Few people don’t know that I have been playing water polo since I was 8 years old. In fact, the first thing people often know about me is the fact that I’m a water polo freak. That’s how much water polo means to me. Over the years, it has become such a huge part of my life, that I can state that I have two social lives: college and water polo. When I’m not at university, I’m either with my college friends doing some homework, or with my water polo friends at the swimming pool. When I was younger, people at school often called me crazy, telling me I needed to rest and needed to have a day off. It didn’t make sense to me. After a long day at school, all I wanted to do was just be with my friends at the swimming pool and play water polo! Why couldn’t they understand that?
Now that I’m older, I can understand why they always told me that. They just didn’t know what it means, dedicating such a huge part of your life to doing what you love most. They didn’t know about the other kids in my water polo team who were at the swimming pool every day. It often frustrated me that they just wouldn’t understand me. That’s why I loved being with my water polo friends even more. They knew what it was like, we all understood each other.
My team was great. We were all close friends and liked being together so much that we even saw each other in our spare time. Most of us still play water polo and we often see each other at the swimming pool. Although we are no longer together as a team, we will always have a special connection, remembering the times when we had so much fun. These days, most of us play water polo as a hobby, giving priority to work or school. But two of my former team mates still consider water polo their main priority. They train every day during a regular school week and often even give priority to water polo over school. They are part of the Dutch female water polo team under 19, which won the gold medal in the European Championship under 19 tournament in the summer of 2016.
When I think about what I had to sacrifice when I was younger, I almost can’t imagine what it’s like for these girls, dedicating their whole life to water polo. The people in my class back in the days couldn’t even understand me, let alone that people can understand these girls. Therefore, this research paper is about their (and their team’s) lives as gold medal winners: How does the collective experience of the Dutch female water polo team under 19 of 2016 contribute to their success story and their personal attachments? It focuses on how they’ve experienced being a professional water polo player and what role the team has played in this. Based on these experiences, it tries to understand how they’ve changed individually during this journey, how they stayed motivated to dedicate a huge part of their daily lives to water polo, and which factors contributed to their success.
Two girls were interviewed: Hester and Sarah. To guarantee their privacy, these are not their actual names. Hester, who was 15 years old during this research, has been a member of several Dutch youth water polo teams before she was chosen to be part of this one. She didn’t make the tournament but still has gone through almost the entire process. Sarah, who was 18 years old during this research, has been playing water polo ever since she could swim. In 2015, she was selected for the Dutch Olympic team but the team missed the Olympic Games the following year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I know the girls personally, which made them talk about their experiences relatively easily and made me understand their stories better. Although I have never played water polo professionally, in many ways I could relate to what they were telling me. Therefore, this research is partly based on some of my own thoughts and experiences. Sometimes reference will be made to them, to show where my interpretation might be guided by my own involvement.
I will begin with a detailed description of the team. What does a day in the life of a professional water polo player look like? Next, I will discuss what motivated them to sacrifice so much to be professional water polo players and what role has the team played in this? I will end with how this experience changed them as a person.
One team, one dream
These girls’ individual water polo journeys started years ago. They were part of several Dutch water polo teams before they joined this one. The first time they were chosen to be part of a national team, I was still part of the same team as Sarah (she was thus part of two teams). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t surprised at all. I was happy for her because I knew this was what she had always wanted.
From the very first moment I got to know these girls, I knew they were destined for something bigger. Both girls were so talented and very ambitious. I liked water polo and definitely had to sacrifice a lot of my time, but these girls were different. My teammates and I sometimes had to cancel a training because of school, but these girls were always present. Even then, when we were just kids playing water polo for fun.
At the time, the first step to a professional water polo career was WOCNH (Waterpolo Opleidings Centrum Noord Holland), a training centre for selected girls and boys in several age categories in the province of North Holland. For me, this was the first and only step towards a professional water polo career I took with them. We trained every Sunday for 2 to 3 hours. I loved that I was chosen and that I finally was part of something special in the water polo world, but I hated the training and to sacrifice my relaxed Sunday with my family for it. That’s why I quit early, the thought of being part of a special team wasn’t enough to keep me going. But these girls continued, they made the team and it was the start of their ultimate dream: to join the national female water polo team.
