Coaching Anxious Players: 5 Steps to Confident ATHLETES

*Disclaimer: I’m going to discuss coaching players who are ANXIOUS, not players who have been diagnosed with anxiety. I am not a sports psychologist. Just an experienced coach who is sharing tips to try to help you coach through a growing trend I’ve noticed among volleyball athletes in the past 2-3 years.

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The hesitation. The apprehension. The questions. The tears.

These are all fairly NEW to me as a coach, despite beginning my coaching career over a decade ago.

When I first started coaching, the only times I had tears from my players were for one of three reasons:

  1. An injury

  2. A fight between players

  3. No, actually I guess it was just those two.

Since about 2017(ish), I’ve seen tears for the following reasons:

  1. Being a sub

  2. Getting subbed out after multiple mistakes

  3. Sitting out a SET

  4. Getting yelled at by a coach (not verbally abused by a coach, COACHED by a coach)

  5. Being told to step with the other foot while serving at a clinic. Yeah, I’m going to end with that one.

Don’t get me wrong, players have always been sad or have felt bad about these things… but tears? That’s pretty new.

I’m not sharing this with you to make fun of players or diminish how they feel.

It’s just that we as coaches need to realize that we can’t coach like we were coached (well, you can do whatever you want, but if you don’t prepare for these anxious players you’re going to have a hard time).

Not EVERY player is like this. There are plenty of players who are able to accept (and dare I say, appreciate) being subbed out after multiple mistakes.

And nearly all players can handle being told how to correct their form without bursting into tears and making you feel like a horrible person.

But there’s a shift happening. I’m not entirely sure of the reason WHY (though I have some guesses), but once I started making adjustments to my coaching style, I was able to see players settle into the comfort of learning and actually contribute to their team.


As I said in the beginning of the article, I’m not talking about true Anxiety. Anxious players are usually the ones who, after you tell everyone to grab a partner and a ball, stand around afraid to find a partner. Or they get a partner, but they don’t rush onto the court and begin. They wait to ask clarifying questions.

Anxious players need to know EXACTLY what you want, WHEN they should do it, WHERE to stand, and if they’re doing it RIGHT once they start.

You’ll see a lot of wide-eyed looks and players will almost look scared to act.

I believe this comes down to a few personality traits/characteristics. They are either:

  • perfectionists;

  • people pleasers; or

  • afraid of looking dumb.

I’m going to say 80% of the time they just don’t want to look stupid in front of their friends. The remaining 20% (in my opinion) are split 50/50 between perfectionists and people pleasers.


If we recognize that we have an anxious player on our team, it’s important that you tweak your coaching style to suit their needs. If you’re not willing to do this, make sure you’re coaching at a top-performing club and/or can get away with an authoritarian coaching style. It’s not for everyone, but aren’t we coaching because we love to help the kids? By expanding the range of players you can help, you become a better coach in my opinion.


What situations cause players to pause or hesitate? When do you start to get bombarded with questions? Is there a time that you’ve seen players start to tear up?

Let me give you a couple examples of when you would recognize that you might have an anxious player on your hands:

  1. Player A always seems to panic when you ask the team to find a partner.

  2. Player B is at your camp and slowly walks everywhere, and gets in very few reps when dismissed to do partner work or individual work.

  3. Player C looks at you during matches, even in the middle of a play, to ask if she’s in the right spot.


Figure out WHY this player is panicking. My examples are not blanket-solutions to the above problems, as players could be anxious for a variety of reasons. In order to solve these issues, you need to know the player and take a guess at why they’re feeling anxious, or (gasp!) you could talk to them and get to the bottom of it. Remember, players usually feel anxious because they are perfectionists, people pleasers, or just don’t want to look dumb.

  1. Player A is on a new club team in the beginning of the season and doesn’t know anyone. She doesn’t want to ask someone to be her partner and get turned down (thereby, looking “dumb”).

  2. Player B doesn’t understand the instructions you gave, but really wants to make you (her coach) happy with her. She limits touches on the ball until she can watch others and figure out what she’s supposed to do so you don’t get mad at her.

  3. Player C‘s learning style is different than how you’ve been teaching. Although everyone else on the team can learn by listening to your instructions, Player C just doesn’t seem to get it. She’s a perfectionist and wants to get it “right” but hasn’t been able to follow along with what you’re saying, so she gives it her best effort and checks in frequently.



Instead of shrugging these situations off as “she’s just not made to be a volleyball player,” think about what you could do to minimize the anxiety these players are feeling.

  1. How could you reduce the chances that Player A gets rejected by her teammates at practice when looking for a partner?

  2. Why doesn’t Player B understand your instructions?

  3. Is there another way you could teach the same information to Player C?


Once you come up with a solution, go into your next lesson/practice/camp and test out your new idea. What you try might not always work, but that just means you need to look at it from another angle. We’ll assume the following solutions work for the above players:

  1. Assign partners so Player A is included more often and gets to know her teammates better. This doesn’t HAVE to be bad. You can make it fun!

  2. Check your language. Maybe you were using terms that made sense to you and the other players, but Player B is BRAND NEW. Terms like freeball, downball, or even as basic as setting can throw off new players. Over-explain and demonstrate to teach the new player without singling her out. Follow-up by first checking in with her once the group is dismissed.

  3. Sit down and ask your player what she’s confused about. Try explaining through various methods. Maybe you find out Player C is a visual learner and just needs a diagram drawn out. This could take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes to get to the bottom of their confusion, so set aside some time to chat.


OK, so we figured out ways to put a band-aid on the anxious behaviors. But our ultimate goal should be to help these players develop confidence and self-esteem to overcome their self-doubt!

There are TONS of ways we can use these moments as teachable moments. Since the examples I’ve shared are all real-life examples from my coaching career, I’m going to tell you what I did in each situation to make them “teachable.”

  1. I encourage players to make friends with everyone on the team through silly questions. I pair them up based on commonalities such as color of hair, favorite flavor of ice cream, birth month, etc. These are completely arbitrary and allow players to bond about something BESIDES volleyball/skill level/what school they go to. It’s a lot easier to become friends with someone if you both like the color blue than if the coach says to get a partner you haven’t been with yet. I could stop making pairs halfway through the season, but the players usually like it so I continue. And then they have a skill moving forward!

  2. Let this player know that if they have a question, you want them to ask you. They can do it in the group or they can call you over, but they need to ask something if they’re not sure. By letting them know it’s OK to not know, you’re helping them learn that it’s ok to ask questions and that no questions are stupid.

  3. Once you figure out WHY a player was so confused (in this example she needed visuals), TELL THEM that they’re a visual learner. This will be a good reminder for you moving forward to keep her learning style in mind, and she won’t be anxious to ask for help outside of volleyball if she needs visuals to better understand something.

Coaching anxious players is, in my opinion, going to become a reality for more of us over the next few years. Don’t get frustrated with the players. See it as a challenge, and if you can’t work it out, feel free to join our CLOSED Facebook coaching group to ask for assistance: Volleyball Coaches Corner - Get The Pancake Community.