player development

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.

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


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.

What to do if my daughter is struggling in volleyball

by Jeff Smith

Volleyball is the most popular girls sport in America.

It’s also one of the most challenging and competitive, in large part because of its phenomenal growth.


For a long list of possible reasons, your daughter could be finding this club season to be difficult for her. Perhaps she’s new to club volleyball, or competitive volleyball. Maybe she’s struggling to learn a new position on the court. She might be learning how to compete at the club volleyball level. She could be fighting to earn playing time on a deep or talented roster or just feeling lost in the shuffle. She might be an introvert on a team of mostly extroverts, or an extrovert on a team of introverts.

Perhaps she is overwhelmed with too many activities in her life or a tougher-than-usual academic schedule or is having a hard time making friends on her team. Maybe she feels her coaches are pulling her too far outside her comfort zone as a player, or not enough. Or she thinks she’s on a team that’s not winning as much as she’d like, or only seems to care about winning, or doesn’t care enough about it.

She might even be struggling to connect with her team’s coach. Perhaps her coach is much different than her, or too much like her, or has a teaching style, temperament or level of expectations that she’s not used to, or is too used to.

The possibilities are seemingly endless … kind of like life in general, if we were honest.

The question remains what to do about it. Here are four pieces of advice to consider. Some will seem painfully obvious to some but not others, but sometimes the simplest answers aren’t always considered.

1. Talk on a deep level with your daughter

If something seems significantly wrong with her, this will likely require a conversation on a deeper level and at a time and location where you know your daughter is more likely to open up. It may even require a series of conversations, heavy on listening and light on solutions from Dad or Mom, to get to the root of the issue. She might not even know what the root cause is. It may take some probing and some nuggets of wisdom from an outside source.

2. Examine the situation objectively together with your daughter

One of my daughters’ former high school teammates had a trying season on her club team last year. The good news was she made the top national team at one of the area’s largest clubs. The bad news was she rarely played in tournaments. She sometimes stood on the sidelines not playing a single point for eight or nine consecutive matches. Ironically, her team finished near the bottom of the Great Lakes Power League 18U standings.

Rather than quit, at some point during the season they talked as a family, studied the situation their daughter found herself in, and concluded together that 1) she had chosen to try out for a larger club’s national team, 2) she had elected to accept their offer to join that team knowing the risks involved with being on a national team and 3) she would stick it out and make the best of the situation for her benefit as an athlete and as a young adult.

That’s just one specific scenario. There are dozens of different situations going on at clubs and school programs all over the country, and not just confined to athletics. But, no matter the circumstance, discussing it as a family, coming to conclusions as a unit and making decisions together can be very helpful to your daughter and to the family as a whole, and even beneficial to her team.

It also can aid in avoiding the temptation to make a rash decision based on emotion, which we’ve probably all done and regretted at some point in our lives.

3. If needed, talk to your daughter’s coach

If steps 1 and 2 above don’t resolve an issue and you realize the circumstance is something that her coach needs to be involved in or aware of, by all means reach out to them. Our coaches are hired to be helpful, and they care about their athletes as players and as people.

A few days ago I reminded our coaching staff to be the kinds of coaches that don’t end up being a player’s last volleyball coach. What that means is coach your athletes in a way that helps them grow in their love for the game, their skills in the game and their understanding of the game.

Three caveats here:

  • If your daughter is ready age-wise and maturity-wise, the best first step may be for her to talk to her coach at practice without a parent in tow. This is especially true for high school athletes.

  • Contact or talk to the coach at least 24 hours after a tournament or practice. Following this 24-hour rule will enable the coach to decompress and re-fill their mental and emotional reserves after what could have been a tough day of matches or a draining practice. Having coached 1,500 games and likely another 10,000 practices, camps and clinics since 1998, I’ve occasionally been contacted an hour or two after a match or training session and simply wasn’t ready to be broadsided by accusations of doing or not doing X, Y or Z to or for one of my players. Conversations held too close after a tournament or practice rarely go well.

  • Assume the best of your daughter’s coach. I know each of this year’s coaches reasonably well. They care about their players. They aren’t in coaching for the money (there’s a reason most of us drive “gas-efficient” used vehicles). They are sincerely trying to do the right thing nearly all the time. Yes, coaches make mistakes. But we all do. If you need to discuss something with your girl’s coach, go in with the perspective that the coach is an ally, not an enemy.

This is especially difficult when the conversation or email exchange comes late at night after a full day of work and practice or a long tournament day. The coach won’t be prepared to thoughtfully respond when the problem is laid at their feet in this situation.

4. Sometimes time and patience is the best option

My younger daughter’s freshman year of high school she made West Chicago High School’s freshman B team. As a coach who knew her game well, I thought the coaches should have assigned her to the A team, but coaches coach and parents parent, and in my role as a parent it was my responsibility to be a supportive dad. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it :).

Making matters worse, Nicki’s coach was a basketball coach who had never coached volleyball before, and she decided to play Nicki as a left-handed middle hitter instead of at her natural position of setter seemingly because Nicki was fairly tall. It was a trying season for Nicki and for my wife and especially me as I watched some interesting matches unfold that season.

