This is generally going to be about coaching–really. It’ll just take a minute to get there.
One of my pet peeves is the improper use of language or terms. Every time a word or idea is misused, it distorts the truth–and worse, in many instances makes the word unusable for any real purpose. Need examples?
Look at the evolution of words such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’. Do people realize why or how those words came to be associated with sexual orientation? Left and Right–those go back to the French Revolution. ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ don’t actually mean, aren’t supposed to mean, what many Americans use them for. It’s perfectly possible to have a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal…except in America. Why, it gets confusing enough that a radical (Jesus) is claimed as a conservative. Go figure.
We can do this in numerous fields. That brings us to education and coaching. There is a constant call for ‘punishment’ as motivation for athletes. That’s when the chaos starts to come in to the picture–because some realize that the word ‘punishment’ will draw fire, so they say ‘negative reinforcement’ instead to avoid the criticism
This makes it worse–because negative criticism IS ITS OWN THING. It is completely different than punishment, so what you now have happen is people mis-use a term, use methods of conditioning that are less effective than others–and along the way make it more difficult to apply one of the techniques (negative reinforcement) that IS better than punishment.
It’s enough that I figured–I’ll write a blog post on it, describe it like I did when I was teaching it in high school…and maybe it can shift knowledge enough that people stop using terms improperly (I mean, it’s worked well so far for me with left/right, liberal/conservative….) and can become better educators from this.
What people are referring to with reinforcement is trying to change behaviors in some fashion. This has been going on for thousands of years, but the guy who made an active study of it was a Russian named Pavlov. In short, Pavlov rang a bell, gave his dogs food. They drooled. After a time, he would ring the bell, didn’t give food, but they continued to drool. Thus, Pavlov showed how you could create a desired behavior. There’s more to it, but this isn’t a Psych textbook. Ultimately, there are three types of conditioning:
- Positive Reinforcement –With this, we are going to add something in order to add to an existing behavior.
- Negative Reinforcement –With this, we will remove something as long as we get the desired behavior.
- Punishment –We will do something the subject doesn’t like to remove an undesired behavior.
The first big thing to note between 1/2 + 3 is that the first two are addressing the behavior desired directly. With 1 and 2, if I want the person to take a drink of water, my actions relate directly to the act of drinking water. Notice that 3 does not? With the current water-drinking example, 3 doesn’t address the drinking, it’s going to work to prevent standing in line talking; walking down to the end of the hall; playing with the foot pedal. These things may all be undesirable, they may get in the way of taking a drink, but they don’t incentivize getting a drink.
That’s another big thing. A lot of people see ‘positive reinforcement’ and think things are being given away for free. From coaches over the age of 30, you’ll see the term ‘snowflakes’ used to cast scorn on positive reinforcement, that addressing a desired behavior this way makes the player soft, weak, or any number of other words with negative connotations.
The difficulty with ‘negative reinforcement’ is that most people see the word ‘negative’ and take it to mean bad–‘Don’t be such a negative person’. The word here doesn’t mean that. It is meant more like plus/minus. ‘Negative’ means to subtract something from the equation–but I guarantee that 99/100 times when you see a coach (at least 80/100 for teachers) use this term, they are conflating it with ‘punishment’.
So teaching Intro to Psych clued me in–I can sit and give textbook examples and definitions all day, but people still don’t get it. It takes concrete examples. The examples below aren’t meant to be specific to any team–I’ve tried to make them generic along with how to fix them…
- Positive: In practice, athletes GET a high-5 for a perfect pass; when 25 consecutive don’t drop, athletes GET to play 3-on-3 for 15 minutes; when practice is done whoever keeps the most from dropping GETS a Snickers bar.
- Negative: If we get 15 in a row that don’t drop, we will NOT do the second ball-handling drill players don’t like; if we get 50 good passes before we have one drop, there will NOT be a curfew at this weekend’s tournament
- Punishment: For every ball that hits, we’re doing burpees. For every ball that hits, the passers have to stay an extra minute after practice.
Notice that the first two create incentives–things players want? High-fives, playing games, candy…or the removal of a curfew or getting to skip a drill they hate. Every coach knows the drills players don’t like and hopefully has seen the morale boost when athletes find out “Hey, good job–we’re skipping Evil Drill Four today!” Punishment doesn’t address that. Players don’t get a benefit from a perfect pass–all they need to do is keep it from the ground–even if that means it shanks off and hits Grandma and her knitting.
As always–if this is of interest, consider purchasing my book here.
I’ve also got an educational foundation that seeks to create scholarships for young people going in to education and teaching via non-traditional means (coaching, games, play-acting, whatever). You can donate to that here.
WE NOW RESUME OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING.
WORKING ON TEAM CHEMISTRY/COOPERATION
- Positive: Players permitted to select own teams during practice; Team Hustle Award; direct selection via consensus of team captains
- Negative: Permitted to supervise own non-practice events (warmups, weightlifting); coach does not select roommates for road trips
- Punishment: Micro-management by the coach; players directed not to speak/offer suggestions during practice; lack of ‘calling for it’ in a drill leads to physical consequences.
PLAYER’S EFFORT IN PRACTICE
- Positive: Increased playing time; larger role in crunch-time; named team captain
- Negative: Coach does not hover over player during certain drills at practice/trusts player is going 100%, moves on to other players who coach is unsure of.
- Punishment: Run. Pit drills. Dive drills. 95% of overuse/repetitive drills.
- Positive: Feedback on what the player is doing–which can include what the player is doing wrong, by the way; high-fives; attainable but challenging goals to move on to a different aspect of the skill
- Negative: Removing certain “handicaps” (for lack of a better word)–we’re going to have you hit off a setter rather than a toss–or have to hit an out-of-system ball rather than a perfect one; we’re going to put live blockers on the other side rather than an empty net.
- Punishment: Hit it in the net–>burpees. Hit it out of bounds–>sprints. All sorts of errors–reset a counting drill ‘back to zero’
Do these examples help? I hope so.
For me, I try not to use punishment much. I save it for special occasions–>discipline issues. My athletes know that if they get punished, they have screwed up in a large way. This adds to its effectiveness–if we use the exact same stimulus over and over, it’s possible for it to lose effectiveness. Eventually Pavlov’s dogs realized, “Hey, the bell doesn’t mean steak after all.”
This isn’t in-depth by any means. Some of it is taking short-cuts to make sure of the high points. I haven’t even gotten in to the types of punishment (also referred to as positive and negative–which is MOST unhelpful) or extinction. I’ve also missed one other key thing when it comes to athletes.
They are people–and you have to be aware of their own motivations. When you try as a coach to impose conditioning on an athlete, you may be messing up their own intrinisic motivations. Michael Jordan didn’t need to be pushed by the Chicago Bulls to greatness for instance. The personalities of your athletes has to be kept in mind. That’s a HUGE challenge–because 15 athletes are going to have 15 different things motivating them and 15 different ‘best’ ways of motivating them..
Hope this helps.