Sustaining Team Competitiveness
Surges, lulls, roller coasters, and runs-all of these come into play as a team goes through a match. It is important for a team to be able to sustain a high level of competitiveness from the first whistle to the last point.
Volleyball is a game of mistakes, and the team that makes the fewest generally wins. When you watch a match, you will see mini-celebrations when a team does something well, and this ritual is an important part of maintaining players’ confidence. But here is what I’ve come to believe about celebrations. The teams with the loudest cheers and largest celebrations over any good play are usually the worst teams (or are the ones that can’t sustain good play). You see this most often at the high school level. They go nuts because they know they don’t make great plays very often. They have some awesome cheers because they’ve worked more on those than on their skills. The teams at the next level up still celebrate, but it’s more subdued. They bring energy when it’s needed, and they enjoy the good plays before moving on to the next. As the match gets more intense, these teams can increase their intensity and focus. Sport psychologists call this "playing in the zone," and the top players and teams stay in that zone for longer periods of time. If players increase their intensity too much, they can actually pass their ideal playing level, and playing "past" the zone leads to more errors because players are overstimulated. Afterward, they generally suffer a drop in performance because they can’t sustain the extremely high level of intensity. The best teams, however, can stay in the zone longer and avoid extreme highs and lows.
In order to sustain team competitiveness, players should experience competitive situations during practices in drills that mimic the intensity of a match. If practices are slow or fail to challenge players, it will be hard for the team to sustain competitiveness during matches. If a rally in a match would last for 5 to 15 seconds, then the players should train in drills that force them to sustain their focus and drive for 20 to 30 seconds or more. One way to do so during scrimmage situations is to toss extra balls in after the first play ends. This challenges players to remain focused and stay competitive for a longer period.
Some coaches say that they want their practices to be harder for their team than the matches will ever be. The concept of overtraining is used in many sports, and all of the coaches are doing it for the same reason. Swimmers and track athletes log many more miles or kilometers than their race involves, and they do it so they will be stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. On race day, they can give their maximum effort and know that their technique will remain correct throughout the race. In volleyball, players who are put through taxing training sessions will be able to remain sharp in the toughest of matches. Teams who are not as well prepared will have great competitive spurts, but as their physical conditioning wanes their skills will falter and their competitiveness will fade. Many teams can play aggressive volleyball, but only the top teams can sustain their competitiveness from set to set, match to match, and week to week. Keeping practices challenging and interesting helps players develop the desire they need for matches. Drills geared to specific goals force players to compete, and longer competitive drills help them learn how to sustain their aggressive mind-set. Players should feel an urgency to win that makes them want to race to the final point of the set.
In order to sustain that competitiveness over the course of a season, coaches must find a way to break the season up into smaller sections. For most teams, the season consists of three basic parts: preconference play, conference play, and tournament play. If players begin a season by trying to think about the playoffs right away, they are likely to overlook some opponents that will take them by surprise. The season is a journey that involves many steps along the way. If you ask a coach who the team plays in 3 weeks, he or she might not be able to tell you. Coaches know that you have to build the team and the enthusiasm as the season continues. Take care of one section of the season at a time and sustain the competitiveness throughout that section.
Players must be motivated every time they step onto the court or they will lose their mental edge. Motivational quotes, stories, and speakers can keep the team mentally sharp and eager to compete every day. On the flip side, beating down a team physically, mentally, or emotionally is the fastest way to dull its competitive nature and ruin a season. A team that is healthy and happy can go a long way because the players are enjoying what they are doing. Teams also need to have the technical and mental skills to sustain their competitiveness. It’s hard to compete when you can’t keep up with the opponent’s speed or ball control skills. Coaches who want their teams to play aggressively throughout the season must give their players a competitive environment in practice. Once they do that, the team will learn how to sustain its competitiveness all the way to the conference, state, or national championship match.