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Coaching Mental Performance: Reinforcement and Punishment

After the season I always find it appropriate to challenge coaches to reflect on how their teams formed and performed throughout the season. Often with these reflections we get coaches that feel as if the team “lacked discipline in tight situations,” “weren’t mentally tough enough when it mattered” or “needed more focus during training”. When asked to dive into the situation further, we get reports of coaches trying to facilitate resilience and discipline through negative reinforcement or punishment. As a call back to the Neurosequential model for Sport and how the nervous system affects our athlete’s performance, we know that the name of the game is to increase our athlete’s tolerance to stress and help them consistently adapt to any given situation.

Resilience (mental toughness) is therefore built not through punishing the athlete to decrease the undesired behavior, but by speaking with them and training them to both deactivate themselves within the stress of the competitive environment and maintain a healthy level of nervous system activation throughout competition. Furthermore, discipline, although most often associated with being developed through punishment, can be better developed by taking a positive approach to reinforcement designed to strengthen desired behaviors, naturally discouraging unwanted behaviors in the process.

Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Negative reinforcement (avoiding or removing aversive stimuli to strengthen the desired behavior of avoiding/removing that stimuli) often looks like taking players that aren’t performing well out of drills, telling them to leave practice if they are not “adding to the gym”, switching groups or “waving” groups on errors during drills, etc. Punishment can either be “aversive” (the presentation of aversive stimuli with the effect of suppressing the behavior) or utilize a “response cost” (removal of something positive). Aversive Punishment often looks like making athletes run, coach-on-1 drills, and making players do certain exercises when they see a particular skill or behavioral error occur (letting the ball drop/not talking during warm-ups) before continuing practice. Response cost may be utilized to reinforce team rules such as taking away play time for missing practices or making athletes put equipment away for being late.

Aversive Punishment rarely has an upside, no matter how “easy” of a punishment it seems. John Wooden stated: When you punish your people for making a mistake or falling short of a goal, you create an environment of extreme caution, even fearfulness. In sports it’s similar to playing “not to lose” – a formula that often brings on defeat.”

Wooden’s words remind us that our goal is to facilitate athletes who are adaptive to stress and who perform freely and naturally within stressful conditions. Aversive Punishment promotes the fear of failure within athletes, which is motivational through the “agony of defeat,” and increases the likelihood of choking under pressure, the risk for injury, and decreases their level of enjoyment within the sport making them more likely to drop out. Ironically, punishing people when they fail increases the likelihood they will make the very mistakes they are trying to prevent and make them afraid of taking risks of any kind.

Alternatively, Response Cost Punishment may be used effectively, if sparingly, for instructional and disciplinary purposes to uphold team culture. It does not utilize the same fear tactics that aversive punishment does, and may actually increase the attractiveness of the reinforcer that is being taken away (i.e. play-time). It also does not model the abusive nature of aversive punishment and therefore has less of a chance of influencing abusive and aggressive inter-squad tendencies like aversive punishment does.

Choosing Effective Reinforcers

So, we’ve thought about how we want to motivate our athletes in ways that promote their autonomy, and facilitate resiliency and discipline. We now need to look at just how enticing the carrot at the end of the stick is for your athletes. In many cases, your ingenuity and sensitivity to the needs of your athletes through observation and/or interviewing your athletes are all you need to find effective reinforcers. Applause, verbal praise, smiles, physical contact such as a fist bump/high five, and sometimes gifts can all be effective reinforcers for your athletes. Consider asking your athletes if how you have been reinforcing their behaviors is effective as well as observing whether your reinforcement has affected their behavior in a positive manner

When utilizing verbal reinforcement, simple praise may not be enough. Often I find that adding specific descriptions of the desirable behavior can be added to help the athlete link your praise to their efforts. “Way to go/YES!/Nice Job, etc.” can be paired with, “use your right hand to get that touch on your right side,” or, “keep your weight forward while passing.”

Consider your effectiveness in strengthening desired behavior on A) finding a reinforcer that works for a particular athlete, B) making the occurrence of reinforcement dependent on performance of the desired behavior, and C) making sure the athlete understands why the reinforcement is being given. It can also be helpful for your athletes to have them try and teach you about the desired behavior to check for their understanding of the appropriate concepts!

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About the Author

Rob Samp is the Mental Performance Coach for MOD Volleyball, a JVA member club in Chicago, Illinois. He currently holds the title of LPC within the State of Illinois, utilizing EMDR and Brainspotting to work with complex PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety around Cook County, IL.  Samp has nearly a decade of coaching experience at the junior and collegiate level. He is grateful to be continuing his pursuit for facilitating performance excellence within MOD, as well as the universities around the Chicagoland area. Click here for Samp’s contact information and website.

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