What Can Coaches Use Besides Punishment?

In my last blog A Word About the Use of Punishment in Youth Sport I wrote about some of the potential negative consequences of using punishment. Punishment from a sport psychology perspective is adding something an athlete perceives as negative or aversive (i.e., sprints, push-ups, yelling).

When I present the idea that coaches should use punishment sparingly, if at all, I get some concerned looks. Many coaches are fearful that if they can’t use punishment, then the athletes on their team will not pay attention, run amok, and all “you know what” will break out. This concerned look quickly leads to a raised hand, “Well, what do you suggest we do besides using punishment?”

So I’m posing this question to all the coaches out there who read this blog: What do you use to get athletes to pay attention, stop screwing around, teach a life lesson, reduce the likelihood the behavior will happen again, focus, or do something correctly that isn’t a punishment?

Leave your comment here. After people weigh in I will also offer some suggestions, but I want to hear your creative strategies.

4 Replies to “What Can Coaches Use Besides Punishment?”

  1. This does not directly address your question, but I would love to get your take… I recently asked some female high school coaches (in Bay Area, CA) about their coaching. Around the question of punishment, it was their contention that they have a repsonsibility to establish consequences for negative behavior and to ensure that their high standards were met. They also said that they believed athletes most often repond to negative consequences (such as, less playing time, added running etc.) – evidence of the myth that you debunk. The real kicker is that these coaches equate facing these consequences with their athletes being held accountable and thus, with teaching positive life skills. That is, they believe that punishment is in fact teaching their athletes positive life skills (such as accountability and responsibility). I think how these coaches understand positive life skills probably needs to be unpacked, but is their take on punishment just semantics or are these coaches making an important distinction? I should note that all of these coaches ascribe to positive coaching techniques (mostly from the PCA) in combination with “holding their athletes accountable.”


    1. I hear this same justification you describe all the time. I would argue though that “less playing time” is a response cost (take away a positive thing) and making an athlete run (add a negative) is an aversive punishment. A response cost can be effective, but overuse of aversive punishment is not. You bring up some interesting points that I agree, so need to be unpacked especially in light of coaching millennials. -nml


  2. I would say with young athletes you must keep them active to keep them engaged & focused so the responsibility is with the coach to be prepared. The coach must also adjust & be willing to change course of action if kids focus & attention is not there on a particular day. Coaches that fall back on negative punishment for athletes mistakes are taking an easy way out. The best coaches I have had were teachers.
    If an athlete makes a mistake examples rather than punishment would be 1). Stop an explain what is wrong & how we are going to fix it (then the athletes understand). 2). Use situational play, or a drill to teach the skill to the athletes. 3). You can have the athletes set a goal of how many times they can correctly execute the play & if they meet that goal reward them at the end of practice by letting them choose which drill or game to play. Teach & train the athletes so the mistake may not happen again (don’t punish them for it). And if the mistake does happen again teach the athletes to adapt and overcome because that is life.


  3. I think part of it depends on the age and maturity of the athletes you’re coaching. This last summer I worked with a team of 16-21 year olds, and a team of <15. For the older athletes, getting off track was pretty rare… so this was only one particular situation. I stopped everything and asked the individual what they wanted to get out of this practice. Asked them if they thought they were working towards that goal with the way they were acting, and reminded them that if they didn't want to be here, they didn't need to waste their time or the rest of the teams.

    Haha writing that makes me sound mean. But it did remind the athlete that practice time is to work, and that was all it took!


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