As I was working with an athlete last month, I was saddened to hear that coaches are still punishing their athletes for performance mistakes. I was sad because every athlete that I work with has a negative response from this type of punishment. Yes, I said every. Not one of these athletes learn anything positive from punishment.
Most of these athletes are made to climb the rope or hold handstands against the wall for extended periods of time. Others must repeat the skill 20 times before they may more on and then there are some athletes that have 20 (enter conditioning skill here) for every mistake they make. Meaning that sometimes these athletes have 12 rope climbs a practice. They spend hours trying to make 20 of the skill while becoming more tired, stressed, and worried. Or they have over 500 of a conditioning skill added to their normal conditioning routines.
Punishment doesn’t work!
What lesson does the athlete learn if they must climb the rope when they fall on a bar routine? They learn that mistakes are bad, conditioning is bad, rope climbs are bad, they start to stress about making mistakes, that leads to performing carefully, which usually leads to more mistakes. That eventually leads to more rope climbs. So again, what did the athlete learn?
If the athlete fell on a skill, wouldn’t it be more efficient to figure out why, and work on fixing it?
If a gymnast fell on a cast handstand because they arched their back, sending them up the rope won’t help them to keep their back hollow. Teach the gymnast how to “fix” their mistake. Show the athlete the correct body shape, making sure they understand what is needed in the skill and they are strong enough to perform the skill in the correct body shape, and work with the athlete to help them feel confident attempting the skill aggressively seems like a better way to teach a lesson.
If the gymnast makes a mistake because they aren’t strong enough to perform the skill, the “fix” may be to adjust their conditioning program, yet punishing them with conditioning will only make them resent conditioning. If they are not strong enough to perform their skills, they will need to condition often. It will not be a punishment or a consequence, but should be a normal part of their training.
If a cheer stunt group falls during a competition, making them perform the skill 20 times before the next practice will only work if they “fix” what went wrong. If the base had the wrong grip, make sure she knows the right grip and make sure on the next try she fixes it. If the flyer bent her leg, make sure she locks it out.
If the stunt group makes 20 but fall on 50, they did more wrong then right. What did they learn?
When an athlete is punished for performance, they tend to worry about “not being punished” instead of focusing on “how to hit”. They stress about not wanting to climb the rope or do extra conditioning instead of what they can do to fix their mistake. When an athlete makes a mistake, ask why it happened, then “fix” it.
Do they need more drills?
Do they need more conditioning?
Do they need more mental training?
Do they need a different skill?
Coaches sometimes use punishment as a way to motivate their athletes, or have them practice under pressure. Having the athlete do 25 pull-ups every time they make a mistake will put them in a pressure situation. Pressure situations are an essential part of training, however the purpose of pressure situations is to train the athlete to perform with confidence under pressure, not to make them panic, stress, or perform carefully.
These pressure situations still should not use punishment.
Pressure situations use consequences, which means the result of an action.
1 fall=25 pull-ups.
If your athlete isn’t consistent, that consequence is too harsh. The pressure situation must teach the athlete to handle pressure and stress, the consequence must be appropriate for the athlete. If the athlete doesn’t handle pressure well, start with a small consequence;
1 fall= 5 pull-ups.
When the athlete has their first fall, the coach and athlete must find out why they fell and “fix” it!!! If the athlete keeps falling on the same skill with the same mistake, they may not be ready for a pressure situation yet.
Pressure situations should be introduced after the athlete has mastered their skills. A skill that isn’t mastered in a non-pressure situation doesn’t have a great chance of improving when pressure is added. Master the skill first, then add pressure.
I know many coaches, even very good friends of mine who still use punishment as a form of training. They do it because they think it works. They do it because they want their athletes to be accountable for their actions. They do it because they want their athletes to work harder. They punish to teach a lesson.
Think about it, what lesson do they want to teach.
The situation: A child is having a behavioral issue and is disrespectful to the coach.
The punishment: They must run 30 minutes.
The lesson: Running is bad.
The consequence: The athlete must apologize, lose a privilege, have a meeting with the parents, or be removed from the gym.
The lesson: They learn that if they want to be a part of the team, they must behave appropriately.
“FIX” it: The coach must explain what behavior was unacceptable, what is acceptable behavior, and how the athlete can change it.
In order for an athlete to learn, they must be taught.
Punishment teaches athletes to fear mistakes, fear failure, and to worry. If an athlete is aggressive, goes 100% for a skill, but is punished when they fall, wouldn’t it make sense that they wouldn’t want to be aggressive again? Punishment can also make the athlete resent the coach. They may lose respect and trust when they are punished for performance.
If the athlete knows they are encouraged to be aggressive, mistakes will be fixed, and they will be respected, they can feel comfortable working hard and learning. Their relationship with their coach can grow strong and they will know that no matter how they perform, their coach will be there to pick them up, and move on.