by Jeff Smith
At last year’s Diggin’ in the Dells tournament, one of the players on the 18 Blue team went into meltdown mode. She started making one serve receive error after another on the final day of the event. Her passing became so unreliable and her confidence so deflated that I changed the serve receive alignment to hide her in one corner of the court in front of the end line. Eventually I subbed her out to catch her breath and restore her poise.
No amount of encouragement, time off the court or instruction seemed to help her.
I share her story (anonymously) as a stark reminder that volleyball is largely a mental game and to serve as an example that mental mistakes aren’t limited to the youngest players and teams. What players of any age, even collegiately and in the Olympics, think and how they respond to adversity and tense situations makes a monumental difference in how they play.
One of the questions I get asked most often by parents is “How should my daughter handle making mistakes on the court in a match?” It’s a great question.
My response is they should H-A-M it up.
That sounds crazy, and it should! What I’m referring to is an acronym I created for what players should do after they make an error that loses a rally or leads to their team losing the rally. H-A-M stands for:
We teach our teams to quickly and briefly huddle up after every rally, win or lose. I call it the celebrate or encourage huddle. If your team wins a rally, every player on the court for the team gathers quickly in the middle of their side of the court and celebrates the point. If your team loses a rally, they also gather in the middle of the court, only this time to briefly encourage each other, especially the player or players who made mistakes that led to losing the rally.
Affirm each other.
The player or players who made the mistake that led to losing the rally need a quick word of encouragement and affirmation from their teammates. This sends the message that their teammates have their back and support them through thick and thin and any mistakes they make.
Because let’s face it: We all make mistakes in a match. Every volleyball rally ends in a mistake. If your team serves an ace, the other team lost the point because someone shanked their pass of the serve out of bounds or into the net or they let the serve hit the floor. If your team wins a rally with an attack, the other team lost the rally because a blocker blocked it out of bounds or a back-row player was unable to dig the ball up.
Teams need their players to constantly be affirming their teammates throughout the match and tournament. No mistake should go without a word of affirmation, a high-five, a fist bump, pat on the back or a “Shake it off, we got the next one” type of comment.
A phrase I’ve said countless times to countless players and teams over the last 20-plus years is “Good players have bad memories.” Good players realize that dwelling on their mistakes won’t help them play better. In fact, it will lead to them playing worse.
Once a rally ends, all of a player’s focus needs to be on the next point. Dwelling on the past won’t change the outcome of the last rally or the mistake you made. If you need to, take two quick seconds to remind yourself what you should have done on the passing or service or hitting or setting error you made and then shift all of your focus to the next rally.
If you as a player have a difficult time letting go of your mistakes, remember this: Every player makes mistakes. All of your teammates make mistakes. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes.
That doesn’t mean to celebrate mistakes or make light of them. But it does mean to give yourself a helping of grace.
Something I taught an 18U libero I coached was to give herself the latitude to make two passing errors per set. She was a perfectionist who beat herself up over any passing errors she made. I reminded her that libero is the toughest and most demanding back-row position on the court and she would never be able to play a perfect match. I told her to allow herself two passing mistakes for each set. That way, when she shanked an occasional pass in serve receive or dug an attack out of bounds, she mentally realized she had a little extra cash in her bank account so to speak that covered over those mistakes.
My coaching colleagues would probably think that idea was nuts, but it worked with her. She was able to play more relaxed and free knowing she wasn’t expected by her coach or teammates — or now herself — to play perfect volleyball. I ended up teaching the same strategy to a perfectionist 14U libero with similar helpful results.
Another helpful strategy is positive self-talk. For example, before every opponent’s serve Kayla Banwarth, the libero for the U.S. national women’s team, says her phrase of the day in her mind. For one match the phrase she repeated over and over before every serve was “I’m a great passer when I hold my finish to my target.” Hold my finish refers to “freezing” her platform in place for a second after passing the ball, similar to a basketball jump shooter holding her follow-through for a second after releasing her shot.
Whether you’re 12U, 18U or anywhere in between, H-A-M it up on the court this weekend and watch your mental game soar.
Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.