A reader sent me the following question. It’s about keeping a team focused and having the killer instinct when they have the opportunity to win.

As a club volleyball coach for several years, one of the challenges I face mostly is motivating my players to maintain their winner’s mentality… if anything their killer instinct. My current age group are 13s and 14s and they have the talent and skills but mentally, it’s a rollercoaster — they can’t seem to maintain the aggressiveness and fail to beat the teams they can and should beat…. just too many mental mistakes. I’ve collected many sports motivational quotes and use them during our timeouts and team meetings but can’t seem to absorb. I’ve used some of your drills as well.

I had two initial thoughts on reading this question.

Understand gender differences

The first was to wonder if the coach in question is talking about a girls’ team. I got confirmation that this is indeed the case. It’s been my experience that female players tend to be less naturally competitive than their male counterparts, and instead more cooperative. I think this is probably even more true for younger players. I’ve had conversations with other coaches on this subject – male and female – and they generally agree.

This is something Kathy DeBoer wrote in her book Gender and Competition. She made the observation men battle to bond and women bond to battle. In my experience, it’s very true.

A lack of competitiveness definitely doesn’t apply to all female athletes, of course. The setter I had at Svedala is a perfect example. She is one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. That means you need to consider the individual aspect of things along the way. You could have a mixture of competitiveness levels, which impacts how you try to address things.

I think the broader point here is that for certain types of players or teams it’s best not to address competitiveness just from the perspective of winning for winning’s sake. You need to think about looking at things in other ways. Winning could be an indication of excellence in performance or teamwork, reaching a joint objective, or something else which is important.

An example of that would be my Exeter women’s team from 2013-14. They had the collective goal of reaching Final 8s in Edinburgh. To get there, they had to win matches, so they were very motivated to do so. Without that strong group objective, they probably wouldn’t have been so focused on winning.

Focus on non-win related objectives

The second thing that came immediately to mind when reading the email above is that the coach needed to shift the focus away from winning and on to something else. This can be especially helpful when playing weaker competition – or alternatively, when playing a better team from a different perspective.

When I was coaching at Exeter we often faced teams that could have been considered inferior. In those situations I went in with specific areas of focus for the team for that match. An example was serving. I’d tell the team I wanted them to focus on their more aggressive serves or their serving accuracy. Against another team the focus might have been on our offense or some other facet of the game. In every case the idea was to work on things I wanted to develop, or improve upon for the more important matches down the road.

In all these cases, while I certainly wanted and expected the team to win, I put the focus on process rather than outcome. Obviously, what I had them concentrating on was things that I felt would contribute to winning.

Breaking things down into chunks

Another thing which might help in situations like those described in the email is breaking each match down into smaller “games. This is something which got discussed in an episode of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. I encourage you to give that a listen as Wizard Mike Lingenfelter shares his own method for doing this, and my podcast partner Mark and I offer our own thoughts on the subject.

Thoughts from readers?

There are other things I know coaches do to try to encourage competitiveness. I’d love to hear what readers use to this end – what they’ve found useful and what hasn’t worked. Use the comment section below to share your experience or ideas – or questions if you have them.

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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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