Hamilton, ON- As McMaster Marauders outside hitter Maxime Gratton lined up for one of his serves, he knew and felt the trust in himself.
Yes, it was during a men’s volleyball game between the Marauders and the Toronto Varsity Blues where there were a combined 59 service errors (33 for McMaster, 26 for Toronto). A game in which the Marauders battled back from an early 1-0 set deficit to win three sets to two. A season opener as well in front of a loud crowd at the Burridge Gym on Nov. 4.
Gratton couldn’t think about all that though when he lined up to serve. He couldn’t let all those service errors affect him. As he heads to the baseline, he trusts the work he put in. He’s been focusing on his serve a lot.
“You got to think: What is there to do right now and then all you can do is execute,” Gratton said.
The Ottawa native did exactly that, hitting a game-high five aces in addition to seven kills and 14 points. There was a stretch in a close second set – with Toronto looking to go up 2-0 – where Gratton served five times in a row and landed three aces.
Before he did so, he looked at Marauders head coach Brad Douwes. “Should I go for it,” he asked his coach.
“Absolutely,” Douwes responded. “You’re a good server. Be aggressive and go for it.”
So Gratton did just that. He rose up high into the air for his serves before hammering it down with power and accuracy. Douwes pointed out how he led by example with his serving confidence and serving pressure.
Toronto head coach John Barrett pointed out how Gratton broke the match open in the second set. “He’s got the heart of a lion,” Barrett added. “And he was courageous.”
Teammate Tyler Pavelic noted how Gratton’s serving helped balance things out after the Marauders’ serving woes.
In terms of all those serving errors, it begs the question: what’s behind it? Perhaps it was the big crowd at the Burridge Gym, the fact it’s the season opener and the jitters that went with that, according to Pavelic.
Perhaps once those errors start happening, players think about it more – leading to more errors. “It kind of becomes a spiral,” Douwes said. “You’re thinking about not making a serving error in the spiral.”
He told his team to stay confident going up to serve throughout the match. He called it an uncharacteristic day of serving compared to their eight preseason games.
Perhaps it goes deeper than that. “Serving is an issue through volleyball in general, in Canada” Barrett said. “We’re not very good at serving and there’s lots of reasons for that.”
For one, it’s the only hard skill in the game – a lot of it mental as much as technical. “Who can develop the capacity to deal mentally with a situation that only they can control,” Barrett noted.
Yes, players can work on it over years and years but “if you don’t address the real base root of it, technically you’ll never get better,” the coach added.
What is that base root? Belief.
“Confidence in yourself you can do what you want to do when you have to do it,” Barrett said. “Unshakable belief in yourself.”
Few people would know better than him. Before he embarked upon his coaching career, he won a CIS national title with the Manitoba Bisons and competed in the Pan Am and Olympic Games before a long career in Europe.
He became the first volleyball player worldwide to exclusively use the spike serve in every match. He’s credited for introducing it to the sport – something so many players around the world use.
It started back in 1981 with the Canadian national team during a tournament in Shanghai, when he messed around with it over and over in practice, telling his coaches he believed he could do it. He finally did so during a game. He did so more and more over the years. He did so despite all the naysayers – his teammates among them – who said it couldn’t be done with consistency.
Barrett saw how Gratton had that belief and confidence with his booming serves – the spike serves he had once revolutionized.
He saw how McMaster held their composure in that fifth set while his team made too many unforced errors. A battle of nerves, he called it. “We broke first, they held on and they deserved to win,” he said. Toronto had two crucial service errors in a tight fifth set.
For the long-time coach, it’s about addressing those errors in every possible way – from training to talking about it to everything in between. It’s about something internally as well: not being fearful. If you fear making a mistake, you will make one.
“Fear will make you hesitate,” Barrett said. “Hesitation will bring about your worst fears. It all goes on in the head before it comes down through the hand and that’s the real challenge.”
For Douwes, serving is all about mindset. He knows his players can serve aggressively and consistently. “If you’re confident back there, you’re going to do something special,” he said. “But if you’re tentative…then you have a different feeling in your body and things don’t flow as smooth as you’d like to.”
So, what was going through Gratton’s body as he stepped up to serve? “A feeling that you know you can do it,” he described. “When you look at a challenge and you know you can do it.”
The season opener ended with celebration for the Marauders. Gratton said they showed great perseverance and willingness to fight. He credited the Varsity Blues for, as always, putting up a tough fight. He credited the home crowd for getting them through certain moments.
He also said he was happy with his serving. On that day, you couldn’t help but notice.
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics