Editor’s note: Serving, especially in men’s volleyball, can be maddening to watch. In college, for example, the errors seem to outnumber the aces by about 4 to 1. Last summer in the Olympics, the USA men struggled terribly from the service line.
Dr. Andrea Becker has some thoughts about it. She was an assistant coach for the men’s volleyball programs at UCLA (2012-2015) and UC Irvine (2011-12) and has been the sport psychology coach for the USA men’s national team since 2013. She was on the bench for the USA during the 2016 Rio Olympics and, while still involved during the Games, stayed home from Tokyo last summer to take care of her young child.
By Andrea Becker for VolleyballMag.com
In the modern game of volleyball, serving is becoming more and more of an offensive weapon. As a server, one can be tough or one can be a liability. A tough server can keep the ball in play for a high probability attempt while also putting maximum pressure on the receiving team. Becoming a tough server is less about actually serving and more about how you prepare for the serve. It’s about having a consistent mindset and a sequence of mental and physical actions performed repeatedly before each serve. Developing a pre-serve routine will let you focus on the right cues at the right time and maximize the probability of getting consistent results.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, then you’re going to keep getting the same result.” Too many coaches use this phrase when they see athletes engaging in unwanted behaviors, such as laziness or poor mechanics.
However, the phrase doesn’t have to be negative.
To consistently perform at a high level, you have to consistently prepare the same way before the performance. Becoming a tough server requires a high level of discipline and engaging in the exact same mental and physical process before each serve, and doing it over and over.
Many players just go through the motions of service prep or rush the execution of their serve — meaning they don’t engage 100 percent of their attention during the pre-serve process.
If you’re a player, you might have experienced this. You hear the whistle, and you mindlessly perform a sequence of actions before hitting the ball, particularly in practice. While this high level of automaticity can sometimes be effective because of the sheer number of serves hit throughout a career, the lack of mindful engagement leaves room for other, potentially dangerous, thoughts to creep in, especially in high-pressure situations. It allows the mind to drift to that place where you start questioning whether you should “go for your best serve” or “just try to keep the ball in the court” or whether you should “hit a roll shot” or “revert to a float.” Once the mind enters this place of uncertainty, you are less likely to commit to your serve, and the outcome will be far less predictable.
You can’t expect to serve tough in match situations and have a heightened focus under pressure if you don’t practice a heightened focus every time you serve in practice.
When you step behind the service line, you will experience thoughts that either help or hinder your performance. If your thoughts are negative — such as “Don’t miss this” or “I have to make this” — and you focus on them, you allow them to control your attention. But if you acknowledge any negative thoughts and re-direct your attention to how you want to perform, then you are using your attention to control performance.
One way to shift attention is to talk to yourself. When we’re talking, we’re not usually capable of listening. Thus, you can use your internal voice to override your negative thoughts and direct your attention to the present task by talking yourself through each component of the serve. While executing your routine, for example, you’re actually saying it to yourself: “Bounce, bounce, bounce. Spin ball. Feel the grip. Deep breath. See target. Go.”
If you do not make a conscious effort to direct your thoughts or you think you’re going to try to keep a clear mind (which is nearly impossible), then you’re going to be more vulnerable to feeling the pressure of the moment and hearing negative or distracting thoughts.
Players who lack a consistent mental focus often unknowingly alter how they think from one serve to the next, depending on the situation. After serving two points and forcing a timeout, for example, servers might lower the velocity of their third serve to try to make sure they keep the ball in play. But lowering the velocity suggests that the server is thinking differently than he was on the first two serves. A similar change in mindset is common after hitting an ace. Instead of going back behind the service line and doing the exact same thing, the server might try harder to get another ace or hit a “safer or softer” serve, again signifying a change in mindset.
Some coaches might even adopt the philosophy that players should “try to keep the ball in the court” after a missed serve. Isn’t that one of the primary goals of serving: to get the ball in the court every time? If so, why does that become more important after a missed serve or a timeout?
For a server to increase the probability of getting the ball in the court, it might not be effective to periodically adopt a philosophy that might interfere with his mindset. Also, there is no evidence to suggest that hitting a “safer or softer serve” will increase the probability of the ball going in the court, particularly under pressure. It is natural for players to experience elevated levels of muscle tension during games, and this is heightened in pressure situations. If players try to over-control their performance in these moments, it might contribute to additional unnecessary muscle tension, more rigid movements, a disruption in the fluidity of the serve and a less desirable result.
