So, a year ago I started playing water polo again—a sport I never thought I’d return to after leaving it my first year in college.
As a youth, I played for eight years and it was a huge part of my life—the sun in my solar system. I went to college to play (and perhaps get a degree). Then something happened. Life didn’t go the way I’d hoped it would go.
As a result: I quit the team and thought I left polo for good. At the time, it was heartbreaking. I concluded that I’d somehow failed, that I wasn’t good enough, and it was time to move on.
I’m wondering if you’ve got a “water polo” too. Something you loved that you let go of a long time ago. Because it was time to grow up and move on. It was time for starting a career or a family or something else adulty.
Anyone else feeling a pang of sadness in their heart?
Because it is sad when we talk ourselves out of something we love.
And for any of the recovering perfectionists, over-achiever types out there (like moi), our brains can get very clever in terms of talking-points.
Proposing logic like:
It’s not worth doing if you can’t do it as well as you used to.
That was a long time ago—you’re not that person anymore.
You’re old and you’re going to hurt yourself.
You’ll embarrass yourself.
Really—your Clever Brain will use any logic to squash any notion of actually doing that thing you love.
So, it was a year ago today—with a head full of those kinds of inspiring thoughts that I followed my dear and maybe-sometimes-bossy friend Calla (she’s a proud Aries) to my first Sunday practice with a Masters water polo team. Before the rumors start, I just want to be clear: Masters doesn’t refer to our level of play, it just means that we’re no longer in college.
I did not show up on the pool deck with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. In fact, had Calla and I not carpooled and driven 40 minutes to get there, there’s a good chance I would have turned around and gone home—where I would have been safe from embarrassing myself.
I was nervous. I felt uncomfortable and vulnerable. I didn’t want to be a liability to my team—the team that I was meeting for the first time.
I think it’s important to underscore that the stakes were damn low, y’all. This was Sunday club water polo. Not tryouts for the National Team.
It was supposed to be fun!
Bless my Clever Brain that was turning it into a BIG DEAL.
This is what so many of us do when faced with the prospect of attempting to reconnect to something that matters. We can’t help but hear that clever part of our brain, which tells us a story oft titled, This is a Terrible Idea.
Again—for me, this was water polo. For you—maybe it was something you loved doing when you were younger that you left behind because you thought you were done. Or that you were supposed to be done with.
Maybe you used to love theater and performing for an audience. Maybe you wrote songs in a band. Maybe you created your own poetry or short stories or were working on a novel. Maybe you had an invention you wanted to bring to life or a business you wanted to start.
Your “water polo” could be anything. Anything that you once enjoyed and haven’t dared to return to—likely not in years.
Here’s what I learned by daring to return to water polo this past year:
1 // Just showing up is a win.
I’ve lost count of how many times I almost didn’t go to Sunday water polo. How many times on Saturday night I cringed, thinking, “ Shit. Water polo tomorrow morning.” How many times I deeply sighed as I got ready anyway. How often I tried to just distract myself and not pay attention to the barrage of resistance and self-sabotage sponsored each week by my Clever Brain.
Most of the time, I wasn’t glad to have showed up until practice was over and we were talking about where to go to lunch.
You might be wondering, “Why in the world would you do something that you sparked so much dread?”
I asked myself that question every single week.
What I came up with is this: For me, there was victory in just showing up to practice. Taking it one next right step at a time—knowing damn well that this was less about practicing water polo and much more about practicing moving through my own resistance.
Showing up was the win. I felt proud of myself afterward. I’d done something that wasn’t easy for me to do: I beat my own internal propaganda. Amy = 1, Clever Brain = 0.
And more importantly, a motley crew of loveable teammates who welcomed me regardless of my fluctuating moods.
2 // There is victory in winning ugly.
It wasn’t until maybe six months of showing up most Sundays that I started to see flashes of my former competence. Which meant that for many moons (and really 95% of the time I’m in the water), I struggled to recapture any sense of confidence.
