As coaches, what do we do when young juniors misbehave? Or what about when they don't complete an intended drill? I’ve been around the game for a long time now. From academy settings, junior circuits, the pro tour and everything in between. And what kills me more than anything is players getting punished, either for poor behaviour or not achieving a specific task. Coaches yell, make players run, do push-ups, or suffer some other form of physical punishment. Is this really the best approach?
As a young coach, working with junior players, I also took this path. I followed the example of coaches that preceded me... but I’d like to think I didn't know any better. Now, I believe I do. I know this may be a controversial topic. Older generation coaches may be thinking, “In my day we ran up and down the hill when we didn’t listen to the coach….it toughened us up and forced us to get our act together”. That may be true, but it’s no longer ‘your day’. Although a cliche, times do in fact change. Research calls this generation of kids, generation Z (Parker et al 2010). Generation Z began around the early 2000s and is characterized by kids who’ve grown up communicating extensively via technology. As coaches, we have a responsibility to know the behaviours of this generation and what approaches will best serve them.
In this article, we’ll look at why coaches still punish their players in so called ‘traditional’ ways, why it doesn’t work, and how alternative approaches could have a greater impact on both the player, and a coach’s relationship with him/her.
Punishment, Is It Worth It?
I already mentioned that early in my career I would sometimes punish junior players with fitness. Although deep down I didn't feel right about it, I felt I had no other choice. Whether it was tradition (I was coached that way) or peer pressure from senior coaches, I don't quite know. Either way, those are pretty bad reasons - mainly because they don’t take into account the player...AT ALL. What’ll this form of disciplinary action accomplish instead? Sure they’ll behave, for the time being. But will behaviour change over the long-term? I doubt it. If they’re punished for not completing a drill, will that punishment help them be better at the assigned drill? If anything, they’ll probably struggle even more. Punishing a player through verbal or physical abuse surely won’t change their attitude like a flip of the switch. And to top things off, they won’t like you very much either.
How do I know? Well, firstly, the research is quite clear on the topic...but more importantly, I’ve seen the difference through my own experiences. I’ve turned the corner and have tried to become more of a ‘player’s coach’. I try to talk to them, listen to them, treat them with respect. And what I’ve received in return is far better than I would have imagined….they come to me on their own freewill. They share their problems. Why they’re not pushing as hard as usual. Or why they’re down. And 99% of the time it’s not because they lack motivation.
Fun is the name of the game
Fun has always been the main reason kids are motivated to play sports (or should be anyway). But the definition of fun has changed - fun is now associated with winning, being recognized and achieving big things in sport - and from an early age. Researchers call this the professionalization of youth sports (Gould 2006). It’s social pressures, family pressures, school responsibilities and all that other stuff. You know, real life - the same things you and I stress about - that get in the way of their training.
A Player's Perspective
Because of my educational and playing background, I’ve always coached in settings where I’d have a dual role - tennis coach and physical prep coach. I remember one particular practice very well. We got off the tennis court. It was a tough session and the players had a hard time. The head coach at the time, wasn’t happy with the session and had this to say to me afterwards:
“Punish them in fitness today, make them suffer!”
Have we not learned anything about the development of an athlete? I’m not sure the fitness = suffer equation is part of the process...if it is, I’ve seemed to miss that lesson somewhere along the way.
You’re not toughening the player up, you’re making him/her resent you, and the game of tennis. You know what they’re thinking…”If this is what it takes to become a good tennis player, then I’m out”. How many potential great players has the game of tennis lost because of this approach? I don’t want to know. And don’t get me wrong, when it comes to training and competition, there’s always a struggle, but let the athlete encounter that struggle on their own...during a tough workout, or a heated 3-set battle. Those moments - when it feels like you’re fighting for your life - are what breeds toughness, determination and all the other qualities mentally tough competitors possess.
What Happens When Players Get Punished
They get frustrated
Have you heard of the inverted U theory (image below)? It suggests that optimal performance occurs when arousal isn’t too high or too low. Frustration increases arousal - negatively - and will likely decrease performance.
They get tired
Research clearly shows that with increased fatigue, motor control - and the ability to accomplish highly complex motor tasks - decreases. Fatigue can also decrease arousal, contributing to low performance (inverted U theory in action once again).
They lose interest
Possibly the most drastic outcome, they stop caring as much and lose interest in training, in tennis and definitely in you.
Some research even suggests that by the age of 12, kids have an idea whether they want to pursue sport in the long run (Hedstrom & Gould 2004). And guess what one of the most influential motivators to stop is? The coach! If they dislike their coach, they’re less likely to come back.