Shortly before this research took place, these girls were part of the Dutch female team under 19 that won the gold medal in the European Championship under 19 tournament in the summer of 2016, which means that they were almost living their dream. They were now dedicating their lives to water polo at a whole other level. The team was together for about one whole year (2016). Some of them have been training together for about six years, but they started training as a team at the beginning of 2016. During that year, Sarah’s weekly schedule consisted almost entirely of water polo. Four days a week she had to get up early to drive to the training centre with some of her teammates who lived nearby. Sometimes one of their mothers drove them, since they didn’t have their driver’s license yet. On Sundays she usually had a day off and the remaining two days were filled with training and matches with her team at her original water polo club. Although she was 18 years old and hadn’t finished high school yet, she fully focused on water polo and stopped going to school for a while.
During the summer of 2016, to prepare for the tournament, their schedules became even more professional. During the school year, not everyone could cancel school for training. So when school was finally over, the team started training five and sometimes six days a week. Hester told me about their daily schedule:
“In the mornings we did weight training for one and a half hour, then we got to rest for about fifteen minutes. Afterwards we got in the water for one and a half hour, then rest again for about two or three hours and then back in the water again for the last two hours. Really all day nothing but training. Only on Wednesdays we had the afternoon off. Oh and on Saturdays and Sundays of course.”
Training five to six hours a day and getting some rest in between shows that their weeks during that summer were filled with training. Some of them even stayed the whole week because they had to travel too far. They lived by the saying almost every water polo player (in the Netherlands) knows: “Water polo [is] a way of life”.
Both girls mentioned how close they were as a team. During the summer, they all got to know each other well and Hester told me that they really became friends. They liked being together so much that some girls spent more time together after a long training day. When I asked why they became good friends, Hester and Sarah both mentioned the goal they all shared. Everyone wanted to win the gold medal at the tournament. Moreover, they all understood each other. Hester told me that she could finally be her true self. At school, as I also experienced, she felt like no one understood her:
“Here, I am a different person than I am at school, because at school I am much more quiet because… At school everyone has different priorities, everyone goes to parties, drinks alcohol and smokes… But I absolutely don’t do that because I’m focused on water polo and at school nobody is. Here [with the team] I can totally be myself and at school I sometimes can’t talk about certain topics [with her friends at school] because I can’t relate to them.”
Hester points out their shared identities by telling that, in comparison with the people at school, the girls in this team can talk about relatable topics with each other. At school, everyone has their own hobbies and their own (conflicting) personalities. But everyone in this team shared the same dreams: to win the gold medal (together) in the short-term, and to become a professional water polo player in the long-term. They all knew what it’s like to sacrifice a huge part of their life to try to fulfill their dreams and that is what made them so close. Thus, the team provided a sense of belonging; they were finally surrounded by the people they have so much in common with.
Perhaps owing to this sense of belonging, they didn’t feel any competition between them, despite the fact that they started with fifteen girls but could only play the tournament with thirteen. While twelve of them knew from the start that they would make the team, three girls had to compete for the remaining position. Hester was one of them, yet she told me that there wasn’t any competition between them, because they cared about each other and knew how much they all wanted this.
The cohesion based on their shared goals and their shared understanding can be seen as a form of mechanical solidarity, a concept by Durkheim, which is solidarity based on similarities between people (Ritzer, 2014). It is this type of solidarity these girls showed. They not only shared the same goal, they also understood each other as a result of going through the same process. Although Durkheim states that in modern society people unify because of differences between them (organic solidarity), this shows that mechanical solidarity still exists nowadays.
Moreover, the team as a basis of a sense of belonging is in line with other studies about sport teams (Chin, 2016; Walseth, 2006; Spaaij, 2015). Sport teams can, for example, create feelings of belonging within minority groups by providing social support, by creating feelings of reciprocity and by creating feelings of identity confirmation (Walseth, 2006). Although the girls in this team aren’t a minority group as they are all white middle-class youth, the reasons for their feelings of belonging are similar. The minority group created a ‘we’ feeling through shared identities based on practicing the same sport (identity confirmation) (Walseth, 2006). This is exactly what Hester described; their shared identities are based on everyone being professional water polo players.
