I know there are at least a few coaches out there holding onto punishment-based ideology. I mean, lets face it… our ego feeds off nothing more greedily than when someone crosses our instructions and we get to make them pay for it, right? I say jump, you say how high. It’s my way or the highway. You’re replaceable, I’m the boss. I keep order, discipline, and oh what was it that guy from Karate kid said all the time… that’s right, “Mercy is for the weak!” and “Sweep the leg!” He was super charming, right? Oh that’s right, they lost that tournament didn’t they?
I get it, I used to misplace discipline and respect into the category of how much I could get my athletes to do without questioning me, even if it was because they were afraid of the punishment. On the outside, it made people wonder how I got my athletes so in line all the time. But, mostly it just made me feel like a jerk and wish there was a better way. That is, until I figured out there is a MUCH better way!
So, I’m about to blow some holes in the “punishment works” argument. Stay with me for a minute for a few important points.
- Consequences are necessary, and a part of life. Punishment is different. A consequence is a natural and logical connected response to an action. If I don’t come to the practice before the game I’m not going to know the set ups we are running so it makes sense to not be a starter at that game. If I disrespect my teammates and break a team rule then it makes sense that I’m not going to be rewarded with a starting position at the next game, or a privilege that’s given to players who are meeting team expectations. But if a team isn’t paying attention while you’re talking, sending them off to run isn’t a natural related response. Running won’t directly help them pay attention (stop arguing, I know it can work short term). Punishment running creates a fear that if they don’t pay attention something unpleasant will happen. Follow me here… if fear is the go-to motivator with your team, then let’s say next practice you’re short on time. You’ve set up the precedent that fear of running creates paying attention. But you don’t have time to keep making them run and idle threats become a bit obvious after you’ve thrown it out there a few times. Now what? Your punishment technique is backfiring. You’re grouchy and they still aren’t paying attention. I guess that practice is just going to be a wash. Only alternative now is to cut the whole team and start over. Shoot.
- Why is the behavior happening? It’s very easy to get caught up in doling out punishments instead of reading the behavior and adjusting your approach. If they aren’t paying attention there may be distractions going on around you, you may be talking over their head, they can’t hear you, you’ve been droning on and on, they don’t feel connected to the information and you haven’t introduced it as having value so that they feel compelled to listen. Most coaches talk WAY TOO MUCH. You could almost make a point here that punishment is code for LAZY COACHING. Oh…snap.
- It’s a huge waste of time. 20 push-ups every time you drop the ball may make them more aware of their drops. But it also means they are going to continue poor mechanics that may help them catch at practice because correcting form is now secondary to completing the pass incorrectly. AND, if push-ups created some magical ball catching skill, then it wouldn’t be a punishment, it would be genius! I could understand running to the wall and doing 50 wall ball rebounds and then running back after a designated number of drops. Or perhaps a wall ball test at the end of the week for those struggling. Something that directly correlates to this issue. But again, have you checked their stick to see if the strings aren’t the issue? Have you grabbed your phone and filmed a slow-mo throw to see if there’s a mechanical hitch? Is it many people? Do you need to back up and correct some bad habits all around? Again, we are seeing that punishment is bypassing feedback that could make us more effective coaches. Punishment = Lazy. Coaching.
- Punishments put coaches on a pedestal. Coaching should be about building a trust with your athletes, so they know you are there to help them master skills, not putting up walls and separation. Who do we think we are anyway? We are coaches not rulers of the sport universe! (Thankfully, because I would royally screw up that universe!) Punishments create a fear of going 100% because they might mess up. Fear of speaking honestly if they know retaliation is certain. They create a fear of asking questions. They create a fear of trying hard. They create fear instead of excitement, love, internal motivation, and focus on the task at hand. For those of you still internally arguing with me that punishment works.. imagine your about to catch a ball and a snake is next to you. Every time you drop it the snake bites your ankle. So now when you go to catch the ball are you thinking about mechanics or the snake? EXACTLY.
So, what do we do instead? Because coaching without punishment isn’t code for: letting your team go amuck and saying oh well, I can’t punish them so I guess they can do whatever they want…
You don’t need fear to be effective. Quite the opposite. Create buy-in, create the choice to do what will make them better and help them connect with reasons they personally want this for themselves. Then reinforce it, praise it, and set them up to find success so they can’t wait to conquer the next milestone. Then remind them or better yet, ask them to remind you why they want to do what it takes to get better and how they plan to take action. Back up with them when they slip and help them navigate their way back on track and provide the tools. Let them help you set immediate short term goals and a large vivid big picture vision. Read cues in behavior to make adjustments to your coaching. Are you enthusiastic and excited? Are you getting hung up on the inevitable setbacks (weather, field space, attendance, illness and injuries, parents, referees) or are you looking past those at the possibilities? Are you direct and to the point when you speak. Do you let them attempt it more than you try to explain it? Do you allow mistakes and ask them to tell you how they could correct it themselves? Do you value their opinion, feedback, needs, and obstacles? Do you value and publicly recognize that you value every role on the team? Do your consequences help to correct the issue in the future? Because if not, it’s just a punishment in disguise.
This is the most effective one by far and one many coaches skip over. Kids want to please you. They want to get better. But they don’t have the self-discipline to make it happen all the time and they are easily distracted. Do you ask them how much effort they think they can give you when they slack off? Do you ask them to give more before you resort to yelling, insulting, or punishing? It is incredible how effective the simple act of pulling the team together and just asking them, can you give more than this right now? Why is that important? What’s a good goal for the next 20 minutes and what are we doing well right now that we can build on?
If you’re still sold on punishments then you may find yourself with fewer players every year, even if you’re winning. Kids don’t want to be humiliated into action, they want to conquer big things and then look over and see your proud face beaming a huge smile. They’ll do just about anything for that brief moment. But to avoid a punishment? They’ll do just enough to be safe, hide, or to avoid it… something to think about.