And yet, I won ugly.
By which I mean: I slogged up and down the pool, getting burned on drives (that’s water polo lingo for not being able to keep up with the person you’re supposed to be guarding), trailing on offense, and generally feeling super awkward most all the time.
There was a moment not that long ago when I scored a goal and couldn’t stop myself from flinging my head back, face to the sky, and yelling really quite loud, “THANK YOU JESUS!”
I’m not even Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from watching me play. There’s a lot of prayer and praise for Jesus involved.
The picture I’m trying to paint here is that I grew to be proud of myself not only for showing up (because sometimes I would show up and not get in water), but for getting in and getting awkward.
Because with so many things, I don’t persevere through the awkward. I give up. Which is why this was such victory. I couldn’t find satisfaction in my performance or competence. I wasn’t going to be the strongest or fastest or wisest.
I was just going to be someone who showed up most Sundays.
Turns out, that’s enough to win ugly.
3 // No one can guard me as well as I guard myself.
I know that I hold myself to high standards—to the point where it’s not really helpful. I know that when I feel out of my depth, I can easily default to old habits of being really hard on myself. That’s a thing that some of us do.
So, I can really get that the high drama of Sunday water polo is a special screening played only in my head.
The near constant barrage of self-inflicted mental abuse is my own defensive strategy. My Clever Brain knows that I want to contribute to my team. It knows I take pride in being good at things, making great plays, and scoring goals. It also knows that I strive to lead by example. Which is exactly why it antagonizes me like a sadistic drill sergeant every time I even think about playing water polo.
So anyone guarding me in the pool need not fret. For they’ve got some help, in the form of my Clever Brain. It’s right there with the mental field-blocks and emotional press defense, working hard to shut me down.
It goes like this: If my Clever Brain can convince me that I am a liability, with little to contribute, I feel discouraged. If it can meticulously note every time I make a mistake, miss an opportunity, or am overpowered, I question myself value. If it can tell me a story every week that water polo is hard and painful and demoralizing, I might just stop going altogether.
That would be a victory for my Clever Brain. For all it wants is for me to stay safe. Staying safe means not trying. It means not risking embarrassment or discomfort. It means not encouraging myself or showing any self-compassion.
The thing is: I can be a real competitive bitch sometimes.
Ask my teammates, they’ll tell you!
Which is why I am determined not to let my Clever Brain win this one. Despite the fact that I’m playing two games anytime I’m in the pool—one being water polo and the other in my head—I am still hauling myself up and down the pool. Regardless of whether I’m being guarded by my defender or double-teamed by my Clever Brain.
Getting back in the game
I’m curious about your “water polo.” I wonder what your Clever Brain has been talking you out of or defending against. I’m trying to imagine what bench you’re sitting on, watching others play, wishing you could feel how you used to feel—when you were out on the field, giving it your best shot.
But if you need permission or encouragement to get back in and get awkward, I’m here to cheer you on. Not because you’ll reclaim your prowess right away. Not because you won’t embarrass yourself at times. Not because it will be easy or breezy or you won’t get wheezy.
Because I’m reminded every Sunday:
If your Clever Brain is trying to stop you, it’s a great sign. It means you’re moving toward something that matters. It means you’re being brave. It means that you’re moving outside you comfort zone and getting back in the game.
That—my dear, awkward, out of shape, winners of ugly—is straight up victory.
P/S This is not an easy to do. And lots of times we just bench ourselves without even realizing it. Which is why I help people learn how to master their Clever Brain and win ugly.
It’s not an accident that I’ve been playing polo again for a year now. It was a choice and a practice and a skill I’ve developed. The sum of which I describe as making progress on purpose. If you’re game for knowing more (I know, I KNOW with the sport punnish-meant) and are curious as to whether or not I can help you, click on that teal "Contact Us" button on the far right. Let's find out!