Push-ups for Punishment in Youth Sport = Bad Idea

At an American Development Model USA Hockey Symposium I recently attended, Bob Mancini (ADM Regional Manager) said:

“Push-ups for missing the net is the worst thing we’ve ever done for hockey”

I have written previously on why punishment in youth sport is a terrible idea based on sport psychology evidence. Two of the reasons included were punishing kids for not completing a skill correctly can make them fear failure and the punishment doesn’t help them learn improve the skill they are being punished for misexecution.

Making mistakes is how we learn. No one executes a skill perfectly every time. We make attempts, hopefully get constructive feedback, learn from errors, make adjustments and try again.

When Bob made his statement, I agreed with him. I asked him why he felt that way and he replied because kids today don’t know how to shoot because many coaches use the “push-ups for punishment” for not shooting on net. Instead of aiming for  holes or upper corners (more difficult and likely to result in a shot high or wide and not putting the puck on net, but more likely to result in a goal!), kids will shoot the puck safely  “on net” right at the goalie to avoid push-ups.  The result is “successful” shots on net but no long term shooting skill development….and probably  less goal scoring during competition.

Many coaches reproduce this practice without thinking about why.  In coach education workshops I ask coaches to think about “the why” in everything they do. Does this help my kids develop the skills they need to 1. optimally perform, 2. develop skills, or 3. have fun and enjoy their sport? If the answer is “NO” to all three things, then it shouldn’t be done.

When I suggest coaches not use physical activities for punishment I often get push-back (pun intended). The question is: What do I do instead? In the case we are talking about here, instead of push-ups for shots not on net I would simply pull the kid aside, give him/her constructive feedback to help them get the shot on net in the future, and let them get back in the drill to make another attempt.

Last point on physical activity as punishment: If we want kids to value and enjoy physical activity for a lifetime, we shouldn’t teach them that physical activity is a punishment.

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.

A Word About the Use of Punishment in Youth Sport

I get many calls and questions from coaches about the use of punishment in youth sport. Punishment from a sport psychology perspective is adding something an athlete perceives as negative or aversive.

Examples of commonly used punishments yelling, exercise including push-ups & running, and sitting on the bench (adding bench time).

Punishing mistakes is not an effective way to shape behavior, teach life skills (i.e., being on time, listening, focusing attention when the coach is talking) or develop skill. Researchers have proven that positive approach to coaching involves strengthening desired behaviors by recognizing them when they occur and giving information about training and instructions that helps an athletes improve or do it differently is the most effective way to communicate.  A “negative approach” to coaching involves attempts to eliminate a behavior based on criticism and the use of punishment. While punishment can help eliminate an undesired behavior in the short term, it does little for teaching skills that develop over time.

Punishment also has a number of potential negative consequences including:

  • Fear of failure
  • Increases likelihood of choking because athlete is thinking more about mistakes than on what needs to happen to perform well
  • Creates stress and anxiety, especially because it is usually done in front of peer teammates
  • Creates an unpleasant social and learning environment
  • Cohesion is built on hatred of coach
  • Undermines coach-athlete relationship and erodes coach as a positive role model that young athletes look up to and admire
  • Inappropriate modeling (Do we want youngsters to yell and scream at others when mistakes are made?)
  • Embarrassment
  • Resentment
  • Hostility
  • Decreased enjoyment
  • Increased likelihood for drop out
  • Conveys the wrong message about exercise as an enjoyable activity