ABC’s in Serve Receive

Set point is up for grabs and the ref blows his whistle to signal the serve from the opponent. The receiving team is in serve receive (formation on the court a team creates when preparing for the opponent to serve the ball), ready and eagerly anticipating the ball from the server. The main goal of this next contact is to have a “good” serve receive pass and then put the ball on the other side of the net for the opponent to have the opportunity to make the error. The serve is up, and then all of a sudden, a “shank” (unintentional wild pass, unplayable by teammates) from the receiving team and the opponent wins set point. Similar scenarios are quite common in volleyball and even if the receive doesn’t end in a shank, it is often that teams may begin their offense on any point with an out of system ball (pass that’s not to target).

Typically, if a player struggles with passing, it is commonly in serve receive. When you ask them what about serve receive is difficult, the usual answer is the amount of distance the ball travels from the opposite service line to their platform (forearms used to pass the ball). In comparison to playing defense, the distance is much longer and the ball is normally coming at a slower pace in serve receive. There’s much more time to “think” about passing the ball instead of just passing the ball.

In serve receive, there’s a brief pause in the speed of the game. By a pause, I mean from the time the ref blows his whistle to the receiving ball contact. It’s almost as if that time is seconds long while watching the ball float towards you, when in reality it may not even be a second. In that time (pause), a player can fill their mind with whatever they want. Frequently it’s some type of self-talk; sometimes positive, “you got this,” but usually something more negative like, “don’t shank,” or something seemingly positive, “pass to target,” that can actually give a negative effect.

Information that is emotional, negative and/or positive thoughts (more generally negative) about performance outcome can distract from sufficient processing of task-relevant information and negatively impact performance. This distraction is detrimental to performance, particularly in stressful situations, like serve receiving a game point (Lautenbach, Laborde, Putman, Angelidis, & Raab, 2016).

One thing I’ve used as a coach and mental skills coach to help fill this pause in serve receive with unemotional information is saying your ABC’s to yourself. Reciting the ABC’s is a procedural task and takes little conscious recall, so having your player say their ABC’s in serve receive would maintain their focus on the physical task, while taking away the emotional distraction that negative and positive sports words can create. They won’t be overly focused on passing to target or talking themselves out of a pass to target before the ball is served. When a player performs at a high level, consistently, they are usually at a happy medium, not overly or insufficiently focused.

Volleyball is not the only sport that has these momentary “pauses.” A receiver going long for a ball has that second, possibly seconds from the time the ball is thrown and watching it in the air to the point he successfully catches the pass; his pause. During that period he could be saying a number of things to himself that actually talk him out of making the catch before he has the opportunity. A softball or baseball player may experience that pause while batting. While standing at the plate, the time it takes for the ball to reach the hitting zone can literally seem slowed. In that “pause” where the hitter is deciding ball or strike, they may also be talking themselves out of successful contact.

In any sport or situation where a player may experience a period in which they could fill their mind with emotional thoughts, anticipating the next move or task, occupy their “pause” with the ABC’s. It could be the tool they need to develop a more comfortable, unemotional, and relaxed mindset while awaiting the next ball.


Lautenbach, F., Laborde, S. J. P., Putman, P., Angelidis, A., & Raab, M. (2016). Attentional distraction by negative sports words in athletes under low- and high- pressure conditions: Evidence from the Sport Emotional Stroop Task. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1–12.