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Punishment in Coaching Part Three: Alternatives to Punishment

Posted on 4/9/2018

    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. His 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.