Home > Uncategorized > What Lies Beneath the Surface: How College Water Polo is Like Working for a Startup

What Lies Beneath the Surface: How College Water Polo is Like Working for a Startup

I’ve been playing water polo since I was in middle school, and I can tell from experience that this sport reaffirms all the trite adages you hear. “There’s no I in Team” – I wish I could get a penny for each time someone has said that to me; “Leave it all in the pool” – At least four different coaches have told me that. “Now begins the aquatic phase of your workout gentlemen. Please get in my pool, NOW” – Ok, that last one I only heard from only one coach, who was really eccentric. So when he consistently said “Play with heart!” and “Push your teammate!” well, voila, you have a recipe of corniness that even Madame Popp can’t even use for her dinner dishes.

Pleasantries aside, ten years of competition has reaffirmed my conviction that playing water polo teaches valuable lessons. My high school coach always made sure that if you were tardy to a practice or a game, there would be repercussions, regardless of whether you were a starter or bench player. Even if you were the captain of the team, you still weren’t going to play in a heated league division quarterfinal game. It didn’t matter if you were 2 minutes late or 2 hours late…And let me tell you, I’ve never hated sitting on the bench more than I did that day in 2007.

Now that I’m nearing the end of college and getting ready to enter the real world (or rather, appearing to be ready), I can also say that two passions of mine, water polo and startups, interestingly have a lot of overlap. When I worked for a startup my summer after sophomore year as a Business Development intern and during my junior year as a Product Marketing intern (aka I did everything and anything, from planning a marketing campaign, dealing with consumers, redirecting traffic from our blogs and Twitter accounts to our company website, to strategizing potential partnerships, to taking phone calls from the CEO at 11 pm at night), I didn’t realize that the months I was dedicated to these startups were similar to the hours I was putting into water polo over the last couple of years. Two years since working for my first startup, I have come up with a concise list of how playing for a college water polo team is just like working for a startup:

1-Love your team: you always work harder for the company you keep

One of my freshman put it best today when we were grabbing breakfast at 6:20 am before a five hour day of swimming, treading, lunging, and more swimming (see what I did there?) He said, “Popp, I love this team. Even when I’m dying during a swim set, I get so excited when I look over and I see Evan (another teammate) crushing the workout. I’m so motivated that I can’t wait to play with you guys in a real game!” Freshman, so naive and succinct…but so right. If you don’t love your team, if you don’t trust the guy sitting next to you (or in my case, swimming next to you), you won’t be able to push yourself to your maximum. Your team won’t reach its goals, and won’t plan on making new ones. The same can be said for startups.

When I interned at Wisemuv, a social recommendation engine (think Hunch, Quora), our CEO brought on a team of 12 interns. Most of them hailed from UPenn, Princeton, Harvard, CalTech…I was so excited to talk to these interns, and learn from then, that I was willing to do anything. I really thought we could build something exciting, and make an impact, that I loved working on the projects I was assigned to. I never realized that working on Twitter or writing a new blog post past two in the morning was out of the ordinary. If the other interns were developing algorithms, I could make sure that people were coming to our website to check it out; if my teammate is swimming as hard as he can down a 30 meter pool, I can undoubtedly make a dime pass and assist him in making a great play.

2-Reach out to your teammates because constructive criticism only makes you better

As a senior on the team, I did not walk into preseason thinking I would get my starting job back as goalkeeper. Even though I’ve been the starter since sophomore year, that didn’t mean that I would be guaranteed my job. The other goalie, a sophomore from Hawaii, is a very skilled goalie as well. He’s big (a lot bigger than me, I’m 6″0′ and he’s 6″4′), strong, and moves well in the cage (for you non-water polo people out there, being able to move around in the cage is essential considering the high pace of the offense taking place right in front of the net). He came into preseason in shape, and ready to take my job. During preseason, I realized that all I could do to get my job back was to push myself and improve every day.

I’m not going to improve by simply sitting in my corner and analyzing my mistakes: I can’t catch them all. So I reach out to my teammates, asking them for their honest (and yes, sometimes brutal) criticism. Am I not moving well to my left? Am I consistently getting beat by this type of shot? What kind of read am I not making on the counterattack? Once I have figured out what I can do better, I incorporate immediately into the next practice and build from there. The same goes for startups: I was always in constant dialogue with our CEO, and repeatedly asked him for advice. He had over 15 years of experience, while I had only one summer of work under by belt. If I didn’t take advantage of his experiences, I would never grow as a startup enthusiast. Whenever he gave me a pointer, I wrote it down, and did my best to improve on it. If you improve, you add value to your startup; if you perfect a skill set, you add another weapon to your team, and are one step closer to a championship ring – or a $1 billion valuation.

3-We talkin’ about practice: Try out new things whenever you can

My college coach always tells us to take risks during practice. That is, don’t play “And1” water polo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2pjHjnG_5c&feature=related). Instead, take practice shots that you wouldn’t usually take. Step out of your comfort zone. In water polo, you could practice your “Hezi,” where you pump fake a couple of times, then break the rhythm of your fake before taking a shot at cage.

