Mind Games (Part II – Mental Preparation)


A recent question was posed in the Volleyball Coaches & Trainers group on Facebook (search for it and ask to join if you want some great discussions).  I will paraphrase, but the question was “How do you train your team in the mental aspects”.  My first response was that we (as coaches) have to be careful not to lump everyone together.  Too often, we use the generic term of mental training for anxiety, self-confidence, concentration, motivation, and a slew of other terms.  The problem is, much like all other training, there are different aspects and training methods to the mental game.  I then posted a copy of the Mental Skill Questionnaire that I use with my players during the season (usually the first day, mid-season, and end).  Without getting too deep into the boring history, the questionnaire I use is a smaller version of one that was developed by two sports psychologist from the University of North Wales.  The questionnaire focuses on seven key areas:

1. Imagery Ability

2. Mental Preparation

3. Self-Confidence

4. Anxiety and Worry Management

5. Concentration Ability

6. Relaxation Ability

7. Motivation

The questionnaire is pretty self explanatory.  The person filling it out is given a few key statements and they circle the number that closest represents their agreement or disagreement.  The key is making sure the user fills out the answers in relation to their sport, and not life in general.  A copy can be found at www.SoulVolleyball.com/files/mentalquestion.pdf.  You then have the user (or coach) add up the sections and do the percentages (score divided by possible times 100).  Once you have the percentages, you can see where the player may be having issues.  This is helpful in numerous way.  The biggest is making sure you are training the right methods.  If you have a player who is motivated, but lacks self-confidence, you need to train them differently then that of a player who has anxiety.  While on the surface the two issues may seem the same, they are very different.

The next question posted was, “Ok, so we know where the players need help…Now what?”

I need to really stress this point.  Much like you would not want an untrained person teaching your players how to do dead-lifts or squats, you don’t want an untrained person playing around in the heads of your team.  I understand that most teams and clubs do not have the money or resources to bring in professionals.  So please, use the following as very broad and introductory methods into mental training.  I would also suggest getting a copy of Dr. Stephen J. Bull’s book The Mental Game Plan.  It is where I first learned most of these concepts, and is a staple in almost event Sports Psychology program.  The link to Amazon.com is below.  The book is very hard to find in print, but there is now a Kindle version (Sorry, as of this post there is no Nook version).

This blog series is broken into seven posts covering each of the key areas.  You will see the above text prior to each post.

Mental Preparation

This is a rather broad term,  “Mental Preparation”.  It is also the term I hear used by most coaches.  How many times have you as a coach said “we have to mentally prepare for this match tomorrow night”?  Unfortunately, that is where most mental preparation ends.  Coaches pump up to make the player THINK about the match, but never really train them in WHAT to think about.  I want you to think back to your last team that you coached (or the team you are coaching now).  If you were in a huddle with them, the night before a big match, and you said said “Lets make sure we go home, get some rest, and come in mentally prepared for them tomorrow”.  What do you think they would be thinking about as they laid their heads on the pillow to go to sleep?  Do you believe they would be thinking about what they are going to eat in the morning?  Perhaps they are going to look at video of the opponent?  The fact is, you really don’t know.  It is an aspect of coaching that most of us do not concentrate on.  Trust me, I get it.  I have been there.  Long hours in the gym, hours/days away from your family.  Having to hustle to the gym right after a long day at work.  The last thing we think about it teaching our players “what to think about” when you are not around.  There are some basic thing and training methods I would like to present.  Some of you may just skip over this blog series, and some of you may take these all to heart.  To be 100% honest, I am typing this mostly for selfish reasons.  As my season is about to start, I want to go over my plans and teachings, to see what I may have to modify or change.  So lets dive right in here with keys for your players:

1.   Adapt a “professional” attitude.

This sounds like a very simple concept.  The fact is, there are a lot of components to this.  Being professionals means you are thinking about:

