Punishment In Youth Sport?

In the last couple of articles we have looked at when to praise and reward to reinforce a desired behaviour, and when we should not praise because we don’t want to reinforce behaviours that inhibit growth. In this article we will look at whether there is a place for punishment in the realm of youth sport, and if so, when it should be used.
Let’s start by clarifying what punishment is, and what it is not from a behavioural perspective.
Punishment can be the addition of something unwanted (additional work, detention, yelling, electric shocks…). When something is added, it is positive punishment.
Punishment can also be the removal of something wanted (taking away games/phones/computers, taking away food, grounding…). When something is taken away, it is negative punishment.
One important factor to note here is that punishment is only punishment when it causes a behaviour to cease. If the same “punishment” is being conducted over and again, it is not punishment. This means that for people who choose to spank their children, if the behaviours don’t change they aren’t punishing the child, they are just hitting them. A punishment, by definition, must end a behaviour. Also, a punishment does not have to be cruel, harmful or distressing emotionally or physically. It is simply ending an unwanted behaviour.
Where does this leave us in youth sport? Should punishment ever be used, and if so, where? Like any area in life, not all behaviours are beneficial or helpful to society, and punishments, whether they need to be acted upon or not, need to exist. A player can’t walk on to the field and pick up the ball with their hands and throw it in the goal. Doing so will result in a disallowed goal, a free kick, and depending on the age group, a yellow or red card. They are punished for this (negative punishment is taking away a goal and losing possession, positive punishment is the yellow or red card).
But what about in coaching? Again, there are certain basic standards that need to be met. Should the player who is always late or doesn’t show up to practice have the same playing time as the player who is always there on time? In this instance wouldn’t it be appropriate to take away some playing time (negative punishment)?
Not all behaviours are good for the group, and there needs to be a structure and set of rules for society to live by. Going back to the Albert Camus inspired posts (here and here), we see that there is little in life that cannot find it’s metaphor on the soccer field. Punishment guides us, and it keeps us within the parameters of a working society. That’s not to say that all societies are equal, or that all punishment is fair (I won’t get into this, this isn’t a political blog) but punishment, like reinforcement, is all around us and has benefits. Not all behaviours are helpful.
Here are the three take aways for today:
1 – If it doesn’t end a behaviour, it isn’t punishment. If you are doing the same thing over and over to end a behaviour in your child and it’s not working, it isn’t your child that isn’t learning, it is you.
2 – Don’t go straight to punishment. Try to reinforce a replacement, desired behaviour first. Punishment and praise both send a message so think carefully about what that message is. I have known coaches (and in my early days, to my shame, I did it too) who would use physical exercise as a punishment. “You’re late, take two laps of the field.” What’s the message? I am telling my player that running is bad. Do I really want my athletes to see running as a negative thing to be avoided? Probably not.
3 – Punishment should never be used when a player is building a skill. Punishment is not coaching for improvement or growth, punishment is behaviour modification. When a player is learning they will make mistakes. They will make mistakes in practice and they will make mistakes during the game. Let them make mistakes. Encourage it. It is only by making mistakes that we improve and grow. Be the coach, encourage mistakes, reinforce good ideas, and help your player to improve, not be afraid.
Punishment and reinforcement both have a place in society, and according to Camus, this means in soccer as well. We are trying to create a team, a group, a small society of players who work for each other. They need to have their creativity and decision-making skills reinforced, they need to be free to make mistakes and maybe even cost games. They also need to know there are consequences for a lack of respect for others when they don’t show up, or when they harm the group. Overall, in rounding out this trilogy the message is this – think about what you are trying to achieve and the message you are sending to your team. If you always praise they will always think they don’t need to grow. If you always punish they will be scared to grow. Praise the behaviours you want to see, and use punishment as a last resort for the behaviours you don’t. If the player has a ball at their feet (or the appropriate activity in other sports) they should only hear praise. Punishment should only be used as a last resort when the behaviour negatively impacts society, for everything else there is praise.
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Picture: https://pixabay.com/en/pillory-device-punishment-prisoner-51540/

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