Developing Mental Toughness

From a Coach:

Do you have any advice when it come to developing mental toughness in the HS female athlete? I could really use some, we have some unbelievable talent and play a very intense style of volleyball. If we keep it together I don’t think there is a team that can touch us, but we seam to go flat and make mistakes for runs of 4-5 points at a time and I am worried this might be our downfall. Any advice/drills you can give that work on this would be greatly appreciated.

Our Reply:
As for your question, it is one of the hardest issues you face as a coach, no doubt. I find that even at the college level we aren’t where we want to be from a mental perspective. Our BYU team (where I am the volunteer assistant this year) just lost our second 5-game match to in-state rival Utah this year. The season would be a success if we went 2 and whatever, so long as those two wins were against Utah. And we lost them both in heartbreaking 5-game losses.

After the match, I was talking to Chad Lewis (a former All-Pro Tight End for the Philly Eagles – he is a BYU guy and his wife played volleyball here) and he asked me about being up 2 games to 0 and losing three straight. We talked about the need for the very thing you asked about – mental toughness. I told him that while the girls on the team were wonderful kids – respectful, hard working physically, invested in the systems and the feedback they get – they simply weren’t killers, that it doesn’t feel like they want to destroy the other teams. At times it seems we are happy to just let the game play out rather than try to control the outcome. Does that make sense? In other words, we haven’t yet developed the level of mental “toughness” to which you allude.

That having been said, here is what I think it takes. This is simply my opinion and you probably know these things, but here is what I have seen as a player and a coach:

Experience and Reps
First off, it sure helps if your kids have been in a LOT of matches, so they have a lot of game experience. There isn’t much you can do with this other than try to get your younger kids playing a lot of volleyball so by the time they get to their Junior/Senior year, they have a lot of match experience and they don’t tighten up. I heard a Ph.D sports psych guy talk about the need for confidence, and he went on to say that the biggest factor in increasing athlete confidence is successful experience. In other words, if I perform a task well a lot, I begin to have a lot of confidence in my ability to perform that task well in the future. No big surprise there – I don’t think you need a Ph.D to figure that one out. So we need to give our kids a lot of opportunities to perform well, and that means we have to start young and play a lot of volleyball.

Practice Environment
You need to create a practice environment where a) there is a high level of accountability between teammates, and b) there is a lot of competition.

a) the kids have to know that part of being a good teammate is when I am on the other side of the net from you I am trying to beat you as badly as I can. This isn’t because I don’t like you, but because I like you so much I am giving you my best effort as a practice opponent. And I am doing everything I can to come to practice every day in a position to play hard and play great against my teammates, because by doing so I am making the team better. So I work hard in the weight room, I get a lot of sleep, I have good nutritional habits, I am a happy, positive person, I study hard in school, etc. – I do everything in my power to bring my best self to practice every day. This is an overwhelmingly difficult concept for kids to grasp – so you have to talk to them about it all the time, reinforce it, praise it when it happens, etc.

b) practice has to have a lot of competition (you keep score), and the results of that competition has to matter in a way that the kids regard as significant.  As you know we like using the Cauldron to manage this aspect of practice.

Match Preparation
If you have a good, solid game plan against your opponents you can help your kids rely less on their intuition and concentrate more on simply doing a task. “Serve player X” is easier to process and execute than “serve great”. “Ignore the quick hitter in rotation 4 and get loaded on the outside” is easier to process becuase it allows the player to go be great at a specific job without having to read very much. The fewer things a player has to process the better they can be at the tasks they need to do, and therefore they will have more success at those tasks. And as I said before, more success = more confidence/toughness. So developing and presenting a good (simple!) game plan is very helpful.

That might be about it. I think there are some things you can do in the pre-season with your team to talk about the purpose of your team and sports in general, but this gets into an area where I don’t have as much experience.  Come to one of our Level 2 clinics and we talk more about it.

I hope this helps. Best of luck through the rest of the year!

Chris