Punishment or rewards: how should coaches encourage players to get better?

By Lauren Zedlar

Elm Staff Writer 

Sports coaches must find ways to motivate their players to perform their best at all times, whether in a game or just in daily life. But each individual player and the teams as a whole require different motivational techniques.

Coaches commonly use negative reinforcements, which is shaping behavioral and practice habits by giving consequences. For example, coaches might make the losing team of a scrimmage do sprints. 

Coaches use consequences until the wanted behavior or skill is seen in players. Once it becomes a habit, coaches stop the negative reinforcement. Athletes are then motivated not to repeat continued mistakes or undesired behaviors.

Coaches can also choose to use positive reinforcements, which rewards players for breaking bad habits or learning new skills. An example of this would be the excitement and praise an athlete receives from a coach after a good performance. 

“After my [ulnar collateral ligament] injury, my motivation was driven by consequences because I knew if I did not rehab and put in the work, the sport that I loved would be gone and I was not willing to accept those consequences,” junior baseball player Trevor Frederick said.

Consequences like conditioning, constructive criticism, or quick calisthenic workouts are commonly used during practices. The use of punishments works by creating a fear of failure, but this in turn can create more consequences for athletes. 

According to Peak Endurance Sports, a “climate of fear can lead to a decrease in athletic performance because athletes will focus on the consequences that will come with losing rather than their goal of winning and performing well.”

This is one of the reasons why coaches choose to use positive reinforcements like celebrations and praise when athletes perform well instead of punishing them when they are not. 

According to sport psychology research evidence given by Peak Endurance Sports, “a predominantly positive approach (80-90%) is preferred as opposition to punishment.” A positive system of praise and feedback has shown to successfully help create results in training rooms, improve performance, and reduce errors. 

“My whole life I was chasing the rewards, and the vision of who I could become as an athlete,” Frederick said. “In the weight room, in high school, and on the field, all I could think about was playing college baseball, so that reward is what drove me.” 

According to experts at Peak Endurance Sports, “creating the most productive motivational climate depends on many interrelated factors.” 

These include the personalities found on a team or in a group, the team’s preferred style of coaching, and characteristics of the coach and the environment.

“The losses my team and I have had caused us to focus on what we lack and what we can do better,” sophomore women’s basketball player Joy Sanders said. “Our coach gives us a mix of rewards and consequences.”

Consequences and rewards have both been proved to improve athletic performance. It is up to the coach to decide what will produce the best outcome.  

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