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Dealing with Discipline in a Productive Way

By P.L.A.Y., 03/03/21, 2:30PM CST


If you are a former athlete, you might have been subjected to laps, sprints, gut busters, or other running drills as a form of ‘punishment’ for poor performance or, worse yet, for misbehaving. Coaches have believed that running teaches self-discipline and can help address behavioral problems. But times are changing!

This month, state high school athletic directors in Iowa have come together to deem running as punishment as a form of ‘corporal punishment’ and have outlined a policy to prohibit the practice. As youth sports advocates and fans debate the issue in Iowa, we turned to the experts at Positive Coaching Alliance and asked: how can Responsible Sport Coaches deal with issues of discipline in more productive ways? What are the alternatives to running for team discipline?

In determining their new policy, the athletic directors in Iowa have sought guidance from the National Association of Sport and Physical Education, which discourages the use of running as discipline. "While some people believe that physical activity used as punishment and/or a behavior management tool is effective, experts perceive this as a 'quick fix' that actually might discourage the behavior it is intended to elicit. Using negative consequences to alter behavior suppresses the undesirable behavior only while the threat of punishment is present; it doesn't teach self-discipline or address the actual behavior problem." So what does help teach self-discipline and address behavioral problems when they occur on sports fields, ice rinks and wrestling mats around the country?

We turned to the experts at Positive Coaching Alliance to help us answer this question and give you some practical advice. Jim Thompson, Founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance emphasizes that good discipline starts with the coach establishing a strong culture. “Establishing a strong culture – a way of doing things on your team – will minimize bad behavior on the part of your players”. Those of you who have read the Responsible Coaching Guide know that much of this starts with sharing your coaching philosophy and team rules with both parents and athletes at the beginning of the season. Once established, the experts at PCA advocate a three step approach: 

  1. Reinforce the behavior you want
  2. Ignore the behavior you don’t want 
  3. When you can’t ignore the behavior you don’t want, intervene in a ‘least-attention’ manner.

Reinforce The Behavior You Want

Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? Unfortunately we’re all guilty of ‘minding the squeaky wheel’ and not acknowledging the behavior of the athletes who have got it right. Using tools like the 5:1 Magic Ratio with all athletes to ensure that you are giving positive feedback, using symbolic rewards and recognition mechanisms like the Sugar Shaker Award or Hard Hat Award to recognize specific activity or effort, and in general recognizing athletes in specific and truthful words will go a long way to reinforcing the behavior you want to see from your team. “When kids learn that you give attention for appropriate behavior, they will often compete to please you – for example, by trying to be the first to come running when you call the group in so that you will notice and praise them,” wrote Thompson in The Power of Double-Goal Coaching”.

Ignore What You Don’t Want

As parents, we know this can be the most difficult. All you want to do is to tell that one kid – Victor – for the umpteenth time that he needs to hustle. “Victor, how many times (voice rising!) do I have to tell you to come in right away when you hear one long whistle?!” It’s downright frustrating! But the more attention you pay to Victor, the more he seems to continue as if he likes the attention, even when it’s negative attention. Kids are like that sometimes.

Thompson says an effective strategy can be what he calls ‘extinction’ and he says it can have a profound effect on kids. “While Victor is not doing what I want him to do, I act as if he ceases to exist as far as I am concerned. I don’t make mention of the fact that Victor hasn’t come with the rest of the team. Until Victor does what I want him to do, he is extinct. I thank those who come right away and move on to the next task.” What Thompson, the experts at PCA and child sports psychologists around the country have noted is that eventually kids who are getting ignored will want to regain the attention of the coach and will start to comply. In an effort to regain the attention of the coach. when Victor starts to run in with the others, he’ll say, “Hey coach, how about me? I came in when you called.”

When certain kids learn that their misbehavior gets the attention of their parents, teachers and coaches, they start to believe that this is the only way they can get attention. When you take away the attention for negative behavior you can sometimes correct the misbehavior. But not always. That’s where PCA’s last step comes in: intervention.

Intervene with A “Least-Attention” Manner

Sometimes you just can’t ignore the misbehavior. Your athlete’s discipline issue is putting herself or her teammates in danger. And Responsible Coaches and Responsible Sport Parents alike know: our first charge is to ensure the safety of our athletes. Similarly, behavior that dishonors the game can’t be ignored. And finally, some misbehavior simply ruins the opportunities for the rest of the team.“When you have to intervene, you can increase your odds of success by doing so in the ‘least-attention manner’,” according to Thompson. “Let’s say Jenny is talking while you are trying to give directions to the team. You can call Jenny aside and calmly and quietly speak to her: ‘Jenny, I need you to stand over here until you can obey the roles that we all agreed on – that is, to not talk while I’m talking. Just stand here for a bit and as soon as you are ready to follow the rules, come on back and join us.’ You may need to repeat this if Jenny rejoins the team and continues to disrupt your discussion with your team.

The ideal situation now is for the team to do an activity that is a lot of fun so that Jenny is missing something she would enjoy. “Thompson continues: “When you go back to check in with Jenny, make sure that you get her to verbally acknowledge why she had to sit out. The ideal here is for her to say ‘I was talking while you were talking’. And don’t let her rejoin the team until she acknowledges it. You also want her to verbally commit to following the rules when she is allowed to rejoin the team.”The Discipline of Three C’s The experts at PCA advocate a concept of ‘the disciplineof three C’s’ – Calmness, Consequences and Consistency. “Becoming negative or getting visibly angry with players should be seen as a sign of weakness and a lack of self-discipline” in Responsible Coaches says Thompson. Running laps or additional conditioning drills might punish but they certainly don’t address changing the behavior that led to the punishment.

And finally, poor performance – like losing a game – is certainly not a punishable offense. It’s an opportunity for your players to learn from their mistakes and recommit to a Mastery Approach – 100% effort, always learning, and moving beyond mistakes to recommit for the next outing.

What Do You Think?

What tools have you used in your coaching practice to deal with misbehavior? What do you think of Iowa’s stance on running as corporal punishment? Weigh in on our Facebook page and share your thoughts. Or email us at – we love hearing from you! And good luck – we know discipline in teams can be tough. But we hope the advice from the experts at PCA can help!