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 rally ends, the next ball goes in. This forces players to immediately turn their focus to what’s coming next. That helps train them to move past the last play. They develop the “What am I supposed to do next?” focus. This is comes up with something 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 don’t succeed as often as usual, 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 frustrated (see The Brain Always Wins). 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. Players aren’t 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 focuses 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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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.

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