Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Punishment in Coaching Part Three: Alternatives to Punishment

In the classes I teach at Wichita State University we discuss why athlete’s dropout of sports.  What I hear from my students, who are mostly former and current athletes, is their love of a sport or decision to drop out of a sport was largely affected by the behavior of a coach.  Losing passion for a sport was often tied to spiteful or revengeful punishment by a coach.  Here are comments I get in regard to this type of coaching: 
“He took the fun out of the game.”            
“I no longer had the desire to play.”
“She ruined my love of the sport.”
                  How do we avoid having our athletes say these things about us?  My simple, honest answer to this question is; DON’T USE PUNISHMENT AS A COACHING TOOL.  Don’t get me wrong.  Coaches need to have rules and breaking those rules will have consequences, but we need to understand the difference between goals and rules.  Catching every pass thrown in a football game may be the goal of a receiver and his coach, but it isn’t a rule.  Being on time for departure to out of town games is a typical rule for sports teams.  A coach has several choices for how to deal with a receiver who drops a pass.  Punishment should not be one of those choices.  How we deal with an athlete who is late for departure to an out of town trip is another matter, which brings me to this primary question.  What alternatives to punishment are available to coaches, teachers, and parents?
EDUCATION – We should always, always, always consider education before using any form of punishment.  If an athlete, student, son or daughter feel as though they’re being penalized for something they’ve done, there is a punishment component in play.  Whoever is dishing out this penalty will likely have an antagonistic relationship with the person receiving it.  On the other hand, if a coach, teacher or parent helps this person understand what they did wrong, why it was wrong, and then helps the person avoid making the same mistake again, they will have created a supportive relationship. 
An outfielder who drops three fly-balls in a row isn’t in need of someone to berate him in front of his teammates.  He isn’t in need of running laps or stadium steps.  He is in need of someone to help him catch fly-balls.  Poor performance is an opportunity to teach.  So is misbehavior, particularly with children, but also with adults.  The process of What, Why & How; what was wrong, why it was wrong, and how you can avoid doing it again, is applicable to all ages.
Perhaps the best use of education was highlighted by Benjamin Franklin when he wrote “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Coaches, teachers and parents are educators.  Teaching our athletes, students, sons and daughters right from wrong will decrease misbehavior and open a channel of communication that can be used when misbehavior does occur.  Creating sound educational systems for teaching sports skills and strategies will decrease the likelihood of performance errors and mental mistakes by our athletes.  As you can see, there are some great benefits from being a proactive educator rather than a reactive educator.  John Wooden and Phil Jackson are considered to be two of the best basketball coaches of all time.  Both of these coaches are known for doing relatively little coaching during games compared to their colleagues.  By being proactive educators they were able to trust their athletes to make good decisions and perform competently.
Education doesn’t stop with our athletes, it involves ourselves.  Most of the time the choice to use punishment is a reaction to frustration.  If we are frustrated with how our athletes perform, and we are responsible for training our athletes, aren’t we really frustrated with ourselves?  Of course we are.  When we recognize our own frustration, the first questions we should ask ourselves are these: 
“What have I done, or not done, that caused this frustration?”
“What can I do to keep it from happening again?”
NATURAL CONSEQUENCES – The athlete who is late and misses the bus for an out of town trip has missed the opportunity to make the trip and compete with the team.  This is the natural consequence associated with his poor choice or behavior.  Punishment is described as the infliction of a penalty as retribution for an offense.  In this case, the rule was “be on time for team trips”.  The consequence for breaking the rule was not making the trip.  This natural consequence could be considered self-inflicted punishment.  The coach wrote the rule and stated the penalty for breaking the rule, but it was the athlete’s choice or behavior that caused him to be late.  When he chose to break the rule, he chose to inflict the penalty upon himself.  This an example of how the use of natural consequences, in place of punishment, helps decrease the damage to the coach/athlete relationship. 
When writing rules, keep natural consequences in mind.  Let them be the penalty for breaking a rule whenever possible and use them as a catalyst to start a conversation concerning what was wrong, why it was wrong and how it can be avoided in the future.  For example, the coach of the late athlete could say to him “We really missed having you at the game.  Tell me why you missed the bus.”  If he gets the typical answer of “my alarm didn’t go off” he can ask the athlete what he will do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.  The athlete may say he’ll buy a new alarm, set two alarms, have his parents set their alarm, or have a teammate call him to ensure he’s on time.  This process is educational and will likely contribute to the athlete developing skills that will benefit him for a lifetime.
Athletes are bombarded with natural consequences.  If a shortstop makes a bad throw to first base, the runner will likely be safe and may advance to second base.  A distance runner who begins a race with too fast a pace will likely face greater than normal levels of fatigue at the end of the race.  One of the reasons a coach should never punish poor performance is that the athlete is already experiencing the natural consequences of their performance.  As educators, we should let those natural consequences suffice and focus our efforts on education.
IGNORING A BEHAVIOR – Sometimes ignoring a poor performance or bad behavior is the best solution.  You may think I’m crazy for saying this, but remember I said “sometimes”.  An isolated poor performance that is not part of a pattern of poor performances should be noted by a coach, but doesn’t always need a reaction from the coach.  If you’ve never seen this mistake before and you don’t believe you’ll see it again, don’t worry about it.  If it happens again, then address it. 