But this is not just a function of a sport team. Other youth groups can, for example by listening to the same music together, also provide a sense of connection (O’Brien, 2013). This shows, once again, that a feeling of belonging is constructed by shared activities. This team thus provided a sense of belonging as a result of spending the majority of their time playing water polo together, which resulted in shared identities.
My greatest motivation back in the days was the team. I loved water polo, but I loved it even more because of the fun we had. We played several Dutch Championships and of course, that was a great motivator. Thinking about being number one in your own country makes you want to train even harder. But I still could not have done it without my team. That was also one of the reasons why I stopped training at the WOCNH, as mentioned previously. I only knew some of these girls and even after a few weeks I still didn’t feel like I was a part of the team since we didn’t get along very well.
My own story shows that one goal is not enough to keep you going. So with this in mind, I asked the girls about their motivation to keep going. Dedicating your whole life to water polo is difficult, especially when you’re young and when you’re at the age of possibilities since many opportunities to change your future remain open (Arnett, 2004). So what makes them want to continue?
In analysing this strong dedication, I use a framework provided by Ryan and Deci (2000). They distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within: an individual wants to do something because it is amusing of satisfying. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from the outside: an individual wants to do something because it is rewarding. While intrinsic motivation is important, it is certainly not the most prominent. In my research I found that both types motivated these girls to achieve their goals and that the distinction is not as clear as it may seem.
As stated earlier, these girls shared two dreams: to win the gold medal and to become a part of the Dutch Olympic team when they are older. Both are extrinsic motivators. Their gold medal is a reward for all their hard work. Hester mentioned: “Precisely because we’ve been training for so long, precisely because we have been working towards our goal, we can keep going. You really work towards the tournament.” And Sarah told me: “That goal is very important. More important than your whole summer”. Besides, while Sarah is already part of the Dutch Olympic team, this team brought Hester (and the other girls) a bit closer to her ultimate dream. It can therefore be seen as a form of extrinsic motivation through identification (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Hester knew she had to go through this to get a chance to fulfill her dream, so she identified with the importance of her behaviour.
Their shared dream was only one of three motivators. The second motivator is important; it’s intrinsic. Hester mentioned that she liked to be around the girls:
H: “Being there for each other, to support each other when things get you down and telling each other that we can do this and that we will go for it together when someone is having a tough time… that’s a thing in team sports. Because if you ice skate for example, and you really don’t feel like going to the training, there’s no one to motivate you. And in a team, you tell each other that you all can do it.”
Me: “Has the team made it [this experience] more enjoyable?”
H: “Yes, without a doubt. I don’t think I could train on my own the whole summer. That’s just it…. I can do this, because I like it so much. I like it with these girls. That’s it especially, I just…. I often don’t feel like going to the training again. But as soon as I’m there, as soon as I’m with the girls I think, yes! This is fun!”.
Hester explains how important the team was to keep them going. She could not have trained on her own the whole summer; she needed the team to accomplish this. She further states that they supported each other by expressing their faith in each other and by emphasizing that they would accomplish their goals together. Moreover, the girls became close friends and just enjoyed being together. The training was not just about training, but about hanging out with each other. Sarah also mentioned that during the summer, they sometimes felt like everyone in the country was enjoying the hot summer days on the beach, while they were inside all day. But to her it was fine because she was with the girls; the fact that they were in this together made them forget about the downsides of sacrificing a summer. For Hester, who didn’t make the team in the end, it was the reason that she would do this all over again:
Me: “Would you do this all over again?”
H: “Yes, without a doubt [She smiles]! I think it’s nice to see that a group of girls all have the same goal, that they want to achieve that together and now…. in the end they win the gold medal. That’s of course the greatest thing ever. And if you win that… then… yeah they just did it you know. You really have that feeling like… I can’t really describe it. It’s just really beautiful.
