The influence that a role model can have on a young athlete is amazing. As a youngster, I took a mentor’s exact words to heart on numerous occasions. For example, when I was 11, one of my idols on the USA Olympic team insisted that his “breakfast of champions” was chocolate milk and chocolate donuts (the ones at 7 eleven that come in packs of 6!). Well, I had that for breakfast every chance I got until my Dad asked me what I was doing. He explained that so much sugar wasn’t actually very good for my health.
When I first made the USA National Team at 16 I was just a kid who loved to play. But it wasn’t long before I realized that actually getting to the Olympics was going to be war. I was accustomed to scoring at least 2-3 goals per game. When I started to score less (or not at all!) during national team practices, the change came as a huge shock. In fact, I had no idea how to adjust my thinking and accept the new situation. I subsequently found myself at the FINA World Championships in Australia playing what felt like the worst tournament of my life! I didn’t score during the first quarter and felt like a complete failure.
At that exact moment, the great Monte Nitskowski (assistant coach) pulled me aside. He told me not to worry about scoring because, in the end, water polo greatness is most determined by the capacity to be a dynamic team player. From that moment forward I entered every game visualizing defense. I wanted the players who guarded me to later have nightmares thanks to the fact that I never, ever stopped moving. If the opportunity arose I would shoot, but I also focused on making assists, sprinting for the ball, and making steals on defense. It was this change in mindset that led me to my first Olympic Games.
Now I run my own water polo clinics, camps, and training sessions for young players. The advice I offer these players stems from great personal reflection and/or background research. I know I am training the future stars of the sport, and if my advice is half as helpful as that of Nitskowski’s or that of my other mentors then I know these talented kids have a great chance to succeed!
Keep working hard,