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Mind Games

Published: 09 Nov 2006 - 07:39 by rippa rit

Updated: 28 Nov 2008 - 12:43

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Extracted from Peak Performance Sports Bulletin  - click here for free registration

– Keeping It Sporting

We all tend to have a thousand things running through our minds at any one moment. But, when you need to focus it becomes important to be able to control these thoughts – one such example is in sport. All worries, anxieties and mental goals circulating an athletes head can contribute to slipping mentally at a vital point.  

One of the major difficulties for coaches working with groups of athletes with diverse motives and goals is to create a motivational climate that facilitates the development of all these motives – or at least as many as possible.

Motivation has been defined as ‘the direction and intensity of ones efforts’. In sport, direction refers to the decision to commit and to turn up to training on a regular basis. The intensity dimension is about how much people are prepared to give in each training session. It’s worth noting that the motivational climate created by the coach will impact on the motivation of the athletes under his or her guidance.

 For example, when I was a teenager I harboured dreams of being a professional football player. However, the main reasons I played football were because I enjoyed it and because I wanted to master my chosen position of goalkeeper. I remember playing for two clubs during this period, under coaches whose approach to training and motivation could not have been more different.

The first coach acted like a drill sergeant in training, continually shouting instructions and berating players for the smallest of mistakes. His motivational climate was one of fear and intimidation, in which players became afraid to make mistakes. Feedback would usually focus on what had gone wrong and praise was rarely offered.

As a group we quickly came to understand that when the coach stopped shouting he was satisfied. Although he was reasonably successful, most players disliked him and I soon felt it was time to move on. This example demonstrates the negative approach to coaching and motivation, which relies on negative reinforcement to shape behaviour, so that players do exactly what the coach requires in order to avoid punishment and/or humiliation.   

I enjoyed my training and played much better football when I went on to work with a coach whose approach was primarily positive. Rather than using negative reinforcement, the positive approach focuses on using praise to reinforce the behaviour desired by the coach.

Contrasting Styles
The work of the psychologist BF Skinner has led to a more complete understanding of what is termed operant conditioning, whereby behaviour becomes either more or less likely depending on its consequences. The theory is that if you reward or reinforce behaviours they are more likely to occur again, while punishment is more likely to reduce the chances of that behaviour occurring in future. Both rewards and punishments can be used as motivators. So, to avoid confusion, you must think of positive and negative in this case in terms of either adding something or taking something away, not in terms of good or bad (see box and table below).

How operant conditioning works
Operant conditioning forms an association between a behaviour and a consequence.
There are four possible consequences to any behaviour, as follows:

  • Something good can start or be presented;
  • Something good can end or be taken away;
  • Something bad can start or be presented;
  • Something bad can end or be taken away.

Anything that increases a behaviour – makes it occur more frequently, makes it stronger or makes it more likely to occur – is termed a reinforcer. Normally a person will perceive ‘starting something good’ (positive reinforcement) or ‘ending something bad’ (negative reinforcement) as worth pursuing and will repeat the behaviours that seem to cause these consequences.

Anything that decreases a behaviour – makes it occur less frequently, makes it weaker, or makes it less likely to occur – is termed a punisher. Normally a person will perceive ‘ending something good’ (negative punishment) or ‘starting something bad’ (positive punishment) as worth avoiding and will not repeat the behaviours that seem to cause these consequences.

Note that these definitions are based on their actual effect on the behaviour in question – ie they must reduce or strengthen the behaviour to be defined as punishment or reinforcement. These processes are illustrated in graphic form in the table below.

Food for Thought
 Successful feedback is a matter of balance. If you are constantly focusing on people’s mistakes, there is a risk that their confidence will be eroded and their motivation damaged. A little praise can go a long way to sustaining someone’s motivation. If you feel it necessary to be critical or corrective in your feedback, I suggest using the ‘sandwich approach’ (see box below) to help sustain motivation.

The sandwich approach
Let’s take an example of a football coach being critical of a striker who has missed a relatively simple chance to score. Rather than berate the player, the coach might consider something along the lines of the following feedback sandwich:

  • ‘That was a great run you made to create space…  
  • ‘… but it was a poor finish. You were leaning back on contact and that’s why the ball lifted over the bar. Next time try to keep your head over the ball.
  • ‘Keep going because you are stretching their defence.’

When presented in this way, the feedback becomes more constructive by balancing praise and criticism while also providing instruction.

Why should a negative approach to coaching, using more punishment and criticism than positive reinforcement, be discouraged when there is evidence to show that punishment can help to eliminate some unwanted behaviours? There are three serious drawbacks to incorporating punishment into your coaching style:

The predominant use of punishment normally works by creating a fear of failure, and this can often lead to performance decrements as athletes focus on the consequences of losing or making mistakes rather than on what needs to be done to be successful. Fear of failure can promote indecision, with consequent tentative responses and a tendency to choke in high-pressure situations. In hockey, for example, a winger needs to take risks by running at the full backs and committing his opponents; this will not always be successful but it only has to work once for a match- winning goal to occur. However, if the player fears a backlash from his coach if he loses the ball, he might become tentative and avoid responsibility by passing to a team mate. ‘Playing it safe’ is often a counterproductive tactic which has been linked to poorer performances.

If you are working with athletes who are attention seekers, making an example of them by punishing them in front of others can actually reinforce the behaviour you want to eliminate. Poor behaviour, such as constantly turning up late for practice, is sometimes designed to provoke a response. The best way to deal with such behaviour is on a one-to-one basis in a private setting; otherwise it is likely to recur as it gives the attention seeker exactly what he craves.

The predominant use of punishment as an approach to coaching doesn’t promote good relations between coach and athlete. It can lead to the build-up of hostility, resentment and discouragement, resulting in loss of motivation.

Coaches who use a predominantly negative approach HAVE often achieved great success. However, it sometimes goes unnoticed that these same coaches are exceptional tacticians or have great technical expertise. In such cases it is highly likely that their success is attributable to these qualities rather than their negative approach to coaching."

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