Sunday, December 20, 2015


In past writings, I’ve asked everyone to look for the positive in youth sports. The point being, there is much more positive than negative, although the negative tends to get more attention. I apologize in advance for not following my own advice in this particular post, but there is something that worries me and I haven’t found a way to discuss it without being critical and a bit negative. So, I’ll be quick with it.

In a quest for perfect children, many parents, coaches, and teachers attribute a lack of competence to things outside the child's control, therefore maintaining the child’s belief that they are exceptional no matter how they perform. That's a bunch of gobblety-gook verbiage. What I really want to say is we make too many excuses for our children. Do we really want our children to believe they don't make mistakes?

It is extremely important that we acknowledge the things our children and athletes do well. Even when performing poorly, there are things the child is doing well. Enjoy them and celebrate them with your children and athletes. Coaches should explain what was done well and why it was considered good. When it comes to sub-standard performances, be honest, supportive and brief. Mention what part of the performance didn’t quite meet the desired outcome, but quickly change the focus to a solution. It’s as simple as this “Maybe you didn’t catch that fly ball, but don’t worry about it, we’ll work on it at the next practice. Pretty soon, no one will want to hit balls your way.” Or, don’t mention it at all following the game and structure upcoming practices to work on the weak area. Just don’t make excuses! If Sally doesn’t catch a fly ball it’s not because it was a night game and she wasn’t used to the effect of the moon’s gravitational forces on the ball’s flight. Missing the fly ball was due to circumstances under her control. She needs to know that, so she can make improvements, fix the problem and become a better ball player. If she’s told the reasons for missing the ball were outside of her control, she will assume she doesn’t need to change, that next time, she will catch the ball if those outside forces will just get out of her way.

If we always attribute poor performance to things outside the control of the athlete, we are robbing the athlete of some great opportunities. The desire to learn is highly motivational. If mistakes are always blamed on someone or something other than the student, the student will have no reason to learn (they’re already perfect). How can an athlete, student, employee, etc. learn the process of setting proper goals and goal attainment if the reasons for not reaching goals are always blamed on someone else? Sally might say “Why do I need to change my goals or training? If the moon hadn’t been out, I would have caught that ball.”

Here’s a point most people don’t think about, but is the most critical point to be made. By making excuses for poor performance, we rob our children of the opportunity to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with improving their skills. We take away the joy of becoming a better athlete, student, musician, etc. When Sally catches a fly ball in the next game, it should come with a sense of accomplishment and a celebration. If excuses were made for Sally, she didn’t believe missing the ball was her fault, and therefore, if she improves her skills and makes a catch, she might think “good thing the moon’s not out”, instead of “YES, I did it. If I get under the ball and keep my eyes on it, I can catch it. Just like coach told me.” Her first reaction attributes the catch to the changing of factors outside of her control and therefore, she feels no significant progress was made in her skill level. The second reaction is a celebration of improved skill and progress as an athlete. Both are reactions to her catching the ball, but they are very different due to feedback she received from her previous experiences. This example is a bit of an exaggeration, but it speaks to a by-product of excuses that most of us never think about. If every time a child performs we tell them they are excellent, no matter the outcome, and if we blame an obviously poor outcome on factors outside the control of the child, how will they know when they’ve improved? According to what we tell them, they are always excellent.

We must find and celebrate excellence in our children and we will if we look for it. We must also be real when it comes to performances that are less than expected. There are many great learning opportunities on the road from novice to expert. Learning to celebrate excellence is one of those. So are overcoming obstacles and improving our weak areas. A large part of what our children learn will come from how the adults in their lives react to their performances. Should we show them how to use the situation as an opportunity to improve and celebrate that improvement, or should we make excuses? Can we ask our children to be honest if we, ourselves bend the truth? Don’t fabricate greatness. Greatness will come with time. Success is relative to a person’s current goals and past performances. Focus your attention on success and excellence will follow. Doing so can make every game or performance a positive experience with honest feedback.

