Mind Games (Part III – Self Confidence)


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.

Self Confidence

This is probably the area that I dwell in most as a coach and a sports counselor.  It really can be the root cause of many issues in performance for a player.  It is also, in my opinion, the hardest area to work in.  There is a fine balance between building a players self confidence and having them break down.  It is interesting to see how different levels and genders of athletes deal with self confidence issues.  When self confidence is discussed in sports, there are usually six places that self confidence is born:


  • Performance accomplishments 
  • Being involved with the success of others 
  • Verbal persuasion 
  • Imagery experiences 
  • Physiological states 
  • Emotional states 


The above list is in order of importance (highest to lowest).  Lets take a brief look at each of the above:

Performance Accomplishments: This is the most powerful and easiest concept of the six.  Doing a task successfully builds self-confidence.  This will also begin to change the mindset to let you try something a little more challenging.

Success of Others:  Much like above, the concept is rather simple.  Successful people surround themselves with other successful people.  The key to how much this will effect you (or your players) is how closely the successful athlete has a skill set that matches you (or the specific player).  The closer the two players are, the more self-confidence will be built.  This is why I like to make sure that when we do partner work, the partners are close to the same skill level.

Verbal Persuasion: This is the old school coaching method.  The results are varied, but it is still an effective means to build self-confidence.  They key is how you verbally address your goals.  In general terms, the mind will ignore negative commands to arrive at the goal.  Try to avoid telling your players what you do not want to see (or have happen), and stick to what the result that you want is.  A very basic example is replacing the phrase “We don’t want to come in second place” with “We want to win this match”.  It sounds like a very simple concept, but the more I observe coaches, the more I see them saying what results they don’t want.

Imagery Experiences:  In my personal experience this is usually the hardest concept to teach if the player does not have the concept already.  I really with this was a skill that was taught at a much younger age to all kids (not just athletes).  The key to successful imagery is making sure it is multi-sensed.  There are a lot of coaches that ask their players to visualize a match or even a skill.  While this is a correct concept, the coach needs to make sure they engage as many senses as possible.  In my world, serving seems to be the “go to” skill when discussing imagery.  Don’t just have your players mentally go through the serve in their mind.  Make sure they set the stage and think about things like temperature of the gyms, the sounds of the gym, the smells of the gym, and the touch of the volleyball.  They more senses the athlete engages, the more realistic the imagery is, and thus will produce better results.  I am currently working with a player who was having serving issues.  She, at first, thought it was weird that I made her describe the smells of the gym and the temperature of the gym when we do her mental training.  Now that she does the imagery on her own, she understands why.  When she goes back to serve in a match, she almost gets the Deja Vu feeling because she has gone through it so many times in her head.

Physiological State:  How your body is actually handling the situation can affect your self-confidence.  Stress, anxiety, and worry can change how your body functions and thus effect your self-confidence.  This section on self-confidence and the section on anxiety/stress usually go hand and hand.  You must learn how to calm your body and your mind, so it does not cause performance issues.  I will briefly talk about thought stopping below, but there will be a lot more on this whole topic in the next blog post.

Emotional State:  Just like above with your body, your mind can cause havoc on your self-confidence.  I often think of the one scene from Austin Powers with Fat Bastard.  He says “I am un-happy because I am fat.  I am fat because I eat.  I eat because I am un-happy.  It is a viscous cycle”.  That is how the emotional state can be.  We perform bad because emotionally we think we will perform bad.  We think we will perform bad because in the past we have performed bad.  See how it never ends?  That is why we have to use imagery and stress reduction to break the cycle.  Again, more on this will be covered in future blog posts.

So now that we have a basic understanding on how self-confidence works and what things effect it, how do we train for it?  A lot of how I train athletes are already things you have most likely done in the past.  They key is sticking with it and holding yourself (or the athlete) to it.  Below is the training methods I use as a basic introduction for an athlete or team.

One of the most important aspects of developing self-confidence is the use of “self talk” or how we talk to our inner voice.  Self-affirmation is a process of directing self-talk to affirm the positive abilities and skills of you, the athlete; as well as your training in the past.  There are many methods to try and help achieve positive self-talk, but the ones provided here tend to be the most beneficial.


