient technique for stress relief is to control your breath. I learned this from the legendary polo world champ and friend Sunny Hale and ex-Navy Seal officer Mark Divine, who refers to ‘box breathing’ in his book “Unbeatable Mind.” This will help you regain focus and calm your nervous system.
Create a ‘What If’ plan
The players I know—both pros and patrons—are in the sport because of their love for horses and passion for polo. We don’t play for fame, money, and glory, but trophies only. This is what separates our sport from others. The best players are grateful to be in a sport they love and have no sense of entitlement. Of course, we play to win, but we also prepare for injuries, pain, mental and physical setbacks, bad weather, and defeat. What possible scenarios at this stage would look like one hour from now? How about five months? Critical reflection on strategic and tactical preparations, sense-making, reliable learning, and risk management are important key factors in laying down extraordinary performances. Research from Scandinavian sport studies supports this and highlights the importance of having mantras in reducing stress and removing performance anxiety.
Be grateful for the pressure and share your mantra with your teammates.
Polo is a high contact sport. It has been described as playing golf in an earthquake and is not for the faint-hearted. As far as I know, it is the only sport where we play mixed teams—which brings me back to my bleeding eye and my teammate. Falling off a horse going 30 miles an hour is bad enough, but getting a ball in your face or being tackled by an opponent on a five hundred kilo horse while getting his elbow in your face can be scary—very scary. It is so frightening that it makes you question if you want to get back on the horse.
“Is it bad?” I asked and looked up at my teammate. I tried to get a glimpse of the field as I started calling for my horse, who was running flat out on the field—a vision that probably would have impressed me if I could see. But I couldn’t see. I got blinded by my own tears and blood before I hit the ground.
“Give me a moment,” I told my teammate.
“I don’t think I’m ready to …”
“Take your time,” he replied and continued saying, “Sterk og klar.”
Despite his wholehearted attempt to pronounce my mantra (which means strong and ready) in my native language (Norwegian), I couldn’t help but notice the effect it had on me. I had repeated that mantra a thousand times in my head before, but it sounded different coming from him. It deeply touched me. His support and compassion snapped me out of the fear that had crept up on me. It got me back in the saddle and made us continue the game exactly like we should: strong, sharp, and ready.
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Anne Gry Ringen is the previous patron of Paisano Dragons Polo Team and currently the managing director of Miit in Norway.