I know this sounds like a weird question but I'm struggling with the fact that my team takes themselves too seriously. Over the last three years of building the program the team has made tremendous gains and made it to the semi-finals for the first time in 6 years. What I have noticed is that the team struggles with truly enjoying the experience of playing. They are very focused on winning and when that is happening they are having fun. When the team is under stress or losing they stop communicating and become very individualized and selfish on the court. They stop working together and start looking to others to take care of the game.
Can you make any suggestions about how I can get the team to love the game and to enjoy the experience of playing without making them think that I don't think they can win. (they are extremely high achievers and when the word process comes out they all start to think that I don't believe in them as a team.) I have watched these players grow and believe that the difference maker for this team is just learning to enjoy the game they are playing.
The issue of having fun/communicating when they win, versus being quiet/internalizing when they lose is something so many coaches have to deal with; my team this season sounds similar to yours. The last couple of season's have seen huge talent gains and success on the court (compared to how outstandingly bad the program was a few years ago), and we are struggling with exactly what you expressed - When we are winning we do everything emotionally right, and in stressful/losing situations we become silent and fragment.
I have also noticed, and this was evident in our last two matches, is the perception of the match/opponent my team carries in their minds before the match. By this is mean, that my/a team will go into a match with a preset mentality based upon their view of the opponent. If they feel the opponent good and slightly better than us, but we could still win if we played really, really well, my/a team will put pressure upon themselves and the result of this pressure is playing tight, not communicating, looking for someone else to take the lead, etc. Conversely, if my/a team knows that they are superior to the opponent, they will relax and play with confidence, reflecting the attributes we wish as coaches to see in our team. Lastly, there are times when my/a team will play a elite or Top 5 opponent, in which they quietly realize they have no hope of winning and in these situations, my/a team plays relaxed and loose because they have no expectations and thus no pressure. The crazy world inside our heads!
I reference our last two matches because we went from self generated pressure to perform and win, to ultimate confidence with an easy win just because of the perception of the opponent my team carried into the locker room before the match ever started. It was so striking in the physical effort and body language of my team, I mentioned it repeatedly in the 2-3 game break and after the match. I told my team it was great to see them diving after balls, going flat out and grinding to keep rallies alive, everybody in position taking care of their assignments and displaying the relaxed confidence of success. I contrasted that with our previous match, where we were watching balls drop to the floor, being out of position, not communicating, etc.
I closed my post match chat with telling them to play as if the opponent has no name on the uniform and you have never heard of their school before, because the effort and attitude (and I mean attitude in a positive, interactive way as opposed to in your face, poor sportsmanship so often glorified on ESPN).
Having pondered this situation this year, and since the spring season (I had/have a large number of returners), this is what I am trying to do:
1) Not be a cheerleader or a yeller, but rather be consistent in my emotions and feedback (tough to do) - Don't get me wrong, I will still jump them if I see them just coasting, but I am not constantly feeding them energy. We cannot be the day in and day out juice for the team - It will just wear us out and provide an emotional crutch for the team that will break during important moments. We have to be cognicent of when to give the team a little jolt of electricity to get them going, when to bring them down a little when they are too jacked up and when to just keep things moving focused and steady.
2) Demand the same execution level no matter if we are blowing away a team away or getting blown away; there is a certain way I want my team to play volleyball, emotionally and physically, and it is important that this level be sought no matter the opponent. Mistakes which I see by coaches, and I have/do make these also, is to be very 'coachy' when the game is tight or we are losing, but then to not coach or ride out the really easy win, even though the team is getting away with poor execution because the opponent is very bad. I make it point skill instruct during easy matches, just as a means to teach focus.
3) Be constant in what I want them to do - Like you, I want my team to be loose, play with passion and go all out; I must constantly tell them to do this, I must constantly reinforce what I want. It has to become the mantra of the program and it will eventually kick in; may not kick in this season, but if this is what I want, then it will eventually kick in. If you are consistent in your demands, then it becomes ingrained in their mentality. I used to question if my directions were really being heard, until I read quotes in the school newspaper from my players which were verbatim my talks to them - Either they were really good about parroting, or they digest what I say and adopt it.
4) Make sure what you are demanding in matches, is also what you are demanding in practice. This is one area which I need to upgrade in my team - We tend to be businesslike/routine in our practice environment (possibly due to too much time training for college programs), but then I expect them to turn on a switch and play with positive enthusiasm which is not realistic. I need my team to be a bit more expressive with their positive emotions in practice - pushing each other in conditioning drills, celebrating good plays in scrimmages, complimenting each other during tough drills; I just want more positive energy, even if they are just gearing up for the practice. When I have watched elite level teams practice, they translate this positive practice energy into positive match energy.
In closing, the critical component is to be constant in your demands and personality. Eventually, they will do what you want them to do, but you have to be willing to be the river - Your constant force will eventually shape the environment.
Good luck and I am also trying to be that constant force with my program.