We can’t skew the meaning of excellence in our children’s minds. We must keep excellence real. Then, it will have meaning.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


As parents, we hope our children will be blessed with adult role models that reinforce the values we are teaching at home.  A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Fred Bradley, a professor at Kansas State University.  This meeting quickly highlighted something I knew, but didn't think about much.  The importance of good role models doesn't lessen as our children reach adulthood.

My daughter, who at the time was earning a master's degree in school counseling, asked me if I'd like to sit in on one of her classes.  Her professor was a former gymnast and judge and had mentioned that he'd enjoy having me attend a class.  I accepted her offer and I'm glad I did, glad as a coach and glad as a parent.  I came away from that class with an appreciation for Dr. Bradley’s teaching skills, but more importantly I was fortunate to witness a man who loved what he was doing, loved his students and was passionate about helping them succeed in their futures. 
It wasn’t news that Dr. Bradley was in his last semester in the classroom.  I believe he was in his seventies and was stepping out of the classroom and cutting his workload to handling internships, interns and their mentors in schools all around northeast Kansas.  At one point in the class, as he made reference to the changes he was getting ready to face, he stopped to control his emotions.  Although he could be happy and content with what he had accomplished, knowing something he loved was coming to an end was causing heartache.  I felt bad for him, but at the same time I was happy for him.

My daughter did her internship under the tutelage of Tara, a former student of Dr. Bradley’s.  She was a wonderful mentor for Amber (something I believe Dr. Bradley sensed when he paired them together).  Following the graduation ceremony four generations of our family went to dinner to celebrate.  During dinner, Dr. Bradley came through the door to see Amber and to meet her family.  He and his wife and Tara and her husband made the trip to Wichita for Amber’s wedding.  They stayed for the reception and dance.  With hundreds of guests, Amber didn’t get to spend much time with them, but she was so happy they were there.  Just having them there meant something to her.
I found a little time to sit with them and wished I had had more time to talk to all of them.  It’s rare to find a person as passionate and dedicated to what he does as is Dr. Bradley.  Actually, dedicated isn’t the best choice of words.  Being dedicated seems to imply an unusual amount of effort and perseverance.  While Dr. Bradley certainly has both of those qualities, it seemed as if he was oblivious to their existence.  He loved doing what he was doing so much that I don’t believe he thought about it being hard or requiring extra effort and perseverance.  What he did made him happy, it wasn’t work.  That is perhaps the best lesson his students could have learned from him.

That first night I met Dr. Bradley I had a chance to talk to him during the break in class.  He told me Amber would graduate soon, but that she would always be his student.  How true that statement was.  Dr. Bradley had an influence on Tara.  Both Dr. Bradley and Tara influenced Amber, who in turn influences the students at her school where she is the counselor.  This drives home the point that wherever we are in our lives we should look for good role models to follow while at the same time being a good role model ourselves.  We should appreciate those we are receiving from while passionately serving those we are giving to.  Considering that Dr. Bradley has taught thousands of students while at K-State you will get a feel for the enormity of the layers upon layers of role models triggered by the passion of one person who loves what he does.  I hope, in our own little piece of the world, that we all try to be that one person.


When you spend a lot of time coaching or teaching kids, you are bound to see cheating. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, given enough time, it will happen. So, as educators, what do we do when we see our athletes cheating? A few days ago I had the opportunity to make that decision.

During conditioning, I watched one of my gymnasts perform 3 to 4 rep’s less than asked for at several consecutive stations. Not sure if what I thought I saw was really what was happening, I watched for a few minutes. It was true. She was holding back, cheating, lying, call it what you want.

My first reaction was to use this as a lesson for the entire team. I was going to send this gymnast home from practice because she had cheated on her conditioning. She would be allowed to return to practice the next day. I would tell her and her teammates of my decision during our line-up prior to separating into groups and going to events. The other girls would learn from her transgression. I would make my point that cheating was not allowed in my gym and would not be tolerated.

Then, thankfully, that little bit of time between the end of conditioning and when the girls had lined up was enough to let me clear my mind and come to my senses. Humiliation was not allowed in my gym either. Nothing would be gained by making an example of this young, talented gymnast. There was nothing good about what she had done, but maybe there would be something gained by the way we handled the situation.

