Austin Einhorn | Movement & Skill Acquisition Specialist
Let’s imagine a few fun and hypothetical scenarios. First, I am insanely competitive and really like to play the video game FIFA. Let’s say I’m so serious about it that I hire a FIFA coach to guide me. One day, while playing an online league game, I miss all 12 attempts on goal.
“Give me 30 push-ups!” yells my coach, standing over my shoulder. “You can’t keep missing those shots! Stop missing and score!”
In my head, a conversation starts: “Obviously, I’m trying to score. If I wasn’t, I would never attempt the shots in the first place!”
Upon returning from the push-up timeout, I rush into several all-out attacks to appease my coach and avoid more push-ups. This does not end well. With all my forces going upfield to score, I have no defense. I lose 7-0.
Here’s another scenario: A snowboarder is preparing for the recent 2018 Winter Olympics. Let’s call him Shaun White. With sports like snowboarding, crashes are inevitable. I don’t know Shaun or his staff, but I doubt he gets punished after he falls. In fact, the culture within extreme sports often rewards these failed acts of bravery. People cheer and clap and give support when these athletes crash. What has this type of culture created? It has created an exponential growth curve that is much greater than the growth curve of traditional sports.
By now, you probably have a good idea what this piece is about – punishment in sport. Growing up playing volleyball, my teams and my friends’ teams were always punished for poor performance. Most often, this came with serving errors, but it was tied to all aspects of the game. Sometimes it felt like we had to play well just to avoid sprints or push-ups. The point of playing sports is just that, playing. Most elite coaches already know that having fun is a big part of playing your best, and research is starting to catch up and support this notion.
Anyone who plays or coaches volleyball knows that missed serves are not intentional. Yet athletes often follow a service error by saying, “My bad.” The apology is appreciated but not really needed. In this context, the punishments are completely unnecessary. Everyone knows the player tried to make the serve, hence the statistic “service attempt.”
This whole punishment business can be thought of as quite medieval. “Thou lost; therefore, thou must labor. Pusheth this stone up this mountain, and at which hour thee returneth, know of thy failures and prepareth to win in the next battle.” Or, one could think of this behavior the same way many people train and treat their dogs. Scolding and punishing dogs for reasons the dog cannot comprehend is not helpful. Hint, hint – dogs rarely understand reasons for punishment. Humans can comprehend and rationalize punishment, but it doesn’t ultimately result in the behavior change everyone wants – a winning performance. Yes, there’s a difference between punishing athletes for misconduct or poor sportsmanship and punishing them for something they didn’t mean to do. But even so, there are better ways to respond to misconduct or poor sportsmanship. If a player acts out, maybe there’s a deeper issue going on that warrants a heartfelt and personal conversation.
The coach acting indifferently to a missed serve is better than punishment. It’s sports. There will be errors! After all, that’s what makes successful plays that much more exciting. And even the best of the best make errors.
Here are a few behaviors that can replace punishments:
- Omit punishments altogether. The punishment is built into the game in the form of losing or not earning a starting spot. The rewards are fun, winning, praise, life skills, exercise, etc.
- Give tons of positive praise. If a player misses a serve, try saying, “Great job taking a risk in going for it!” This encourages smart risk-taking behavior. We get better by making the choice to accept a challenge that is just barely above our current skill level. This is a risky choice because there’s a good chance we might fail. But it’s even riskier to avoid these kinds of growth challenges. That results in stagnation and minimal improvement. This is really important to remember. We get better by making these choices that challenge our current skill level and help us grow more than we do if we merely increase the quantity of our reps.
- A neutral and inquisitive attitude. When an athlete makes a hitting error, the coach could just ask questions that result in more awareness. What happened there? Exactly when did that happen? What did that feel like? Where did you jump from? How did that feel?
Finally, language is really important. “Don’t think of a pink elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of a pink elephant! If you think of a pink elephant, you’re going to have to do sprints and push-ups!”
Did you think of a pink elephant?
When you get instructions like that, you can’t not think of a pink elephant. Your brain sees or hears that sentence as, pink elephants – don’t think about them. Or your brain might see the command as, “Don’t think!” OK, what do I not think of? Pink elephants. K, got it. I’m totally not thinking of a pink elephant.
So, when coaches or teammates say, “don’t miss your serve,” players on the receiving end of the cue think of missing their serve. This might even come in the form of self-talk by the player who is about to serve.
It’s better to give highly specific cues that you want to be true, like, “I want you to aggressively serve 2 feet to her left.” Take a risk, be conscious of what you say, and try upgrading your language along the way.
Austin Einhorn is passionate about optimizing performance through every avenue possible, including lifestyle design, biomechanics and skill acquisition. He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist who was a 3-time All-American middle blocker at University of California, Santa Cruz. He has worked with pro volleyball players, a variety of Olympians, and athletes from the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, PGA, USTA and pro surfing tour. For more educational material and contact information, go to his website at www.apiros.com or Instagram page at www.instagram.com/apiros.team.