The Key to Positive Reinforcement in Sports

Do you know the difference between reinforcement and punishment? Positive reinforcement is used to reinforce behaviors that are beneficial to sports. This is a key aspect of child and youth development.
The Key to Positive Reinforcement in Sports

Last update: 11 November, 2020

When we talk about positive reinforcement, we’re talking about behavior. In sports, coaches should focus on reinforcing positive behaviors. It also means eliminating other behaviors that can interfere with sports and social development. Today, we want to talk to you about the keys to positive reinforcement.

Reinforcements are models of intervention that aim at shaping behavior. We’re talking about a purely psychological concept that coaches should understand and apply, particularly when working with children and young people.

The perspective of reinforcement goes beyond punishment or praise. In these situations, it’s important to incorporate different strategies according to the situation at hand.

What is the purpose of reinforcement within sports?

The practice of sport doesn’t only involve the physical performance of a certain action. Values, respect, and teamwork are aspects that include various psychological variables, such as the following:

At the same time, there are also skills that are counterproductive when it comes to sports development. These don’t go away simply by developing and maximizing some antagonistic characteristic, but by working on them specifically. To do so, you must correctly identify them in specific actions. Some of them are:

The impact of positive reinforcement

To use a reinforcement perspective, you first need to understand the difference between the two types:

  • Positive reinforcement: aims to reinforce positive behavior. For example: When a child takes the initiative to help a peer, rewarding that ability will benefit both the rewarded child and the others who will take him or her as an example.
  • Negative reinforcement: consists of removing a behavior or preventing it from lasting over time. To do this, you need to offer alternatives. For example: When a child behaves aggressively, disapproving of that attitude in front of the rest of the group, setting an example to another child, will encourage change.

In short, reinforcements are a way to associate a stimulus with a consequence. In the case of working with children, establishing clear rules in advance facilitates the process. Finally, the reinforcements are accompanied by punishments.

Positive reinforcement serves to encourage positive behaviors in children.

The role of punishments

The word ‘punishment’ has a negative connotation in itself. It’s important to clarify that, in this context, it has nothing to do with instilling fear or humiliation. Punishment in sports is the consequence of a bad attitude. A clear example is the expulsion of an athlete for hurting another athlete on the field.

Types of punishment

Punishments can also be positive or negative, depending on their objective:

  • Positive punishment: positive punishment gives something in return for the eradication of a behavior. For example, if a child doesn’t cooperate when it comes to taking care of equipment, we assign them a whole week to clear up as a punishment. This punishment imposes an action with the objective of increasing proactivity and responsibility.
  • Negative punishment: this type of punishment seeks to remove something when undesirable behavior occurs. For example, in a team of any sport, a child who has an aggressive attitude with a partner will only have a few minutes to play in the game.

How do you apply positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcements are based simply on praise or approval of attitudes. If you apply it that way, there’ll come a time when it won’t be enough reward for the children. Thus, in order to apply a reinforcement successfully applied, there must be a dynamic connection between the coach and the athletes.

Types of positive reinforcement

As we mentioned above, there are several types of positive reinforcements. These will vary according to the attitude you want to cultivate:

  • Praise: the most basic and most common form of reinforcement in sports. It consists of congratulations, approval by the coach, and the environment. Its application is usually regular and individual when a child performs an action correctly.
  • Exemplify: if you want to achieve more changes in the team, you can do so by making an example of a child and highlighting his or her actions to the group. You should be careful when doing this, as it can affect the self-esteem of others. For example, if you want to highlight a child’s efforts, you can choose someone who tries hard despite not being the best.
  • Rewards: this is one of the most popular forms of positive reinforcement, and it’s important to administer it carefully. This reinforcement has both a group and individual purpose, as it reinforces individual effort and sets the standards for reaching the reward. For example, the child who works harder and works more for the team will make a captain.

The role of the coach

Coaches play a central role in the actions and attitudes of their players. Whoever’s in charge of a team has to be a reference figure for children. For any type of reinforcement to be effective, coaches have to be consistent with their words and actions.

A coach talking to his team.

If every time a coach suggests a reinforcement, they don’t follow through, then the coach loses credibility. As a result, the athletes will no longer work as hard to achieve rewards.

The importance of feedback after positive reinforcement

Implementing positive reinforcement requires much more than just issuing orders. Communication has to be assertive and mutual. Therefore, reinforcement isn’t only about praising or rewarding, but also describing actions, explaining consequences, offering alternatives, and constantly motivating team members to meet the established objectives.

Many coaches question the bad attitudes of their team members. They don’t know what else to do and they end up recurring to punishment alone. Reinforcement requires constant analysis and evaluation of the team or individual, since sometimes, accidentally, you can end up also reinforcing negative behaviors. Therefore, it’s a resource that you should use with great discretion.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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    • Erikstad, M. K., Haugen, T., & Høigaard, R. (2018). Positive environments in youth football perceived justice and coach feedback as predictors of athletes’ needs satisfaction. German Journal of Exercise and Sport Research, 48(2), 263-270.
    • Guéguen, N., Martin, A., & Andrea, C. R. (2015). «I am sure you’ll succeed»: When a teacher’s verbal encouragement of success increases children’s academic performance. Learning and Motivation, 52, 54-59.
    • Han, K.-S., & Yang, C.-H. (2018). The association between leadership styles of adolescent football coaches and players’ social skills. Indian Journal of Public Health Research and Development, 9(12), 2115-2122.
    • Stoeber, J., & Corr, P. J. (2015). Perfectionism, personality, and affective experiences: New insights from revised Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 354-359.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.