When the girls broke their line and headed to the events, I called this gymnast over to me and told her what I had seen. She didn’t deny it. I quietly asked her to sit out for 5 to 10 minutes and think of a reason why she still wanted to be on this team and why her teammates and coaches should allow her to stay. She would be allowed to return to practice after telling me her reason. When she came to me later, fighting back tears, I was expecting to hear “I won’t cheat on my conditioning anymore.” This gymnast was nine years old and I would have accepted that answer. But, I was hoping for more and she gave it to me. “I want to stay on the team because I like being here. It’s fun. My friends are here and this is what I like to do” she said. To which I replied “That’s a good answer. That’s the best answer you could have given.” Damp eyes and a happy smile were her way of saying “I get it.”

There was nothing mind blowing about this episode. These things happen every day in gyms all over the world. A young gymnast was reminded that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and an experienced coach was reminded of the same.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Punishment in Coaching Part Two: How Punishment Effects Motivation and Learning

                In part one of this series I hopefully made the point that punishment has no place in sports.  If a poor behavior can be corrected with education and learning or if there are better alternative solutions than punishment then punishment is a poor choice.
                Perhaps the greatest ill-effect punishment has on an athlete’s motivation and ability to learn is the toll it takes on the coach/athlete relationship.  No one enjoys being punished.  The person giving out the punishment is tied closely to that feeling.  Earning trust and respect takes time.  Either can be easily lost with one misdeed.  Our efforts as coaches should be as a guide, someone supporting the goals of the athlete.  Punishing our athletes will slide us a little more toward an antagonistic relationship with them rather than a supporting relationship. 
                Please don’t misunderstand me.  We don’t have to pretend to be happy when misbehavior disappoints us.  We don’t have to hide our disappointment.  Disappointment is an honest emotion.  It is okay for an athlete to know her poor choices have disappointed her coach.  What’s critical is how the coach reacts to that disappointment. 
If a coach reacts to disappointment with thought they will realize the poor choices made by athletes are mistakes.  We should all learn from our mistakes, doing so helps decrease the chances of making the same mistake again.  In part one of this series I stated “Our society punishes to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.”  It appears as if education and punishment share a common goal, decreasing the likelihood that a poor behavior or mistake will be repeated.  If disappointment and thought are the reactions to misbehavior or poor performance then education will most likely be the solution to the problem.
What if misbehavior or poor performance stirs other emotions in the coach?  We all recognize anger when we see it.  Anger doesn’t move around incognito, its presence is obvious.  Let me say this before going on; if the emotion stirred in a coach following a poor performance by an athlete or team is anger, the coach needs to quit coaching until they get to the bottom of their personal psychological issues.  The coach who feels angry following a poor performance by his team or by one of his athletes is not coaching for the benefit of the athlete or the team.  This coach has allowed their ego to play too large a role in their reasoning to coach.  A coach who reacts to disappointment with anger will more likely use punishment to solve the problem than a coach who reacts with thought. 
An angry, ego involved coach will dish out punishment as revenge for damaging their ego, making them look bad in front of someone they wanted to impress, dropping in the standings or slowing progress toward reaching a goal their ego helped them set.  How is the coach/athlete relationship affected by a coach who seeks revenge on his players for making poor choices or playing poorly?  In the original Karate Kid movie Mr. Miyage asked Daniel why he wanted to learn karate.  Daniel, who had been getting beat up by boys from the local karate dojo, answered “how’s revenge sound.”  Mr. Miyage replied with sound advice “you look revenge that way, start by digging two graves.”  His point was this; the first act of revenge can start a dangerous cycle that damages all involved in the struggle.  In our case that struggle would be between the coach and athlete.  If a coach and athlete are to struggle, they should struggle together to reach their goals.  Struggling against each other will cause both to fail.
                The use of punishment decreases motivation and slows learning in other, subtle ways.  A couple of examples may help increase awareness of the more subtle downfalls of using punishment.  Keep in mind the point I made in part one, if the athlete PERCEIVES they are being penalized for their actions, you have a punishment component in play.  A coach may believe they are teaching and trying to help an athlete improve, while at the same time the athlete feels the coach is punishing them.  As coaches, we must always work to improve our ability to read our athletes so we can see our actions from their perspective.

