6 ways to keep focused and fresh for late-season practices

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by Jeff Smith

For regional club volleyball teams, March and April is the period that some coaches describe as the dog days of the season. This is the time of year when less motivated athletes begin giving less effort in practices, or missing more and more practices, and less motivated coaches put less planning, intentionality and creativity into their practices, as the season winds down.

The last six weeks of the season usually separate the good players and teams who remain devoted to growth and development from the less committed ones, and the results are evident on the court in tournaments and training sessions.

It can be tempting to start cutting corners and exerting less energy and mental focus in late-season practices. You may be tired, not feeling 100 percent physically, counting down the days until spring break, busy with a variety of extracurricular activities, yearning for more free time in your schedule to just chill out and do nothing or needing a break from sports, or you might be new to club volleyball and not accustomed to maintaining a five-month commitment to a sport.

Truth is, it’s safe to say 99 percent of our athletes sincerely want to pour their full physical, emotional and mental effort into every practice for the sake of their team and their own development. How can you as an athlete avoid the slippery slope of letting your practice and match habits slide or start lagging?

Here are six tips that can help you in this critically important area.

1. Set goals for yourself

This is something the USA women’s national team coaches ask their players to do at their practices. Each player is asked to set a specific goal for each practice.

For example, Jordan Larson’s goal for one recent practice was to pass the ball off the sweet spot of her platform (the area between her wrists and elbows) on average eight out of every 10 serves she received during practice that day. Jordan knows that passing the ball off the sweet spot of her platform consistently is crucial to her success as a serve receiver, so she made it the focus of her goal setting that day.

Goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) help us to keep growing in our skills and understanding of the game. They also keep us focused throughout practice so that we stay motivated and mentally locked in to the task at hand.

2. Analyze your game: what needs to improve?

Goal setting will benefit us most if our goals are tied to the areas of our game that need to get better. To be honest, we all need to get better at every skill.

Even if, say, you’re a great server for your age level, your serve isn’t perfect. It can always improve. Maybe you need to serve more consistently; if you miss one out of every five serves on average, your goal could be to increase your serving percentage from 80 percent accuracy to 90 percent. Perhaps you don’t know how to zone serve; your goal could be to learn how to consistently zone serve to all of the back-row or front-row zones.

Maybe you’re a 12U or 13U player who doesn’t yet serve overhand in matches. Your goal could be to develop a consistent overhand serve between now and the last tournament of the season. Or you’re a 14U or high school player who uses a standing overhand serve but doesn’t yet have a reliable jump float serve. Make mastering the jump float and using it in your next tournament or by your last tournament your practice goal.

Perhaps you serve a jump serve already but only sometimes are able to serve it to specific zones, particularly short zones. There’s a great goal for you to pursue.

3. Choose to be an intentional energy source for your team

The best way to do this is through words of encouragement and affirmation as well as high fives and fist bumps. Watch an NBA game. Professional basketball players exchange high fives and fist bumps with each other throughout every game: as players are subbed out or come in, before and after team huddles, after made and missed free throws, after hustle plays, even throughout pre-game warm-ups.

They do this as a sign of team unity and support and also because studies show that people feed off receiving both verbal and physical affirmation.

Take this approach in your practices. Verbal and physical signs of encouragement will not only keep your teammates and team energized, but you’ll find this will energize you as well.

4. Change up your routine

If you’ve found yourself falling into the same rut for each practice — eating a snack, perusing social media on your phone, changing into your practice gear and then getting in the car to head to practice — change it up to keep things fresh.

For instance, get ready first, then watch a couple of skill videos that Serve City sends to all our athletes each week to motivate you for practice. Write down one goal for that day’s practice that you will seek to accomplish. Drink a protein shake or Gatorade instead of a can of Mountain Dew. Take a 15-minute nap or listen to music while lying on the couch for 15 minutes.

Altering your routine before each practice will keep you refreshed and ready to get after it that evening.

5. Ask a coach for feedback

Talk to your coach before a practice. Ask them what two or three areas of your game you need to especially focus on at practices that week. Your coaches know your game better than anyone. They see you practice and play more than anybody else does. Seek out their input, or read through the mid-season evaluation each coach was supposed to write for their players (or ask them to give you an evaluation).

6. Be the kind of teammate you want others to be to you

When I played basketball in middle school, one of my teammates, named Rodney, was the kind of player that kept everyone on their toes. He wasn’t one of our best shooters or ball-handlers or passers, but what he lacked in scoring ability he more than made up for with his hustle, effort, enthusiasm and determination. His practice energy was off-the-charts good.

Rodney practiced like every practice was the championship game of the league season. Whenever we scrimmaged or ran a drill, he went all out. We’d play a 5 on 5 scrimmage, and whenever there was a loose ball on the floor, you knew Rodney would be the first one to dive for it.

Rodney’s approach to practice was contagious. His teammates soon found themselves practicing with greater energy and focus because of him.

Eventually the whole team was working with his fire and determination, and it wasn’t a coincidence that our team ended up winning the league championship in back-to-back seasons. We simply out-efforted our opponents game after game.

And it all started with how we practiced. Practice the way you want to play. If you want to play with excellence, you have to practice with excellence, no matter how you feel or what time of year it is.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.