Dr. Ed Garrett is an associate professor for the Online Department of Health Science at California Baptist University and a CMPC with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He calls these lessons “Get Psych’d.” Follow him on Twitter at @SPwithDrG.

Over the past 30 years this game I love has brought me so many learning opportunities. It was never about what I could take, but always about what I could give. Whether officiating or coaching, I’ve used that time to absorb the growth process in athletes.

As coaches we can all attest that athletes progress differently. Many of us would support the fact that our athletes are sometimes “out to lunch.” That may be because of the phase in which they’re in. For some athletes volleyball is a social event. For elite athletes volleyball becomes oxygen. The challenge is in helping athletes progress through the stages while attempting to understand each stage and the facets associated with each.

In this installment of “Get Psych’d,” I’ll walk you through the early, middle, and later phases, to offer some cognitive understanding about where your athlete is. I hope you can apply some of it to your team.

The early phase: In club volleyball we are seeing athletes starting younger, but when do they develop a passion for the game? As early as 12 to 14 a young athlete will start to determine the sport they wish to master in (occasionally, we all have the 10-year old stud, but that’s the exception to this rule). No longer is our society seeking the attention of simply being average in two or more sports. The focus in society is now geared to becoming the “best” by being elite in one specialty. The research examined has shown a growing number of volleyball athletes who are spending more time with their club team than with their high school team. This is due in part to the increased coaching experience and intensity of club volleyball practices, competition, and college recruiting.

The practice demands for a young volleyball athlete may start simply at first. A typical club volleyball practice would consist of practice one to two nights a week, averaging two hours each day. The competition schedule would consist of one to two tournaments a month, mostly on the weekends.

Most high school volleyball teams practices every day, Monday through Friday, for two hours a day. So how is the club program developing expert volleyball athletes at a greater rate than in high school? At ages 13-14, the early stage, the athletes are starting to learn the game of volleyball. On their freshman volleyball team at high school they may have a team of 12 players. Out of those 12 players, three or four may show a strong amount of talent for the game. Club volleyball then takes those three or four strong-talent athletes from one school and combines them a few from other schools, making a stronger team of around 12 athletes. Strength breeds strength and club’s ability to attract the elite athletes from high school simply allows them the fortitude to develop experts in their sport.

But building a team of strong-talented athletes solves the team development, but where does the individual growth come from when transitioning from the early years to the middle years?

In the middle: The early years have established a love for the sport. But once the middle years come around, the athlete becomes self-aware of whom they are and what their role may be within the team. Young athletes begin to place judgments and therefore bring doubt in one’s ability to play the game effectively and at the highest level. On top of that,  society is now influencing the young volleyball athletes as to what she should look like and who she should be.

At that point, the athlete may question if he or she has what it takes to advance to the next level. The answer may be in the athlete’s self-efficacy at this middle stage, something a sport psychologist can address through consulting. One could argue that the intrinsic motivation for an athlete to excel may come from how good they feel about themselves while in competition. The athlete must have a belief in his or her capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce a level of achievement (That’s from a book by Thelma Horn, Advances in Sport Psychology, published in 2008). Athletes can have a strong self-efficacy when in practice but can struggle with their self-efficacy in the presence of game-time.

Therefore, the issue a sport psychologist must address is the athlete’s level of self-confidence.

To help the athlete with this issue one may start by working through the athlete’s cognitive self-efficacy issues. One example may be to help the athlete control his or her thoughts and emotions. Most times, if an athlete is having problems with her thoughts and emotions it’s the cognitive thinking that robs the athlete’s self-confidence in believing he or she can accomplish the skill at hand. The key is to change the doubt that is brought on by other athletes, the fans, the coaches, society, and any cultural influence. Positive self-talk is a great tool a volleyball athlete can use to help change the negativity one might say while in practice or in games. This can start simply by finding a key play that typically causes the athlete problems. An example may be a volleyball athlete that steps to the service line and always repeats, “Don’t miss the serve.” Change this statement every time to, “I can make this serve.” By making this small change the volleyball athlete will begin to instill self-confidence back into their game.

The later years: This is when that athlete will need greater skills. Coming out of their middle-year cocoon, what blossoms on the other side of the later years is an expert that has excelled to the highest level of their sport. While at this stage it is critical that the athlete understand and implement some daily cognitive training that enables the athlete to push to the maximum of the sport.

Imagery can be a great tool to use, as most athletes in the later stage are mature enough to understand and apply this talent.

Consider: “Imagery is simply not relaxation or a cure for poor skill. Rather, it is an active process that heightens one’s concentration, focus, arousal regulation, and attempts to eliminate maladaptive cognitions and behavior,” from A Comparison of Mental Strategies During Athletic Skills Performance in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2005.

Tools for growth: Stepping to the service line, many things go through a volleyball athlete’s mind. Where should I serve it? What happened the last time I served to that person? Should I serve deep or short? How fatigued am I this late in the match? What’s for lunch?

