by Jeff Smith
For obvious reasons, a scoreboard is an essential tool for any volleyball match.
But the best approach any coach and athlete can take toward a scoreboard is to act like it's not there. Don't look at it, fall for its hypnotic powers or give it a second thought except to know when a set or match is over.
The story below from my team's last tournament is a perfect case in point.
On Saturday Elgin 14 Smack went on a 7-2 spurt to take a 9-6 lead in the third set and appeared en route to an upset victory over the top team in the Fusion Challenge, Illini Northwest 15 Black.
That is, until we began fixing our gaze on the almighty scoreboard.
With a big win nearly in hand, players began peeking over at the scorer's table between every point. Athletes on the bench craned their necks or stood up and leaned forward over and over to check out the score as well. Normally such attention can be seen as harmless or perhaps motivate a team even more. But in this case, it had the opposite effect. We began playing more conservatively, hitting soft shots and tipping and free-balling to the middle of the court instead of continuing to play our aggressive offensive brand of volleyball. In short, we went into safe mode and waited for Illini Northwest to make mistakes instead of remaining assertive and on the attack.
Basically, we played not to lose -- and promptly lost 15-12. It wasn't anywhere close to the scale of the Falcons' collapse against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but it was deflating nonetheless after the team played so well for most of the match.
We almost acted out the same script in our next match. The girls played fantastic to build an even bigger lead in the first set, going up 21-11, before scoreboard watching led to cautious play again. Soon, Fusion 15 Teal erased a once large deficit to draw even at 23-23. We were able to close out the set for a 26-24 victory on our way to a two-set win, but the scoreboard obsession needed to stop.
Ironically, some court-side logistics at the Fusion Sports Center inadvertently taught us a valuable lesson. Our final match of the day, against Fusion 15 Sapphire, was on a different court than the first two matches. Instead of being located in a spot where both teams could see the scoreboard, the scorer's table was situated on the opposite side of the court to our team bench. Because of this, the players and I had no way to view the scoreboard or know the score without asking.
This setup worked out perfectly in our favor. With no ability to glimpse at the score after carving out an early 11-6 lead, our players simply focused on playing their best volleyball. They continued expanding the lead throughout the set, though they never realized the actual size of the lead, eventually winning 25-14 in one of their sharpest performances of the tournament. After the teams switched sides between sets, we were now on the same side of the court as the scoreboard. But after being unaware of the score in the first set, the girls chose to ignore the scoreboard in set 2. They again played one of their strongest sets of the day, winning decisively 25-14 to clinch the match.
Afterwards, we discussed if being unable to see the scoreboard in the first set helped us. The girls all thought it did.
"We just concentrated on playing our game, doing our best and playing as a team," one of the players said.
"And we had more fun," a teammate chimed in. "We just played aggressive and didn't think about the score. We knew if we played well the score would be fine."
In a 30-second post-game team huddle, the girls summarized the most effective approach to competition that exists today: process over outcome. Players and coaches can't really control the outcome of a sporting event. But we can control the process -- our attitude, effort, energy, performance and pre-game preparation. To play at the peak of our abilities, we need to place our in-game emphasis on the process and simply trust that the score will take care of itself.
Will that ensure a win every match? Of course not. But it will lead to better performances by the athletes and team and, as a byproduct, positively impact the scores of matches. More importantly, the girls will play looser and more assertively from start to finish, develop a stronger and healthier mental attitude toward competition, thrive in tight situations, grow in their confidence, focus more on individual and team development and less on just wins and losses -- and enjoy the game more in the long run.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.