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Felix Mercado talks water polo team culture during canceled season

Mercado emphasizes importance of mental health, integration of new tech, COVID-19 precautions

Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Head Coach Felix Mercado is in his 14th season of coaching for the Bears. Under his direction, Bruno has posted four 20-win seasons in the last six years across the two water polo teams. Brown's water polo teams have also appeared in the national rankings in both 2018 and 2020. Mercado received Collegiate Water Polo Coach of the Year accolades in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2016. In 2013, he was elected president of the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches. Women’s water polo finished their 2020 season, shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ranked 25th nationally with a 12-2 record. For his achievements on and off the pool deck, Coach Mercado has been selected for this week’s edition of The Herald’s Coach’s Corner.

Herald: What has been the most difficult coaching challenge brought on by the pandemic?

Mercado: It’s been unprecedented for everyone, coaches and athletes. So early on in this process my initial reaction as a coach was “Okay, what can we do to continue to develop them as athletes (even without our facilities)?” But I quickly started seeing that water polo wasn't the most important thing, and until we were back on our pool deck, the most important thing for me was the team’s mental health. I wanted to make sure I addressed that, because with the switch to remote learning back in March, (the athletes) were asked to finish the term in an environment that they didn't sign up for. So, I focused on (mental health), I backed off a little bit, checked in on them and just concentrated on making sure that they remembered all of the resources they had through Brown, to help steer them through that semester and to (be sure) all of them passed.

How is the team staying physically prepared for your next season, even without access to athletic facilities?

Knowing that everyone else in the country, not just Brown, is pretty much going through this same thing and navigating the same obstacles makes it a bit easier. The Ivy League plan for return to training, while it might be a little restrictive, is better than nothing. Our strength and conditioning staff, athletic trainers and administrators are doing a really good job of laying out what we need to do now and what we’ll be able to do once we get in the weight room. So, I'm focusing on the positive things, because it's like, “Hey everyone, take this time to really figure out how to study and how to manage your time, so that when we get you back in the weight room and the pool, it's going to be easier to handle.”… I really, truly believe in the Brown community and our students that this fall semester is going to go great and that they're going to do their jobs of wearing their masks and washing their hands. I look forward to crossing my fingers that every class will be here in January, and then we'll leave (this behind us). We'll be able to have winter and spring seasons to represent Brown out there.

You were selected for the USA Water Polo Racial Equity & Reform Task Force over the summer. How have those efforts translated to your coaching?

(With) the racial unrest and everything going on across our country and being a person of color who’s the head coach of a sport that’s primarily white, I thought it would be more difficult. I thought it would be difficult for my athletes to understand, but they got it. We had some really good talks that led to this diversity fundraiser where they did a water polo conditioning event related to 8:46. Right now we’re working with the USA Water Polo Racial Equity & Reform Task Force on gathering some data to help put together information that we could take to some inner city pools, like YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, about why water polo is a good sport to (offer in their programming.)

Are there any aspects of the canceled season you hope to carry forward into future seasons?

Advances in technology are a great thing (that we will continue to utilize) even after this season. Now, if there is an important meeting that we need to have and we're having a hard time getting people together, we could always say, “(Hey, let’s do a Zoom call,) and have this quick meeting.” That way I don’t need to come to campus and they don’t need to leave their dorms. This is great, especially for something like just watching film ... But probably the one thing that I’m most hoping comes out of all of this is that we appreciate our time together. Not to say that we took for granted being on the pool deck almost every day and getting after it together, I just really think that (after) being away from each other, we’re really going to appreciate our sport. Both because water polo is something we have in common, but also our cohesiveness and our unity as friends, because after this time apart it has become apparent that we love being around each other … So, if there’s one thing I feel “the new normal” will include, without a doubt, it will be the appreciation of being on this team and being part of a great sport at a great university. The first day that all of us can be on the pool deck together again, well, I might break out in tears.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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