Tag Archive for mental training

Technical vs Mental Training

Once upon a time I considered myself a highly technically oriented coach. I focused a lot on how players executed skills. I came up from a highly block oriented training background (meaning skill repetition), and I think the two kind of went together. Somewhere along the way, though, I started to shift to a more mental view of training.

I don’t recall a specific moment when the light bulb went off. I think it was more of a gradual realization that the teams I was involved in coaching were just not playing the game as well as required. They could execute the skills, but that simply wasn’t enough.

What do I mean by a more mental focus?

Basically, I mean focusing more on the structure of play and the decision-making process. The latter relates to choices individual players make while they play. For example, should I attack the ball aggressively here? Do I need to make sure I keep my serve in this time? Who’s my best set choice at this moment? And so on down to the level the specific skill the player elects to use. This is the solution side of the solution-execution combo Julio Velsaco talked about when I was at the 2014 HP Coaches Clinic.

The structure of play aspect relates to how players work together. It’s an element of what Mark Lebedew wrote about in his The Key to Volleyball post. Mark has also previously talked about how as soon as you have more than one player on the court it becomes an organizational situation much more so than a technical one.

I should note that when I talk about structure of play I’m not talking about systems. Yes, systems are part of it. For me, though, structure begins with mentality and expectations. How do we train and play as a group? That then feeds into how each individual plays within the scope of their role in the squad.

Is technique important? Of course. But technique is at the end of a chain on things, most of which are not physical. The vast majority of a player’s time is spent not in skill execution, but in preparing for that execution (see Going beyond maximizing player contacts). That is largely mental, and it’s where truly great players and teams excel.

Striking the balance

Clearly, we cannot just coach the mental side of the game. If a player can’t execute the skills, the rest won’t matter much. The question is finding the balance based on where your players are in their development. In my case, I have mostly dealt with players who have at least some base level of skill. Gains from improvements in technical ability at that level are generally less than those from improvements in the mental parts of the game – at least up to a certain point.

As always, it comes down to you as the coach evaluating your situation, setting priorities, and remaining focused on them.

Dealing with perfectionist players

I came across an article which speaks to the issue of student perfectionism. In it the author focuses on students who are not satisfied with anything but being perfect. Does this sound like any volleyball players you know? I certainly have had my fair share!

Anything less than perfect is failure

You’ve seen it, right? A player gets frustrated and angry with themselves because they don’t play the ball perfectly. That just leads to further “failures”, which feeds back, creating a downward spiral. And chances are, many of the reps they aren’t happy with are ones we’d call good. It’s tough to watch and can be a real challenge to deal with.

There’s an interesting quote in the piece: “This tendency to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection is akin to the fear of failure…”

This brought to mind the fixed vs. growth mindset discussion, as outlined in Mindset by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read that book, I strongly recommend it. In many cases, the fixed mindset is driven by a fear of failure. That can lead to either perfectionism or to not being willing to try new things or otherwise challenge one’s self.

Changing the mindset

The focus of the article is on trying to get students (athletes in our case) to change their focus away from be perfect and toward more useful mindsets. The author suggests four “swaps” that can/should be attempted. This is something Hugh McCutcheon has talked about. Here are the four mental adjustments suggested in the article:

Can you swap out progress for perfectionism?
This is a healthy trade off. What if our report card was continual improvement, not perfection? It’s a game that’s challenging but winnable. Ask them: Are you OK with who you are, but becoming the best version of you?

Can you swap out excellence for perfectionism?
Excellence is a fantastic goal, because we all can excel in some area of strength. Help students find and focus on their gift, and remind them: You can get fired from a job, but you cannot get fired from your gift. Find your gift and you’ll always have work.

Can you swap out comparison to others for comparison to you?
If we must play the comparison game, it’s safer to compare your performance today to one of your former performances rather than someone else’s. This way growth, not perfection, becomes a win. Striving for growth resolves the performance trap.

Can you swap out conquering others to adding value to others?
If life has become about competing with and conquering other people, why not shift your perception of others. What if your “report card” was about adding value to people, not being better than other people? Suddenly, we can all make straight A’s.

Admittedly, that last one might be a bit tricky for us. In fact, it might run counter to some of the work we’re trying to do to make our players and teams more competitive. 🙂

Creating a forward focus

For my own part, in training I try to short-circuit the perfectionist spiral by not giving the players an opportunity to fixate on that last rep. The time you tend to see that kind of feedback loop is when a player is doing successive reps. Think one player passing or digging X number of balls in a row. I’ve seen all kinds of non-productive reactions to “bad” reps – cursing, stamping, slamming the floor, etc.

In order to prevent that sort of thing, I like to use drills and other exercises where the player is forced to immediately do something else. A very basic example would be doing a pass to hit type of drill where after receiving serve the player must attack a set ball. This serves not only to blunt the hypercritical reaction (hard to scream and yell when you need to go transition to attack), but encourages the player to quickly move on to the next thing, which is what they’ll need to do in a game.

You can do the same thing in a game context. It’s simply a matter of introducing another ball immediately after a rally ends.