H: “Yes! Very, very proud.”
The fact that Hester would sacrifice so much again, even if she knew she wasn’t going to make the team, shows how close these girls were. She’s proud to have been a part of this team. Thus, the second motivator was the team itself and this is an intrinsic motivator, since it’s not about any reward. It’s about being together and enjoying the solidarity and sense of belonging.
The third motivator was again an external one: these girls established a strong reciprocal relationship. They knew that they could only get through this together. Water polo is a team sport; you can’t win a gold medal on your own. Everyone in a team is important since everyone has her own tasks during a match. Winning a game is not a result of a talented individual player, but of the whole team working together. This is something the girls began to realise by training together for a long time, discovering everyone’s individual talents and by having faith in each other. This realisation entailed an introjected regulation, a form of extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). There was a certain amount of pressure to behave as desired to avoid feelings of guilt. By not showing up on a training or by breaking the rules these girls not only let themselves down, but also their teammates. Everyone had to develop their own talents in order to make the team as a whole preform at its best. So they knew that they all, individually, had a major influence on the fulfillment of their collective dreams, realising that each team member can make a difference.
Thus, because of the cohesion, these girls developed a reciprocal relationship, which increased their cohesion. This didn’t happen overnight; Hester mentioned that there used to be some problems before they could work in unison. Some girls liked to party on the weekends, which was strongly frowned upon. The team talked to them and they slowly came to the realisation that their behaviour influenced the whole team, which made them stop the undesired behaviour.
These reciprocal relationships were a very important aspect of this particular team, because Hester and Sarah both mentioned that such relationships barely existed in their club teams. Both girls didn’t share their dreams with their teammates from the club. They played water polo for fun and didn’t sacrifice as much. Cancelling a training was allowed and happened rather often. Thus, in the club team, there was less cohesion, which meant that there was less reciprocity, which lessened the cohesion.
The extrinsic and intrinsic motivators overlap. First of all, the intrinsic motivator was an important one. Hester showed that it was a motivator in itself, but it also strengthened the second extrinsic motivator: the reciprocal relationship. It they weren’t such great friends the feelings of guilt wouldn’t have been as strong. Moreover, their shared goal (the first extrinsic motivator) was one of the initial reasons for becoming so close. But it was impossible to fulfill this dream without everybody working hard for it, so the reciprocal relationship was needed to keep them motivated. Moreover, this relationship increased their cohesion even more. Thus, because these motivators were mutually reinforcing, it can be stated that all motivators were needed to keep these girls going. These motivators contributed to the cohesion and thereby to the sense of belonging. One motivator was the cohesion itself, but the other two, the reciprocal relationships and their shared goals, contributed to the cohesion in the way that they created commonalities between the girls and that they supported cooperation.
Individual learning process
Before I started this research, I thought a lot about who I was. While writing this, I still don’t know who I truly am, but I do know that water polo has mostly made me the person I am today. The people, the disappointments, the victories, the hard times; I learned a lot from it. I learned that not everything will always go as planned and that sometimes things go wrong, but that this doesn’t mean that you have failed. Especially these harder times taught me how to handle disappointments and how to respect other’s individual way of handling these things. It can be stated that water polo has become a huge part of my identity, even though I just played it for fun. That’s one of the reasons why I asked the girls about how this experience changed them.
The other reason is that during their journey, all girls were between 15 and 19 years old, which means that they were at the age of identity formation (Gray, 2014; Arnett, 2004). According to Erikson, adolescence is the period when adolescents give up their childhood identity and form a new identity, which may cause an identity crisis (Erikson, ; discussed in Gray, 2014, pp. 483). Arnett (2004), on the other hand, states that identity formation takes place during emerging adulthood, the period between adolescence and adulthood. This particular period is one of trying out various possibilities, which influences the emerging adult’s identity. Moreover, forming an identity is mostly a social process (Best, 2011). Goffman (as discussed in Best, 2011) states that one’s personal identity is formed by one’s social identity.
