5 Keys to Mental Toughness in Volleyball


by Michelle Ehgotz and Dr. Stephen Walker


Mental fitness in sport is often overlooked and in sports like volleyball, very few articles exist about the mental game.  There are many different characteristics that make volleyball a challenging sport: the size of the athlete, ability to jump, dig and set with finesse, to perform with agility, and to be fit. All of those qualities are important, but volleyball is a game that not only requires a lot of physical skill, it also requires a lot of mental skill as well. This sport presents numerous opportunities for mistakes, and a simple mistake can turn the game around in a heartbeat. Will your athlete make the needed adjustments and execute well or will they dwell in their mistake, perhaps setting themselves up for another? Here are some tips to help ensure that your athlete not only has the physical fitness, but also has the mental skills to play strong, with heart, together as a unit, and successfully execute when challenged.

1. Mental Toughness:

Your athlete must be able to “focus” on those things they control. Previously Podium offered an article identifying exactly what an athlete must control to perform well.  High stress situations such as minor injury, or over stimulation adds on to the already demanding challenges a game already provides. Distractions like crowd noise or a chippy opponent often cause the mind to be affected.

Many life distractions come into the mix as well. It is essential to evaluate whether your athlete has the motivation and commitment to continue playing, especially when leveling up calls for new challenges. Can they balance between demands and ability, and set goals at an appropriate level? This will provide a baseline in areas where more attention is needed.

Mental toughness is the ability to focus one’s attention on the most important things – and – sustain that focus throughout the duration of the contest or season. Managing stress (think breathing), shaking out tension spots, staying in the “now”, developing solid communications amongst teammates and coaches, overcoming adversity and injury, maintaining composure in victory and defeat are all factors that contribute to mental toughness.

Mental toughness also requires the player to “let go” of mistakes quickly and efficiently.  Shifts in momentum can result in a hot streak and players that are not “at the ready” will not perform up to their ability level.

2. Confidence:

Your athlete must achieve and maintain a strong sense of self-belief to execute a skill or task successfully. There are levels of confidence: under confident, optimal confidence and overconfident.

Under confidence is caused by your athlete’s lack of trust in his/her ability to perform. If a volleyball player has been successfully spiking the ball all game, then she gets blocked and now she doubts her ability to spike the ball, the base problem is mental. Athlete’s who appear tentative or are afraid to make a mistake characterize this base lack of confidence. On the other hand, optimal confidence leans towards overconfident. When performance is going well and mistakes are made, self-confidence is hardly moved.

However, overconfidence can hinder performance when one’s belief suggests they don’t really need to prepare for a competition, or they fail to perfect a specific skill, such as serving the ball. These things contribute to a lack of precision focus or less attention to the task-at-hand, causing aim to be off or a lack of force behind the ball. Athletes with this tendency are likely to “play down” to lesser competition.

3. Relaxation/Arousal Control:

Your athlete must understand their levels of arousal and know when it is appropriate to relax. Every athlete prepares for games and competitions differently. Volleyball players need to find the level of arousal that allows them to perform at their peak. Being over aroused can cause bumping or setting the ball too hard, resulting in a missed direction or poor placement of the ball, or a missed spike or serve.

Athlete who have a strong mental fitness base take arousal level into account. Hence, they know when to take action calming the nervous system (breathing, autogenic training, cognitive-affective stress management training (SMT). Previous discussions in Podium have provided specific guidance in “how” an athlete can bring themselves back to an optimal level of arousal. Breathing properly is highly underrated and research has shown that poor breathing patterns actually interfere with functional movement. On the court this can cause repetitive mistakes at the worst times – and often appears to observers as “choking.”

4. Attention/Concentration:

Your athlete is subject to a lot of external distractions during volleyball games. These can cause them to be reactive, lose focus, get out of “their” game and stop playing in the “now moment”.  Robert Nideffer has written extensively on attentional focus and provides a solid approach for athletes to systematically channel their attention where needed.  Attentional skill is the ability to focus on the here and now of high stress situations and also being able to effectively broaden or narrow “focus” between internal and external factors. Concentration enables the athlete to selectively direct their attention to and from key factors during a game. The athlete’s ability to shift their attention efficiently from their own personal movement away from the ball, while noticing exactly where other players are on the court is key in player development. Add to that a quick recognition for the direction of the ball (predicting where it may go), while simultaneously being aware of where the net is, boundary lines are, and where they need to move on the court to be in the best position are essential to playing championship play. Maintaining attention and concentration throughout a full competition is difficult, but attainable, and must be trained as one of those tools in the athlete’s base mental fitness program.

