Punishment, is it worth it?

by Matt Kuzdub

Spring 2017

Fear and physical punishment is not a good motivator. Athletes don't perform better when they are fatigued. Build a good rapport by communicating.

Early in my coaching career I would punish junior players with fitness. Why? I believe it was for 2 main reasons - first, because some of my former coaches had done it that way. And second, because I wanted to impress my peers and look tough. Those are pretty bad reasons because they don’t take into account the player...AT ALL. This form of disciplinary action might get them to behave, for the time being, but will it change behaviour change over the long-term? If anything, they’ll probably struggle even more. Punishing a player through verbal or physical abuse surely won’t change their attitude and to top things off, they probably 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, they tell me 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 has always been the main reason kids are motivated to play sports, but the definition of fun has changed. Fun is now associated with winning, being recognized and achieving big things in sport, 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 that get in the way of their training.

Fun is now associated with winning, being recognized and achieving big things


They get tired

Research clearly shows that with increased fatigue, motor control - and the ability to accomplish highly complex motor tasks - decreases.

They get frustrated

Remember the inverted U theory? 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 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 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, 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). When 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.


Researchers 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.

  1. Coaches that didn’t yell and remained calm
  2. Coaches who were caring and encouraging
  3. Coaches with knowledge of the sport


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.

Be Clear

I’ve noticed that many players 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. These were some of the top U18 players in the country. When I asked them what they were working on, they said footwork. But when I asked them to identify what specific aspects of footwork, they didn’t know.

Here’s a video of Novak doing a similar drill - I’m sure he knows what he’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.


If you’re having trouble getting through to a young player, try to connect in ways they are 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 programs, test results, tips, videos 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 gym and tennis court. Almost overnight, they were more engaged...I believe it was because I tried 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 and it works wonders. 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.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying there isn’t a time to be firm with younger athletes. There are definite instances where 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 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 view practice as a negative experience...fear is never a good motivator.

Furthermore, adopting a coaching style that places the athlete’s needs ahead of our own, cultivates an environment of openness and discussion. So let’s leave the push-ups, jumps and sprints in the gym and off the court. We’ll gain more time coaching our players and less time making them suffer.