Polo & Sports Science: an unlikely pair or a match made in heaven?

I’ve been wanting to write about Polo for over a year now. I had my first proper taste of it, through a kind introduction from my fiancee, at the Jaeger Le Coultre Gold Cup Final last year. It’s the Polo equivalent of the FA Cup final, the Bislett Games or Wembley depending upon which sport you follow.

I was fortunate enough to sit next to a Dutch professional, who was happy to explain the rules to me, as a drone whizzed about above streaming the action. The pace of play is frenetic, contact surprisingly frequent and falls are occasionally thrown in for good measure. King Power Foxes (yes, they are backed by Leicester FC’s chairman) came away victorious, and I came away thinking “If this is done right, we can really make an impact here.”

With this year’s polo season winding down after some triumphs for friend, England Ladies’ Captain and Jack Wills ambassador Hazel Jackson, it seemed the time to get some thoughts down:

  1. Polo presents a fantastic model to study and train High Intensity Intermmitent Activity
  2. The handicapping system allows us to ask more complex questions
  3. There are no studies on polo players, the demands of polo playing etc. to my knowledge (if you can contest this, please do and provide links to work)
  4. Both genders play together, and independently – again allowing for some interesting questions and monitoring to be asked
  5. There is an influx of ex-racehorses coming into the game, adding an extra element
  6. The game is global, with many athletes playing different seasons over the course of the year, on different continents

I’ll now expand on the above, as far as they can be influenced by ‘sports science’

Polo presents a fantastic model to study and train High Intensity Intermmitent Activity

4 players make up a Polo team, and the game is contested over 4 – 6, 7 minute periods of play (chukkas) dependent upon the level of play (see Handicap below), on a pitch measuring 145m x 275m and covering the same area as 9 football pitches.

polo-field2-752x490

The pace will ebb and flow in line with congestion and teams’ tactics. Slower periods occur when there is a melee, and recovery is permitted when penalties occur. Better players often control the game by manipulating the speed of play, twisting and turning teams inside out. Horses are changed as they fatigue, with High Goal teams often switching mid-chukka due to the pace of play and length of runs.

Beyond this players work the ball up the pitch as a team or on blazing individual runs; such plays are in part encouraged, I feel, by the inclusion of ex-race horses with many high profile tournaments offering awards for the best convert. Notably, after a goal is scored there is a change of ends; this diminishes players’ recovery times because unlike football, rugby etc. there is no return to centre.

Physically, contact is also a big part of Polo, as horses and players ‘ride off’ to contest for the line and ‘right’ to play a shot (all players play right-handed). This is to ensure safety, but often results in horses and players sustaining a few knocks, to put things lightly.

So physiologically we have an interesting model to investigate: periods of high intensity sprinting of spontaneous lengths, incidences of contact, decision making processes and periods of recovery that aren’t especially controlled. This applies to both player and horse.

For an example of some excellent plays see here and for a novel, players-eye view here

The handicapping system allows us to ask more complex questions

Briefly, a player is worth a certain number of goals to a team per match and their handicap is reflection of this. Handicaps range from -2 to +10 goals, and games and tournaments carry a maximum allowable handicap per team. High goal Polo such as the Argentine Open will typically be contested by teams approaching 40 goals i.e. each player is a 10-goal player or in the UK where high goal is lower (22 goals), have a number of 10-goal players on a team e.g. Two 10’s, a 2 and a 0. Handicapping is interesting as it varies from country to country, and between genders (see below). I feel this would be our starting point in differentiating between ability and possibly fitness levels, and would allow a good characterisation of the sport as demands likely differ dependent upon handicap, despite the game being governed by the same rules.

There are no studies on polo players, the demands of polo playing etc. to my knowledge (if you can contest this, please do and provide links to work)

Ok, there are about 3 studies describing injuries (see here; open access) but no formal description of players, the demands of the game or any effects of intervention have been noted.

guillermo_terrera_1

Both genders play together, and independently – again allowing for some interesting questions and monitoring to be asked

Both genders play polo independently but will also play together on mixed teams. Female players may be handicapped to a greater extent when playing as part of a mixed team, whereas male players will carry the same value.

img_9556

Hazel Jackson about to take off

This presents an unusual research question(s), as we can look deeper into the handicapping principal and begin to map out further the demands of the sport at different levels, or under differing circumstances. Are mixed games more like a male or female only contest? Are there key aspects that are different, or does the entire style and tempo of the game change? I imagine players will already have insights into this, but it’d be nice to put some numbers to ideas and we can train athletes accordingly. Sports psychologists may also be interested in how (female) players prepare for mixed and non-mixed contests.

We may also begin to look at body composition and other underpinning physiology of players and ask what makes a good 1,2,3 or 4 and is this the same between genders?

There is an influx of ex-racehorses coming into the game, adding an extra element

This clearly affects the pace of play and tactics, especially in high goal Polo where margins may be finer. Speed may not be everything, but may be a factor that influences the game in some way.

The game is global, with many athletes playing different seasons over the course of the year, on different continents

Polo is played in over 80 countries (Innes & Morgan, 2015), with many players often partaking in different seasons across the year, visiting separate continents to do so. This challenges players in a number of ways: Predominantly there are the obvious differences such as jet-lag, environmental conditions and variation in nutrition to contend with. But more deeply, there may be differing styles of play between continents and a player is unlikely to play the same horses on each continent unless their patron, or the team who is ‘mounting’ them (providing horses for play) is willing to cover such an expense.

The more obvious issues present a great point for intervention, with increasing volumes now known about athletic recovery and transit across time zones. The second set of issues present more qualitative differences that may be harder to assess and quantify, but would make for interesting reflections and would certainly aid in sports scientists’ understanding of the nuances of high level Polo.

Finally…

I am not suggesting we intervene for the sake of it. That would be to Polo’s and Sports Science’s detriment. We must act wisely, precisely to build a solid knowledge and practice base that can meaningfully enhance Polo players’ performance.

Thanks for the attention, I hope you found it an interesting read. Hopefully it opens some minds, thoughts and conversations can start happening on and off the polo pitch!

For any players wishing to discuss how sports science may improve their game, whether it be nutrition, training or advice on dealing with the stresses of travel, please email me at simplyrussbest@gmail.com

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