Psychology Plays a Large Role in Volleyball Performance

Elite athletes often face added pressures
Ed Chan
Elite athletes often face added pressures

Overthinking and focusing entirely on results create performance issues that prompt players to seek help from sports psychologists like Dr. Glenn Kessler, director of Kessler Psychological Associates in Northborough, Mass., and director of Next Level Performance.

“Thinking about their performance becomes an internal distraction,” Kessler said. “If they are worrying ‘am I going to win?’ they are not in the present moment where they should be.”

Instead, athletes should rely on what Kessler calls “unconscious competence” or “muscle memory.”

“If someone told you to tie your shoes, you would just do it in a few seconds. But what would happen if you had to explain the steps while you were doing it? What if you had to give a verbal description about how to ride a bike? You’d fall off.”

Kessler recommends that athletes practice the way they play a game or compete. That way, it all becomes second nature to them. “Go out and do the same thing with the same mindset. If you doubt in your mind, how will your muscles know what to do?”

One way to achieve the proper mindset is to develop a pre-performance routine, he said. Creating a habit or ritual can put the focus squarely on the task at hand.

“It cues your mind and body to function without thinking,” Kessler said. Most people remember professional baseball player Nomar Garciaparra fidgeting with his gloves before his at bats or recall other athletes tugging on their sleeves or dribbling balls a certain number of times before making a free throw or serve.

Also, learning relaxation skills is sometimes all it takes. At Next Level Performance, Kessler works primarily with high school athletes in a range of sports as well as coaches and parents who seek his counsel on how to help the team or individual reach greater athletic heights. Because tension can interfere with performance, it’s important for players to recognize when their emotions are getting too high and develop strategies to get a handle on them.

Most notably, athletes must accept they can only control themselves and not their teammates, opponents or the competition’s outcome.

“It’s easy to get hung up on results. It’s harder to focus on daily goals and personal progress,” noted Dr. Shane Murphy, former chief sports psychologist at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and sports psychologist for USA Olympic teams in Seoul (1988) and Albertville (1992) as well as individual teams in more recent games.

Murphy said that athletes can learn and improve by concentrating on what they need to personally do to get better and not letting external pressures bother them.

“You can’t be 100% on your next serve or set if you are thinking about Dad and what he’s doing up in the stands. And, parents can help athletes shift to that personal focus by asking ‘did you have fun?’ instead of ‘how did you do?’”

Still, it’s common for young athletes to become anxious and distracted because they are worrying about how their coaches, parents or teammates are reacting, Murphy said. While trying not to let others down, they become overwhelmed with self doubt and feel frustrated they aren’t “mentally tough enough” to cope.

That’s why internal belief in oneself is so critical and can “make or break,” a competitor. It’s the difference between a player missing a shot and concluding, “I can’t do it today” versus saying “I’ll get the next one.” Kessler advocates positive self talk to build confidence such as “I will perform to my best ability today.” He also suggests the use of imagery as a “mental blueprint” to which a body can respond.

The mantra “If you see it and believe it, you can achieve it” applies.

Elite Athletes Face Added Pressures

Anxiety, lack of concentration and burnout are among the common problems experienced by athletes across all ability levels. Those in the elite ranks, however, battle unique pressures because the stakes for them are greater, according to Dr. Shane Murphy, a sports psychologist who has worked with several Olympic teams.

Top athletes are pushing themselves to the edge—right to the brink of their physical limitations. For that reason, they constantly have to grapple with the possibility they may suffer career-ending injuries. “The consequences are more severe for elite athletes,” Murphy said. “That’s because you are talking about their livelihoods.”

One problem unique to top level athletes involves restructuring their social support network and managing the relationships within that circle. Also, interaction with coaches is different at that level because athletes have the power to hire and fire their "teachers."

Although elite athletes must cope with increased pressures, their higher positions also come with advantages. “Their ability to deal with stress is better,” said Dr. Glenn Kessler, a clinical psychologist with more than 25 years experience in the sports realm. “Elite athletes are more exposed to mental training and able to use it on a much higher level.”

A Trip into the Menal Gymnasium

Mental and physical preparation must go hand-in-hand whether you’re an Olympic athlete striving to win a medal or a high school player hoping to make the starting team. Acclaimed sports psychologist Dr. Shane Murphy, now a professor at Western Connecticut State University and founder of Gold Medal Psychological Associates, offered some additional tips on how athletes can achieve emotional fitness to help them reach their goals.

“Mental practice will 100% help your body just like a gym workout does,” Murphy said. A trip into what he called the “mental gymnasium,” involves the following:


  • Start the day asking, ‘what are my goals?’ Work on endurance, agility, flexibility and other areas.

  • Work out to relieve stress. Use management techniques to reduce the degree to which things are bothering you.

  • Find a few minutes to think about parts of the game you need to improve. Go through a 10 minute drill in your head, whether it is moving faster at the net or timing your blocks better. Feel it inside your body.

  • Ask ‘what do I say to myself?’ People are afraid of self criticism and they shouldn’t be. It is okay to reflect on ‘where am I not so good at the moment?’ but not okay to say ‘I’m stupid and suck.’ Don’t beat yourself up. Back the criticism into your personal goals for the day.

  • Have fun. You don’t want volleyball to be your job even if it is your job. It’s important to enjoy your sport.

Originally published in December/January 2012

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