As much as I wanted to jump into the fray and improve Nicki’s situation, I “let go and let God” so to speak, praying often about it and staying out of it. It wasn’t a lot of fun for Nicki, but she survived, made a 15U club team, started at setter all club season, then made the sophomore team at West Chicago and started at setter that next fall. A season of playing out of position on a freshman B team didn’t kill her passion for the sport or her future prospects. It was a good life lesson and growth opportunity for her, and for me.

Sometimes circumstances warrant specific action. In other instances, time and patience is the right call to make. If a veteran coach can exhibit patience, there’s hope for us all to do the same :).

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

Three new year’s resolutions for Serve City players

by Jeff Smith

After taking three weeks off from volleyball over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Serve City’s teams hit the ground running in January. In fact, after just two practices the week of Jan. 7-11, some of our teams begin power league play as early as Jan. 12-13.

The period of January 7 to April 14 will be an intense and exciting three-month stretch for our athletes. Our teams will play 8-10 tournaments while practicing eight times a month.

What will be the key to our athletes getting the most out of this 12-week roller-coaster of activity? In a way, setting new year’s resolutions would be a huge advantage to them. Just as people establish new year’s resolutions for getting physically fit, accomplishing specific goals and making important lifestyle changes, new year’s resolutions for Serve City players would give them the focus, planning and goal-setting they need to make the most out of the heart of their club season.

Here are three new year’s resolutions that Serve City players could adopt as their own — or craft or tweak to meet their own unique situations — in 2019:

1. In 2019, I will learn or master this new skill: __________.

Personal growth doesn’t usually happen without setting goals and then creating plans to achieve those goals. Players will benefit from this approach. Decide what skill(s) you’d love to learn the rest of the season, tell your coach what you’d like to learn and work together to create a plan of action to reach this goal.

If you’re a 12U or 13U player who isn’t yet overhand serving in matches, developing a consistent standing float serve might be your goal. Or maybe you want to become a jump float server. Or you’re a 15U or 16U setter who wants to begin jump setting when receiving 3-point passes. Or you’re a 16U or 18U middle hitter who would like to master front slides and back slides. Or you’re a 13U or 14U outside hitter who wants to learn and use a 3-step jump hitting approach to start jump hitting. Or you’re a 16U or 18U back-row player who’d love to learn new digging techniques.

Dream big, stretch your vision, set some goals, create plans and get to work.

This same approach could be applied to learning a new position (right-side hitter, setter, libero, middle hitter …) or learning how to play in a new system (our 13U teams are learning how to run a 6-2 back-row setter system, and our 12U teams are learning how to run a 4-2 front-row setter system).

2. In 2019, I will make myself into a better practice player by ________________.

There is no such thing as a perfect volleyball player, or a perfect practice player. Every athlete can improve their practice habits. By improving their practice habits, players will then be developing better skills and growing in their understanding of their team’s tactics and strategies.

If you’re a Serve City player, examine your practice habits and decide what you will do to become a better practice player. If you don’t think you can objectively rate your practice habits, ask your coach for their feedback on your practice habits and how you can specifically grow.

Here are some ideas to get you into self-examination mode:

  • Arrive 10 minutes early for each practice.

  • Be your team’s hardest-working player at each practice.

  • Break the habit of skipping practice when I don’t feel like training.

  • Get more repetitions (touches on the ball) in your team’s drills.

  • Develop into a better listener when coaches are explaining drills and games.

  • Spend less time talking to teammates during drills and games.

  • Regularly give encouragement and affirmation to teammates throughout each practice.

  • Be more intentional about putting your coaches’ teaching into practice. (If Coach says to assume a low and athletic posture during a defensive passing drill, intentionally work on honing that posture as you perform the drill instead of taking the easy way out and assuming a standing posture.)

3. In 2019, I will develop a growth mindset in the area of ___________.

A growth mindset is the belief that, with dedication, hard work and teaching, players can learn just about anything in their sport. Some players struggle with a fixed mindset — the belief that they have specific talents that only allow them to do well in specific areas of the game. For example, a tall middle hitter may believe she can only help her team by blocking and hitting, but she can’t develop the ability to play in the back row, set a teammate when out of system or jump serve.

Is there an area of your game where you have a fixed mindset? Perhaps you’re a small 12U player who doesn’t think she can learn to overhand serve. Or a 13U player who struggles with jump hitting. Or a 14U player who’s never jump served in a match before. Or a 15U setter who hasn’t mastered back sets or quick setting. Or a 16U or 18U hitter who doesn’t know how to hit faster-tempo sets. Or an 18U or 16U blocker who rarely registers a block touch in practices or matches when swing blocking. Or a libero or DS who struggles to deliver out-of-system bump sets.

In 2019, commit yourself to practicing a growth mindset in whatever area you choose. Train with the belief that, over time and commitment, you’ll learn this new skill. And whenever you attempt and fail at this skill, avoid the temptation to self-consciously laugh it off and not try it again or feel embarrassed about it.

