What is it with Physical Punishment in So Few Sports?

By John Kessel | May 27, 2016, 12 p.m. (ET)

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Lately, I have been taken to task about my stance against using physical activity – like running lines or doing sit-ups – as a teaching tool for sports skills. In looking at other motor-learning activities to determine if this is a valuable way to enhance learning, I have seen that a handful of sports have coaches who justify using it, despite a lack of evidence that such actions improve learning. 

Sadly, my sport is one of them. I do not know of any better example of how tradition/teaching the way you were taught, has continued to be implemented despite its actual ineffectiveness. Alas, most coaches who punish with physical “consequences” – or taking this method even further by calling them “funsequences” or “funishments” – are likely NOT reading this article. They know they are right because they see it “work.”

Why is this so prevalent for some activities, yet seems silly for others? Would you do sit-ups for misspelling a word in class? Would an archer or golfer do push-ups for missing the target? Would a baseball player run laps for swinging and missing? Maybe the coach simply hasn’t learned how to teach, or has an unrealistic expectation of perfection. Maybe it’s a selfish need for control. In any event, it appears to be cultural, as many archers and golfers and spellers have become great without physical punishment. It is also concerning because injuries – small and large – have happened in these unneeded physical demands. How many kids who really need sport in their lives walk away because of initial losses due to physical inequities or a rough family life?

To help those coaches who were taught this way (who will also have players and parents who were taught this way), I will continue to share thoughts and hope that this information, and not criticism, guides the coaches’ and leaders’ discovery. As surgeon Atul Gawandee put it:

Is punishment a learning tool? The biology side of my learning knows that it is woven into the fabric of life. The “Darwin Awards” are a great example where the ultimate punishment is death, and thus actions that keep the species alive evolve to be predominant. Corporal punishment has been a tool for thousands of years, and the threat of imprisonment remains a core part of “teaching a lesson” both in advance (avoidance behavior) and for those who serve their time. I had a friend who once commented that if punishment worked so well, everyone coming out of prison would be a wonderful person. My question, however, is about using physical consequences as a learning tool for motor learning, not character behavior or evolution per se; about learning to PLAY a sport.

Think back to when you just played; not with a coach, but with your friends. You were learning moves on the playground, or in tag games and kickball. Did you physically punish yourself if you missed catching the ball or got tagged? Did you lose the race to the dock and have to… do more swimming? In all the warm-up/cool-down games I collected (see pages 60-80 in the book MiniVolley), the punishment was losing the bragging rights that come with winning or being forced NOT to be active such as “sitting out;” or in freeze tag, waiting until a brave teammate unfroze you. Why do teams scream “NOOOO!” when you go to stop Speedball or Monarch of the court in a volleyball practice? Not only have they been learning by playing, their punishment has been sitting out and waiting to get back on, not doing any physical punishment for getting knocked off the court. While out, they are in high levels of deliberate practice mode as they want to be playing.

This “Winners Stay On” lesson sees the learning of both physical skill (can’t serve in? See ya!) and the mental game. In my experience, this is a core way to create players who love to win, rather than being afraid to lose. Sure, the smaller-sided games get more reps and the learning is finally gamelike as it is going over the net (unlike too many drills where coaches ignore the net, which I talk about in Please Use the Net). In the end, isn’t every tournament, Olympic to 12U local play, simply a form of “winners stay on” learning? I think back to my experience in learning by playing doubles, and those Karch has shared of how he and others would sneak into the school gym at night until they were found and kicked out. The only “physical consequence” in all these learning opportunities was the loss of playing time. 

I simply cannot fathom playing and then being “taught” how to improve my motor skills by doing fatiguing physical punishment in a tournament. Yet I see this form of “teaching” everywhere in some sports, especially volleyball. Why not take the time to realize with your team that half the teams lose every match, and to discuss the differences that resulted in the scoreboard outcome? It does not take any coaching skills to demand that players perform physical punishment. The transfer to learning comes from doing specific motor-learning skills through sport-specific play. When other animals err in learning how to perform a skill, the parent does not force them to run lines. 

