Exercise punishment can make young athletes stronger or tear them down

 In Coaches, Emotion, Junior Athletes & Parents

Research shows that using exercise punishment to motivate young athletes can impact them negatively, short and long term. The topic of punitive coaching is hot right now. In a recent blog, Conscious Coaching – Positive Impact or Negative Impact, I referenced research from Youth Athletes’ Interpretations of Punitive Coaching Practices by Battaglia, Kerr and Stirling (2016). I discuss how yelling and benching (ego coaching) causes kids to doubt themselves and more importantly, how their performance drops. Today I am going to elaborate on the third wheel of the punishment research – exercise as punishment.

The kind of coach you want to be

At the WTCA conference two weekends ago, I talked about conscious coaching (mastery coaching) which is making a mindful choice about the kind of coach you want to be for you and for the betterment of athletes. Do you want to be on the side of helping youth develop self-esteem or the side of tearing it down by using punishment?

As coaches we often stumble into coaching. We may have played the sport or just have a passion for it, but we rarely have a chance to think about the kind of coach we want to be versus the one we are naturally. The problem is that far too often coaches coach the way they were coached and that is often assumed to be the best coaching style. Parts of it might be, but parts of it might not be – such as exercise punishment, or yelling, or benching.

Ego coaching

Currently many of our coaches are Baby Boomers which means chances are good they grew up being yelled at, benched for not performing, and punished using additional exercise. Those forms of punishment not only influence a child’s self-esteem, but it makes them fearful and anxious. It is a form of punishment that impacts not only a child’s current sense of self but their future sense of self. These forms of punishment are a reflection of you as a coach and have huge lifelong implications on young athletes.

I’ve had coaches and parents think exercise punishment is the way to motivate kids. I would say otherwise and the research agrees. How then do you influence kids?

Conscious coaching

Another conversation I addressed at the WTCA Conference was – I want you to decide right now what kind of coach you want to be. Do you want to be the coach that just stumbles into it (and potentially does harm to the children you coach) or do you want to learn how to coach for mastery?
Mastery coaching includes emphasizing progress (versus winning), focusing on the moment (versus the outcome), and creating a positive, safe, and encouraging environment. It’s about getting to know the people you coach, supporting them, and having fun. Sports should be fun. This does not mean that kids don’t need to work hard but in informal research with clients, when asked what the conditions were before some of their best performances they said, I was having fun, talking to friends, and laughing. Winning and fun can coincide in the same environment.

The alternative to exercise punishment

First, adopt a mastery coaching perspective. Be a good role model and be direct, but use positive, detailed and timely feedback to increase desired behaviors. Demonstrate social and personal responsibility, empower them with decision making in their own training, and help them develop mutual respect.

The bottom line, it’s up to you. You have a choice. You can choose ego or mastery but make a conscious choice based on the facts, don’t just stumble in. The facts are, the old school style of coaching is (and always has been) seen as a form of abuse. It crushes self-esteem, leaves kids hating on you and the sport, and makes kids want to drop out. And, it follows children and athletes their entire lives.

Help kids love, appreciate, and have fun learning how to play their sport, how to master their sport, and the best way to win. Since part of that is fitness and exercise, use it to help them get stronger not tear them down.

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