Example #1: 

·         A gymnast is told by her coach “each time you don’t stick your landing you have to do 20 sit-ups.”

o   Will the gymnast put more effort into sticking her landings?  Probably (temporary gain from punishment, The Coaching Trap)

o   Will the gymnast try to avoid the skill she is struggling to stick?  Most likely, because we try to avoid punishment and every turn that isn’t stuck receives punishment.  By taking fewer turns she decreases the chance of being punished.

o   Will the gymnast avoid doing sit-ups in the future?  Most definitely, because she will see them as punishment and punishment is to be avoided.

·         There are two negatives coming out of this situation.

o   While the coach is hoping to decrease steps on landings, she may decrease the number of turns the gymnast takes, removing opportunities to improve.

o   In an attempt to decrease the likelihood of a poor performance, the coach has presented what could be a positive exercise (sit-ups) as punishment.  Remember, we try to avoid punishment.  So, this gymnast will try to avoid sit-ups in the future because she sees them as a negative rather than a positive.

o   If strength and conditioning is an important ingredient in an athlete’s success then it must not be perceived as punishment.  If strength and conditioning exercises are assigned because of poor performance or lack of effort, they will be perceived as punishment.

Example #2:

·         A basketball coach is disappointed in his team’s free throw shooting in games, so he tells his team “every time one of you misses a free throw in a game each of you will shoot 50 extra free throws after the next practice.”

o   How will the players perceive the extra free throws, as punishment or extra practice?  Remember, they were assigned because of poor performance.

o   Jimmy got in the game long enough to shoot one free throw, which he missed.  Johnny played most of the game and made all 7 of his free throws.  How is Johnny going to feel about the 50 extra free throws assigned?  How is Jimmy going to feel about his short contribution in the game?  He didn’t get the point for the free throw he missed and he caused all of his teammates to stay after practice to shoot 50 free throws each.

§  Punishing an entire team for the actions of one teammate is most often a no-no for developing a positive team culture.  Remember, no one likes being punished and that feeling is transferred to the person delivering the punishment.  In this case, that person is a teammate (even though it was a gutless coach who assigned the punishment and then pinned it on the shoulders of the player).

o   Instead of using conditioning as punishment, this coach is using the skill that needs improved as punishment.  Something about that just doesn’t seem right.

Often the actions of a coach following misbehavior are based on the options the coach feels are available, options the coach is comfortable using.  Because punishment seems to be an easy and available option it gets used more than it should.  With experience the number of options a coach is comfortable using will increase and more tools for dealing with misbehavior and the disappointment it causes will be developed.  Part three of this series will deal with alternatives to punishment.  The goal is to help you be pro-active in filling your “toolbox” with the most appropriate tools to use to fix misbehavior and poor performance.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Punishment in Coaching