The power of play in learning is very clear in watching young animals learn as they roughhouse. I took some time to look at other areas where a motor skill is learned by humans for more food for thought. Watch the movie “Patch Adams” and study the work of Stuart Browning at nifplay.org/ for more insights into the nature and importance of play in life. 

To learn more on this form of “harder” training, I just read a book that now ranks in my top 10: Dr. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s PEAK, Secrets from the new Science of Expertise. The book describes in detail what the “right sort of practice” is and how it can be put into work. It covers a wide variety of expert performance training in learning a skill that takes 307 pages to share. Purposeful vs. Deliberate vs Naïve practice, feedback, focus, goals, limits, and highly developed examples of practice. The military, Seals to Top Gun and more are often referenced. Flying jets, especially in combat, is a very advanced motor skill to learn. Take this two-paragraph example from Vietnam, where our pilots were being shot down – a much more important example of losing when compared to our 13-and-unders losing a game.

The pilots of the Red Force being the best the Navy had, generally won the dogfights. And the trainers' superiority only increased over time, because every few weeks a whole new class of students would enter the Top Gun academy, while the trainers stayed there month after month accumulating more and more dogfight experience and getting to the point at which they had seen pretty much everything the students might throw at them. For each new class, the first few days of dogfights, in particular, were usually brutal defeats for the Blue Force.

That was okay, however, because the real action occurred once the pilots landed, in what the Navy called “after-action reports.” During these sessions, the trainers would grill the students relentlessly: What did you notice when you were up there? What actions did you take? Why did you choose to do that? What were your mistakes? What could you have done differently? When necessary, the trainers could pull out the films of the encounters and the data recorded from the radar units and point out exactly what had happened in a dogfight. And both during and after the grilling, the instructors would offer suggestions to the students on what they could do differently, what to look for, and what to be thinking about in different situations. Then the next day, the trainers and students would take to the skies and do it all again. Over time, the students learned to ask themselves the questions, as it was more comfortable than hearing them from the instructors, and each day they would take the previous lessons with them as they flew. Slowly they internalized what they’d been taught so they didn’t have to think so much before reacting.

The results of this training were dramatic. The next three years, the Navy shot down an average of 12.5 enemy planes for each U.S. plane lost. The U.S. Air Force, which did not train this way, had a ratio of 2:1. Also, the Navy went from shooting down one plane for every five encounters to downing 1.04 per encounter – as in every time they encountered the enemy plane, it was shot down. The rest of the military began to train this way and in Iraq, the U.S. shot down 33 enemy planes and lost only one.

If the very complex motor-skill tasks of flying and piloting ships and submarines, does not require physical punishment, there are probably others. What follows is a quick list, by no means comprehensive, of Motor-Learning Mastery Activities that do not use physical punishment.

Surgery – Perhaps no other motor skills is as important as this. I want to have a skillful surgeon operating on me, or on my pet. Yet I have not found a single doctor who has said they did one iota of physical punishment to hold themselves “accountable” or to master their skill sets faster.

Music & Theater – I have not found a teacher in mastering any form of music who promotes physical punishment for improved learning. When a student errs in their motor learning on an instrument, the teacher requires more deliberate practice, but does not demand push-ups or sprints. Voice teachers expect their vocalists to do it again and again, but they do not make a singer do push-ups after singing off-pitch or a wrong note. I have watched The Voice since its inception and have never seen a single coach enforce any physical punishment for missed notes or lyrics. My friends in bands discuss and return to deliberate practice, not physical punishment. In live performances and recorded film, directors and producers keep the performers teaching/learning their lines and actions. 

Racing – Cars/trucks, bikes from road racing to BMX to mountain biking, motorcycling, skiing, snowboarding, skateboards, snowmobiles, etc.: I have not encountered a single coach who says he/she uses additional consequences, outside of the failure to win, as a learning tool. They laugh heartily at when I ask how they might do that.