            Resolution of a problem caused by an athlete’s bad behavior involves the athlete recognizing the behavior was wrong, apologizing when necessary, and doing everything possible to fix the damage or harm caused by the misbehavior.  This process of recognizing, apologizing and repairing may need to be lead by a coach or parent.  But it’s possible the doer of the misdeed will recognize their mistake and follow the process on their own.  In these cases, your involvement may not be necessary.  This depends on the magnitude of the misdeed and the harm it caused.  These situations create an opportunity to reinforce what the athlete has already learned.  Let them know you saw what they did, verify that they understand their behavior was wrong, tell them you appreciate how they handled the situation, and verify that they don’t plan on repeating the misdeed.  This reinforcement may be particularly important for children and adolescents and is a great tool in teaching self-discipline skills.
ACCOUNTABILITY – Punishment is often dealt out under the auspices of accountability.  For many people, holding someone accountable for their actions creates thoughts of punishment.  Being accountable for your actions simply means you are responsible for the consequences of those actions.  Good or bad, you experience the natural consequences of your actions.  My point is this, punishment and accountability are two very distinct things.  We can’t use accountability to justify the use of punishment.  However, accountability does justify the process of recognizing, apologizing for, and repairing harm done by our misdeeds.   
ALTERNATIVES TO EXAMPLES IN PART TWO OF THIS SERIES – In part two of this series I gave an example of a coach who told her gymnast she must do 20 push-ups every time she didn’t stick a landing (landing without taking a step).  Here are some alternatives this coach should consider. 
First, teach the proper technique for sticking landings.  Landing without steps involves controlling momentum and balance.  This will vary from skill to skill.  The coach should watch closely to correct technical errors on landings just as they do to correct technical errors within the skill.  As the errors decrease, the landings will improve.  Celebrate that improvement.
In gymnastics more steps on a landing means more deductions from your score.  To get a clear picture of this gymnast’s landing prowess, the coach should monitor how many times she sticks her landings, how many times she lands with one step, two steps, etc.  Then the coach and gymnast should set goals based on improving those numbers.  From a motivational standpoint, many small goals are preferable to one large goal.  They should celebrate each time a goal is accomplished and move on to the next goal.  If goals aren’t being met, they need to analyze why.  Maybe the goal is unreasonable or maybe what they’re doing to accomplish the goal isn’t working.  In either case, adjustments should be made, but what’s important is that their relationship is supportive rather than antagonistic.
                  The second example I gave in part two was a basketball coach who required each player to shoot 50 free throws for every free throw missed by any player during a game.  In this scenario, Bob got in a game long enough to shoot one free throw, which he missed.  Johnny played a lot of minutes and made all seven of his free-throws. 
                  The natural consequence in this scenario is that the team didn’t get the point for Bob’s missed free throw.  That’s it.  No one was injured.  No one lost their job.  It was not a life threatening situation.  The team simply missed an opportunity to score one point in one game.  The real damage caused by the missed free throw was due to the coach’s use of punishment.  Penalizing all players based on the performance of one player will impact the team’s culture in a negative way. 
                  In this case, the coach’s motivation to inflict a penalty has very little to do with the team’s actual free throw shooting in the game.  It is a pre-meditated penalty resulting from the coach’s frustration.  Bob may be the best free throw shooter on the team and just happened to miss his free throw.  Johnny may be the weakest shooter on the team and just happened to have a good day.  What if the team made 19 free throws and Bob’s was the only miss?  That’s a 95% accuracy rate, something any basketball coach should be celebrating.  None of that information is factored into this coach’s methods.
                  The coaching staff and players should establish a progressive set of goals, preferably beginning in the pre-season.  These should include goals for individual players and team goals.  All players and coaches share accountability in the pursuit of team goals.  They succeed or fail as a group.  This creates opportunities to rally around a weak free throw shooter, encourage a strong shooter who may be in a slump, and celebrate improvement by an individual or by the team as a whole.  This is TEAMWORK and an important part of a team’s culture.  It encourages the team to find a solution to their goal discrepancy.  If the team goal was met in the scenario given, then Bob’s missed free throw can be ignored. 

                  Punishment is most often a coach, teacher, or parent’s knee-jerk reaction to frustration.  If we can learn to recognize our frustration and stop ourselves from dishing out punishment, we will avoid the negative consequences that are likely to result from that punishment.

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.

Added 3/30/22  
In the fall of 2020 this gymnast became a member of the University of Missouri gymnastics team.  In the classes I teach at Wichita State University (Coaching Principles and Motivation) I often here from students that they quit a sport due to a coach whose methods included humiliation and punishment.  I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone with my first reaction to this girl's cheating and made an example of her in front of the entire team.  Our relationship would have weakened to a point where she may have quit and would not now be enjoying her team and career at Mizzou.  I'll never know for sure, but I'm glad I had time to think and act with thought rather than (over) react with frustration.

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