At higher levels of competition, players should develop a strong belief in their ability to hit the same serve over and over. It’s not about changing your mindset from one serve to the next, it’s about repeating it. If you approach each serve with a consistent and focused mentality that works in practice, you will increase the likelihood that you can do it in games.
The size of the court doesn’t change.
The net doesn’t change.
The ball doesn’t change.
So your mentality shouldn’t change either. Adopting a consistent approach will give you the best opportunity to become a more dominant scorer. That’s toughness — approaching each serve with the same mentality, regardless of the situation.
Although it might sound simple, being 100 percent engaged on every serve is a challenge, particularly in practice. Most high-level athletes can get away with an 80 percent focus and still be pretty good. However, most high-level athletes don’t want to settle for “pretty good.” Their goal is become the best they can be.
A player interested in becoming the best server he can be might consider developing a more systematic approach and a consistent mentality. Here are some tips on how to do so:
Step 1: Know your physical routine
The first step in developing a disciplined pre-serve process is to examine your routine. Be mindful of what you are doing. Most athletes already have a series of actions they repeat before each serve, such as bouncing the ball three times, spinning it in their hand, and aligning the ball in a certain direction before the toss. Know exactly what you do, and then know when your routine begins. Some players start their routine when stepping across the end line or receiving the ball; others might not have a specific time to start their routine. They might start it after the whistle blows or be halfway through their routine when the whistle blows. Although it might seem minor, this lack of consistency will lead to a less consistent result. A good rule of thumb is to begin your routine when the whistle blows. In addition to being consistent, the whistle can be an auditory cue to initiate a conditioned response. This will help you get into your most optimal mental and physical state before each serve.
A lot of things can happen between the end of a play and the beginning of the next serve. Sometimes you might even get stalled out behind the service line if the opposing team is arguing a call or wiping the floor. It’s not a good idea to stand behind the service line and wait too long before your next serve because it leaves too much time to think. If the lag is longer than a few seconds, you should roll the ball back to the line judge, re-enter the court and huddle up with your team to talk strategy. Once the referees are ready to continue, re-approach the end-line as if the previous play just ended and re-start your routine at the whistle. Once the whistle blows, you have seven seconds to strike the ball. So it is important to keep your routine short and simple. If you like to wipe the bottom of your shoes or do other things that take longer, do them before the whistle blows.
It is important to know your “Serve Tough” routine, when it starts, and how to re-focus if you get stalled out during a match.
Step 2: Know your mental routine
Once you know your physical routine, and when it begins, it is important to know the mental side of your routine. Our minds have a limited attentional capacity, meaning we can only focus on so many cues at one time. If you fill that mental space with pre-determined thoughts that direct your focus throughout the serving process, there will be less room for distraction. To control your thoughts, develop a protocol of words that you can say to yourself while performing each act of your routine. You might count numbers, use aggressive language or verbalize the actions you are performing, such as “bounce, bounce, bounce, spin, breathe, see target, toss.” The more you talk yourself through what you want to be doing, the more likely you will do those behaviors, and get the desired result.
Step 3: Connect with your target
There are two basic types of focus an athlete can have when performing a skill –internal or external.
An internal focus means focusing on something within yourself or your own mechanical movements such as footwork, how to swing your arm or how hard to hit the ball.
An external focus means channeling your attention to a target outside yourself, such as a spot on the floor or a passing seam on the other side of the court. In target sports, there is an entire body of research suggesting that adopting an external focus is more beneficial to performance. To become a tough server, you must be relentless in your pursuit to externally connect with your target. For most athletes, the connection is visual. They rest their gaze (i.e., narrow and piercing) on the target until they feel totally connected. The gaze is typically paired with a relaxation breath to calm the mind and relax the muscles. After connecting with the target and completing the breath, they initiate the toss.
For a smaller group of athletes, the connection is more kinesthetic. Instead of directly seeing the target, the server might visualize or feel the target in his mind’s eye. Again, these athletes take a moment to feel totally connected before initiating the toss; however, this type of connection is more difficult to replicate because it is based on a feeling rather than seeing, which is easier to control. While it can be a little less consistent from one serve to the next, it might work for some athletes. Either way, it is important to fully connect with the target before initiating the toss. The actual target is debatable, but to date, the most effective target appears to be a fixed spot on the floor. When totally connected with that spot, your mind will naturally and unconsciously calculate the forces, trajectories and timing in order to produce the movements that will give you the highest probability of hitting that spot.