5. Imagery:

Your athlete can improve more quickly by learning “how” to visualize certain skills in play. Imagery skills can come in handy when athletes are having trouble performing a specific task such as spiking or serving the ball to a specific target in the opponent’s court. Visualizing movement on the court, player positions, and “how” certain patterns in play unfold can be very helpful in your athlete’s development.

Imagery can be an internal process (visualizing and feeling the execution of a physical skill) or it can be an external process (seeing your opponents shifting positions on the court.) Having the control to vividly picture or re-create an explicit experience in the mind can increase performance and confidence.

Visualization is best learned by doing a “quick review” in one’s mind immediately after executing a skill. Instant replay of the sight, feel, and execution including the outcome is one way of learning to use imagery.

Learning these skills can help when a difficult situation arises and when the athlete has “already practiced” the drill dozens of times in their mind. The mind/body will already have a map of what to do, what to expect, and how to execute properly in that circumstance. The use of imagery over time helps your athlete memorize the task or skill, as it becomes more natural as well as a higher expectancy of success.

Volleyball players experience a lot of different mental challenges throughout a game. Constant adjustments and problem solving is required. These skills are meant to be something that coaches, consultants and players can bring to their attention to before problems arise. Knowing and practicing these skills and others can improve the mental fitness of every athlete, reinforce their focus and concentration on those factors they control and help them realize better individual play as well as team cohesion. Most training focuses on how physically tough the body is, but most often the mental toughness is under appreciated and left unaddressed by coaches and athletes alike. These mental skills are gaining in popularity because of the greater presence of sport psychology consultants working with championship teams. As a coach, parent or athlete it is a smart practice in developing the fundamentals to incorporate the mind and a mental fitness regimen might just play a major role in both player and team development.

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Michelle Ehgotz is an undergraduate intern, in her senior year studying Psychology at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). After she graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, she plans to continue her education to get her Masters in Sports Psychology. Michelle’s community volunteer background includes volunteering as an assistant roller hockey coach in 2007 and as a youth group leader for activities and sports at Faith Presbyterian Church from 2008-2013. She also received an Associate of Arts degree with a focus in Psychology from the Community College of Aurora in 2013. Michelle’s focus as an intern is to have a solid idea of what becoming a sports psychology consultant entitles. She will do this by working one on one with an athlete at UNC, researching volleyball clubs in the Denver area and setting up a clinic for volleyball coaches, and researching how sports psychology consultants are contributing to the welfare and success of athletes of various levels. Throughout these past five years Michelle’s education has prepared and equipped her with a passion to apply it in the sports psychology field. Michelle has an enthusiastic demeanor for athletes by providing professional assistance to guide them to obtain their full potential.

13 thoughts on “5 Keys to Mental Toughness in Volleyball

  • July 1, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Visualization is best learned by doing a “quick review” in one’s mind immediately after executing a skill. Instant replay of the sight, feel, and execution including the outcome is one way of learning to use imagery.

    • September 30, 2017 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks Robert. Good observation and your point is well taken.
      Stephen Walker

      • February 6, 2018 at 7:04 am

        Hi Robert, thanks for sharing this article but i’m looking for different coaching concepts used to train children, males and females. Kindly help

        • July 7, 2018 at 6:19 am

          Hello. I am Park Chul-soo, Sports Mental Coach in Korea. They define the mental needs of sports, but they lack access to how they develop it. We are now approaching strengthening mental by coaching. I supported the national curling team for 8 months in the last Pyeongchang Olympics to coach mental. And I support the SK Wyverns pro baseball team.

          • July 11, 2018 at 2:18 pm

            Charles, Good point. Stay tuned. Podium Sports Journal will be launching a significant upgrade to the site – and – the Podium Sports & Performance Academy. Mental skills training for athletes competing from the high school to the professional – three different levels of training. Watch for it in September. Thanks for the input.

