How to Be Mentally Tough in Volleyball

Volleyball player spiking the ball
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Controlling your mind is as important to your volleyball development as controlling your body. Yes, you need to know how to pass, set, hit, block, serve and dig, but you also need to know how to perform those skills well in the face of challenge, adversity, and extreme pressure.

It's called being mentally tough and, in volleyball, you'll be called upon to access this trait many times over in both big and small ways. Every great player throughout the history of the sport has had it. In order to go from good to great, you must learn to master the art of mental toughness.

Necessary Characteristics

What does it mean to be mentally tough? It means that when the pressure is on, you rise to the occasion. Mentally tough athletes never shrink from a challenge when the game is on the line. Mentally tough athletes can turn things around even after they've made a few mistakes. Mentally tough athletes know how to push themselves beyond their limits if the need arises. Most of all, mentally tough athletes will not let themselves be taken out of a game by their opponent by dwelling on the past or worrying about a bad outcome in the future. Mentally tough athletes are concerned only with taking care of business in the present moment.

Mentally tough doesn't mean that the effort will always be successful. Even if you're mentally tough, you will make mistakes and some will come at inopportune times. However your mistakes should never be caused by tentativeness or fear of making a mistake. No matter what the circumstance, mentally tough players make the smart choice, the most effective choice and the best choice they can. Win or lose, succeed or fail, if they do that they can walk off the floor with no regrets.

When it comes down to it, mental toughness is the practice of mind over matter. In volleyball, we can break that down into the following three categories.

Know Your Body

One way an athlete can show mental toughness is by displaying an ability to perform well despite what is going on with his or her body. An injury or illness may be sapping your strength or making you change your game a bit, but a mentally tough athlete does whatever is needed to rise above it and to play as well as possible in spite of it all. Never use minor pain or illness as an excuse to give up—if you choose to get out there, leave it all on the floor.

The practice of mind over body can take place in both games and practice. In fact, practice is a great opportunity to develop the mental toughness you'll need to draw upon in games. By pushing yourself through a drill that requires extreme focus or a particularly difficult conditioning drill that has you gasping for breath, you'll know just where to find that last ounce of strength needed to finish your next knockdown, drag-out five-set match.

Additional practice also helps you know your limits, as no game is more important than your health. You should always be aware of the difference between a minor ache and serious illness or injury. One part of using your brain as well as your body is knowing when you need to sit one out.

Rise Above Circumstances

Another way athletes can show mental toughness is by maintaining their composure and positivity through the most challenging situations. What separates great players from good players is the ability to look past all the negatives and create a positive. Mentally tough athletes have to respond well even when they have just shanked the last two balls, when you have to serve at the opponent's game point, or when the post-season or the championship hangs in the balance.

Mind over circumstance means that no matter the situation, your play remains stable and solid. Each time adversity comes your way, you get back out there and play your best. One tactic is to remember that the serve you're about to pass or the attack you're about to make is the same as it was in practice and all season long. Only allow the vision of yourself completing the play successfully enter into your mind at that moment—anything else must be immediately shut out.

Conquer Fear

The last thing you must get your mind to acknowledge and overcome is fear. We can find many things on the court to be afraid of if we let ourselves. The trick is to avoid this negative thinking, as it can cause you to focus on every small imperfection, leading to tentative actions as you become more fearful of making a mistake. The takeaway here is: Don't allow the fear to get the better of you.

Fear and panic go hand in hand, and you can de-escalate these panicked feelings by taking a deep breath and concentrating on the play at hand. Win the battle of mind over fear by learning to use positive imagery and meditation. Meditation practice outside of games can help you put the last play behind you and avoid worrying about the next—instead allowing yourself to live in the moment.