While at the 2019 AVCA Convention I attended a session on mental training by Dan Mickle. It covered a lot of ground, but there were a couple of interesting comments from Dan on the subject of mental toughness – which he prefers to call mental flexibility. There was also something from Chris McGown’s presentation on the Competitive Cauldron that also brought the idea of developing mental toughness to the fore.

I’ve posted before on the subject of how mental toughness is linked to fatigue. Also about how we can create the sort of pressure situations that help develop mental toughness in our players. As such, I won’t re-cover that ground. I’ll just give you some bits from Dan’s and Chris’ presentations worth sharing.

Where you start the score doesn’t create pressure

A lot of coaches think they can create “end of set” pressure on their team by starting a game in practice at something like 20-20. I used to think this way myself. Unfortunately, as Dan commented during his session – and my Volleyball Coaching Wizards partner Mark Lebedew has also said – it doesn’t work like that. Starting a game at 20-20 is psychologically no different than starting at 0-0 and playing to 5. Since there’s nothing before the start point, you don’t have the game context which feeds the late-set mentality.

Now, I have no issue with starting a game at 20-20 with the idea that we play games to 25. There’s no harm practicing finishing at 25. Just realize that it’s never going to be anything like being at 20-20 in a set that started at 0-0. So don’t think playing a bunch of games in practice starting at 20-20 will prepare your team to finish out close sets.

Make random bad calls

So if messing around with the starting score won’t get the job done, what will? How can we develop mentally tougher players?

Dan offered a very specific suggestion. Make random bad officiating calls during games in practice. Call balls out that were clearly in. Don’t call a net touch when one clearly happened. Make uneven calls on ball-handling.

This creates frustration and distraction. That’s exactly the sort of thing we want our players learning to overcome.

Rethink your wash drills

Another way to work on mental toughness is to rethink how big points happen in wash drills. This is something Chris brought up in his talk.

Consider a game like Bingo-Bango-Bongo. The variation I often use is one where the team that won three rallies in a row has to serve to earn the big point. Normally, winning that service rally is the objective.

As Chris suggested, what if we didn’t make winning the rally the objective? What if, instead, the server had to serve the receiving team out of system? Or what if the team had to get a kill from a specific hitter, with the opposing team knowing who that attacker was?

Do you think that might create pressure?

I do. And that’s exactly the sort of thing we’re looking for to help players develop their mental toughness – or flexibility, as Dan prefers.

Give it some thought.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

    2 replies to "A couple ways to develop mental toughness"

    • Kelly Daniels

      On the “Where you start the score doesn’t create pressure” we are going to have to disagree. I do not have science to back me up, but experience of a specific drill where I run a drill named ‘Slip N Slide’. Teams start at 20-20 and first team to 25 wins. The game is, once 23 is achieved the team must score 24 & 25 consecutively. Else, ‘Slip N Slide’ back to 20. During a match once our team reaches 23 some on the team or I yell ‘Slip N Slide’. This put IMO a mental trigger to score the next two points. The teams I’ve coached like it and putting it in their words, ‘It prepares us to finish the game instead of stalling once we get to 23.’ If this statement is not a mental achievement, then I could be misunderstanding the term.

      • John Forman

        Kelly – I’ve used a similar game myself, and posted it on the site here: https://coachingvb.com/scoring-system-25-reset/

        I totally agree with you that there is a strong mental aspect to it. Though it does make me wonder if it’s more of an away from (the slide) or toward (winning) motivation for the players. That would be an interesting thing to figure out.

        But returning to the bigger discussion, I would make the case that you aren’t doing what Dan was talking about – starting at 20-20 and simply playing to 25. You’ve altered the situation to be something else. It’s kind of like the 22 v 22 game I run. The goal is still first to 25, but it’s a wash drill, so the scoring isn’t straight line as it would be in a game. Thus, I’m not really doing what Dan talked about either. But in both our cases, that’s exactly the point. We are making the game something else to actually incorporate more of the mental challenge of trying to finish it off.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.