Another relevant theory for this section is Goffman’s frontstage and backstage theory (Goffman, 1956/2012; Ritzer, 2014). He states that people want to present themselves in a certain way (a presentation that will be accepted in the particular situation) by suppressing certain facts that don’t fit the situation (Ritzer, 2014). This is part of what he calls the front: “that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (Goffman, 1956/2012, pp. 49). In contrast to the frontstage, there is the backstage (Ritzer, 2014). The suppressed facts may show up here, because there is no need to perform at the backstage. Goffman further states that this performance influences the self: “In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons” (Goffman, 1956/2012, pp.48).
The distinction between the frontstage and backstage, as well as the social aspect of identity formation, are closely related to the girls’ experiences. Because of the high team cohesion, this team was a backstage and frontstage at the same time. As stated earlier, Hester could finally be herself around the girls. She further explained:
“I feel like I’m really a part of this team, that I can do something, that I’m good at something. Therefore, I am more confident here than at school, here everyone respects each other because everyone’s good at this”.
Thus, Hester felt respected here. She felt confident around these girls and therefore felt like she could be her true self. She didn’t have to hide her feelings, because the team understood her, unlike her friends at school. In Goffman’s terms, she didn’t have to suppress certain facts about herself here, which made the team function as a backstage.
But the team also operated as a frontstage. Sarah had to play the role of a leader. She was among the oldest and most experienced players, so she had to lead the younger and less experienced players. Sarah named it a role herself because she had to, it was a task assigned to her. And to fulfil a task properly, it is sometimes needed to hide feelings or personality traits (Ritzer, 2014), which makes this a performance (and thus a frontstage). But not only Sarah played a role. These girls had to be professional. They had to follow the rules, and sometimes had to set aside their emotions in order to keep functioning as a cohesive team. When things went wrong during matches for example, they couldn’t just give in to their emotions (like anger towards themselves or another player for making a mistake), but had to stay focused in order to perform at their best.
Both Hester and Sarah considered this positive: both learned from what happened at the frontstage. The age gap between the oldest and the youngest girls was relatively big: Hester and Sarah were respectively 15 and 18 years old. Hester considered this difficult at first: “I got pushed to talk to these older girls when I didn’t really know them”. But as soon as she got to know them, she learned from it; she now easily talks to people who are older than she is, especially in her team at her club. The age gap there is even bigger; some girls are above the age of 25, but Hester now talks to them more easily than she did before. Sarah experienced it in a similar way: because of her leading role, she felt like she became more extrovert. Thus, Sarah’s role became part of her personality.
This experience made Hester and Sarah stronger. They stated that they now have more perseverance, because they’ve experienced that they can push themselves to their limits. I already knew that they had much more perseverance than me, which was the reason I quit while they continued, but apparently the experience heightened their perseverance even more. Hester stated that this was also needed to make the team; giving up is never an option when you want to fulfill your dream. This led Hester to mention another crucial point: their similar personalities. They shared not only a goal, but also some personality traits. Not only perseverance was needed, but extroversion and ambition were crucial too. Without an ambitious personality, the girls would have never made the team as their goals could not be fulfilled within a short period of time.
Hester’s statement about her increased perseverance shows that existing personality traits were strengthened during their journey. Both Hester and Sarah also admitted that they already were extrovert. They didn’t consider themselves shy when they started this journey, but, as mentioned, did feel that they became more extrovert. So perseverance and extroversion were not only needed to make the team, but these shared personality traits were also strengthened during this experience as a result of it being the desired behaviour. Nevertheless, Sarah also stated that it’s very important to have different personalities in a team:
“You need opposites in a team. (…) There are negative and positive people, and if you look at everything positively, you won’t improve yourself. And if you look at everything negatively, you won’t improve yourself either. But if you sometimes look at things negatively and sometimes positively, you can improve yourself. You really learn from that. I experienced that myself. (…) I have experienced this personally, in my daily life. I look at things differently when I’ve been with the team. Because I notice that whenever I’ve been with Jong Oranje [Dutch Youth team] I look at things differently than when I’ve been with my team at the water polo club. These are very little differences, but I do change. (…) I have an example: because of the team [the Olympic team] missing the Olympic games, I became negative, I got into a downward spiral. I became very negative, a little too negative. And when I got back with the girls, I became a lot more positive because they told me to stop.”
