There is no doubt carrots and sticks help initiate a positive result in the immediate short-term, but they fail miserably in helping athletes maintain enthusiasm and sustain effort. When we push incorrectly for results we discover, often when it is too late, that pressure, tension and external drives prevent players from attaining their full potential.

So why do coaches today feed their players this kind of motivational junk food?  For many coaches the answer is they simply have not questioned the way they were coached nor taken the time to examine the traditional methods of the past.

What is so wrong with using rewards and punishments? To begin with

It Disrupts the Player-Coach Relationship

Rewards and punishments send the message that players should only listen and perform behaviors because the coach will give them something in return or punish them if they don’t.  This is very different than performing to improve, grow and contribute to team goals.  Furthermore, players should respond to coaches because they respect them and value the knowledge they are conveying not to avoid punishment or gain rewards.

A healthy sports environment is dependent on mutual respect between players and coaches.  When the reward or punishment is removed, players who feed off this kind of junk food tend to revert back to bad habits.                               

It Creates a Hierarchy Within Your Team

While all your players may be equally energized when the season begins, an outlook that is dependent on external rewards threatens enthusiasm when it becomes obvious that some players are praised or punished more than others.

This may not always be in the form of more push-ups or running or the number of times one player gets praised while others do not — but playing time, names in the newspaper and other forms of external approval where one or two players receive the bulk of the attention can send signals that some players are more important than others.   

If coaches aren’t careful — these strategies can quickly cause some players to feel like they can do no wrong while others disengage and begin to feel less worthy or important. Messages of “team” and “we” become less effective when players perceive it is really about Joe or Sally and then everyone else.

It Ignores Underlying Reasons for Behavior

Coaches who overuse rewards or punishments neglect to focus on why players behave the way they do. All players are motivated but it is the underlying reasons of why they are motivated that will keep them focused and working hard all season long. When we mask the underlying reasons why athletes play with short-term treats of praise, hold back attention or punish players when they get out of line – we simply never get the answer to the “why” question.

It Discourages Risk-Taking

Creativity, problem solving, leadership, pushing oneself beyond their comfort zone and learning from mistakes — are all qualities we hope our players possess. But the nature of pushing oneself to the limit requires players veer off path every now and then.   We must let players explore their own curiosity and see where it takes them.  If they feel like just pawns in our chess game they lose autonomy and control over their own sports experience. With the fear of punishment breathing down their necks, many athletes will opt for the safer path (i.e. the one that guarantees reward or avoids punishment) over the one less traveled where true potential is reached.

It Undermines the Process of Learning

We want players to be goal oriented. But we don’t want them to ignore the steps required to achieve those goals. An overly incentivized sports environment encourages athletes to look for the shortcuts, skip as many steps as possible, and get to the end first.   In time, players who are externally motivated may even resort to cheating to win the prize. There’s always a tradeoff between time and quality. And usually, the player that’s done first gets the award, but externally motivated players learn little about the journey and miss out on the life skill of appreciating the process as much as the end goal.

What’s Your Experience?

You’re in the trenches fighting these battles everyday. Leave a few comments related to the questions below and join in on the conversation.

  • How do your players respond to reward and punishment?
  • Can you relate to the problems identified above?  

While rewards and punishments may get you short-term results we likely are sacrificing long-term development that produces more sustainable energy and engagement. In future posts we will discuss alternative ways to help your players and team reach their full potential.

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