Strong physical skills are obviously crucial in volleyball. The ability to pass a serve, to power down a spike or to jump high for a block are important skills. But just as important – perhaps even moreso – are a player’s mental skills: staying focused, staying positive and turning challenges into opportunities.
Courtney Thompson, former U.S. Women’s National Team setter, knows the importance of a strong mental game. Her mindset helped her go from “the worst setter in the USA gym,” – her words – to two Olympic medals.
“Everything you need to reach your dreams is within you already,” Courtney recently told a group of USAV athletes and coaches during a High Performance Academy session. “Sometimes we just have to train ourselves to get out of our own way,”
Like physical training, mindset training must be done frequently, and there are several exercises to build different parts of a strong mindset.
“Every time we … become aware of a distraction and choose something productive, it’s like doing a bicep curl for our brain.
“We’re building our strength to be in challenging environments and still focus on what’s within our control.”
Keep in mind, though, while these concepts may be easy to discuss, they’re much harder to implement.
Courtney still doesn’t think she has perfect confidence. “What’s changed for me is when I’m tested, when I get nervous, I know I care about it a lot. I have tools to figure out the challenge, and if I really botch it, I’m going to learn something.”
Courtney has some bicep curls for the brain that players and coaches alike can use to focus their minds and build resiliency.
Control the Controllables
The T Chart allows players to take responsibility of what they can control and accept what they cannot.
Step One: Separate a piece of paper into two columns with space for a header (the lines you draw will form a capital T). The left column should be titled, “Things I Can Control” and the right “Things I Can’t Control.”
Step Two: In the left column, list four things that a player has sole responsibility over during a match.
- Courtney’s answer: attitude, effort, thoughts and behavior
Step Three: At the top, write a situation in your volleyball career that makes you nervous.
- Examples: a tryout, being a starter, getting a scholarship, etc.
Step Four: Returning to the left column, list three things you can do daily (or weekly) to address your concern.
Step Five: In the right column, list anything that gets in the way of accomplishing the goal listed atop the paper.
- Examples: winning/losing, other people’s opinions, playing time
Step Six: Tear the paper in half, leaving the two columns intact. Crumple up the right column and throw it away.
- This is physically releasing worries over anything not solely in your control. Only the left column – what you can control – matters.
Do this every day, ideally before practice, a match, etc. and you can start focusing on what you can control.
Morning Mindset Routine
When first waking up in the morning, before anything else, think about two things:
- A feeling of gratitude
- Answer the question, “What am I going to be about today?
- Not “What am I going to do today?” but “How do I want to show up today?”
This trains your mind to consider what is within your control and how you can manage that control. If you look at your phone, check email, or something else externally-focused first thing in the morning, you let someone else dictate how your day will go. By considering gratitude and your goal for the day, you can put yourself in a better mindset before leaving bed.
Our brains do a great job of protecting us from danger by instigating a Fight or Flight response. However, our brains aren’t great at differentiating between real danger and a moment that seems important. Hence, we can get nervous during occasions we’re otherwise safe, like in a big volleyball match.
During those important moments, our thoughts can run wild and distract from the task at hand. if we don’t train our minds to stay focused on that task, we can’t be as effective as we should be in that moment.
How to combat this:
Step One: List two challenges in volleyball that you love and that excite you.
Step Two: List two challenges that you hate or make you uncomfortable.
- Courtney’s Example: The first week of playing oversees with a new team
Step Three: Consider how these types of challenges are different. During challenges that are unpleasant, we are typically consumed with outside elements like the outcome or what other people think.
Step Four: For the challenges you dislike, reframe them with the question, “What’s the opportunity?” Focus on something you can control.
- Courtney’s example: Getting cut from Team USA was difficult and sad, but it gave her motivation to come back and be a better learner and teammate during the next camp.
During a match, we may not have time to convert the challenges we face into opportunities. Instead, be curious about the situation and reframe it into a question:
- What can I do differently here?
- How can I be a better teammate right now?
- How can I make this game for more fun?
This creates emotional space to separate yourself from the challenge, think more clearly and rationally, and play a bit more loosely.
Step Five: Think about the challenges you dislike. Consider what questions you could ask yourself during that time that create the emotional space needed to face the challenge.
In a similar vein, Courtney tries to follow the, “No Sorry” rule after mistakes. Rather than apologizing to her teammates, she tries to tell her teammates what she will do differently next time and how it would help them. She strives to be forward-thinking and solution-based about her mistakes.
As coaches, you can help teach your athletes to reframe these challenges. During a tough stretch for a particular athlete, ask them a question that initiates the reframing process. If you have to tell someone they will no longer start, point out the opportunities that still lay ahead. You can help them begin the reframing process.
It’s not only players that can benefit from reframing mid-game; coaches can, too. If you seem to be communicating poorly with your team, be curious and try to solve that. Ask your players what they’re seeing and feeling on the court or find a way to give instruction differently and more clearly. A stronger mindset can help everyone involved with a volleyball team.