Experience in sports is one those hard-to-define concepts. We know it when we see it, but to practice and teach it is like trying to push a string across the floor. The term experience is known by many names: mental toughness, confidence, poise, composure, nerves of steel or steady play. These ideas are essentially the same—a team or person wins because they make key plays during pivotal moments of an athletic contest.
Need examples? Here are two from the world of volleyball in 2008:
Example # 1 With the USA men down 12-13 to the Russians in the fifth set in Beijing, David Lee came up with one kill and two blocks that propelled Team USA into the gold medal round. Three consecutive plays by one player. I’ve been watching volleyball for over 30 years but I cannot remember a player coming up so big in such a crucial moment.
Example #2 The Penn State women’s team, who has won every match 3-0, suddenly finds itself tied two games apiece against Nebraska in Nebraska at the NCAA semi-finals. The team eventually finds a way to gut out a 15-11 victory in front of a highly partisan crowd.
David Lee could have done his job quietly and been part of a team that had a great Olympics. Penn State could have folded up camp after losing two sets. But David and Penn State had other ideas. They took control of their own destiny and delivered at the right moment. Both examples—one by a player and the other by a team—illustrate what we define as experience; both David and Penn State played exceptionally well under pressure.
Playing well under pressure is what experience is all about. It’s a state of mind that cannot be affected by the score, venue or other external circumstances. Like passing, setting or any other skill in the game of volleyball, experience is something you can practice every day. Experience isn’t determined by age, or how much you’ve played, won or lost. It’s defined by how much you believe you always have control over an athletic contest. Recognizing the ways in which you can improve your mental game is the first step in becoming a more complete player. Here are five cases in which experience is better defined.
Experience in Dealing with Intimidation
Intimidation is one of the most common ways teams gain an advantage over an opponent. All players have been intimidated at one time or another in their careers. How do good players intimidate others? Players look at you with indifference, they intimidate you in warm-ups, they sneer and make snide remarks in hopes of belittling you. When players are intimidated they play with less physical intensity. How much less? Maybe 2-3%, but if your physical effort is compromised, that’s all it takes. Good players don’t give into mental bullies. In fact, when great players sense a negative presence, they play better. Before you learn to beat opponents, it’s crucial that you learn how not to beat yourself.
Experience in Practice
It’s not uncommon for players to give less than 100% in practice. Everybody has their off days. Some use the excitement of competition to stimulate their competitive nature. Some players miss the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in practices. They look for ways around physically demanding work. They avoid the grind that’s part of an athlete’s creed of getting better on every play. Coaches can do many things to motivate players. They can offer praise for extraordinary effort or bench them for not living up to their potential. A combination of the proverbial stick and carrot is usually employed to shape desired behavior. Consistency in practice is one of the keys to becoming a great player. Some learn this earlier than others. Learning how to work hard when the coach isn’t looking is what experienced players do. Getting in the gym before practice and staying late are signs of maturity. Experience and work ethic are closely linked. It’s no quirk of fate that players who are better prepared and in superior physical condition consistently win.
Experience in Conserving Energy
Young players can often be seen running around the court, exerting an abundance of energy. It can be a celebration of a point, or an effort to get the crowd fired up, but it still takes a lot of energy. One of the tricks older players learn is how to relax between plays. They look lazy or indifferent to what’s going on around them. But as soon as the whistle blows, they come alive and seem to be in the right place at the right time. Here are two hints for playing efficient volleyball. The first is to watch the other team and players between serves. If you watch the setter in particular, they will almost tell you where they are going to set the next ball. It’s also a good time to review what the coach said about the player’s tendencies. The second tip is to consciously relax between plays. This is much easier said than done, but it’s the reason inexperienced players feel so much more fatigued after a match than after a practice. Breathing, along with resting hunched over on your knees, can help. A suggestion would be to try this in practice, turning your physical switch “on and off,” as this may take a while to get used to.
Experience with Bad Calls
Mistakes by a referee are part of the game. Calls that seem intentional can be even more frustrating. One of the ways professional sports deal with this issue by using slow-motion video technology to confirm calls. Volleyball doesn’t have instant replay (yet!). With luck, bad calls even out over the course of a match or season. To let a referee’s decision affect your mental rhythm when playing shows inexperience. A single call by an official often turns a match around to the point where the other team gives up. Teams will use the referee as an excuse when they lose a match, whereas experienced players will voice their disagreement with an official, but not let it alter their frame of mind. Experienced players use bad calls as motivation to play harder, exerting greater concentration to better the ball and make fewer mistakes. If bad calls are expected, resolve to play each set to 27 instead of 25. The adage “Never show a mental or physical weakness” is sound advice in the age of home field advantage.
Experience Using Your Peripheral Vision
Peripheral vision in sports is everything. This is the ability to look at one thing and concentrate on another. When we pass a ball, we look at the ball but peripherally find the position of the setter. Setters are trained to “watch” the hitters and opposing middle blockers while looking at the ball. When players hit, they learn to watch the ball while thinking about the block. At my summer camps, I show players how to adjust their heads while looking at an object—usually the ball. The key is to keep your eyes on the ball and move your head in the direction you want to create peripheral vision—up, down or sideways. Experienced players are relaxed enough to be able to do this. I see young players letting balls drop in between them and their teammates (an epidemic!) all the time. Over time, these mistakes disappear and players learn when to take the ball and when to “open up” to let their teammates know when to make a play on the ball. A good way to practice this is to keep an eye on the defensive side of the net (especially the block if you are a hitter) as you are playing the ball. Learn how to move your head, but not your eyes. This single attribute is the essence of sports and offers a partial explanation of why setters are so much more experienced than the other position players.
It is tough to say whether experience is an innate part of an athlete. Consistently playing against better competition is a time honored way of achieving experience in sports. The ability to absorb and learn from your losses in practice and matches cannot be understated. The lost art of watching better players and teams play in lieu of getting out of the gym quickly is a mistake. Learning how to control your emotions and energy level is the key to becoming a complete player.
You do not need to play in the Olympics or the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament to be an experienced player. The five examples I gave you are just a few ways to think differently about the game. These examples could transcend other sports as well. The sport of indoor volleyball is played with twelve players on eighteen hundred square feet. With that many people in that tiny of space, a lot can and will happen.