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From Athlete to Coach: A Journey of Challenges, and Growth

By Alon Yoeli

Tell us a little about your sports journey pre-college including your experience as an international athlete.

I started playing at Stanford Water Polo Club in the 6th Grade under Sasha Potulnitsky and Marco Palazzo, two legendary coaches. My family moved to Carmel in 2008 and I started playing at Legacy Water Polo Club, but my mom continued to drive me up to Silicon Valley to play with Stanford. She frequently drove me over three hours to tournaments in the East Bay, stopping by an In-n-out on the way home to destroy two double-doubles and a shake. My parents continued to help me invest in my career heavily, ensuring I attended summer polo camps and played on travel teams. A notable trip was one to play in Hungary, where I met members of the Israeli junior national travel team. Little did I know one day I would join their practice squad.

In High School, I played for Carmel HS in the Monterey Bay League (CCS). During my tenure there, I was voted Most Valuable Offensive Player twice, served as team captain, and was an All-League / Senior All-Star selection. I was also awarded the Monterey Bay’s Best Shooter Award by winning a penalty shootout game similar to a knockout against the best in the league. Lastly, I spent my Junior year playing in Italy with the u20 Italian champions, Circolo Canottieri Napoli.

What were some challenges you faced as a collegiate athlete?

I graduated high school a semester early to prepare for Division 1 polo. I moved in with my brother and began eating Paleo, Cross Fitting, swimming with the Harvard Masters swim team, scrimmaging with the MIT Water Polo guys…Needless to say, I was in the best shape of my life when I showed up at Fordham in August of 2013. Hell week was a breeze, I made mincemeat out of my fellow freshmen in the gym, and although I was a walk-on, it seemed as though I was fitting in among the others in my class.

Unfortunately, when it came to playing time, it seemed as though some of our class would not be taken seriously as contributors. The star freshman played a bunch and those with a big enough size or speed advantage would be selected to play a handful of minutes with the starters. The rest of us, the self-dubbed ‘dry squad’, would hang on the bench and wait for our moment to shine, thrown in together in the last few minutes of a game. The pressure to do well was debilitating. Surprise, surprise…I played like crap.

I didn’t yet feel like calling it quits. For over 8 years, water polo had been an incredible outlet for my negative energy. In high school, my parents were going through a divorce, I was bullied for being Jewish and because I didn’t fit in, but Water Polo kept me grounded. The drive to go play D1 helped me keep my grades up, score high on the ACT, swim faster, play harder…I wasn’t going to let one season take me out of a sport that had given me so much.

The sophomore year began. Eager to prove myself in practice, I would try to jump into man-up drills and scrimmages and show what I had to offer. Even when I did well, my coach made it clear he didn’t need me on the team and had no intention of ever playing me. This came to its apex when the coaches decided to have me film a game from the stands at an away tournament and the entire ‘dry-squad’ got several minutes of playing time against one of our rivals. I couldn’t believe it, they could have asked parents, a freshman who had not yet put in their time, but no…and this straw broke the camel’s back. I talked crap into the camera the entire game and quit the team that night.

While this was an excruciating choice for me and a massive blow at the time, it served me well. I ended up becoming a research lead at Fordham’s Laboratory of Informatics and Data Mining and the water polo team lost a Superior Honors athlete. In hindsight, I fully recognize all the places where the stubborn young me could have handled the stresses of playing collegiate athletics much better. I could have had frank conversations with my coaches to communicate expectations about what I wanted out of my athletic experience. Ultimately though, playing D1 wasn’t even the highlight of my career. After quitting Fordham Water Polo, I spent a summer practicing with the Israeli Junior National Team and playing in the Maccabi games in Berlin. Those experiences were far more meaningful.

Over the last couple of years, you’ve journeyed from New York to Texas and begun coaching, what has that experience been like and is there anything you’ve learned that you’d like to share?

Getting back into the sport was not something that was remotely on my radar when I showed up at a master's practice at AquaTex in October of 2020. I was new to Austin and was looking to make some friends and had been out of the pool since 2017 due to a Labrum tear. When I was asked if I would be interested in contributing to the club as a coach, it was clear this was a pretty special opportunity to connect with the real reasons I enjoyed playing Water Polo and share my love for the sport in a place that desperately needed quality coaches. I fully committed, coaching 4 practices a week for the club and 5 for the local high school. There were growing pains for sure, but I soon realized I am much better as a coach than I was as a player.

Over the past three years with the club, I’ve taught 10-year-olds how to eggbeater in 10 minutes. I showed our players how to be more physical and assertive in the water. I’ve coached in three Junior Olympics tournaments. I mentored my players through the college recruitment process and communicated my challenges in the hopes that they will avoid my mistakes and prioritize their well-being. I’ve run dry-land workouts, led chalk talks, and gotten creative in the shallow end. I’ve made practice hard, fun, engaging, humbling, and helped make several of my players better than I ever was. Above all, I truly believe that I was able to convey all the beautiful things about the sport to my players and instilled a serious work ethic in them all. Our club roster has nearly tripled since I started coaching and our club culture is fantastic.

My players have in turn given me a constant source of fulfillment and joy, taught me patience, showed me the value of mentorship, and given me the confidence to take the next step and start coaching in California. My fellow coaches, especially my mentor, James Smith, have helped mold me into the kind of coach I am today. For someone from the ‘dry-squad’, it’s a daunting step, but thanks to them I am now certain that I have something to offer even to our country’s best water polo communities.

Is there any advice you would give someone preparing to start their collegiate career?

For the vast majority of people, sports are not forever. Remember that it’s OK to prioritize other parts of your life. Make sure you’re setting yourself up for success when you graduate, whatever that version of success looks like for you. Balance is key.

Your athletic performance in a game, tournament, or season is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Have fun, maintain your love for whatever sport you’re into, and don’t let anyone take your accomplishments away from you. If you made it to the collegiate level, you’re already a badass.

Head shot of Alon Yoeli

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