How to keep confidence high when your team is struggling in the win-loss column

by Jeff Smith

Losing a string of matches or the majority of your matches can suck the life out of your team … if you let it.

Fortunately you don’t have to. Here are three ways to keep your team’s confidence and energy high when your team is going through a slump in the win-loss column.

1. Setting and achieving goals outside of the scoreboard

Many times the scoreboard gets too much of a team’s or athlete’s focus. When you simply are playing strictly for the win, it can leave you with a false impression of how you or your team performed when you win and when you lose. For example, you might win a match while not playing as well as you normally do, or you may lose a match but you played one of your best matches of the season.

To avoid putting all your focus on wins and losses, get in the habit of creating goals for yourself or for your team to achieve during a match or tournament. Using different criteria to judge performance can be striving to accomplish a certain goal for a specific area of the game.

For instance, when I substitute coach for one of our coaches at a tournament, I like to set a goal for the team to reach in each match. For one of our teams, I challenged them to get double-digit kills in a match. The nice part of that goal was it required contributions from everyone, not just the hitters. The passers needed to deliver a lot of accurate passes to the setting zone, and the setter needed to consistently deliver hittable balls to the hitters.

Our team’s primary focus in that match wasn’t on the scoreboard but on reaching our goal. That way, if your team is struggling in the win column, it doesn’t tense up from an over-emphasis on winning. It plays loose, relaxed, confident and focused with its energy channeled to its performance, not the final score. Plus, even after a loss, you and your teammates can gain confidence in yourselves because you see yourselves meeting team and individual goals and making progress in your skills and overall play from tournament to tournament.

2. Share one or more positives after each defeat

Losing a match doesn’t mean you or your team had no success or made no strides or positive contributions in the match. In your post-game team huddle, find at least one positive from the team’s performance after each loss and share it with everyone.

If you’re a coach, open the floor during your post-game huddle and ask your players to share two positives from the team’s play and one area where the team needs to grow. The reason you should share two positives and only one negative is so your team gets trained to think positively and to look for the positive in others around them and in themselves.

This is one reason why we end our multi-team (master training) practices by giving out the excellence, relationships (best teammate) and love for the game awards. After spending two practice hours largely working on improving the weaknesses or weaker aspects of our skills, tactics and strategies, we like to close practice focused on and celebrating successes.

3. Never accept unacceptable practice habits or a “what-does-it-matter” attitude

When teams suffer a string of losses or a losing slump, it can become tempting to develop sloppy practice habits caused by a change in attitude. It’s almost akin to giving up on yourself or your team, believing practice no longer matters because “we’re just going to lose anyway.”

Good, dedicated athletes and coaches refuse to let that mindset take hold. They realize that allowing that perspective to creep in will mean they’ll never be able to turn around a losing season and they’ll stop growing as a team and as individual players and coaches. They’ll also lose their love for the game. Instead, they support each other, remain committed to constant development and hold each other accountable to continue pushing, striving, stretching and growing.

And make sure your practices are focused on growth. If your team is struggling in serve receive, spend large portions of practice time working to develop the serve receive skills the team needs to succeed. If your setters are having difficulty executing certain types of sets, work with them on those skills and give them opportunities to practice those skills with lots of game-like repetitions and helpful feedback.

Don’t forget to keep your team’s strengths sharp with regular training as well and to continue stretching your athletes outside their comfort zone so they’ll keep improving in new areas, too.

4. Be a light during darker stretches

Long losing streaks can sap the joy out of athletics if coaches and athletes aren’t careful and intentional. Whether you’re a coach or a player on such a team, commit to being a beacon of hope for your team.

Don’t let your players or your teammates perceive that you’ve lost hope in the team or given up on them as you endure a rough stretch of matches. Be relentlessly optimistic about the next practice, the next match and the next tournament. Find the positives in your team and teammates as you go through a losing streak.

Yes, you will sometimes have to look more closely to find those positives. But the effort is always worth it.

It keeps your team’s and teammates’ spirits up.

It fuels your team to continue competing hard and supporting one another.

It stretches and strengthens you as a coach, a player, a competitor, a teammate and as a leader.

It reveals the kind of character you have.

It lays the groundwork for future success for you and for your team.

I can especially attest to the last statement. A few weeks into the 2017-18 club season I took over coaching one of our 14U teams when their coach resigned. It was an inexperienced squad comprised mostly of first-year club players and even four or five players who had never played competitive volleyball of any kind. We had our share of struggles, occasionally humbling losses, lessons to learn and growing to do, but we kept pressing forward.

At season’s end we advanced to the finals of the power league divisional playoffs, losing to the top seed by two points in the title match even though we were one of the bottom seeds in the tournament. The next weekend the team made the semifinals of a tournament almost exclusively made up of national teams. Capping the season in an upbeat fashion was only possible because team members remained positive in the midst of negative win-loss results.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.