“I was just like, ‘Please, someone help me to fix this (expletive) serve.’ I’m sorry for swearing, but this is how it was.” ~Aryna Sabalenka
Yesterday, I watched Aryna Sabalenka play Coco Gauff for the women’s championship at the US Open. I found myself recalling that a little over 18 months ago, Sabalenka could barely serve a tennis ball over the net. She was not injured in the traditional sense, but she was incapable of playing at her usual dominating level. Envision losing confidence in a skill, then multiply that by one hundred, and then you might come close to what Sabalenka went through when she lost confidence in her serve. Sabalenka is one of the most physically dominating tennis players in the world. Yet, she lacked so much confidence in her serve that she resorted to serving underhand while fighting back tears at the state of her game. The short video below will give you an idea of the state of her game both technically and emotionally. She would just roll the ball into the court (if she was lucky), and then attempt to win the rally.
She was trying everything to get her serve along with her swagger back. She had coaches and sports psychologists in her ear telling her a million times that she was fine; it was all in her head. Perhaps the biggest problem was she was listening to everyone and became so confused that her serving issues became worse.
Based on her performances this tennis season (Australian Open Champ and US Open runner-up, and currently ranked #1 in the world), Sabalenka has conquered the problems with her serve. Sabalenka solved her serve issues by doing some things that volleyball players and coaches might take a lesson.
We’ve all had players lament they’ve lost their confidence. They want to know how to get that elusive swagger back into their game. Sabalenka did two things that allowed her to get over the hump and back into a championship mindset.
First, she took responsibility for her situation. Despite the offer of her coach to resign, she embraced the fact that it wasn’t the fault of her coach. She was determined to embrace the fact that her serving issues were hers alone to address. She also stopped seeing a sports psychologist. Not that her sports psychologist was providing erroneous advice. She was just determined to climb this mountain herself. But, as her co-coach Jason Stacy put it in Melbourne, “she hit her fear and went through it, face on.”
“Honestly, I decided [during the pre-season] to stop working with a psychologist. I realized that nobody other than me would help.”~Aryna Sabalenka
The second significant factor in her improvement was that Sabalenka, with the assistance of her coaches and a lot of video analysis, concluded that her serving issues were not a mental mountain she had to climb. In actuality, it was a technical flaw in her serve motion that she needed to correct.
Co-coach Jason Stacy shared that the best way to address the task was to demystify it—to empirically show why things were off-kilter and that they could be fixed. He said, “All we wanted at the end of this was to give her that understanding and that sense of control, so that way she wasn’t out there with 50 different voices in her head and freaking out and all over the place.”
Sabalenka went to work with coach Anton Dubrov on improving her serve technique. She had developed a technical flaw that impacted her efficiency, leading to errors and a confidence implosion. Simply put, she practiced, analyzed the video, and practiced more.
The job of a club volleyball coach would be easy if all we had to deal with was teaching volleyball. Teaching volleyball is the easy part. It is difficult to sometimes be the messenger that the solution to the challenges a player is facing lies inside themselves.
As a coach, I really like how Sabalenka’s coaches convinced her that she was in control of her improvement. If she was willing to put in the work to address her technical flaws, she could get back to her normal dominant self. I also like they used video as a resource for both the problem and the answer. So often, coaches hope that if we just play more “wash games” or do that “perfect” drill, all the problems will go away. Sometimes, especially with advanced players, you have to break down a skill to the smallest component before the player can advance.
When players come to the coach bemoaning a lack of confidence, you might tell the player how Sabalenka addressed her lack of confidence and advise them to “get to work.”
Without question, sports psychologists can positively impact the performance of an athlete. However, there is no replacement for the athlete taking responsibility for the “choppy waters” they find themselves in and going to work at solving their problems. The coach must be willing to put in the extra time that the athlete desires and have the technical expertise to assist the athlete in moving forward from the rough patch they find themselves. Coaches need to have a better plan to assist struggling players than the patronizing pats on the back with the associated “I’ve got confidence in you” rhetoric. There is no “sure-fire” way to assist a player who is in a negative confidence spiral. However, sometimes the answer is to just work harder at your game.