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When most people think about coaches, the image of a stern male barking orders at athletes, almost like a military commander, often comes to mind. This has been a classic representation in movies and television shows, and is still true even in many real-life teams to this day.

However, evidence collected over the past couple of decades by psychologists indicates that this isn’t the best way to motivate athletes, and may actually be doing the complete opposite. So, let’s discuss why these depictions of negative reinforcement and punishment shouldn’t be practiced, and why coaches should use positive reinforcement for young athletes instead.

Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, and Punishment

Reinforcement is part of a bigger branch of psychology that deals with behaviorism and operant conditioning. In the conditioning process, a coach decides how to respond to an athlete’s action or behavior. Positive or negative reinforcement is used if you want to increase the chances of repeating this action, while punishment is typically used to discourage the behavior.

However, using punishment can be harmful both physically and mentally for athletes — especially when dealing with kids. In fact, a comprehensive report published on CMAJ details the short- and long-term effects of punishment on children, which include depression, anxiety, and general maladjustment. Good coaches will opt to use positive reinforcement to encourage athletes to succeed, as knowing how to employ reinforcement properly can be a game-changer for both you and your team.

In fact, researchers from the University of Washington Seattle found that coaches trained on how to implement reinforcement are more effective than those who are not. Maryville University point out that there are different branches of psychology that you can draw from when dealing with young people, such as social psychology, biological psychology, and even multicultural psychology. A coach knowledgeable about social psychology will be equipped to understand and navigate complex social situations when talking to your players. Similarly, studying multicultural psychology will enable you to create a harmonious environment for a team with members from different cultural backgrounds. Of course, you can also turn to sports psychology, which combines ideas from the aforementioned branches and makes them specific for athletes and coaches alike.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement

In ‘3 Sports Psychology Tips for Parents and Coaches’, we explored how young athletes are especially prone to interpreting what coaches or parents say in a harsh way. This ruins their confidence and, in turn, makes them anxious during games. For this reason, learning and applying psychological concepts is crucial for both you and your young athletes. Thankfully, it’s not that difficult to learn and use positive reinforcement while training.

The first step is to identify what actions and behaviors you would like to encourage before beginning training. This could range from specific techniques you want your players to apply, to simply asking them to give more effort during practice.

Once you’ve identified these behaviors, respond to them when the young athletes are doing them correctly. You can do this with a simple compliment, or even better, publicly commend them later on via your SportsPlus app. You can also trace their improvements with regard to this behavior using the app’s player performance management function. This can help you and your athletes feel more accomplished and motivated to improve even more.

Lastly, if you do have to point out a mistake, privately approach them and use the sandwich method by starting with what the athlete did right, what they can improve, and ending with another compliment. Keeping these steps in mind and not relying on negative emotions during practice can make a world of difference for you and your team.

All in all, reinforcement methods can greatly improve or severely damage your team’s morale depending on how you use it. Learning and using psychological concepts for guided criticism and motivation is essential, especially for coaching kids who tend to be more impressionable. With a little bit of your own mental practice, your team training sessions can drastically improve, with the added bonus of a long-lasting positive psychological impact and a genuine love of sports for the young athletes under your care.

Exclusively written by Z. Labelle for

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