While some athletes have expressed an interest in connecting with a spot above the net (a closer target), it is more difficult to connect with a target that is not a physical object. In addition, connecting with a spot might not provide your mind with the correct calculations for achieving a specific distance, and your serve may be inconsistent.
Finally, it is important to note that the smaller the target area, the smaller the variability of error. Your eyes should rest on a dime sized spot on the floor. A helpful phrase to remember this principle could be taken from the movie The Patriot, “Aim Small, Miss Small.”
Side Note: Don’t worry about the speed of your serve. Imagine shooting a basketball from various spots on the court. You’ll have the highest probability of scoring from different distances and angles if you focus on the rim (external focus). You will decrease your probability of making a basket if you focus on the amount of force applied to the shot. To become a great shooter, you don’t have to try harder because you are farther from the basket, you just have to focus on the hoop, and your body automatically adjusts. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will make every basket, but if you are totally and completely focused on the rim, you will give yourself the highest probability of making it. Serving is the same as shooting. Focus on the target and let the speed take care of itself.
Step 4: Commit to your process
Once you’ve developed a consistent sequence of behaviors and paired them with a sub-verbalization protocol, the next step is committing to the process. It’s not about second-guessing or changing your mindset after initiating the toss. It’s not about tensing up or worrying about making a mistake. It’s not about trying to keep the ball in the court. It’s about trusting yourself and your preparation, seeing the toss and letting your body make the right adaptation to produce the desired result.
It’s about hitting your best possible serve, no matter the circumstance.
If you allow for indecision, your movements will be less fluid and you will try to over-control the serve. The most consistent servers NEVER compromise their process, not even in practice. If a ball rolls across the floor in front of you after you’ve initiated your serve routine, go back to the beginning of your process and start over. Becoming the best server you can be requires full attention to detail and an unwavering focus. Don’t cheat yourself or your teammates. If you practice at a mediocre level, don’t be surprised by mediocre results.
Step 5: Judge your process, not the outcome
Volleyball is a game of imperfection. However, we often judge ourselves by the outcomes of our performance. Rather than holding yourself to a standard of perfect outcome, hold yourself to a standard of perfect process.
When you finish your serve, don’t judge yourself on whether you hit a specific target or kept the ball in the court. Instead, judge yourself on how well you performed your routine, connected with your target and committed to your process. If you did not focus at your highest level, then you can re-focus on the next serve. If you were totally focused and missed, understand that this is the nature of performing a complex skill. You will never be perfect. Stick to your process, re-focus and make another attempt. This is something that is achievable and within your control for every single serve. You might not always achieve the perfect outcome, but you can increase the probability of getting what you want by approaching each serve with complete focus and engagement.
Brief overview of a complete service routine
- Know your physical routine, when it begins, what you do, and keep it simple.
- Know your mental routine (i.e., what you say to yourself while performing the physical actions).
- Connect with your target. Your gaze should be FIXATED on a very small target (e.g., small spot on the floor in one of the seams). The smaller the target, the smaller the error. Take a complete breath. Do not rush the breath, and make sure to finish it.
- Trust yourself and commit to your process!
- Judge yourself on how well you carried out your routine, not how well you served. Questions to consider asking yourself after each serve:
- Did I feel totally connected to my target?
- Did I really fixate my vision on a small target?
- Did I control my thoughts by sub-verbalizing my actions?
If you want to become the best player you can be, then be that person now. Every serve counts. Every play counts. Every breath counts. Use every repetition wisely.
What are you waiting for?
Dr. Andrea Becker is a professor of sport psychology and coaching as well as the director of the health science program at California State University, Sacramento (2017-present).
She spent 10 years as a professor in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton (2007-2017). Becker earned her PhD in sport science from the University of Tennessee (2007), and her MS (2004) and BS (2001) degrees in kinesiology and sport performance from Sacramento State University. She also has been the sport psychology coach for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings since 2017 and has worked with a number of college and professional athletes in football, soccer, track and field, lacrosse, baseball and softball. Contact her at email@example.com
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