Take this example from my experience working for Wisemuv.  Looking back, I can confidently say that my coding skills were the weakest on the intern team (not to say I’m not interested in coding! Looking into it as we speak…stay tuned). That didn’t mean, however, that I wouldn’t code at all. One of my friends told me that I should create a widget, so that it could be embedded in any website that was related to recommendation, crowdsourcing, advice-related blogs, etc. The point was to increase brand recognition and make Wisemuv recognizable, so why not try to make it go viral? Since BD was my responsibility, I decided to spearhead this project. It didn’t matter that I had no clue where to start – I did my homework and tried my best to build the widget. While I failed, it was a valuable experience for me because I realized that I needed to improve my skill set in order to be better be able to contribute to my team in the future. For water polo at Harvard, I realized that I was never going to be a presence in the cage if my leg strength was subpar; goalies need to be able to tread and explode out of the water to get to the cage’s high corners, and without strong legs, a goalie is going to look like swiss cheese in the cage. So I hit the weight room, put on 15 lbs of muscle, and came back junior year with a vengeance.

4-Always go the extra mile.

When you do more than is expected from you, everyone will notice. And once they do, they too will go the extra mile. In turn, everyone will push their boundaries, and the team will move forward. If you see one guy crush a swim set with an ear infection after having been put on bed rest for three days straight, and then lead counterattack drills for the rest of practice, you’re going to get fired up.

This goes without saying when working for a startup. You’re working in such small teams that everyone is already working long hours, wearing many hats at once, getting things done left and right. But if someone does something on their own, or takes the initiative to start a project no one else thought of, that can inspire a whole team…When you love your job, you’re willing to go the extra mile: so true for water polo and startups!

5-Take care of yourself

Since my freshman year, I’ve been battling groin and hip injuries on and off. This year I’ve made an effort to make sure that I do not get hampered by a nagging injury, or get afflicted with a new one. In the last couple of months, I’ve taken steps to strengthen my lower body. For instance, I started doing a lot more stretching to increase flexibility in my hamstrings and back. I did physical therapy all summer long, doing weighted step-ups so that my hip flexors and abductors become more resilient. During season, I plan on meeting the physical therapist once a week for deep tissue massage as to break down the fibrosis building in my hips. Hopefully (knock on wood), this will keep my body healthy, and allow me to make it through the last three months of my water polo career.

I feel that the the same is applicable for any working environment. If you’re not getting enough sleep or aren’t eating right, you’re taking away from yourself; you’re not 100%, and you effectively bring your team down. That is not to say that you can’t pull a couple of all nighters here and there to bring important projects to term. But don’t do it all the time-your body will wear down on you, and you can’t contribute when you’re running on 4 hours of sleep over 3 days.

6–You will make mistakes. Don’t dwell on them; internalize them, and move on.

As a goalie, you always wonder what would have happened if you had blocked that extra shot. For me, I wonder if I had blocked that last second shot in the second overtime of my section championship game junior year of high school, would we still have lost 9-8? Sometimes I ask myself, what would have happened if I had blocked that 5 meter shot in the fifth overtime against Iona my junior year of college–would we still have lost 11-10? Water polo, just like in life (can I have some wine with that cheese? I think Madame Popp might have some red in the back somewhere…), can’t be played by hypotheticals. All you can do is accept what went wrong, analyze it, and try your best to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

I’ve failed many times academically, personally, and athletically. But I’ve also succeeded because I have tried to make sure that I would not repeat the mistakes I committed in the past. When you’re working for a startup, if you realize that something you’re doing is not going well, then you have to accept that your approach isn’t the right one. I worked on Twitter for  three weeks trying to get our team’s Promoted Tweets to gain traction only to find that our followers hadn’t grown by more than 2%. I realized that I was not generating enough content in the Twittersphere, so I started a couple of blogs, interacted with as many people as possible on any web publishing platform that I could find, and followed thousands of people. One week later, original web site visits had grown substantially and our follower base grew 300%. Point of the story: learn, or else you’re going to lose more games than win.

7-Have fun; nothing lasts forever

While my coach has told me that I can’t get nostalgic this early in the season, I can’t help myself. Maybe it’s because I’m French and I’m sensitive to everything (this is according to my teammates, who always like to have the last laugh), I consider myself more analytic than lugubrious. Sometimes that’s a plus, and at others it is detrimental. If you get too caught up in what you’re doing, if you see every game in the pool or every project at work as a life and death battle, you will never be happy.

Sometimes I get too wrapped up in the competition and forget it’s just a game. Hopefully when I graduate, I’ll have figured out how to balance out work with everything else in my life, as I’m pretty blessed to have a great supporting cast. As Madame Popp told me when I turned eighteen, “Faites que le rêve dévore votre vie afin que la vie ne dévore pas votre rêve.” Act so that your dream may devour your life so that your life does not devour your dream–Merci, St. Exupery.

Indeed, may your dreams, whether they be found in the form of a yellow ball and two cages or in the design of your startup’s new product, amplify  your happiness. Finding that fine line between letting it consume you and letting it push you to do something meaningful is up to you.

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