Coaching 101: Teaching Players Using Behavioral Learning Techniques

Developing a personal coaching style can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to the delicate balance of teaching the “X’s and O’s” of the sport and developing interpersonal relationships and team cohesion.  The best coaches are good at both — they are great teachers of the sport, and they understand the importance of building trust and mental toughness within the team through their leadership.

One question I regularly receive about coaching has to do with learning styles, specifically reinforcement and punishment.  Before I delve into this question, it is important to note a few important sport psychology learning aspects using basic behavioral psychology:

  • Positive reinforcement is designed to increase behavior through rewards (i.e. like when a coach awards stickers to football helmets based on good plays in the game).
  • Negative reinforcement, often confused with punishment, is also designed to increase the frequency of a behavior.  Instead of offering a reward for effort (positive reinforcement), negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is strengthened by removing a negative condition.  For example, kids might practice harder in order to avoid being yelled at by their coach for not hustling.  In this example, the behavior (practice intensity) is increased because kids don’t want to be yelled at by their coach.
  • Punishment differs from positive and negative reinforcement in that it is designed to eliminate a behavior from occurring in the future.  Suspending a player for unsportsmanlike play on the field is an example of punishment.

Now that you know the basics to operant conditioning, the real challenge is learning the various ways to use each of these techniques in order to become a great coach.  Unfortunately, there is no sport psychology “cookbook recipe” to developing a perfect coaching system, but there are a few general guidelines I can offer that might help you decide when — and how much — you should use of each:

  • Positive reinforcement is a great tool to use to increase athlete focus, motivation, and determination.  Positive reinforcement works very well, but the danger is over-relying on this technique when kids start to play only for the rewards associated with playing well.  In other words, while earning helmet stickers is nice, the ideal situation is to help kids become more motivated to play with intensity and become a better teammate — not just make plays in order to earn stickers.
  • Negative reinforcement has also been shown to be effective when it comes to increasing the frequency of behaviors, but this approach usually involves some sort of a fear factor in order to accomplish this goal.  Again, while kids might practice harder so that they do not get yelled at by the coach, the real challenge is to get kids to practice harder in order to reach their full potential and help the team — not just avoid an angry coach.
  • Punishment should only be considered when you are trying to eliminate a behavior — like when an athlete violates team rules.  If you need to use punishment, it should be soon after the violation, swift, and appropriate.  It is also important to fully explain why punishment is being used so that the athlete understands exactly why he is being punished.  For example, rather than suspending an athlete for a vague term like “unsportsmanlike conduct,” try and make it a teachable moment by specifying what the unsportsmanlike conduct was and how it can be improved.

These are just a few ways in which psychological techniques and applications can be used by coaches to improve team cohesion, motivation, and on-field success.  Personally, I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement – and there’s always good things to praise if you are looking for them.

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