Why You Shouldn’t Punish Your Players

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In Canada, there has recently been a move toward the terms “old school” and “new school” to describe a shift in coaching behaviours. The terms have developed as a result of the abandonment of “old school” methods like yelling at kids, focusing on a select few talented players rather than all, and punishments like push-ups, laps or “benching” players. But still, everywhere I go, I still see coaches looking for ways to punish their players. And so today, I write this piece, with the bold statement that you should never punish your players. I am usually one to avoid saying the word “never”, especially in respect to coaching. I may want to tell coaches that I mentor and develop to never do elimination games or to never limit a player’s number of touches. But there may be a time and a place where it could be beneficial or logical. But when it comes to punishments, unless someone has something really compelling to say and wants to try to convince me otherwise, I believe you should never punish your players. Here are three reasons why!

IT’S NOT FUN

Why do kids play sport? Because it’s fun. You know what isn’t fun? Being punished. So in the quest for having fun, punishments should be avoided. Well, duh. Right? No one implements punishments for the sake of fun. It’s to “teach kids a lesson” (more on that later). So why is it important to re-emphasize this point? Well, it’s becoming well-documented that 70% of kids who play a sport, quit before the age of thirteen. The number one reason? Because it’s no longer fun. Kids play sport to have fun, not to be criticized or punished for their mistakes. The quest to “teach kids a lesson” or to actually teach them and develop them (like a real coach would) should come secondary or (even better) intertwined with having fun as a result. If coaches really want to punish players, they’ll find a way to make it fun, or at the very least, related to the task they slipped up on. For example, if a player misses a penalty kick in a game, rather than being benched, they can be given the task of needing to score five in practice before taking the next one in a game. That way they are actually learning, and will be more motivated to do better next time. In other words, it’s more fun and the punishment fits the crime.

IT DOESN’T HELP THEM LEARN

Sports aren’t just about having fun. They’re also about learning and developing as both individuals and athletes. Many coaches who implement punishments think that their punishment will help teach the kid a lesson. After all, B.F. Skinner discovered in the early 1900s something called operant conditioning – that with different types of reinforcements and punishments, rats could learn to behave in favourable ways. Guess what? Children aren’t rats. Punishments don’t help kids learn. All they do is make kids afraid to make mistakes. Skinner’s rats didn’t learn not to behave in unfavourable ways, they stopped out of fear. By punishing kids, not only are we making the sport they play less fun, we are also teaching them that mistakes are not okay to make and should be avoided at all costs. In reality, everyone makes mistakes and in most cases perfection will never be achieved. So we need to be teaching our players that it is okay to make mistakes, and then we need to be willing and capable of helping them through the learning process of how they can fix those mistakes and improve. By constantly punishing our players, we are not creating an environment conducive to learning. Instead we are creating an environment where children never step outside of their comfort zone or take risks, because they are afraid to make a mistake.

Like the root cause of most of my coaching ‘don’t’s’, punishments implemented by the coach are also not game-realistic. In a real game, if a kid misses a pass, would you have them do a push-up? No. The punishment of misplacing the pass and the other team receiving it instead is already punishment enough. They don’t need the push-up to teach them they messed up. They already know they did. It’s the same reason why yelling at kids is an ineffective method at influencing a child’s behaviour (and enjoyment!). Children know when they’ve messed up. They don’t need us to tell them. Instead, we can help guide them to do better next time through positive encouragement and helpful advice on how to improve. If only parents on the sideline could read this message too.

IT WASTES TIME

Recently, I witnessed an activity in which players were passing back and forth with a partner. If they misplaced a pass, they were told to do push-ups. A quick problem developed that was noticed by all players, but not the coaches for some reason. The problem? Instead of working on their passing, players who made a bad pass were forced to take time away from their ability to get better at it, instead practicing their upper body strength (these were U10 Girls by the way). This resulted in players either needing to wait for their partner to finish their push-ups (i.e. not practicing) or attempting to pass to their partner during the push-up, resulting in the player receiving the ball with their head (i.e. dangerous + not practicing). Things like laps, “suicides”, or benching a player also result in a loss of playing time for the player, reducing their ability to actually practice and get better. Instead of wasting time with punishments, coaches can actually help their players improve through helpful feedback about how to improve. Crazy right?

It’s a similar reason why elimination games should be avoided. When a player is eliminated, they miss out on the chance to practice. Even worse, when a player is eliminated that’s the first sign that they need to practice more, rather than less. Most of us only get to help our players develop for a few hours a week. Don’t waste their time doing stuff that isn’t going to help them develop. And yes, unless training for upper-body strength, push-ups are not going to help your players develop.


So there it is! Three reasons why you shouldn’t punish players. Feel free to debate and present the other side of the argument to me, but otherwise, punishing players will forever be a “never” for me. Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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3 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Punish Your Players

  1. Let’s say you you have gone the the demonstration process perfectly and then as the game is about to start a player kick a ball at someone else to purposefully distract them. I would say i am also against punishment (Pushups, laps and benching) but I made him do a lap and benched him. I did it as a way of rewarding the others who were concentrating. He played great when he came on! Having said this I’m open to knowing what else could I have done?

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    1. Hi coachedo, Thanks for your question. I personally think if it’s a repeated offender that you have an individual chat with the player after the practice or before the next practice about their level of focus and how it needs to be at the same level as all other players. If it’s a one-off incident, I would challenge you on whether or not the punishment fits the crime. Perhaps the player was bored waiting for the game to start or the demonstration was too long, etc. and they reacted by making their own fun. Perhaps there could have been better control over where balls were placed on the field so that there were no possible distractions. Maybe you did everything perfectly and the player still misbehaved. But is kicking a ball at someone else to distract them that bad that it requires a punishment? Maybe it depends on how hard the kick was. It sounds like the intention was to distract the other player as you say, but not hurt them. So I would think a quick “Hey ___, do you want to play just like everyone else or do you want to kick balls at your friends? You need to focus when I’m talking, just like everyone else” would get the message across well enough. But I really believe the punishment could be a one on one conversation with the player instead, where you might actually teach them something (a.k.a. it’s not a punishment, it’s behavioural management, which is part of your job as a coach anyway.) I will tell you from my personal experience as a player and coach that being benched or doing a lap can be very humiliating to a player. In this case it doesn’t sound like the punishment fits the crime.

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