  •  Your Diet.  Your athletes need to be aware of when, when and how much food they are eating.  They have to be aware that what they eat before a practice is not going to be the same as the night before, or even right before, a match or tournament.
  • Your Time Management.  Your athletes need to arrive in time to prepare for practice or matches.  Again, this sounds like a simple rule.  However, if you let your players show up 10 minutes before practice and think that is “on time” then you need to adjust their thinking.  They need to be ready to go, and have a clear mind before the actual start.
  • Prepare the night before for the next days events.  If it is a practice day (the next day), they should be prepared to improve on skills they have been working, or mentally going over their own game to see what they should work on.  If it is the night before a match, they should be preparing for their opponent.  I realize that in high school it may be hard to do this.  There is not as much video swapping and such going on.  You can still give your players a basic scouting report and let them know what you plan.  The last think you should do as a coach is say “we will decide (that) at game time.  Have your plan and don’t be afraid to share it.  You can always modify it as you go.
  • Your Behavior.  Treat your teammates, staff, and others in a manner that breeds self confidence.  I am not saying you have to be the team cheerleader, but the more confidence you have emanating from you, the more the people around you will have confidence.

2.  Review Your Training.

There needs to be some reflection by your athletes on how they are training.  I have seen this go to the extreme where a coach makes the kids write a paragraph every night about what they did and how they can improve.  I think this is a little excessive.  You should however, give you team some basic guidelines on what to reflect on.  Here is my sample list (based on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being Highest/Best):

  • I stayed positive even when my performance was below average.
  • I gave 100% during the technical aspects of training.
  • I gave 100% during the fitness/conditioning aspect of training.
  • I used imagery to help my training today.
  • I ate a well balance diet today.
  • I made sure I was hydrated enough ALL DAY, not just during practice.
  • I made sure my equipment was in good shape (clothing, shoes, braces, etc).
  • I took personal responsibility for my mistakes and worked to correct them.
  • I focused on the aspects of training that I could control.
  • I dealt with the daily hassles of life before practice began.

3.  Give your player routines.

There are three basic levels of routines.  Long-term, short term, and pre-competition night.

Long Term Routines

  • Plan for your season of travel (what you will need all season long: tape, braces, etc)
  • Plan for the days that you will have to eat early (away games for example)
  • Plan for doing school work on game nights (on the bus, before match, after match)

Short Term Routines

  • Get information on your competition
  • Get information on the venue (will they have food, showers, etc)
  • Check your competition equipment
  • Confirm travel dates and times

Night Before Competition

  • Confirm report times and bus times
  • Plan your eating times and meals
  • Do a final equipment check
  • Do relaxation exercises
  • Mentally rehearse your match (start with warm-up)
  • Positive self-talk
  • Get plenty of sleep.

4.  The Six “R” Elements.

How you deal with a match after it is over is almost as important as how you prep for a match.  The six “R” elements are:

  • React – It is ok to get emotional (either way) about a match.  This allows the athlete to release all the emotions they have been holding back.  As long as it is not self destructive or destructive to others, let it play its course.
  • Relax –  This should be both a physical and mental relaxation.  This is the warm-down and cool-down phase.
  • Refresh – Regain fluids, take a shower, and address any injuries or body wear and tear.
  • Review – Review the competition.  At minimal, this can be a mental review.  I would however, suggest the player (and coach) write down notes and thoughts from the competition.
  • Refocus – It is time to let the past go.  You need to more on, incorporate your review notes and get ready for the next competition.
  • Re-enter – This is where the player must re-enter the preparation phase for the next competition.

5.  Prepare for the What-ifs

We talk about them all the time.  “Oh, those things just happen”.  Sure, they just happen, but that does not mean we can’t prepare our athletes for those moments.  Your players can mentally train on what to do if:

  • A star player gets hurt
  • The coach gets ejected
  • The refs are missing calls
  • You learn that the opponents star player will be starting opposite of you
  • You are nervous right before the start of the game
  • The bus breaks down on the way to a match.
  • There is a college (or pro) scout in the crowd.

All of these things seem like they are trivial and small, but they can have a huge effect on your players production.  Take the time and address them.  I realize that you are not going to practice the bus breaking down, but you can assure your players that there is a game plan for such issues.  Don’t be afraid to add elements to your practice to simulate some of the above issues.  Purposely miss calls in a practice.  Pull your players off the court randomly.  Put a team down right away, score wise.  There are a lot of little things that can be practiced to help ease the mind of your players, should they actually happen.

In closing for this post, I would like to suggest that your players remember to be P.R.O’s.  That means:

  • P(rofessional)
  • R(actions and actions)
  • O(nly).

Have them think about how a professional athlete would react to each situation they are presented with.W

That is all for this week.  Next weeks post will be on: Self Confidence

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