Coaches need to stop punishing and start disciplining for accountability.
There is a difference.
“Keep running, and pick up the pace,” my coach said. Next lap around we tried to get his attention, but he was deep in conversation with the assistant. Our captain managed to ask, “Are we done?” He didn’t look at her, or at us. He simply shook his head no.
We kept running.
We had been running a brutal conditioning drill where one line of the team sprints around a shortened field to catch up with the other line that is slowly jogging…switching roles as soon as the first group got back. We had been jogging/sprinting for twenty minutes at the end of an intense two-hour practice, the day before one of our last games, at the end of a losing season.
None of us dared stop running (except the one player who slid behind a bush to vomit). We knew the punishment was coming because we had lost the previous two games. He wanted to light a spark in us so we could finish out the season with better performances. It didn’t work. We lost all the remaining games anyway.
That’s why coaches punish, right? To effect some sort of change in a team’s behavior or to create a level of accountability. Sometimes team punishment achieves a desired change, i.e. the Miracle hockey team of 1980. (there is a reason that entire story was rather miraculous though)
It is an honorable thing to employ discipline with the end-goal of accountability.
Physical punishment to affect behavior is timeless. Militaries use it, parents use it, and certainly sports coaches use it. The problem for some coaches is they misuse it. Physical punishment is a powerful tool and must be wielded thoughtfully.
There are functional uses of physical punishment that make sense to me as a natural consequence, and there are horribly dysfunctional uses. I’ll stick with the dysfunctional ones.
3 Dysfunctional Uses of Physical Punishment
- Team punishment for an individual’s infraction.
- Because a coach has run out of ideas to develop a team further.
- Because a team loses.
Team Punishment for an Individual’s Infraction
I see this ALL the time. I even highlighted a ridiculous example of this in a post I wrote five years ago. This DOES NOT build team cohesion. It rarely works to even hold the individual accountable for whatever he/she did.
People buy into a team mentality, they cannot be bullied into it.
There is honestly no real-world scenario where team punishment makes even a little bit of sense. I’ll use some extreme examples. In the “punish the team” model, the entire group of tv hosts/hostesses for the morning show where Matt Lauer worked should be fired for his transgressions. OR, my whole family should have been jailed because my dad made poor choices and, obviously, because we are part of his family, we should pay for his behavior too.
If you are about to dole out a team punishment for something one kid or a couple kids have done, take some time to think about whether you are doing that because it will enact accountability or because you are lazy. It takes energy and creativity to work out the right consequences for wrong choices.
It is choices we want to influence after all. Choices to be a team player, choices to behave with integrity, choices to show up on time, or compete well. There is nothing wrong with wanting to influence behavior when there is a choice, but there are ways to do it better.
My very favorite use of physical discipline for accountability was my husband’s approach to his hockey team’s penalties. The day after a game, at the very start of practice, the players who had posted penalty minutes the night before would come before a jury of their peers to be judged. My husband taught them that there are “good” penalties and “bad” penalties. The “good” penalties happened with a player was playing hard and got tied up, resulting in a penalty, or as a last resort did what he needed to do to stop a breakaway. “Bad” penalties were any that included unsportsmanlike conduct or a loss of emotional control.
The player with the infraction would plead his case. Sometimes. Sometimes he would acknowledge how dumb the penalty was and just skate his punishment- (4 cross-ice boards per 2-minute penalty). If he wanted to be judged, the team would vote and determine whether a punishment was valid. If there was a tie, my husband would be the deciding vote.
The teams my husband has coached are among the most disciplined I’ve watched play. The boys knew they would be held accountable and it influenced a number of their decisions.
Because a Coach Has Run Out of Ideas to Develop a Team Further
I think this might have been my coach’s misuse of punishment. It happened over twenty years ago, and it is still among one of my most memorable practices. (and not for the right reasons)
For coaches who measure their successes on wins and stats, if the season is a rough one, they’ll grasp at anything to try to put things right.
Maybe if my coach was able to acknowledge the truth, that we really weren’t that good, he could have utilized our practice time more productively.
Because a Team Loses
Too many teams lose games twice. They lose on the scoreboard and then they lose any possible lessons because the response to a loss is physical punishment.
“Oh, man, coach is going to run us so hard tomorrow.”
“Because we lost.”
“Ok, but you were playing the number one team in the country.”
“That doesn’t matter, we always run when we lose.”
This might be an attempt at consistency, but this sort of punishment is neither disciplining nor holding anyone accountable.
Losses happen. Teams play flat and uninspired. Physical punishment in response is not going to change what happened in that last game.
Should you talk to your teams about how playing uninspired lessens their chances of success? Sure. Should you encourage their feedback about what works to influence their enthusiasm? Absolutely. Should you run them into the ground? No.
Conditioning is a part of every practice I run, as it should be for all sports coaches. It’s just not part of my response to a loss we have already fielded as a team.
Questions to ask yourself about whether to utilize physical discipline:
- Is it fair and appropriate to the choice the player(s) made?
- Is it going to influence the behavior in a desired way?
- Is it necessary?
- Is this the best way I can think of to discipline?
It’s a shift in thinking and a shift in semantics. Athletes should know that physical discipline is crucial to their ultimate success. The best coaches inspire kids to work hard at that discipline, and if coaching is really happening well, the players will seek out the physical discipline for themselves. If it’s punishment, they never will.
Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018 www.meaganfrank.com