Introducing our Psychology in Volleyball Series – Gary

I’m lucky in that I get to speak with many volleyball coaches and athletes every day, hearing about the great things they are doing, but also the challenges they face. It sounds a little sadistic, but I like hearing about these challenges as they inevitably link to chances for development, growth and performance improvement. One of the most common challenges I hear talked about in the volleyball community is focussed around how we manage our mental state and how this impacts on performance, individually and as a team. As parents of athletes on-court competing, as coaches striving to create the optimum environment for athletes to progress, or as athletes attempting to take advantage of that environment and perform, we all face challenges about how to manage ourselves and our psychology.

This article is the 1st in a series designed to help turn these challenges into opportunities. The series will bring together insights from leading experts in the field of Psychology in Sport to explore the ways we can manage (and take advantage of) our mentality to achieve the outcomes we’re striving for.

Our 1st contributor is Rory Mack. Rory is close to completing his PhD in sports psychology at Sheffield Hallam University and is a trainer in the counseling therapy motivational interviewing. He has been working with athletes competing in a wide array of sports since 2011. As a former international volleyball player and current competitive amateur strongman, he has a great insight into the challenges faced by athletes. Enjoy the insight he offers and apply it to build performance in your context.

Over to Rory, to begin by tackling probably the most fundamental question on the topic…

What is psychology?

There are many definitions of psychology.

My favorite comes from William James, an American psychologist, philosopher, lecturer, and physician, who described psychology as ‘the study of the self’. How I like to view this is that by engaging with psychology methods, you should arrive at a better understanding of yourself – your likes and dislikes, attitudes and values, habits and tendencies, past experiences and future goals, and importantly, how these affect your thoughts and behaviors in different situations. Essentially, psychology is the study of the interaction between you and your environment, which is ever-changing, and you need to develop the psychological flexibility be able to adapt accordingly.

What do sports psychologists do?

Transfer this into the world of sport, and the aim is to take that knowledge and understanding about yourself and apply it towards two purposes;

  • Performing as well as you possibly can.
  • Supporting your general wellbeing and personal development.

Examples of this could include planning a pre-season training cycle; preparing for a tournament; managing emotions, nervousness or negative thinking before a significant match; returning to training after injury, or preparing for life after retiring from playing sports.

For years there has been some stigma attached to sports psychology and mental health in general, and a perception that it is ‘weak’ to engage with psychology services. Thankfully this appears to be changing, with psychology becoming viewed as an essential service for performing well at the top level in different sports. The line of thought follows that athletes will see a physiotherapist or a sports doctor when they have a physical injury, so why not see a psychologist when they are struggling with something mental? Athletes also work with strength and conditioning coaches to achieve peak physical condition and remain injury-free. Psychology can be a proactive service in a similar way, helping athletes develop mental strength and flexibility.

When I work with athletes, coaches and parents, I suggest that psychology alongside the other sports sciences is a huge area where potential gains could be made and embracing psychology represents a commitment to being the best athlete you can be. Watch this space for further posts on how you can start applying psychology to your performance and development as a volleyball player and as a person.