Olympic Sports – Swimming, diving, shooting, archery, gymnastics, skating, badminton, judo, taekwondo, cycling, table tennis, fencing, wrestling and boxing: I am most familiar with these as they operate out of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where I have been based since 1977. Three even share the same building with USAV. None of the coaches I know use a single burpee or other “funishment” to improve the mastery of their specific sport skill set. When we discuss the topic of consequences, these Olympic coaches just shake their heads at me and say, in essence, that is not what good teachers do. Losing, being ranked lower and not making the team are all the consequences they need. Even in boxing, the trainers focus on skill development, and separate the physical conditioning.

Pro Sports – Golf, tennis and bowling, all of which also have been or are Olympic sports. I will quote a golf pro turned volleyball coach on this one, Will White; To your point, from the time I was 12 to 23 I was trained by some of the best professional golfers in the south. Never once did I have a bad round or shank a range ball and "owe lines" or have to give burpees. I had a very specific program. The golf pros would spend golf time working on golf stuff.” 

So what are these Olympic and professional level teachers/coaches missing that my sport sees? I am certain that coaches who use physical punishment believe in it and believe that it is “teaching accountability.” Doesn’t losing to a competitor teach this? Why not take the losers aside and teach the skill(s) they performed ineffectively? Why spend their time running (or fatiguing them extra as we know that fatigue is detrimental to learning)? Is it because these coaches are unable to teach, but can say “run!”? We know strength and conditioning are very important. However as fatigue is detrimental to learning, most sports put conditioning and weight training as a separate block. 

At the higher and highest level, strength and conditioning become very important. Perhaps unique to volleyball, due to the rebound aspect, three-contact limit and small court space characteristics, THE most important skill is reading. Because of this, masters teams can dominate much younger and fit teams and people make a living playing 1 vs 6 “power of one” volleyball exhibitions. The fitness level at the beginner to mid-range level of play – including that of most junior club and high school programs – is not the determining factor to winning. 

I judge my effectiveness as a coach mostly by an outcome measurement that is not scoreboard-based. I judge myself by the percentage of kids I coach who return to sport the next season, and who later on give back to the sport by coaching. I teach to learn and love the sport as effectively as I can, and take advance time to explain to my athletes why I will not be punishing them, but will be teaching them. None have told me at season’s end, “I wish you had made me run more…”

A wise coaching friend of mine explained it well this way I think: “I became a band geek in junior high school and stayed one, avoiding sports like the plague throughout high school because of “old school” coaches. I learned to LOVE sports from friends who taught me to play football, soccer, racquetball, volleyball, cycling running, etc. Not once did any of them ever attempt to make me do push-ups or run laps for making mistakes. I learned most of what I knew about volleyball from female teammates that I was in rec leagues with. They pushed me, they expected a lot from me, and they sometimes got really frustrated with me. But they never tried punishing me (unless you think telling me I was a dumbass was punishment.)  Even though “old school punishment” was the way they were all trained and learned how to play…” 

After more than 45 years of coaching, I find that players and coaches want the easier way out – doing something like punishment or simple drills that bear no relation to the sport rather than putting in the much harder work of deliberate and purposeful practice. They prefer what is known as naïve practice, where they don’t have to focus and think – also seen in blocked/repetitive training.

I hear again Zero Mostel speaking in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. “Why do we fiddle on the roof?” and then the song “Tradition” answers. Having shared a draft of this blog with others in advance, USA Volleyball Arizona Region’s Director of Outreach Eric Hodgson (who has a great blog by the way at arizonasidelines.blogspot.com) shared the Coach Your Brains Out podcast on the topic.

I will continue to ponder all this while the song plays in my head as I close this blog – and look forward to the hearing from those who say what they mean, mean what they say and are not mean when they say it.

P.S. A powerful read on how people get fooled by randomness into thinking punishment works comes from a “Discover” magazine article on Dr. Daniel Kahnemann., entitled “Decisions, Decisions.” I read it in 1985 and learned how “regression to the mean” fools gifted teachers into thinking punishment works. Some 20 years later, Dr. Kahnemann was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on how people err in their judgements. If you would like a copy of this article, please email me at john.kessel@usav.org and I will send it. You can also learn a great deal about this and other errors we make in thinking, in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow

The book I found most valuable to learning about randomness, thinking and judgment in teaching was by Leonard Mlodinow – The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. His new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior is also excellent.