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The Mental Game

volleyball_brainThe mental game. Do we coach it enough? Do coaches know how to coach it? In club, it is sprinkled throughout practices. When I coached at Georgia Southern, the team had the benefit of working with a sports psychologist. He provided some great team insight and exercises, but he wasn’t utilized enough. I think many collegiate programs incorporate a sports psychologist with their programs because its what everyone else is doing, to “keep up with the Jones’s”. Mick Haley uses a team psychologist, Mike Voight, throughout the season with, I believe, great benefit. At the University of Minnesota, Dr. Mike Hebert handles the team psychology lessons. He prepares his “Championship Manual” during the off-season and presents it to the team during the pre-season. His season plan also incorporates a day each week for mental learning and preparation. I appreciate the psychological side of sports and didn’t realize how fortunate I was to be a part of Minnesota Volleyball to partake in these player and team building sessions.

I continue to learn by reading books of the mind. I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. The book provides in-depth analysis on two primary functions of the brain that are responsible for emotion and logic. The key is to find a crucial mental balance between emotion and logic. This further confirms my belief that balance, be it with the mind, nutrition, exercise, etc. is the ultimate core of life. The Yin and the Yang. The Id and the Ego.

how_we_decideHere are a few concepts I took from the book that can be incorporated with volleyball:

  • The only way for anyone to succeed over the long term is to use both brain systems in their proper contexts. We need to think and feel.
  • The brain always learns the same way, accumulating wisdom through error.
  • The best decision makers don’t despair. Instead, they become students of error, determined to learn from what went wrong. They think about what they could have done differently so that they next time their neurons will know what to do. This is the most astonishing thing about the human brain; it can always improve itself.
  • Strong emotional reaction to gains or losses can be counterproductive. Too little emotional reaction can also be dangerous. There is an ideal range of emotional response.
  • The problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. Interpret quantitative data, not just obey it.
  • Slight drop in blood-sugar levels can also inhibit self-control, since the frontal lobes require lots of energy in order to function.
  • A follow-up study found that instead of thinking about the mechanical details of the swing, experienced golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, what psychologists call a holistic cue word. For example, instead of contemplating something like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, the player should focus on a descriptive adjective, such as smooth or balanced.
  • There was absolutely no evidence of the hot hand. (Alan Reifman has an entire blog on this topic: click here)
  • The motor cortex and brain stem are the first parts to mature in children. Those areas are fully functional by the time humans hit puberty. In contrast, brain areas that are relatively recent biological inventions – such as the frontal lobes – don’t finish growing until the teenage years are over. The prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to fully mature.
  • Study mistakes for logic. Play game by emotion.

It is my interpretation that coaching the mental game should be a routine part of practice, but it has to be balanced with the physical aspect. My mom always told me, everything in life needs to have balance. Mom’s always know best :)

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