An athlete must find the flow and bring the cognitive to their game in the way of attention and focus. Then while warming up pre-match, the athlete must focus all negative talk away from the game and focus on positive self-talk that leads to self-confidence for touch of the ball. Both imagery and self-talk can be a helpful cognitive tool to help a volleyball athlete both in competition and psychologically.

Imagery can be a powerful tool to use for the purpose of helping athletes reduce stress, concentrate on a specific shot, or relax prior to a game. Simply put, imagery is the ability to view the sport or practice in one’s mind. It is a way of making an experience similar to a sensory experience. If one has the ability to pre-play the actions in their mind before they have happened then they can work through their muscle movements, as well as their actions. Imagery has shown to prepare the body and mind for the activity at hand. The relaxation allows the volleyball athlete to relieve stressors and the imagery put them in a place of relaxing while going through the motions of their skill.

It is important to note that using the auditory and kinesthetic senses are vital to complete the imagery training. This, too, is where an average volleyball athlete becomes elite in their training.

Auditory imagery would associate with the noise of the crowd. The rise in the decibels of a gymnasium can bring about a rise in pressure the volleyball athlete is feeling. Therefore, kinesthetic imagery (sensing one’s movement and body positioning) can make or break each shot a volleyball athlete takes. Being able to use imagery to control a volleyball athlete’s nerve endings in muscles, tendons, and joints can bring about the relaxing and calming state that helps the athlete read the play and make the correct shot. From the competitive side of the game a goal for the volleyball athlete must be to stay relaxed and focused, as the physical demands of the game are great. Pushing one’s body to the limits for a five-set match lasting over two hours can be mentally draining. Imagery can keep the mind focused on that next shot and off the length of the match (I’ll include more imagery help in later articles).

Self-talk is another tool that also puts a positive focus on every play.

If a volleyball athlete states, “Don’t hit the ball out”, there is a greater chance that he or she will actually do what is said/thought. Positive self-talk would change that statement to, “I can make this shot.”

Author Steven Ungerleider calls this having a personal pep talk. Self-talk can be a great affirmation to emotional strength and allow for an enhancing of the volleyball athlete’s self-confidence. As expertise and peak performance are considered for elite athlete who have progressed to the later years, self-talk, and imagery, have the ability to help a volleyball athlete’s mental skills by allowing the athlete to block out unsuccessful images or events and focus on the performance of peak output. Self-talk can also have an erasing effect. A volleyball athlete may use his self-talk to stay focused; “I need to stay focused on the present and prepare for the next serve.” This type of self-talk also addresses the competitive side of the game.

Take on the challenges: Challenges and obstacles are a part of volleyball. Elite athletes, much like non-elite athletes, must find ways to overcome the hurdles that are keeping them back from improving. One challenge can be statistics. Statistics are always something athletes look at and many times the athlete places too much weight on what those statistics are saying about their performance. Other challenges are things such as bad calls by the officials (Wait! My fellow officials don’t make bad calls!), disruptions by the fans, and the media focusing on the negative. All of these are external factors which are out of the athlete’s control. The focus must be shifted from what cannot be controlled to what can be controlled. Negative thoughts and anger are internal issues that can be overcome through proper mental training. A method as simple as positive talk can help an athlete refocus on the proper way of addressing the task at hand.

Final serve: The amount of time it can take for a volleyball athlete to become an expert can vary and the age at which that person may achieve expertise may also vary.

It takes time for a volleyball athlete to move through the three stages and onto a level of maintenance. Again, a non-elite athlete will walk off the floor at the end of practice and not think twice about what should be improved upon. A non-elite athlete at this stage will blur one practice into the other. An elite athlete will begin to recognize each day as a separate training opportunity and use it to improve off of the last.

Athletes work best when they have a target before them. That target can be provided daily within the way you structure practice. Couple the phases with the tools for growth and you have the building blocks to help your athletes progress with measurable results.

Now go Get Psych’d!

Previously by Ed Garrett on VolleyballMag.com: Goal-setting is building block for greater focus

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  1. The vast majority of kids playing middle school and high school volleyball have no goals of playing for the National team. They are mainly playing because it is fun. You are talking about an extremely small subset of young players who are dedicating their lives to becoming the best player they can be. And even those who manage to make it on to a college team, 97% pick a career other than volleyball after college.

  2. Thank you James for the comment. The great thing about this sport we love is that volleyball teaches multiple skills that will be utilized in life. Goals, for example, can be set and achieved at any stage and are great motivators. Whether in volleyball or simply wanting to do better on a test, goals are a beneficial cognitive resource focused on helping one build his/her confidence and measure success, both on and off the court. Goal setting is but just one skill I always wanted my athletes to master as I knew they would use that skill multiple times in life. Keep achieving your goals and thanks again for the feedback.


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