          As my coaching career nears the forty year mark I can honestly say I’ve seen plenty of punishment dealt to athletes.  I can also say I’ve seen a drastic increase in the education of coaches in alternatives to punishment over that time.  It’s been approximately 100 years since Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell (that’s 700 dog years).  Classic conditioning and reward/punishment methods still play a role in motivation.  But, just as the caveman found objects moved easier when you attached them to round rolling things, we have found many alternatives to punishment that are more effective for teaching and motivating than the cavemanish reward/punishment model.   So, why do so many coaches still use punishment as a primary tool in teaching?
          My first answer to this question is that most coaches begin their career coaching the way they were coached.  Punishment will never go away, but it is decreasing in use as more generations of coaches use better alternatives, influencing future generations of coaches.  My second answer is coaches find that punishment can produce the results they want in the short term.  This is a classic coaching trap.  The success we see in the short term blinds us to the long term consequences of our methods.
          Before we go much further, let’s get a clear understanding of what punishment is.  The Encarta Dictionary describes punishment as “a penalty that is imposed on somebody for wrongdoing.”  This seems like a broad definition showing punishment not to be a black and white concept, but one that has some grey areas.  And, this is true.  What eliminates much of the grey area is the word PENALTY.  To be more specific, it doesn’t matter whether an athlete is receiving a true penalty or not.  What matters is that they PERCEIVE they are being penalized.  If an athlete believes they are being penalized for something they’ve done (or not done) they will most likely feel as though they are being punished.  This is a key point for coaches to understand. 
          For example, an athlete performs a skill with less than satisfactory results in the coaches eyes, so the coach asks him to perform the skill five more times.  The coach may believe he is helping the athlete improve by asking for more repetition.  The athlete may feel like the five extra turns are a penalty (punishment) for not performing the skill properly.  For every action we take as coaches we must ask “what does the athlete PERCEIVE the purpose of this action to be?”
          What is the purpose of using punishment?  Our society punishes to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.  If you cut off the hands of a thief you will drastically decrease the chances of him stealing again.  If you sit an athlete out of practice for performing poorly, you will eliminate any chance of them performing poorly (while they are sitting out).  You will also eliminate most of the opportunities available for them to improve their performance (because they are sitting out).
          When is it appropriate to use punishment?  Because there are so many better alternatives, it is almost never appropriate to use punishment.  NEVER PUNISH AN ATHLETE FOR POOR PERFORMANCE.  There may be instances where punishment is an appropriate response to misbehavior, but you have to consider two things before choosing punishment.  First, is the behavior really misbehavior or is it something else.  For example, if an athlete isn’t listening to their coach is that misbehavior?  Listening is a skill.  Skills improve with education and practice.  Should we punish our athletes for not listening or should we teach them how to be better listeners?  I choose the second option.  There are few life skills more important than that one.  If the behavior can be corrected with education and practice then punishment is a poor choice.  Second, we must ensure the punishment we choose is appropriate and weigh that punishment against any alternative actions.  If better alternatives exist then punishment is a poor choice.
          Understanding punishment at its root level is pretty simple.  The greatest downfall of using punishment is its effect on education and motivation.  Those topics will be covered in part two of this series.

Punishment in Coaching Part Two:  How Does Punishment Effect Learning and Motivation?
Punishment in Coaching Part Three:  Alternatives to Using Punishment

