How to Be Mentally Tough in Volleyball

Train Your Brain As Well As Your Body

Volleyball player going for spike
Henn Photography/Cultura/Getty Images

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 is 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 you can think of 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.

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 or hope the ball goes elsewhere 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 known 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 three categories:

  1. Mind over Body
  2. Mind over Circumstance
  3. Mind over Fear

Mind Over Body

One way an athlete can show mental toughness is by displaying an ability to perform well despite what is going on with his body. Whether it is an ache, a pain or an illness, game time waits for no one.  When the whistle blows you need to give it everything you have, realizing that what that means can change from day to day.

The injury or illness may be sapping your strength or making you change your game a bit, but the 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 pain or illness as an excuse to give up. If you are too injured to play, don't. If you choose to get out there, leave it all on the floor.

The practice of mind over body can take place both in games and in practice. Practice is a great opportunity to develop the mental toughness you'll need to draw upon in games. Whether it's pushing through a drill that requires extreme focus or getting yourself through a particularly difficult conditioning drill that has you gasping for breath. Sometimes in sports you are asked to push your body beyond where you thought it could go. While you should always be aware of your health risks and be smart about your level of exertion, you should summon your mental toughness to push yourself to do that one last lap, that one last rep, that one last push up. When that key moment comes at the end of a knock down, drag out five set match, you may be exhausted, but you'll know where to go to find that last ounce of strength to help you get that dig, put away that final kill and to never let up on your opponent.

Mind Over Circumstance

Another way athletes can show mental toughness is to respond well despite the circumstance. It is easy to play well when there is nothing on the line, your team is winning by a bunch or you're playing well. 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. You've shanked the last two balls and you know the next one is coming straight at you. Bring it on. Bad call from the refs? Go back and side out. Hostile crowd stepping on a nerve? Let it go and focus on the game. 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. By letting your brain ascribe more importance to the play than it deserves, you can take yourself out of the game even before your opponent your coach has a chance to. Only allow the vision of yourself completing the play successfully enter into your mind at that moment. Anything else must be immediately shut out.

Mind over Fear

That brings us to the last thing you must get your mind to acknowledge and then overcome: fear. There is much to be afraid of out there on the court and there are lots of things that can go wrong. If you're focused on the negative or being tentative and fearful of making a mistake, you can almost guarantee that is exactly what you are going to do. Don't allow the fear to get the better of you.

Fear is a normal human emotion, but to go from good to great and to be a mentally tough athlete, you need to learn how to control it. Feel the fear, face the fear, conquer the fear. Panic doesn't win games. When you can take a deep breath and concentrate on the play at hand, not the last play or what could go wrong with the next one, you allow yourself to win the battle of mind over fear, use your positive imagery and ultimately any competition you enter.