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

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