Monday, July 6, 2015


   Most kids love to be active.  The opportunities available for today’s youth to be active are much different than they were just a couple generations earlier.  We hear all the time how thousands of TV stations, video games, etc. give young people too many sedentary choices to fill their time.  While I believe this to be true, it’s not the focus of this post, it does however reinforce the points I hope to make.
   Two generations ago was the tail end of the baby boom.  Most neighborhoods were filled with children.  There were ten houses on my side of the street where I grew up and most of the time I didn’t even need to cross the street to find other kids ready to play.  Pick-up games were common in our tiny front yards.  Games were adapted to the number of children on hand and whatever we chose to do.  3 on 3 basketball, 2 on 2 football, Frisbee bombardment, Frisbee football (a precursor to Ultimate Frisbee) a simple game of catch, hot-box, 300, 500, horse, pig, who could kick the longest field goal over the basketball goal.  These were the activities that filled our days.  We participated because the games were fun.  If a game wasn’t fun, we would adapt it to make it fun or stop playing and make up something else.
    After studying motivation in youth sports for over thirty years it’s easy for me to see how fortunate my generation was in regards to sports participation.  Motivation research overwhelmingly supports the belief that intrinsic motivation is the ultimate form of motivation.  Doing something because it’s fun, because you enjoy the activity, to challenge yourself, to complete tasks within the activity, to see improvement in yourself, these all fall under the umbrella of intrinsic motivation.  The flipside of intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation, doing something for social recognition, for money, to avoid punishment or disapproval, or just to win a trophy or medal.  My friends and I loved the games we played in our neighborhood.  Our primary motivational forces were intrinsic.
    Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is one of the most widely studied theories in sport and exercise motivation.  The basic concept of SDT is that we are most likely to be intrinsically motivated when three basic psychological needs are met.  These are:
   ·         Autonomy:  The perception of control we have over a situation.  The more we are involved in the decision making process the greater feeling of autonomy.
   ·         Competence:  Our perception of our abilities.
   ·         Relatedness:  A sense of belonging, to a team, to a group of people who enjoy the same activities, etc.
    In that one little block of houses on south Vine where I grew up, our psychological needs for intrinsic motivation were being met most of the time.  The kids had complete autonomy in developing their activities and choosing whether to participate or not.  We had an uncanny (and unknown) skill for enhancing our feeling of competence.  If the activity we developed turned out to be too hard, we modified it to make it more reasonable.  If the activity turned out to be too easy, we made it more challenging.  We had our own methods for handicapping to make up for various levels of skill among the kids participating.  We didn’t have to be told to do these things.  Doing these things is what kept the activities fun and challenging.  It was just logic.
    I will now, finally, get to the point of this post.  The children I grew up with had opportunities to play organized sports and we did, a few months of baseball in the spring and summer, a few months of football in the fall and a few months of basketball in the winter.  Doors were opened to other sports only after we reached high school.  Compare this to my Grandson’s generation where nearly all sports activities are organized and governed by a set of rules dictated by adults.  This isn’t a bad thing, but this slide toward organization by adults has eliminated some valuable experiences for our children.  Even with that, there are still many, many great things happening in the world of youth sports.  Most of these are enhanced by coaches, parents and league organizers who understand the benefits of an intrinsically motivated child. 
    The evolvement of youth sports into what it is today has created challenges for adults that were largely non-existent just two generations ago.  Because a certain amount of structure is necessary for an organization to create a level and fair playing field, a number of decisions that were made by children in “the sandlot days” are now being made by adults.  Adults who recognize this will make an effort to include their athletes in the decision making process whenever it is appropriate and when the children are capable of making the decisions logically.  Not only will this teach a valuable life skill (the decision making process), but it will increase the children’s perception of autonomy (a basic psychological need).
    It’s easy in organized sports for an individual to base their competence on how they compare to other participants.  This is a mistake.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win a game or a competition, but winning doesn’t give an accurate assessment of competence.  Competitions most often include individuals and teams with varying degrees of skill.  A greater skilled competitor could win a game while performing poorly.  A lesser skilled competitor could lose a game or match while performing at their highest level ever.  A good coach will create a motivational climate where success is based on comparison to past performances and current goals.  They will help the athlete determine a progressive set of goals, creating small stepping stones to success.  This string of small successes creates continual progress which develops a strong feeling of competence and leads to the accomplishment of long-term goals.
    More and more of today’s youth are choosing a single sport and focusing on it twelve months a year.  This specialization isn’t bad as long as a few things are kept in mind.  First, children should be exposed to many different activities at a young age.  If they fall in love with one sport and just can’t get enough of it then more time with that sport is a logical step.  If this eventually leads to specialization, that’s okay.  What’s important is that the child has followed a process of elimination to find the sport they love.  The opportunities can be created and presented by adults, but the decisions in the process should be made by the child. 
    Second, if your child is going to train with one organization twelve months a year, choose an organization with a cooperative style of leadership.  One where the child is involved in the decision making to the extent they are capable, one where guidance, communication and education in the sport are core beliefs vs. a dictator style “my way or the highway” belief system.  Children don’t learn much from a dictator style coach, except how to follow orders.  It’s preferable for your child to be part of an organization that teaches self-discipline (vs. forced discipline), decision making skills (vs. “do what I say”), the process for success (vs. win at any cost), sportsmanship, etc.  It sounds clich├ęd, but you should choose a program where proper life skills are taught alongside sports skills, because LIFE skills (good or bad) last a LIFETIME while sports skills only last as long as the person is participating in the sport.
    I’ve used a lot of words here to explain one simple point.  Children love to be active.  The challenge to all of us adults is to not mess that up.  If we can meet that challenge we will have happy, productive kids that reach adulthood with many great life skills and positive leadership models to follow.  It’s worth the effort to be that model.  Our legacy lives in the people we’ve touched in our lifetime and how those people use what they’ve learned from that relationship.