Yerba Mate – the driving force behind polo

Yerba mate growing in the wild.
Yerba mate growing in the wild. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yerba Mate, the traditional green-tea like beverage drunk in Argentina has always had strong connections with the polo lifestyle through its gaucho origins. Now however, the traditions of the gaucho are becoming fully embraced both on and off the pitch with mate increasingly becoming the popular drink of choice for spectators and players alike. 

Mate is now synonymous feature of polo tournaments around the world, and just as polo whites and shirts are indicative of polo, so too are mate drinkers indicative of polo lovers and players.Today there is not a polo stable or polo match, which does not feature Argentinian mate or mate drinkers. Forget the stereotype of sipping on champagne at the matches, Yerba Mate is the true drink of polo, whether on the palenques (pony lines) or in the stands, whether you are a patron, polo club chairman, pro polo player, groom or spectator, mate transcends race and class through its tradition of sharing a drink. It is also still the drink of choice for famous international pro players such as Nacho Figueras and Adolfo Cambiaso. Nacho Figueras, the world famous Argentine polo player and Polo Ralph Lauren model was quoted in an interview once as having said that: “In the morning I drink […] mate […] and in the evening I eat mac and cheese.”The polo tradition of drinking mate originates from Argentina, with the trained petizeros (polo grooms) who would start their morning before sunrise drinking mate and later after a long day working with the horses would often invite their employers to sit with them close to the horses and drink mate, sharing stories and updates about the horses.  Mate acts as a bridge to communicating with people from different classes, backgrounds and nationalities over a traditionally common interest and love for polo and horses.Today in Northern Argentina, there is a tourist route you can follow, the Ruta de Yerba Mate where you can explore the mate plantations and discover the incredible mate traditions.  Herbalists believe that there is and incredible bond between polo people and the culture of yerba mate because of social and cultural qualities in the sharing of a drink with others but also more importantly for its health benefits.Alejandro Gruber, President of La Asociación Ruta de la Yerba Mate (ARYM) Argentina (a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Yerba Mate and its culture and traditions within Argentina), said: “The ARYM are keen to emphasise the health benefits of Yerba and that it is very beneficial to sportspersons such as polo players due to its regenerative benefits on the body”.

What is Mate?
Mate or Yerba Mate is a species of holly, which is native to subtropical South America and found in northeastern Argentina, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. It was first cultivated and used by the Guaraní people. The mate plant is a shrub or small tree growing up to 15 metres tall. The leaves are evergreen, 7-11 cm long and 3-5.5cm wide. The leaves (which are used in mate) are commonly called “herb” and contain caffeine and other related compounds. These leaves are harvested commercially for the production of mate in Argentina and Paraguay. The drink is then brewed from the dried leaves and stemlets of the tree.

Common misconceptions
People often refer to mate as an “organic herbal tea”, but “herbal” only refers to plants that are not caffeinated. Mate is not a “green tea” either, as “green tea” comes from the camellia sinesis plant, which comes from Asia, and yerba mate is Ilex Paraguariensis from South America. Although like green tea, mate does share similar qualities in the way they are produced and in the way they enhance health within the body.

What are the health benefits?
The good thing about mate is that it acts as a body tonic and natural antioxident, therefore making it a good preparation tool for polo players and spectators alike as well as a good hangover cure for the day after the polo parties and celebrations. Mate has long been renowned for having stronger antioxidant properties than traditional Chinese green tea.

There are 196 active chemical compounds found in the yerba mate plant. Of those 144 are also found in green tea. Yerba Mate also contains 11 polyphenols. Polyphenols are a group of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals contain recently dicscovered compounds that act as powerful antioxidants and have been shown to exhibit anti-cancer effects in mammals by strengthening an organism’s natural defences and protecting it against cellular destruction. In addition, Yerba Mate leaves also contains saponins, which are phytochemicals that have been found to specifically stimulate the immune system and help the body in protecting it from disease.

Chemical breakdown of Mate:

Polyphenol: Green Tea: Black Tea: Yerba Mate:
Caffeic acid X X
Caffeine X X X
Caffeoyl derivatives X
Caffeoylshikimi acid X
Catechin X X
Chlorogenic acid X
Coumaric acid X
Epicatechin gallate X X
Epigallocatechin X
Epigalocatechin gallate X
Feruloylquinic acid X
Gallic acid X X
Gallocatechin gallate X X
Kaempferol X X X
Myricetin X X
Procyanidin X
Quercetin X X X
Quinic acid X X
Rutin X X X
Theaflavin X
Theobromine X X

Source: de Mejia, Elvira, A Comprehensive Review of Yerba Mate, 

Mate benefits for polo playersStudies have shown that drinking mate induces mental clarity and has the ability to quicken the mind and increase mental alertness and acuity. Many people believe smoking has the same cognitive effects, but unlike tobacco, mate contains no nicotine and is not addictive or habit-forming.

Mate has also been proved to help sustain energy levels and reduce fatigue as Yerba Mate is a central nervous system stimulant. The metabolic effects of mate have been shown to include the ability to maintain aerobic breakdown of carbohydrates during exercise for long periods of time. This means that more calories are burned which increases cardiac efficiency and delaying the build up of lactic acid.

Mate is therefore a great preparation supplement to drink for the polo player before they game as it will aid them with making tactical decisions on the pitch, maintain their energy levels throughout the game, as well as delaying muscle fatigue so that they can really give their best both physically and mentally, which should give them a natural healthy competitive advantage.

Mate goes worldwide
Polo is becoming an ever increasing sport around the world, with new popularity in areas such as China and Malaysia. However for many it still has its traditional home in Argentina and therefore people embrace the polo traditions from Argentina like the drinking of mate.

In Argentina, polo is often seen as a game of friendship, brotherhood and mateship; friendship between team mates but also a deep bond and friendship between man and horse. Mate is the epitomy of this – in Argentina, mate is seen as a link between people, a contract of friendship sealed through the sharing and drinking of mate – a product that comes direct from the soil.

For Argentines and polo players alike, mate is about sharing a lifestyle and a brotherhood with their friends , team mates, patrons, grooms or strangers. Mate evokes inclusivity in polo and something to be shared whatever role you have whether polo player or groom and whatever your nationality, English, Argentine, American or Chinese. Mate like polo is something to be shared and enjoyed.


Español: Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) y bo...
Español: Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) y bombilla dentro de un calabacín (también llamado “poro”) teñido de rojo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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