Sarah tried to learn from the opposite personalities in her team by finding a way between positivity and negativity in order to improve herself. Sarah acknowledged that they all needed perseverance and ambition to keep going, but still stressed the importance of having opposites in one team to learn from. She continued:
“I now know what my weaknesses and strengths are, for water polo but also in my daily life. I can be quite hard on myself and on others, and my friend confronted me with that this summer. I sometimes… I expect a lot from myself and sometimes I can, unconsciously, expect the same from others. But if they are having a hard time, they can’t meet these expectations. They might feel like they have let me down then, when the opposite is true. (…) I now have a better understanding of who I am.”
This reveals a lot. First of all, note how she calls her teammate a friend. Second, the fact that her friend confronted her with her behaviour shows that they were utterly honest with each other, which allowed them to learn from their behaviour and gain a better understanding of themselves. This shows once again how close these girls were and how this played a huge role, also in their learning process.
The Dutch female water polo team under 19 of 2016 showed great team cohesion as a result of the sense of belonging, which kept them motivated and played an important role in their individual learning processes. Their shared goal to become a professional water polo player and to win the gold medal during the tournament was a huge motivator, which further strengthened the team cohesion. They realised they could only accomplish this together. This laid the foundation for the two other, closely linked, motivators: the team itself and their reciprocal relationships. The team turned out to be a central intrinsic motivator; these girls simply liked to be together and became close friends. This friendship established a strong reciprocal relationship, which was the second external motivator. To not devote all they had to their goal resulted in guilty feelings towards each other. This shows that extrinsic and intrinsic motivators overlap and influence one another.
Moreover, the girls’ shared feelings and experiences and their mutual respect made the team a place where they could be their true self, which made the team function as a backstage. They finally were surrounded by people that share the same feelings about water polo, the team provided a sense of belonging. But at the same time the team functioned as a frontstage, as they all had to play certain roles to make the team function like a real, professional team that could win the gold medal.
To make the team, they had to possess certain personality traits: perseverance, ambition and extroversion. It can be stated that these traits were strengthened during the experience, because of the desired behaviour. They are now more extrovert, as they felt they had no other option, they needed to be honest and tell each other everything in order to become and stay close. Moreover, they gained more perseverance as this experience pushed them to their limits. But the individual characters in this team also differed. This has proven to be desired, since this allowed them to learn from each other and about themselves.
The mechanical solidarity which these girls attest to is of particular importance in a broader context. This research illustrates one way in which youth seek togetherness in contemporary neoliberal and individualistic society (Ritzer, 2014). The team as an intrinsic motivator for providing a sense of belonging demonstrates how important it is for these young people to experience togetherness. Their experiences show that finding similarities between people can be an effective way of creating a strong sense of solidarity, even in this individualistic society.
Thus, in all aspects of this research, the team cohesion proved to be a key factor. It contributed to a safe environment where these girls could be themselves, which allowed them to improve themselves and made them more aware of themselves. It also made this experience a very positive one by keeping the girls motivated, which contributed to their successful story of winning the gold medal. It can be stated that this was a life-changing experience, since they fulfilled their shared dream, got a little closer to their other, more individual dream of being a part of the Dutch Olympic Team and since it was an individual learning process.
In the introduction I stated that water polo is a huge part of my life and that I am happy to share this with others. This feeling became even stronger during this research. Although I’m not a professional and probably won’t ever be (as I also came to realise during this research), I am proud to be a part of this community and share the love for this sport with these girls. Therefore, the sense of belonging is something not only these girls share, but I share with them too. Events like this, when people you know achieve something that’s not only important to them, but also to you (in a way that you are a part of the community) makes you realise how beautiful it is to be a part of a community like this. This research made me realise that I should never give up on something that has been a such a huge part of my life and I want to thank these girls for that.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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