Why Do We Think Physical Punishment is a Good Teaching Tool in Sports?

  • SST Guest
  • March 6, 2020

Why Physical Punishment Is the Least Effective Way to Teach Technical Skills

There are a variety of reasons why physical punishment is just about the least effective way to get your team to improve technically and tactically:

1. Motor skills are improved by repetition of motor skills deployed in their environment. If we waste our limited practice time doing physical punishment, it will not improve these areas of weakness.

2. Threatening physical punishment induces stress and fear, two elements that diminish physical performance. Professional sports teams employ psychologists, physios, nutritionists and a variety of experts to diminish fear, anxiety and stress in top-level athletes, as they are performance inhibitors. If we are purposely introducing these elements into training, how exactly are we helping?

3. Physical punishment causes fatigue, and fatigue inhibits learning. That’s right, the more you condition, the less able your athletes are to learn. That is why strength and conditioning are usually separate training blocks for higher level athletes.

4. Our practice time is limited. I have yet to meet a youth or high school coach who is saying “can I give some practice time back, I have too much.” Why would we waste our skill training hours doing physical work?

5. Physical punishment only serves the coach. It is kind of like vomit: the coach feels better and everyone else feels worse. And in the end, your athletes are no better at the activity than they were before you started running.

6. Physical punishment is only used because of tradition. I get it, you were coached that way. So was I. What else have you tried? Let’s break the cycle.

7. Excessive physical punishment will likely lead to many kids not returning next season. Would you come back when there are a million other things you could do, and you are berated for your lack of skill, yet not taught to improve that skill?

Are You Saying We Shouldn’t Do Physical Conditioning?

Of course not. Physical training is a critical part of every athlete’s routine. Hopefully for those of us working with youth athletes, and for that matter all athletes in invasion sports, are getting most of our physical conditioning work through games based activities. They are by far the most effective way to replicate the environment and requirements of the sport. As athletes get older, of course we add in some non-ball related activities, weights, movement, etc. Without a doubt, though, conditioning is necessary. The problem when we use conditioning as punishment is that conditioning becomes something to be avoided at all costs. When an absolutely essential element of your training is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, that is a bad thing. Any who’s who of elite athletes includes a list of athletes who love to practice, and who embrace the struggle. Some even say they love to suffer through a difficult workout. There is a lot of evidence emerging that positive environments are far more effective development zones than threat-based ones. And there is a lot of evidence that when you can turn conditioning into something to be embraced, and even as a reward for doing things right, you can create a great scenario.

Why Does Physical Punishment Seem to Work Sometimes, and What Should We Do Instead?

The threat of physical punishment seems to work from time to time because it can improve focus and concentration. It can get players back on task. It can get the more serious athletes to reign in those who are fooling around. And sometimes, you just get lucky and the timing of the threat coincides with the successful execution of a skill. But these are not improvements in motor learning, they are improvements in focus. But you can improve focus without physical punishment.

Here are a couple of suggestions that help to improve focus at training, which creates a better learning environment.

1. Improve focus by running shorter duration, higher intensity activities. Instead of playing a 20-minute game, play 5 x 3-minute high-intensity games, with a minute in between to collect balls, have a quick chat, etc. Have balls ready so when one goes out, the game restarts immediately. When players know that the game is limited in duration, they play harder.

2. Play last score wins. Instead of playing to a number or time, I often play limited duration, the last goal wins games. That way, the team losing is in it till the end, and the team winning does not shut off mentally because they are up three with 30 seconds to go. Last score wins games always up the intensity and creates great competition and controversy in training, which always ups the focus.

3. Play winner stays on. Let the joy of continuing to play be the reward, and the agony of not playing be the punishment.

4. Change the activity. That’s right, perhaps the lack of focus is due to a poor activity, or poor field size, or poor explanation. Adapt.

5. Give your athletes more ownership. Ask them what they want to cover.

6. Coach the child, not the sport. Sometimes, look at who is in front of you. Have they had a rough day at school? Have we been grinding at practice for a few weeks? Just change it up, add some enjoyment and laughter, let them choose what to do. After all, isn’t that why they are out there?

7. Ask ourselves “just because I taught it, have they actually learned it?” There is a big difference between teaching and learning, and 99.9% of the time the reason athletes cannot execute in a match is because they have not actually learned something yet, regardless of whether we covered it in practice.

8. Check for understanding in practice. Two weeks after you have taught something, set up the same activity, same field, same scenario, and then let the players play without giving them explicit instructions on what to do. If they do things correctly, they have learned. If not, you need to teach it again.

9. Be patient. It takes a long time to learn to play a sport. Your athletes are very likely on the beginning of their journey.

Be a teacher. Help them learn. Create an environment where they are forced to focus. In other words, be the coach your players need, instead of the coach many of us wish we never had.

Credit: Changing The Game Project