Negative Reinforcement

From a Coach:

Maybe you can help me sort something out that has been nagging at me for a long time now. This is not so much a technical question per se, but one that you might be able to answer from your experience. There are a lot of coaches that I know that use negative reinforcement exclusively to encourage improvement. In the club I coach for, it is almost common practice to make girls do line touches (or pushups,etc…) if they aren’t focused or aren’t responding to the drill objectives favorably. A lot of the coaches say that putting girls on the line makes them respect you as a coach because they know that you are serious. Is it me or is that ridiculous? It just feels wrong to punish someone you’re trying to teach, motivate, and inspire.

Personally, I don’t discount the fact that negative reinforcement might encourage short term improvement, but it never feels good to me as a coach. Running is not really part of volleyball and at no time do the girls ever do line touches in a game. To be honest, I’ve used negative reinforcement before and it always seems to be more oppressive than helpful – I can see it in the faces of my players. But what other alternative is there when players aren’t focused or when they become frustrated?

Anyway, just thought you might be able to help me straighten this struggle out.

Our Reply:

It is a tough question. As you know, we typically only run as a result of losing a drill – we have something little like touching lines, pancake ladders, etc. wagered on each drill, and the loser has to do whatever it is. It is simply a physical reminder that they lost and that losing sucks, rather than a punishment or an attempt at fitness. At some point you end up with kids so driven that they don’t even need to have that reminder, but that’s down the road.

Some things in my gym are so critically important to me that we’ll stop and do some lines or dives when they aren’t done. There are times when we’ll make everyone do a pancake and a sprawl when someone doesn’t dive for a ball, and there are times when we’ll say something like “the next time we don’t pursue a ball, we’re all going to run”.

So I guess there are some “negative” (if you want to call them that) reinforcements in place in my gyms. But here is the other thing I want to point out. I have NEVER made a kid run because they didn’t perform a mechanic correctly. If they held their wrists and hands wrong, or something like that, I simply continue to give them feedback. I agree that you are there to teach, so you have to find ways to connect with them through your teaching. And you can’t teach when they are running. And it becomes harder to teach when they are angry with you for making them run. But some kids, despite your best efforts and lots of patient attention, simply won’t focus and come to practice unwilling or uninterested in getting better. In your HS program these are kids that you cut, but in club it is a different story. Maybe you politely tell them that they just aren’t a good fit for your club and that they might have a better volleyball experience somewhere else?

All that having been said, the thing we like the best to bring focus to practice is to score everything we do, every day. You’ve heard us talk about the cauldron before, so that is it. We then tie those scores into something everyone who is playing seems to want: a starting spot in the matches. Score great, start the match. Score poorly, don’t start (and maybe don’t play very much).

The beauty of this system is that pretty soon the kids’ teammates won’t let them be lazy or lose focus. They get after each other and understand that if I am lazy then I am affecting the score of my teammate and will probably hear about it from them. And you have to convince them that the best way to score better is to become more mechanically proficient – become better volleyball players. And that means they have to listen to feedback, work hard to make changes, and really give a great effort every day.

Beyond that, I don’t know what else to tell you. You might read some material about “Positive Coaching” here, and you might be interested in this book.