      • April 21, 2020 at 7:59 pm

        It was very boring spice it up

  • August 25, 2018 at 7:05 am

    There is no question about the importance of developing our athletes’ mental game. In a sport where points are won or lost on errors, recovering from mistakes, and learning to move on to the next play; it is a pivotal component to teams’ success. One way we develop the mental toughness game in our team is by a Ladder drill. This drill can take as quick as 20 minutes or as long as it takes to finish. The focus is on recovery by way of ‘mind over matter.’

    • October 2, 2018 at 12:48 am

      Tell me more about this ladder drill!

      • October 17, 2018 at 11:07 pm

        Hi T,
        The ladder drill is pretty standard for footwork, speed, agility and jumping proficiency. I would encourage you to speak to a CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) and they can tell you all about it. Here is a link to more information:
        Thanks for asking.

  • June 12, 2019 at 8:47 am

    Hi Robert, thank you for sharing this article with us. I’m sure this helps a lot!

  • August 14, 2020 at 9:34 pm

    Michelle, Excellent article. As a HS and club coach always looking for good concise article on mental toughness. Will absolutely add this into our training. We actually do a lot of mental toughness trading both on and off the floor.
    We do a lot of visualization exercises with our p players and since we have Incorporated this into our training we have seen great strides in our players confidence and skill level.

  • February 1, 2021 at 5:22 am

    Hello I am a volleyball player and recently trialled and made the top team. I came to this website as I know I lack confidence and doubt my abilities. I tend to mess up once then constantly mess up and make the same mistakes. I also have a bad habit of over apologising when it’s really not necessary. I was wondering how I could fix this and become more confident. To be mentally tough and strong in volleyball it says you have to be confident but doesn’t exactly say how. I’m wanting to prove to my coach that I’m not weak and I am a good player.

    Note** It doesn’t help that I’m in a new team with people older than me and I’m not exactly comfortable.

    • February 19, 2021 at 1:35 am

      Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for reaching out. First off, congratulations on leveling up and performing well enough to capture the attention of more advanced coaches. Your difficulties with confidence are common. Also, your position can make a difference depending on the demands of the team. That said, let me give you a couple of thoughts. My practice involves assessing your strengths and challenges.

      The most valuable approach, which I use with all the athletes I work with individually, assesses 9 different dimensions to performance. These assessments screen for identifying thinking patters that really get in the way, depression, identify and provide assistance in maintaining composure under stress, and then some. I also explore self-talk, coaching, team orientation, and review of how your approach toward play and managing yourself can improve, and “how” to improve it.

      I’d really like to assess your strengths and challenges as you are experiencing them right now. I have a process that I take athletes through that includes a brief phone consultation to determine whether we’re likely to be a good fit. If so, I’ll forward to you the assessments so I can see how you problem solve, the concerns mentioned above, especially your concerns with confidence and becoming too emotional at times it doesn’t call for it. It will take you about an hour and fifteen minutes to fill out the assessments. Once completed, I’ll review them before our coaching session which enables me to prioritize the things we’ll cover in session. Plan on a little more than an hour for that, and I will teach you skills you need to make a big difference in how you play, both mentally and physically. I then follow up with a very thorough summary that includes more exercises and tools for you to practice on your own. These tools will require you to do some homework (listen to recordings, watch specific TED talks, and read some short articles specifically chosen for you. That is a service and it is labor intensive for both of us. It coasts $495 for everything. Many athletes will continue coaching work as the continue to progress.

      Short of that I recommend that you begin keeping a confidence journal that is comprised of writing down 2 good things you did today – to advance your performance. Maybe 10 bad things happened, but you won’t bother with those – only the positive things. Just think, you will have reviewed a lot of really positive things that will become part of your game going forward. Finally, I can recommend your reading “Strong” written by Kara Goucher (2 time Olympian, and winner of a silver medal in the world championships. This is must read for my clients.

      I hope this helps, and if you’d like to work some together I’d be thrilled to help you develop the mental side of your game.
      Dr. Walker


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