You are what you think: the mental side of volleyball


by Jeff Smith

Mental training is all the rage in sports nowadays. There’s a legitimate reason for this. Confidence and positive thinking in the heat of battle are important traits to a successful athlete. An athlete’s mind has a powerful impact on how she performs.

But, before exploring this subject further, it needs to be noted that a positive mental attitude is no substitute for the other qualities of a successful athlete: skill, talent, training, experience, discipline, passion for the game and dedicated preparation. I can train myself to have the most upbeat, positive attitude in the world, but if I don’t fortify that attitude with excellent training, work ethic, skill development and learning, I can be positive about one thing: I’ll struggle and lose nearly every time I set foot on the court.

Volleyball is about training yourself to be in the right place at the right time using the right technique with the right amount of effort, the right read on the situation and the right split-second decision, all of which takes countless hours of sustained training. The good news is player development from dedicated training helps produce the mental confidence and positive outlook you need to excel on the court.

Now, having said all that, the mind is definitely a powerful tool in your performance as an athlete. A positive mental approach practiced by the entire team makes a huge difference.

I can personally attest to this. I’ve been fortunate enough to win 999 games as a coach. Of those victories, probably a quarter of them were by two to five points. The final result sometimes came down to playing with more confidence at game’s end, maintaining a more positive approach in tight situations, keeping a healthy, upbeat perspective on the game, enjoying the moment more (we taught ourselves to be excited about close matches as a fun opportunity instead of as an unnerving obstacle) and continuing to trust each other and believe that we could win.

A verse I read today is a wonderful reminder of positive mental training: “As he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

As the author who quoted that verse explained, self-fulfilling prophecy is about becoming what you think yourself to be. “If you think you will fail, you probably will,” the author wrote. “If you think you will succeed, then most likely you will succeed.”

A relentlessly positive mental attitude will not guarantee that your team will always play its best or always win. You might even lose every match on a particular day. As a skeptical coaching friend likes to joke, “What if both teams have great mental attitudes? Will they finish in a tie?”

However, a positive mental attitude will enable you to be at your mental best most often and make the seemingly impossible possible, particularly when your team is:

  • locked in a nip-and-tuck battle

  • having one of those days where you’re struggling to play your normal game

  • playing shorthanded that day

  • staring up at a big deficit

This poem by Walter D. Wintle cleverly addresses the mental side of athletics.

Success begins with a fellow's will;

It's all in the state of mind.

Think big and your deed will grow,

Think small and you will fall behind.

Think that you can and you will—

It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are.

You have got to think high to rise.

You have got to be sure of yourself

Before you win a prize.

Life's battles don't always go

To the stronger or faster man.

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the man who thinks he can.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.