I’ve previously written about aggressive serving, topics related to serving strategy (e.g. here and here), getting more serving in your practices, and a number of other related ideas. Something I haven’t given a lot of attention to, however, is the subject of the following inquiry.

Anyone have suggestions for a drill on mental toughness when serving? I have had 2 set points in two different games and two different good servers miss their serves.

Now, the first thing I have to say is that 2 missed serves by two different players isn’t a trend. It’s probably nothing more than some normal variation. They just happen to stand out because of the context.

The second thing I’d bring up is the question of what exactly we’re talking about with respect to “mental toughness”. That’s a whole big topic, however, which I’ve touched on to a degree here and here.

But let’s focus on the crux of the issue. How do we work on players being able to go back in pressure situations and hit effective serves?

Start with their skills

This may seem obvious, but the starting point for being good under pressure is being good in general. If a player isn’t a very good server, after all, you can’t expect them to be good at key moments.

Thus, the first thing we have to do is to make sure we train the players to the necessary skill level. Whatever we have as our benchmark for an effective serve must be doable. And doable at the frequency (e.g. 9 out of 10) that we require. This is something that’s going to vary from team to team, and potentially player to player. For example, you might have different points of emphasis for float vs. jump spin servers.

Don’t forget their mental preparation

Make sure you include the mental aspect of good serving in that development. These are things like having a consistent pre-serve routine, visualizing their serve, and thinking in positive terms about their desired outcome. You’d be surprised how much influence this stuff has on outcomes.

When I coached at Midwestern State we had a grad student setter who perfectly exemplified this. She was an excellent server, except when she didn’t do her pre-serve routine. When she left it out she was terrible. I could just about guarantee she was going to miss. It was that predictable.

Create consequential situations in practice

Notice how I used “consequential” rather than “pressure” in the heading for this section. That’s by design, because it’s consequences I want you to be thinking about. And that’s from both a positive and negative perspective.

I’m not generally a fan of attaching physical consequences to failure in execution on the court. There is an exercise I do sometimes, though, which skews in that direction. It’s called Run & Serve. Technically speaking, the physical element happens before the serve, not after. If, however, the group can’t all serve successfully, they have to repeat it. This makes it work quite similarly to having a physical punishment. That’s why I don’t use it often, though it clearly puts the players in a consequential situation.

A better, and more realistic, approach is to have some kind of consequence built into a game. One idea I saw along these lines is to require someone from the team that just won a game to serve to lock in the result. If they do not execute, the score reverts along the lines of 25 or reset. Or it could be part of wash scoring system as discussed in the “Rethink your wash drills” section of this post.

Flipping to a positive consequence, what about introducing serving-based bonus points? You could flip a coin or somehow otherwise randomly decide on any given point if this serve is a bonus serve, and/or how much that bonus is worth.

Get creative with it!

Got something you like to do to create pressuring serving situations? Post it in the comments below.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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