Although most coaches know that an athlete-centred approach is best but many of their athletes don’t. Young tennis players have this idea that the coach knows it all, and that as a player, they should listen to their every word (authoritarian coaching style). But the problem is, for effective coaching, we need to know as much about our player as we can. Cookie cutter approaches don’t work. A co-operative coaching style emphasizes a more ‘athlete-centred’ approach (ITF Manual). There’s constant dialogue between the athlete and coach. Each has a chance to ask questions, make decisions and direct the flow of a training session. It’s generally the authoritative coach that disciplines players with old school military style drills.
So What Can We do instead?
Researchers (Parker et al 2012) interviewed over 100 youth athletes across various sports with questions related to their coach. There were 3 overriding themes that seemed to continuously arise when it came to coaches they liked and felt brought the best out of them.
Coaches that didn’t yell and remained calm
Coaches who were caring and encouraging
Coaches with knowledge of the sport
Don't Yell, Talk Instead
Interesting that the number one theme was yelling. According to the authors, when coaches yelled, the kids shut off. The young athletes were much more attentive when their coaches spoke - and refrained from barking. So talk to the athlete. Ask them what’s wrong. Why isn’t the drill working out? Do they need more time? Is it too complex? If you have a good rapport with the player, they’ll tell you what’s bothering them and it’ll help you make a more informed decision.
Make It Clear
I’ve noticed that many players just don’t know what’s expected of them. Did you explain the drill? Maybe we need to make things more clear. And ask them to explain it back to us. Some players may not want to know all the nitty gritty details...but knowing the aim of a drill is a must. I’ll give you an example. I was watching players performing the Spanish drill. They were running balls down with poor set-up, sloppy mechanics, zero recoveries etc. And these were some of the top U18 players in the country. Afterwards, I asked what they were working on. They said footwork. Ok……but what specifically, I asked. They didn’t know. That doesn’t sound like a group of players that know the aim of their practice. Here’s a video of Sharapova performing some pre-tournament drills - I’m sure she knows what she’s working on - from the looks of it, early set-up (a more specific definition of ‘footwork’) , control over the direction of the ball...and even sport-specific work capacity (just to name a few).
Do you really want to punish a kid with fitness for not completing a drill? Will this make them more likely to complete the drill? Want to punish them? Make them do the drill UNTIL it’s complete. Whether it takes 20 minutes or 2 hours.
Mix It Up
Some athletes absolutely hate a particular drill. But as coaches, we know there's a million and one ways to get the job done...perhaps it’s on us to find those alternative ways. And just like any form of training, whether that be on the court or in the weight room, we can’t forget about regressions. Some drills may be too demanding, or the player just isn’t ready for the technical progression we’ve set out. We may have to regress to the level where they can be challenged but still have a sense of self-discovery and success. Think about it...how many times have you tried to drastically change your grip just to find yourself back at square one a couple weeks down the road. Change happen slowly, whether that’s a technical change like turning a player’s grip over, or making change in a player's psychology.
If you’re having trouble getting through to a young player, try to connect in ways they're more comfortable with. Here’s what worked very well for me; I created a Facebook group for our academy (players and coaches only). It was a really successful platform for me to share progress, videos, programs, test results, tips and more. Most importantly, in their eyes, it made me more relatable. They would reach out in private messages with questions, concerns or general feedback. This also extended to the tennis court. Almost overnight, they were more engaged...I believe it was because I made an attempt to speak their language.
If all else fails, take away their practice altogether….and let them watch from the sidelines. I’ve seen some very good coaches use this approach with success. That’s what the players are there for, they want to play! Take away play and it makes them think. I’ve seen young athletes come back with more vigor, more attentiveness and a greater desire to do well.
I’m not saying there isn’t a time to be firm with younger athletes. There are definite instances that firmness, through clear direction, will set a young athlete on the right path. But...there’s a big difference between being firm, and being cruel.
It’s important to reiterate that today’s youth are different. Because of their reliance on technology based communication, they often times lack verbal skills. It’s therefore important to find ways to communicate more effectively...perhaps through technological means. The last thing a coach wants is for a player to associate practices in a negative light...fear is never a good motivator.
Furthermore, adopting a coaching style that places the athlete’s needs ahead of our own, will cultivate an environment of openness and discussion - something I strongly believe every player coach relationship should have.
Lastly, making young juniors perform fitness on court (for whatever reason) diminishes the role of the fitness coach. I've seen this first-hand - players finish practice with suicides, get into the gym for their fitness session and are completely fried. This scenario doesn't help anyone.
So let’s leave the push-ups, jumps and sprints in the gym and off the court. We’ll gain more time coaching and developing our players and less time making them suffer & losing the love for the game.