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Coaching Mental Performance: The Neurobiology of Development and a Coach’s Impact

As coaches, our goal is to facilitate a “safe” environment not just so the athlete does not get hurt, but so they learn healthy attachment, which in turn helps them positively adapt their game to meet the demands of gameplay. Our brains utilize our sense-organs to learn to interpret our environment and regulate our nervous system, consequently helping us manage the demands of our environment. If we sense the environment as a threat, we are less likely to engage and more likely to isolate and retreat within ourselves. If we interpret our environment as “safe” we exhibit a higher level of prosocial interaction and are able to adapt more appropriately to stressful environments. We are making these connections thousands of times a day. It’s an exhausting experience and at the backbone of why we need time for ourselves to “recharge” after a long day.

Our concept of “safety” comes from secure interpersonal attachment, which inherently starts from the womb. The nervous system regulates and finds a rhythm from our mother’s heart rate, general activity, stress level, substance intake, diet, etc. Out of the womb and into the early years of development, the chaos of life threatens our rhythm, dysregulating our nervous system. In response, we cry and gesture to get our basic needs met and get us back into our rhythm. The availability, consistency, and appropriateness of our caregiver’s response to our cry’s defines the attachment we develop with them and gives us our foundational roadmap for how we develop in our formative years. As athletes, our nervous system’s rhythm within this system of sensation, interpretation, and regulation predicts our ability to adapt to the stress of our competition.

Here are 3 ways to create a safe environment for your athletes to learn, adapt and grow on the volleyball court.

1. Find Feedback for the Small Moments

There are no little things. When we begin to realize the enormous consequences that can come from the little things, we begin to believe there are no little things. Give individualized feedback to your athletes on where their eyes went, the steps they took within the play, their interactions between teammates, and talk with them about what they are seeing and feeling outside of the play, what is coming up for them, and how they are interpreting what is happening. Attend to them mentally and emotionally to let them know you are there when they need you, so that you can help them compete on their own, without you.

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2. Facilitate Conflict Resolution, Appropriate Confrontation, and Healthy Interpersonal Interactions

Many coaches and clubs focus on “positivity” as the antithesis to “Negativity”. I’ve heard time and again that positive thinking and behaviors are the way to keep our athletes performing well individually and as a team. We work so hard to facilitate positive norms with our athletes like celebrating, coming together after a point, warming up together, dressing similarly in training, supporting each other after a point. However, it’s just as important to help our athletes confront each other and resolve conflict. If we avoid conflict resolution, we’re telling our nervous system that it is alarming to feel negatively. However, negative emotions are a normative experience for our nervous system and part of its natural rhythm.

Consider that confrontation is healthy. Our nervous system needs to know what it is like to respond to negative emotions, as well as vibing with positive emotions. We want our athletes to ride a consistent wave of emotion that doesn’t dip too low or inappropriately high. Confrontation blocks troublesome teammate behaviors and allows productive ones to shine, resolve conflict, and will dictate how well they adapt in-between points and sets in a match.

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3. Foster Community Support

Facilitating a community-feel for your club has every bit of impact on your athletes as the culture of your team does. Communities seek to bolster and support people that are struggling, hold each other accountable to uphold a standard, and provide a space to be acknowledged and validated for successes and achievement. Better yet, communities can foster safe environments for athletes to exhibit prosocial interaction, inherently allowing them a safe space to explore the boundaries of their play!

Have teams pair up with each other young/old to support their local tournaments or scrimmages. Create signs, gift packages, and shirts to solidify their interpersonal relationships. Not only does this work from an observational learning perspective, but your youngest age groups will feel more welcomed, and your older age groups will find themselves feeling like they contribute more to the team than just points on the scoreboard. Best yet, the values you are trying to instill within your athletes will be perpetuated as the youngest see who they can become, and the oldest gain much needed perspective into how far their process has taken them.

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About the Author

Rob Samp is the Mental Performance Coach for MOD Volleyball, a JVA member club in Chicago, Illinois. He currently holds the title of LPC within the State of Illinois, utilizing EMDR and Brainspotting to work with complex PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety around Cook County, IL.  Samp has nearly a decade of coaching experience at the junior and collegiate level. He is grateful to be continuing his pursuit for facilitating performance excellence within MOD, as well as the universities around the Chicagoland area. Click here for Samp’s contact information and website.

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