Why Cooperation Drills Train Mental and Performance Skills

Bow tie passing for volleyball (or hockey), over the net cooperative pepper, Rondo, passing shuttles or run plays in basketball … no matter what you call them, ball control or cooperative team drills in sport are commonly used to develop sport specific skills, focus and create good mental patterns and brain grooves that make it look like this stuff comes easy. It’s the kind of drill that seems pointless or boring, but it’s packs a punch – it’s a drill where athletes must cooperate to complete.

I said COMPLETE, not compete, just wanted to make sure y’all saw that right.

From a mindset standpoint, however, these drills train a variety of mental and performance skills too. Take a look at these powerful benefits of cooperative drills that may have you adding them to your practice plans to train mental and performance skills as well as the ever-sought after and sometimes elusive ball control.


RESILIENCE – In every cooperative drill there is a moment of failure. Actually, multiple moments of failure. Some days, oh so much failure. With each failure or shall I call it “incomplete” round, the drill seems further and further out of reach and athletes (and coaches) have to figure out how to adjust, adapt or change what they are doing in order to make the drill work. It could be a communication issue they need to iron out, could be a team dynamic, could be the weakest player continuing to end the drill, regardless of the point of failure, it’s what they do and how we frame the drill as coaches that matters. It’s the resilience piece we are looking at specifically. Cooperative drills have something to teach every athlete from the most skilled to the beginner and when we are paying attention, they teach us coaches a lot too.

COMMUNICATION – One of, no THE MOST IMPORTANT part of any co-op drill is communication. When co-op drills go quiet, it’s never a good sign. These drills train both self and other communication. Self-communication is how each individual athlete speaks to themselves, it’s the mental process of adjusting and adapting on the fly after a mistake or when trying to hold the drill together as a leader. It’s also the negative, self-sabotaging talk athletes do when they focus only on their own performance instead of the effort or learning of the whole group. What my athletes say to themselves is important.

Other communication is what I say to the team as the drill is happening. Narrating or talking through a drill as a commentator keeps our critical and judgy part of our minds busy. In “The Inner Game of Tennis,” W. Timothy Gallwey introduces us to Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the judgy, polarizing self who says “that was bad” and Self 2 is the self who has trained thousands of hours of reps and hasn’t forgotten the skill they are working on since yesterday, but often gives into the pressure of Judgy Self 1.

Regular use of co-op drills lets athletes know there’s another shot at completion on another day and another chance to practice communication – side note, they might not be thrilled at the next opportunity, but they are learning and improving. Another side note, there may be a point in the drill when the communication becomes whiny, players yelling at each other or just plain mean. Stop the drill, reset and have them begin again. Good communication leads to confidence and confidence helps us perform better.

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

Timothy Gallwey

VARIED PARAMETERS – whether you go for time, reps or break them into smaller teams to see who can complete the drill first, varying your co-op drill parameters will help create different stimulus and different learning depending on the day. There will be days that you want to train persistence and determination and, so, you just go as long as you need to complete the rep scheme. Some days you give them a rep scheme, but you need to get to other things in the practice, so you give them one last ball and call time even if they don’t complete the drill. When you vary the parameters for completion, it keeps your athletes in the sweet spot for learning. Time sensitive co-ops create a totally different tension than reps only co-ops. Decide your intent for the drill and what skill you are looking to reinforce and use that parameter to promote their learning.

CREATING SYSTEMS FOR CONFIDENCE – I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again – in his book “Atomic Habits,” by James Clear he talks about creating good systems as a way to create new habits. He says “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” Without good systems, your team goals are going to be pretty hard to achieve and if those goals include winning, you will need a good dose of confidence. Co-op drills create good systems and draw out dynamics through mental exhaustion and failure – these dynamics also regularly appear in the heat of competition. When we practice the point of failure plus mental fatigue and have systems in place to overcome them, WE BUILD CONFIDENCE.

“The primary reason the brain remembers the past is to better predict what will work in the future.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

JOURNALING – If you want to take it one step further, you can have your team do a five minute journaling exercise about their co-op drill experience after practice. Here are the questions I’ve used:

  • 1. What worked?
  • 2. What needs improving?
  • What stopped your learning?

I’ve used this exact format as an exit ticket for the whole practice, but you could specify it to the co-op drill since most days co-ops are not easy to complete. The exit ticket has been used by many coaches and classroom teachers, it’s not mine, but it’s a great practice.

There are many resources out there for us to continue learning and educating ourselves as coaches (I’ve included a couple books in this article), so no matter where you are on your coaching journey you can be encouraged that we are all somewhere on the continuum of growth. Happy coaching!


Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is the co-author “30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, A Habit for Life” and author of “30 Day Return to Play Journal” available for pre-order now. 

She is an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, SEC Freshman and Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played with the US National Team and enjoyed a season of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level (PAC-12 Beach Volleyball). She is married with two children and currently coaches performance and mindset journaling to youth and college athletes and coaches.

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