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Thinking is not always a good thing. I say that jokingly, of course, but when it comes to volleyball, there’s a lot of truth to it. Playing your best involves becoming solid enough at the fundamentals that you can perform each skill without thinking about how to do what you’re doing.
How do you get there? You guessed it - practice. Focused, mindful practice. And lots of it. I read a recent interview in ESPN Magazine with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers where he said that when he’s throwing a football the way he wants to, he’s not thinking about it. “That’s when it becomes fun – when you can put the ball exactly where you want it. You just react naturally and let all the fundamentals and the muscle memory that you’ve built take over.”
It’s obviously working for Rodgers. The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2011, and he was the game’s MVP. But even with that level of success, he talks in the interview about continuing to work on refining his throwing mechanics and trying to break old habits he learned as a kid.
One thing you’ll discover is that if you practice to the fullest and master the basic skills to the best of your ability, you’ll feel more comfortable in the pressure of a tight match. It may be match point against your team, and staying alive may depend on you making a good pass. But if you’ve performed that very same pass 500 or 1,000 times in practice, it’s just another pass. That’s the way I always looked at it when I played, even if it was the Olympics and my team was behind. Just one pass. Just a good platform, angled to the target. Nothing more. If you think beyond that, it’s easy to get caught up in the magnitude of the moment and harder to just play that one point.
| Members of the 2005 U.S. Women's National Team go over fundamentals during practice
with then-head coach Lang Ping.
In the USA gym, both when I was playing and now in my role as coach for the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team, we strive every day to match the intensity level of tournament matches. That’s another way to make actual competition more fun and less stressful. If you’re treating each training session like a match, matches become little more than an extension of practice, and the familiarity of that environment helps you perform at a higher level.
Another thing Rodgers mentioned in the interview was the importance of narrowing the focus of your training. He said he learned this from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has played in five Super Bowls and won three. After each football season, Rodgers said, Brady reviews his own performances and is extremely critical. He identifies a couple of things that he wants to do better, then he works on them in the offseason.
I see this as important for two reasons: 1. It again highlights that elite players never stop working on improving their fundamentals; 2. It underscores the importance of targeting one or two specific things, not trying to improve everything at once.
That’s what I mean by focused, mindful practice. For example, your practice theme for today shouldn’t be, “I’m going to get better at hitting.” Instead, it should be, “I will go to the ball with my third step,” or “I will get my elbow up and back fast before I swing.” If you focus on particular details within your whole game, you’re more likely to make lasting improvements.
Ultimately, your goal is to get so good at the basics that you’re thinking about how to exert pressure on your opponents rather than thinking about your own game. That’s higher-level volleyball, when you’re playing smart enough to force opponents away from their strengths and out of their comfort zone. It’s not a destination, though. As you can see from studying the habits of championship athletes like Rodgers and Brady, it’s a journey that is ongoing, season after season, week and after week, practice after practice.