If you’re not making mistakes in practice, it means you’re not stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. It’s OK to “fail.” Just shrug it off and give it another go. And another. And another. You’ll get it eventually if you refuse to accept failure and commit to practicing relentlessly. I know you will.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.

The big mistake that coaches, parents and athletes make

by Jeff Smith

The scoreboard is the most fickle of friends. When you win, it treats you like its BFF. When you lose, it rejects you like it never knew you.

flip chart.jpg

Yet, despite its unfaithful nature, the scoreboard is entrancing to us. Players and coaches strain their necks to view the flip chart throughout each set. Parents ask the work crew to turn the flip chart their direction to see what it says. Teams' success or failure is determined by whether the scoreboard says they won or lost.

But should the scoreboard be the sole arbiter of success or failure?

The answer is an emphatic no.

This is especially true for club volleyball, where so many other factors are involved.

Your opponent matters

The scoreboard doesn't take the quality of your opponent into consideration. It merely reflects the score of your match.

Here's one example. Wheaton 18 Blue faced Ultimate 18 Gold in a tournament at Sky High March 3. Ultimate 18 Gold is in eighth place in the Super Open Division of the Great Lakes Power League. The Super Open is comprised of the 16 best 18U teams in the greater Chicago area. Every Super Open team is an elite national team. Ultimate is no exception. Five of its players will be joining Division 1 college volleyball programs in the fall, including one player who will play at the University of Illinois, one of the nation's top teams. By contrast, Wheaton 18 Blue features four sophomores, four juniors and two seniors and is on average about six inches shorter than Ultimate 18 Gold across the front row. This was a David vs. Goliath match-up.

Knowing all this while substitute coaching that day, my realistic hopes for Wheaton 18 Blue were to play aggressively and without fear. If 18 Blue did that, it would probably reach double figures in each set. The team met those goals, hitting with confidence, serving assertively, playing aggressive back-row defense and putting up a fight before losing 25-14, 25-13. Putting up a battle and losing to one of Chicago's best teams is a far greater achievement than beating up on a weak opponent.

Afterwards, most parents seemed to recognize the extreme odds stacked against the team. One or two might have thought it was a rough performance because of the margin of victory. But the scoreboard doesn't offer any deeper explanation behind the numbers, such as the strength of your opponent. It's why you should never rely on the scoreboard to tell you if your team was successful.

Your team's performance matters

Sometimes your team can play its best match of the season and lose and then turn around and play one of its weakest matches of the season and still win. Perhaps its opponent in the loss was simply more talented or played its best match of the season, too, and in the second match your opponent had an off day or was just an inferior team.

The scoreboard can't tell the difference between these issues. But coaches and players can.

All of us want to win and play to win. But at the end of the day, good teams care more about how they play than what the final scoreboard says. Good teams want to play their best volleyball every time they take the court. That's their primary motivation.

This is known as having a process focus over an outcome focus. Good teams and good players turn their attention to how they are passing, serving, setting, hitting, blocking, digging, communicating and making decisions on the court. They realize that, the majority of the time, if they play well it will be reflected on the scoreboard -- but not all the time. They may lose some matches where they played as well as they can play or nearly as well. They may even lose most of their matches despite playing at or near peak levels for them.

But, whether they win or lose on the scoreboard isn't their ultimate goal. They are more concerned about how they are playing on the court.

It's similar to a business. If a company is focused solely on the bottom line of making a profit, it won't be as effective as if it concentrates on delivering great products and services to its customers, and its work won't be as satisfying. Businesses that focus just on profit making will cut corners, short-change customers and produce cheaper products that cost less but also don't provide customers with long-term quality.

Your mindset and growth matter

Teams that don't play for the scoreboard are more interested in playing in such a way that their team and their players stretch outside their comfort zone to learn, grow and develop their skills. That won't happen if the team is focused merely on winning the scoreboard battle. They may even start playing too safe -- playing not to lose -- in hopes that their opponents will eventually make enough mistakes to give them the match.

The problem is that mindset will 1) stunt the team's growth, 2) cause them to play tight and nervous instead of loose and confident and 3) makes volleyball a chore instead of something fun.

You can usually tell a team's mindset by how they treat the last few points of a close set. Let's say the score is 23-23. How will a team play that is focused solely on the scoreboard? They won't take chances. They'll play it safe, resorting to tips, roll shots, free balls and two-handed pushes at their opponent. They'll wait for their opponent to make the error that gives them the point. It's because they see the score as a problem to avoid, specifically avoiding the problem of losing two more points.

How will a team play that is focused on its growth, performance, strategy and skills? It will play the same at 23-23 as it did when it was 5-5 or 15-15. The score doesn't matter to them. They keep playing their style and executing their game plan for serving, serve receive, offense and defense regardless of what the scoreboard says. They see close games as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

On Sunday Wheaton 14 Blue trailed Lions South 24-19. The next server was a player who just began jump serving the previous weekend. As Sammy prepared to serve, it was tempting for her to fall back on her standing float serve, which she was more comfortable with. But, to her credit, she stuck with her new jump float serve.

Seven points later, as her team celebrated a 26-24 victory, Sammy was glad she avoided the temptation to play for the scoreboard. It was a win for a growth mindset and for her team.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.