How important are mental skills for volleyball players?

26th September 2018

How important are mental skills for volleyball players?

“Competitive sport is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch court…the space between your ears.”

In reality, this quote paraphrases Bobby Jones, substituting the word sport in for golf and court in for course. Jones was a hugely influential and successful American golfer, who beat the best golfers in the world during the 1920’s and 30’s, as well as co-founding the iconic golfing major, The Masters.

While Jones was a visionary in golf, he was also seemingly ahead of his time when it came to his approach to sports psychology and recognising the impact that mental attributes have on sporting performance. Nowadays, sports psychology is a staple at elite level and competitors at all levels are finding they can benefit from the right mental approach.

In a brand new series, we’re delving into what mental attributes are and how they can impact on the performance of volleyball players. In the first two features, we will look at the value of working on players’ psychology and will identify mental attributes which are key for performance. In the following months, we’ll look at coaching sessions which can help develop and improve each of these key mental assets.

A foundation of performance

“The mental aspect of sport is very important,” says Bertrand Olie, Academy Coach and Technical Lead for Volleyball England. “As a coaches, we reflect on four areas which combine to contribute to the level of performance: technical, tactical, physical and psychological. So although we can’t specifically measure it, psychology is an important element that underpins performance.”

Underlining the importance of developing mental attributes, psychology forms part of the Volleyball England Athlete Development Pathway, the curriculum for developing volleyball athletes, alongside the technical, tactical and physical elements. The curriculum is an important part of the Volleyball Futures programme, which recently launched and helps create the best environment for talented athletes to develop. Bertrand has been part of the coaches and experts who are working with the volleyball community to develop the Volleyball Futures programme.

“I think the mental side of the game has a massive impact on volleyball, as, like tennis, the game is based on mistakes. If you hit the ball out or you don’t get it over the net, you will lose and your opponent doesn’t have to do anything.

“In volleyball, there is also less opportunity to manage mental pressure. For example, in football, a team can gain possession and pass it around at the back to calm things down and relax. In volleyball, once the ref blows his whistle, the rally is going to start and you need to be prepared.

“There is no doubt, that a player who improves their mental attributes will perform better.”

What is mental toughness?

Volleyball England have worked in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University who have worked to define individual psychological qualities that contribute to sporting performance.

“Following their research, Sheffield Hallam University identified 11 mental attributes that contribute to sporting performance: awareness, motivation, competitiveness, sport intelligence, decision making, focus, confidence, mental toughness, resilience, team-orientated and demonstrating independence,” explained Bertrand.
Many of these attributes you will have recognised when watching sport, or heard commentators make observations such as, ‘she makes such good decisions’ or ‘he is so resilient’. So instead of talking about mental toughness as a single quality, they are, in fact, multiple attributes. An athlete may be strong in one psychological area, but not so good in other mental facets.

Often, psychological attributes are easier to see at the top level in moments when athletes are under intense competitive pressure. We’ve all seen a player fall apart in a big match, where they succumb to the occasion and their confidence deserts them. Or the star who is the dogged competitor, is never beaten and can produce a remarkable comeback against all the odds.

The reality though is that psychology is a constant factor in performance - for competitors at every level.

“Mental qualities apply right up from grassroots level,” says Bertrand. “Someone competing in the Olympic final may have different pressures to handle compared to a local league player, but both need to display certain psychological characteristics to be successful and deal with similar situations on the court. Sports psychology applies across the board.”

Building psychological strength

The good news is these mental attributes can be developed and improved by coaches and players themselves. There is a reason that most top sports stars or teams are focusing more and more on sports psychology. Working to develop the mind can build psychological strength and giving that extra edge to an athlete’s performance. In essence, the brain is like any other muscle, the more it is worked, the stronger it can become.

“There are ways coaches can build players mental skills,” says Bertrand. “They can have discussions with individual players. There will be things the players are not even aware of that a coach can help with. The other side of it is coaches can put players in situations in training and games to improve different mental attributes.

“For example, one practice I will do with my players is to get them to do five successful spikes in a row. Every time they don’t make the spike, they got back to zero. This builds resilience as some players will not give up until they complete it, while others will want to give up much easier.”

It is not just down to the coaches either. Players can build their own mental skills too.

“Coaches may only have two, three or four sessions a week with the players,” says Bertrand. “Players should be encouraged to work on their mental attributes when not playing. That could be taking on challenges outside of sport that will help build mental qualities or focus on what the mental qualities are they want to improve. So, for example, if there is a player with low confidence, it could be highlighting their own successes and qualities.”

The first step to improving these mental attributes, for coaches and players, is identify which ones they want to build on, before finding the right techniques to develop those areas.

In the next ‘Volleyball psychology’ feature, which will be in Time Out newsletter on Friday 28th September, we will look at look at each of the 11 mental attributes in more detail, looking at what they mean and how to recognise them in volleyball.

Then as the series progresses, we will look at volleyball sessions coaches can use to develop each of these 11 mental attributes. They will also be featured on the Time Out newsletter – so make sure you sign up - it’s free!

How important are mental skills for volleyball players?