In Coaching: Good/Bad/Unfair, Problems in Youth Sports

A lot of coaches regularly employ punishment as a “teaching” tool with their athletes and teams. If the team/athlete fails to execute well, makes a lot of mistakes or loses, the coach punishes them with more physically brutal practices, extra trainings and usually extra, long hard conditioning.

I’ve always been puzzled by coaches responding in this “old school” manner. What do they want their athletes to learn from their loss or mistakes? That if you screw up on “my team” there will be hell to pay? That losing is unacceptable? That fear of negative physical consequences will somehow miraculously motivate me and my teammates to perform better and not screw up under pressure?

So let’s look at exactly what athletes REALLY learn from these kinds of punishment consequences!

First, they learn to HATE PHYSICAL CONDITIONING! If you as a coach use hard training to “punish” your players for a job poorly done, then you will teach them to view hard conditioning as punishment. Me? I’ve always been the kind of athlete who sees hard conditioning as a privilege and your competitive edge. Why on earth would you as a coach ever want your athletes to hate gaining the edge over their opponents?

Second, when you punish your players for failing or executing poorly, you teach them to FEAR the negative consequences DURING play, a FUTURE focus which distracts them from concentrating on WHAT’S IMPORTANT: The moment by moment flow of the action in the NOW. If I am afraid that you as my coach will be pissed off if we screw up, then I am going to be much more vulnerable to focusing on you and your ANGRY, end-of-game consequences which will seriously distract me from the action. Furthermore, my fear from this FUTURE FOCUS is going to tighten me up physically, making it impossible for me to play loose and to my potential.

Third, if you as a coach use punishment for mistakes and losses, then you inadvertently teach your athletes to OVER-THINK during the competition. Thinking is hazardous to every athlete’s performance, whether I’m thinking about not screwing up, you being upset with us/me or the punishment to come later. Over-thinking will always put me in the wrong part of my brain, the part that is totally inept when it comes to athletic performance.

And finally, your punishment doesn’t help me CORRECT THE MISTAKES THAT I MIGHT HAVE MADE! You getting furious does absolutely nothing for me in helping me really learn what I did wrong and what I need to do differently next time. When your athletes screw up, this is a teaching opportunity for you, NOT a punishment opportunity. You want to teach your athletes to play loose and relaxed, knowing that mistakes are a NORMAL part of the learning process. If you drag out the punishment every time I screw up, then you’re also going to teach me that making mistakes and failing is a REALLY BAD thing, something to be avoided at all costs! This “lesson” will sabotage my performance every time!

So be as demanding of excellence as you want. Teach your athletes to regularly push their envelope and embrace hard work. But change your relationship with punishment for mistakes and failures. NO ATHLETE EVER GOES OUT AND PERFORMS LIKE CRAP ON PURPOSE! Teach them what they did wrong, what they need to do differently next time, and do it without you getting royally pissed off and punishing them!


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