Personal List of Positive Affirmations

Create a personal list of positive statements in the box below.  I would suggest listing between 4-8 statements for the best outcome.  Some examples are:

  • I am strong
  • I am confident in my abilities
  • My training is going well
  • I feel mentally strong
  • I like the challenge of competition

The process for your list is as follows:

    1. Identify your list of 4-8 statements and write them in the box below.  Make sure the list contains statements that hold meaning to you, your training, and your beliefs in volleyball at YCP.  Do not make generic statements.
    2. Repeat your list at least twice per day.  I actually suggest 4 times (when you wake, before practice/game, after practice game, and before going to sleep).
    3. When you are comfortable reciting your list, try doing it during practice and competition.
    4. Feel free to change some of your items in the list periodically.  Do not change the entire list at once.
    5. Keep doing your self-affirmation.  Even if you feel like you are over the mental “hump”, it takes one little bump in the road to set you back.



Personal List of Sport Achievement Reminders

Much like the above exercise, you are going to create a personal list of positive statements in the box below.  The only difference is that this list will be a list of positive achievements that you reached either in practice or a match  An example is “I cam back strong after having a horrible first set of the match”.  Again, change these out periodically and put it some place where you will see it every day.




Changing Self-talk Statements

I encourage you to review your self-talk and “listen” to what you are saying to yourself.  You must either learn to change your negative self-talk to positive, or block the negative thoughts as they start.  The chart below will show you some great ways to change negative statements in to positive statements.


Negative Statements Positive Change
I’m worried about facing the best team in the league I will be fine against this team if I just serve a good deep float.
I just can’t play in front of a large crowd I can play in front of this crowd.  I have trained hard and my abilities will take over.
I can’t seem to hit a ball in today. Relax and focus on the mechanics, I will be able to hit this ball in.
I just can’t get that mistake out of my mind. Set me the ball again, I will make sure it goes down this time.
That call by the ref may have just costed us the set Ok. The refs are obviously not going to help us, so we have to get it done.


Thought Stopping

This involves using a mental cue to block out the uninvited negative thoughts entering your mind.  I have found that some athletes like to use a big mental image of a stop sign.  Some players like o physically say the word (in their head or verbally).  In both cases, there is higher success if the player also has a physical action like making a fist or slapping the hands.  Once you do your stop action (mentally and/or physically), it is important that you follow it up with a positive self-talk statement.


Focus on the Basics

‘Don’t let perfection get in the way of performance excellence. Just get on first base.’ – Doug Frobel (MLB player).  That single quote holds a great meaning in sports.  Too many athletes enter practice or competition trying to be perfect.  They are seeking an error free performance that is rarely seen in the world of sports.  You will make mistakes.  Sports are about ups and downs.  It is still possible to achieve your sport goals and to be satisfied without being anywhere near perfect.  In short, an excellent focusing strategy to sustain a positive attitude is to concentrate on doing the basics well.  So consider what the basics are in volleyball.  Serving, passing, hitting good spots, etc.  It is also very important to identify critical moments during your performance (practice and matches).  Once you identify these critical moments, you can focus on creating positive cues for them.  For example, when is YOUR critical moment for serving?  It can be when you are at the line, or when you get the ball.  It may even be the moment the ref blows the whistle.  You need to find what moment is critical and learn to think positive at that moment.  At this point, think of the basics.  No the ace, but the quality serve to the spot called or where you want it to go.  If they ace comes, so be it.


Performance Review

Lastly, I would like you to do a performance review for each match.  On a large piece of paper, I want you to write the name of the opponent, the date and time, and the result of the match.  Next, draw a line in the middle of the paper, basically making a “top” and “bottom” half.  On the top half, I want you to write down all the positive things you did in the match (this includes warm-ups).  On the bottom half, I want you to write the bad things you did in the match.  After you write the bad things, I want you to read them out loud (you don’t have to do it loud enough for others to hear).  After you have read the bad ones, I want you to tear the paper at your line, and throw the bad actions out.  Keep the top page for future review.  Do not skip the step of reading out loud.  When you throw out the paper, you are putting an end to thinking about those bad actions for good.

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

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