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.