Discipline: the biggest key to succeeding in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

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Assistant coaching with Wheaton College’s women’s volleyball program this fall taught me several valuable lessons. As impressed as I was to see a talented collection of 18- to 22-year-old athletes from across the country not only on Wheaton’s roster but playing for the opponents they faced last season, one of the biggest lessons learned was the critical importance of discipline.

Discipline was particularly valuable in:

1) helping the athletes earn the opportunity to play collegiately (only 5.8 percent of four-year high school volleyball players even receive a spot on a college roster)
2) getting the athletes ready to make a difference on their college team
3) preparing teams to win at the collegiate level

In short, discipline may be the most crucial quality that an athlete must possess to reach the college level, earn playing time collegiately and to excel on the collegiate court. Discipline is equally vital for any team and any athlete that wants to be successful. Winning college matches takes tremendous hard work, planning, preparation, grit, skill and determination — all of which are fueled by discipline. The same is true at the high school varsity and upper club levels.

The discipline I’m referring to goes by another, simpler name: good habits. Good habits are the key to achieving excellence in our skills and understanding of the game. Without good habits (discipline), talent gets wasted and never reaches its full potential.

As a famed quote teaches: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Another quote puts it this way: "Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better." The key word is always. Disciplined athletes consistently and always strive to do better.

Always striving to do better is about developing and practicing good habits — or discipline.

In club volleyball and specifically in the gym at Serve City, what does discipline look like?

1. Taking technical skill development seriously, and striving to continually improve and sharpen our skills in practice. Developing a fundamentally sound skill set is vital to long-term success in our sport. This kind of development requires discipline; it takes countless hours to hone your skills and expand your volleyball IQ without getting discouraged at the lengthy process this entails so that you can thrive on the court.

2. Getting to practices on time (even early -- if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time) so you can use your team's full practice time wisely. I still vividly remember attending a team's practice in an earlier season as a guest coach and watching as most of the players arrived between five and 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to start, then took another five to 10 minutes to change into their knee pads and volleyball shoes. Not surprisingly, this was a team that wasn't competitive in most matches, and most of its players stopped playing volleyball the next season.

3. Practicing with a purpose. Stanford University won the NCAA volleyball title in 2016 and 2018. Stanford has attained a level of success in the sport that only two other college programs have come close to achieving. One of the hallmarks of the program is its attention to detail. The coaches and players work diligently on every detail during training.

The spring before the Cardinal's 2016 national title, the coaching staff had its players spend five straight weeks serving solely from their zone 1 to the deep corner of zone 5 in every training session involving serve receive. Their goal was for the players to become so adept at serving deep zone 5 that, when the fall season began, they would serve teams out of system with this one simple strategy.

Their plan worked; Stanford was one of the top serving teams in the nation that season and used outstanding serving to drive the team all the way to the NCAA championship.

4. Practicing with passion. This refers to the level of energy the players pour into training. Do you compete in each drill with competitive zeal? Are you fully engaged in every aspect of practice? Do you approach practice with the same drive that you demonstrate when playing in the playoffs of a weekend tournament? Do you “practice the way you want to play, and play the way you practice"?

5. Taking care of your body. Proper sleep, a healthy diet, plenty of fluids and regular fitness and exercise are instrumental to preparing our bodies to be at peak levels of performance in practices and matches. We can't expect to be at our best if we don't properly care for ourselves. How we treat our bodies before a tournament also says a lot about our level of commitment to our team.

6. Maintaining the right conduct on the court. Studies show that our mental approach to competition has a large bearing on our performance as athletes. Keeping an upbeat mental attitude, delivering positive verbal affirmation and words of encouragement to teammates and maintaining confident body language and tone of voice on the court are crucial to success. All of these traits take discipline to incorporate into our on-court demeanor.

7. Successfully riding the highs and lows that come with sports competition. Wild swings of momentum are common in volleyball. One minute your team has a 12-3 lead. The next minute your opponent has tied the set at 14-14. Discipline is essential to having the poise, confidence and grit to overcome the many challenges thrown our way in this sport. It takes practice to develop the habits necessary to be able to weather any storm on the court, from your team playing shorthanded one day to falling quickly behind and needing to rally from a large deficit.

8. Training when you don't feel your best. This doesn't mean coming to practice with a 103-degree fever. But it does refer to pushing through the minor aches, pains and illnesses that lesser athletes lean on as excuses to avoid practicing and instead showing up to practice ready to get "3-percent better" even when we don't feel like training.

Individual improvement is largely a choice. We can either choose to only practice when we feel great and miss out on opportunities to truly grow, or we can commit ourselves to the process of player development even on those days when we're sore, tired, less motivated or a bit sluggish. Choosing the harder but better path to individual growth requires discipline. Like a muscle, discipline develops into a hardened habit when we exercise it regularly.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.