If you haven’t seen this video of Cristiano Ronaldo, I highly recommend you check it out. This video highlights some major differences in information processing that differentiate an elite professional athlete from the average joe. Watching this, I had two initial reactions to it:

1) Wow.

2) How can I use this to make my own volleyball game better? I’ve semi-recently taken up sand volleyball, and I am definitely more in the average joe category than the Cristiano Ronaldo category.

The major difference in this video between Ronaldo and Ronald is how Ronaldo processes information. Ronaldo has the ability to look at his opponent, analyze his moves, and also plan his next move. Furthermore, his ability to analyze his opponents body language is developed enough to enable him to shoulder a ball into the net IN THE DARK with only the player’s body language before contacting the ball to base his movements on.

The first step to incorporating this in my own game is to pay attention. Instead of just reacting the ball, I need to proactively make the effort to focus on my opponent’s body movements. The two areas I see this helping me in immensely are serve receive and defense. In serve receive, paying attention to the hand and body alignment of the server will help me predict where the serve is going.

Defense, however, is the area where this skill will be most important. With only two people to cover so much court, figuring out where the opponents intends to place the ball (sharp cross, dink, deep corner, seam, etc.)  early is crucial to playing effective defense. So, what to pay attention to?

1)  The distance of the set from the net. The closer to the net, the more options the hitter has and the less time there is to react.

2) The speed of the attacker. Is she coming in with quickly and with power? Is she slow and deliberate? If the attacker is coming in slow, it is more likely that the player who is blocking should pull off the net and play defense.

3) Arm swing speed. How fast is her arm swing? If she is swinging fast, it is better to line up on her arm and react to where the ball is hit.

4) Hand position. This will help figure out where she is going to place the ball if she is going to do a shot or if she is going to cut the ball for a hard attack.

There are more cues that can be useful; however, these major ones are a good start for improving my defense. Once I get better at picking up on those cues, I will be able to look for more nuances to better my game even more.

So, how to go from consciously figuring out all these cues and what they mean to shouldering a ball in the net in the dark? Deliberate practice. In order to get better at this skill, an athlete needs to make an effort to pay attention to these cues each and every play. With practice, the mind gets better at picking up on these cues quickly and processing what they mean for the outcome of the situation. With enough practice, an athlete may just be able to predict where the ball is going to go without consciously being able to describe how they know, like Ronaldo.