Admittedly, these sorts of things done in training may not directly address the larger perfectionist issue at the individual level. They primarily seek to limit its impact. To the extent, though, that they make the player aware of their responsibilities in a team context, they can help to do some of the swapping outlined above.

Are your players mentally or physically fatigued by training?

Orest Stanko at the Pak Men blog wrote a post mainly focused on the value – or lack of value – in physical consequences (punishment) for the failure to do certain things in training. An example is push-ups when one does not call the ball. It’s worth reading from that point of view. It follows along the lines of some things I’ve written before (see On the question of punishment in volleyball training).

Though only briefly mentioned early on, one idea Orest presents really grabbed my attention. It was that coaches should focus less on player fatigue as a training objective. Rather, your goal should be mental fatigue. Sports are generally viewed as mainly operating in the physical realm. It is therefore easy to see why coaches would think having physically tired athletes at the end of practice is the objective.

Obviously, there is a strong physical element to training. In particular, if you believe that the best form of conditioning work for your team is what you do in training, then it’s reasonable to think in those fatigue terms.

But as coaches we don’t just focus on developing physical abilities. A massive part of our role is to help our athletes the mental side of the game – reading, decision-making, etc. You may even be able to say it’s the bigger aspect of our job.

That’s where the idea of mental fatigue at the end of training comes in to consideration. How do you challenge players mentally as much as you do physically (or more)?

The answer is pretty simple. You put them in positions which force them to read and make decisions. Importantly, you also have a feedback mechanism with respect to that reading and decision-making so the players can judge their performance.

Think about the implications of those requirements,

Training beyond technique and tactics

I’ve talked before about how your training focus as a volleyball coach should be on making things as game-like as you can. Obviously, this is within the context of what you’re trying to do, and any limiting factors which apply. The point was that while the ideal is to make everything replicate actual game situations, sometimes you are forced work in a less game-like fashion.

In this post I want to extend that. I will specifically look at times when technical and/or tactical training is not necessarily the main priority. Certainly, those two things are the primary focal points of most games and drills. Beyond them, though, the two elements which come to mind are fitness and mental toughness. I’ll leave the former aside from a separate discussion, and focus on the latter here.

When I use the term mental toughness here I’m referring to characteristics like persistence, focus, being able to quickly put errors behind you, overcoming adversity, dealing with frustration, and the like – not just individually, but as a group. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes I put together training sessions specifically designed to challenge players in one or more of these regards. The idea is that just as we want to train players technically and tactically for what they are going to have to deal with in match conditions, we should do the same with respect to the mental part of their game.

Think of it as game-like training for the brain. 🙂

How do I accomplish this? In a couple few different ways.


This is making things happen more quickly than they normally do in a match. Scramble is an example of this. As soon as a ball goes dead, the next ball is being introduced. This forces players to immediately turn their focus to what’s coming next. That helps train them to get passed the last play. They develop the “What am I supposed to do next?” focus. This is required for things like covering hitters where the tendency is to just watch as a teammate plays the ball.

Slightly too hard

I mentioned before the idea of aiming for 2 out of 3 good repetitions in training. Sometimes you want to make things a little bit harder than that, though. It puts players in a position where they can get frustrated because the balls they have to play are extra challenging or the complexity of the situation is greater. I don’t mean making things impossible. I just mean pushing it to the point where the players aren’t as successful as they are used to being so their frustration level creeps up. This sort of thing definitely happens in matches. Making them frustrated in training allows for the opportunity to encourage problem-solving. This is very useful in overcoming the challenges presented by the opposition.

Team targets

A major part of good team chemistry is the way players support each other in collectively achieving an objective. It’s fairly straightforward for players to deal with their own success or failure. It is much more complicated when factoring several interconnected parts. Group objectives where lapses in focus and/or poor execution force them to re-start puts everyone in the same boat. Examples are things like 25 good passes in a serve reception drill, or 10 pass-set-hit sequences in a cooperative exercise like the hard drill. It forces them to deal with not only the consequences of their own performance, but those of their teammates.

Adding the fatigue factor

Everything is less fun when we’re tired. Fatigue also brings emotions to the surface, especially when we’re frustrated. Adding an extra physical element to something which already pushes mental buttons, like with team targets above, can surface potential problems. In doing so, we can set about putting things on the right track. The continuous cross-court digging drill is one I sometimes use in this context. It’s a drill which gets harder the longer it goes on. Players simply have to fight through it. As a result, it offers lots of both individual and collective mental toughness training potential.

Sacrificing game-like elements

The sacrifice you tend to have to make when you do the four things I talk about above is that you may have to reduce the game-like aspect of things. The cross-court digging drill is a good example. It involves coaches or players hitting balls over the net from boxes. There is very little randomness to it. Players are not given the opportunity to read the set or the hitter, position around a block, etc. The movements do break-up the block elements, but they aren’t very game-like.

If I told you I used this drill to teach defense then you would be justified in arguing there are better options. In this case, however, the drill is one focused on the mental side of things, with digging hit balls simply facilitating that. I’m not suggesting you can’t do mental training in a highly game-like context. The hard drill mentioned above is game like, but also very mentally challenging. That’s obviously the ideal. I’m just saying that there are times when you may have to sacrifice game-replicating elements for your purposes because of your specific priorities at the moment.

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