Let’s face it: It drives us nuts.

Your team is on a roll, the opponent calls time, and when your server goes back to the end line, you don’t know whether the run will continue or that next serve going to hit the back wall, go under the net, or, well, who knows?

So we asked our friend sports psychologist Dr. Bhrett McCabe what gives. McCabe, who specializes in the mental aspect of sports performance at his Mindside in Birmingham, Ala., offered the following:

Dr. Bhrett McCabe
Dr. Bhrett McCabe

By Dr. Bhrett McCabe for VolleyballMag.com

It happens all the time in volleyball. A server is on a run, dominating the opposition with powerful serves and gaining a distinct advantage with each point. To thwart the rhythm and roll of the server, the opposing coach does what every great coach would do – call a timeout, regroup, and look to change the tide.

Somehow it normally does.

What happens in the time out that changes the rhythm and success of the server? Why does the server seem unstoppable in one minute, but after a break, faults immediately out of the time out?

When an athlete is competing at his or her best, their focus is simple and effective. During these great runs, their mind is able to focus quickly and easily on the task at hand, with purpose and conviction. The chaos of the gym, the score, the crowd, or the meaning of the point is drowned out by the intensity and purpose of the task at hand. The simplicity is key and there are few times to think about avoiding making a dreaded mistake because the game is going fast and building on success after success. That is why it is commonly called the Zone or a Flow State because it is simply happening without much thought.

While it seems that thought is minimized, the truth is that the thought is still happening, just not as many competing thoughts or “failure-based” thoughts.

When the time out occurs, it is common to hear the coaches and other teammates to tell the server to “stay with it,” “keep focusing,” and such, but what really happens next is normal.

During the timeout, the athlete likely starts thinking of two things:

“What was I doing so I can continue it?” and “Don’t mess up now!”

These are very common thoughts, but how you react to them can change the outcome better than anything else that you can do.

As humans and athletes, we are all conditioned to try and avoid loss. It is built into our brains and controls how we think, act, and respond to challenges. While success is often the goal, for most athletes, it is only after safety is ensured. So when the server sits on the sideline, the common response is to realize what has been happening and start to evaluate the success and see how to make it continue.

Then along comes the “what if” thoughts and those thoughts simply take over. Now the athlete is in a mental trap where the negative

“What if” takes over and the player starts to overthink their approach, often their mechanics of the serve, and starts to think about the implications of the next missed serve.

In order to succeed coming out of a timeout, there are a few things that great athletes do that you can do:

  • Accept that the chaos of the moment is simply background noise. It does not matter the size of the crowd, the meaning of the point, or the how many points in a row you have served successfully. All that matters is the next point.
  • Take two deep breaths and focus on a small spot on the ground. That allows the mind to re-engage with the present moment better than telling yourself to “pay attention” or “focus.”
  • Understand that you got on the great run by focusing on hitting great shots, not avoiding trouble or mistakes. The more you buy into the chaos of the point, the more trouble it will cause. Accept that the there are difficult serves and the next one is difficult, so take that mental energy and funnel it into the next shot.
  • Understand that focus is not ignoring the chaos to pay attention, but rather being so locked into one thing that nothing else matters. Focus on what you want to do to, not working to avoid what may happen. Accept that you may or may not hit a great serve, but understand that either way, the result is simply a result of a fully committed and aggressive intent of the serve.
  • Visualize where you want the ball to go, not how you are going to make it happen. Under pressure, the mind wants to over control mechanical, internal thoughts. When playing great, the mind is very engaged in external targets. Get external.
  • Finally, move! There is no reason to get stiff or tight. Move around and stay active.

Great players embrace the serve out of a timeout as a challenge and look forward to executing under those circumstances. They normally have a plan for it and commit fully to it. The beauty of embracing a player’s MindSide is understanding the reality of the challenge and getting all of their resources fighting to achieve the goal.

Visit www.themindside.com to reach Dr. McCabe and to hear his podcasts. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMindSide.


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