Becoming a coach is about helping others succeed. No matter how fit an athlete is, their mental focus is what puts them ahead. They need to have confidence in themselves and their abilities, they need to stay focused on the task at hand and be able to push themselves towards a goal despite the physical pain and fatigue, and they need to put aside self doubt. In approaching the idea of coaching, I’ve found it’s important to understand the psychology behind a winning attitude. I think positive discipline is one way to influence athletes to have that winning attitude and it’s a topic that has interested me. I would like to put positive discipline into my future coaching practices.
So what is positive discipline? According to the Positive Discipline Association, “Positive discipline is a program designed to teach young people to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities” (positivediscipline.org). It’s a concept built on mutual respect where as the parent or coach is firm but also kind and respectful of the young persons needs. This principle uses effective communication and problem solving skills to teach correct behaviors and focus on solutions rather than punishing. Positive discipline is focused on encouragement and rewarding positive behaviors while redirecting or shaping unwanted behaviors.
This concept was based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs. Alder felt that pampering children just encouraged them to have behavioral and social problems. He realized teachers and parents needed to be firm and set clear boundaries while still being respectful to the children. Rewards and positive responses were a great motivator that worked to cement the behaviors you wanted to increase, while redirecting or shaping could diminish the unwanted behaviors.
An important thing to note is the difference between punishment and discipline as they are not the same thing. Discipline is used to teach and guide, shaping ones behaviors. Punishment is used for retribution and intimidation as a means to control someone’s behaviors. By using punishments rather than discipline, you deprive an individual of personal growth. They begin to feel it is someone else’s responsibility to control them and ultimately decide when their performance or behavior is bad and what consequences they will face. It’s likely they will not put an effort into their performance if they feel they can get away without being “caught” or if they are willing to accept the consequence, such as accept a loss or sit out of the game. Punishments encourage an athlete to look at their coach as being unfair, rather than learning to be responsible for their own actions. Contrary, discipline teaches a person to gauge their own behavior and develop an internal compass for accessing their own performance. When they are “misbehaving” they feel they are breaking a social order of trust and letting down their coach and teammates because they understand that the consequences of their poor performance will affect everyone on the team.
Positive discipline has many benefits. Over 1,250 participants in the USA and Canada completed 110 parenting classes focused on the use of positive discipline and reported significant changes in their children’s behaviors (McVittie &Best, 2009). Parents felt more authoritative as they were able to set clearer boundaries, increased their positive connections, and decreased their harsh connections. Just as it works with parents and their children, positive discipline establishes a relationship between the coach and athletes built on positive interactions that instills trust and open communication. Athletes are clear on what their objectives are and know they are rewarded for working towards accomplishing these goals. This type of reinforcement becomes a motivator that encourages them to perform at their best and try harder on a regular basis.
Elizabeth Cooper (2205) has recommended several positive discipline techniques to use in parenting and I have outlined them as to how I would apply them to my coaching method:
“When/Then” approach. Parents often use this as a motivator for completing homework. “You can watch TV after you have finished your homework” is a phrase many of us are familiar with. In groups of young athletes, it’s also common to suggest ice-cream after a practice.
Abuse it/Lose it. When athletes are found to not take their practices seriously, you can discipline them by not letting them play in the next game. They will learn that practices are important and meant to improve individual performance and team unity. If a player is not interested in building team unity, they don’t get to participate as one of the team.
Choice Principle. By giving an athlete two choices, both of which are acceptable by me, it guarantees a positive outcome. For example, if an athlete is complaining about the heat and it’s clear they do not want to warm up, I can offer two choices of a work out. The athlete feels as though they had autonomy in the situation and it still fulfills the needed task.
Incompatible Alternative. This method involves offering the athlete an alternative that will in turn prevent any unwanted behavior. If you assume your athletes will be tempted to misbehave while on an overnight trip to a game, you can organize a group dinner or team building activity.
Take a Break. If an athlete lashes out at another teammate, instead of scolding and building frustration in an already tense scenario, you can ask the athlete to leave and take a break. Instruct them to return when they are cooled down and then as the coach, I can facilitate a healthy, constructive dialog between the teammates involved.
Catch good behaviors. Our human nature makes us prone to respond to negative actions and ignore positive ones. By making a conscious effort to acknowledge and reward good behavior, it makes the athletes more likely to repeat the action. This is especially powerful when the good behavior occurred spontaneously. It is common for athletes to go out and celebrate after a well played game. But this method involves also taking the time to reward the small behaviors we want to see increase.
Demonstrating. By modeling good behavior, coaches set an example that the athletes are able to put into practice.
Positive Closure. Always end a practice or game on a positive note. Let the athletes know you believe in them and help them see something good about the day they finished as well as something good that lies ahead.
Use actions instead of words. When a coach becomes frustrated, they shouldn’t raise their voice and scold the players. Instead, keep having the athletes play out the defeated act until you see improvement and reward that improvement immediately.
Two way communication. Talk with your athletes, not at them. Be willing to listen and be open to their suggestions. Be firm, but kind in your tone.
Positive discipline has been shown to control impulses and regulate emotional outbursts. A study conducted on middle school students found that incorporating positive discipline into the classroom resulted in fewer discipline problems (Kariuki, & Davis, 2000). Those who have the most trouble with emotional regulation are males and those who are stressed or are perfectionists. With positive discipline, athletes can learn skills that will give them the tools to evaluate their feelings before acting on them. This is not only helpful for losing gracefully, but is a life skill that will help them cope with life’s inevitable disappointments. The more positive interactions in your life, the more resiliency you are able to build to guard yourself against negative reactions and sudden rises in stress and anxiety.
Instead of obsessing on weaknesses, positive discipline focuses on natural talents and performance strengths. An athlete is able to thrive when they feel their strengths are being used and they see the progress they make. This satisfaction fulfills the natural urge to do better and brings more meaning to their life knowing that their talents are increasing.
Cooper, E. (2005). 101 Positive Discipline Techniques. Quest Fall, 8, 2.
Kariuki, P., & Davis, R. (2000). The Effects of Positive Discipline as They Relate to Transition Times in the Middle School Classroom [Electronic version]. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Mid-South Educational Research Association, Bowling Green, KY.
McVittie, J. & Best, A. (2009). The Impact of Adlerian-Based Parenting Classes on Self-Reported Parental Behavior. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 65, 264-285.