Can Punishment be Used to Build Youth Teams?

Posted: March 26, 2013 in Psychology, Teamwork, youth sports
Tags: , , , , , ,

dreamstimefree_128508One conditioning drill used by hockey coaches includes line sprints up and down the rink. This sort of sprinting drill is called “suicides” in basketball, soccer, and football. In hockey they are called Herbies, named after legendary national team coach Herb Brooks. Brooks used the sprints to “break” his players. In the movie Miracle, the sprinting scene demonstrates the use of physical, emotional, and mental punishment as a way of breaking the players of individual tendencies so that they will adopt their role as a part of the team. It works. The players bond with each other because they endure the torture together. In the movie they align more with each other partly because they hate Herb Brooks.

What Brooks did with the 1980 Olympic team is storied as one of the most brilliant displays of coaching in all of team sports. It is nearly impossible to replicate the achievements of that team, yet there are still factions of hockey coaches (and coaches of other sports too) who attempt to employ a punishment strategy to coach kids.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to present for youth hockey coaches about some of the best ways to build teams for teenaged girls. I asked the audience what they thought were good bonding exercises. A hand shot up in the back and the one-word response was, “Discipline.” I asked him to explain what he meant and he told me that if one kid broke a rule, the team would bond when they were punished as a group.

Hair on the back of my neck stood up.

Instead of attacking him for his idea, I turned it back to the women in the room to debate the merits of this approach.

“Ladies, how does that make you feel?”

One woman expressed she did not like it. She didn’t see how it would work to punish an entire group for the missteps of one player. Another woman agreed with her and pointed out that the strategy could certainly backfire if a group of girls decided to ostracize the player who had precipitated the punishment.

If I had been thinking quickly enough, I would have pointed out that the example he gave was not one of discipline, but of punshment, and in my book they are two different things. Teams must be disciplined to be effective. Coaches who implement discipline correctly can find a lot of success in that strategy. Punishment of the whole group for the behavior of one, is not discipline, it is a slippery slope that can lead to the breaking apart of a team.

Case in point, last year my son’s peewee team was instructed to sprint Herbie’s until the last player out of the locker room was on the ice. When the latest one finally got on the ice, the skating stopped. I asked my son this morning about whether any team bonding happened as a result of that exercise.  He told me, “Sure, we were bonded together to hate the coach, and we were bonded together to hate the kid who was the reason we skated.”

Herb Brooks coached men who had already developed a sense of identity. He didn’t mind being the reason they bonded because they hated him.

Youth sports athletes are developing their sense of self, self-esteem, and an appreciation for the way the world works. They need to be taught discipline, and they will bond when they are asked to endure difficult physical exercise together, but it must be done in a way that teaches all the right lessons too.

What do you think? Are there ways you have effectively used punishment to build a youth team?

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Copyright 2013    Meagan Frank                             Choosing to Grow

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