On the question of punishment in volleyball training

I received the following email on the subject of punishment. I think it’s worth sharing as it’s something that has the potential to stimulate a conversation:

While perusing the site I came across one of your practice plans with serving:

“Target serving: I had them do 5 good serves each to Zones 1 and 5 where they had to put the ball in the last 3 meters of the court, as well as 5 good serves in front of the 3-meter line. I gave them 5 minutes to complete the drill, with push-up punishment for those who did not get it done.”

I have to admit, while growing up, I am one who hated being punished for when I did something wrong. Obvious it was a benefit to my upbringing. As a coach I deplore punishing athletes. I’m on a crusade to have the word removed from our vocabulary. Do we as coaches really want to punish our athletes for failures?

Let’s first clarify the word punish: Inflict a penalty or sanction as ‘retribution’ for an offense. At what time do our athletes fit this description? Maybe with behaviors this might apply, but not in execution of skills/drills/garills (Game Drills). I understand that coaches use conditioning for incentives to accomplish the skills/drills/garills. Using the word punishment or conditioning because it is a retribution for not being successful is not cool in my opinion. The main reason is because we are trying to teach our athletes the sport. Punishing them is not a good incentive to achieve this effort.

You may be thinking is this dude nuts? Conditioning has been a part of learning for a long time. Yes I agree and I myself use conditioning in my training programs. I never use the WORD punishment or punish my athletes due to non achievements. That is my point.

In a classroom, what ‘punishment’ does a student receives for not learning the material, completing a task/homework, or passing a test? There is a ‘consequence’ for achievement and that a grade. It’s not physical consequence. Maybe because volleyball is a physical activity it should have a physical consequence? Yet, do we return to the gym after a tournament or match and punish our athletes because they lost? If so, I feel those coaches are in the wrong profession because they are using retribution as a learning tool. Retribution insights fear and in my personal opinion, I want my athletes to play without fear.

Side note, I condition my athletes as part of overall conditioning. When behaviors are not what I am expecting, I use exercises to get the attention of the athletes. When I do use exercises to get their attention it is very brief exercise with the max of 5 reps. That’s me and I’m not advocating that others do the same.

Sorry for bending your ear/eyes with this, but I am pretty much on this crusade to have coaches really look at the issue of having athletes punished and even using the word in regard to instructing athletes. At least in the volleyball world, that is, but all sports should take a look at using the word and activity of punishment.

For the record, I very rarely use the term “punishment” with my teams when in the gym. I instead try to put things in the context of “consequences”. It is in the manner of “doing or failing to do X will result in Y consequence”. The above referenced 5 push-ups is an example of that. The use of “punishment” in the noted posted was simply a function of using an easily understood term.

Consequences

After getting this email, I had a conversation with Ruben Wolochin, head coach of the German professional team TV Bühl. We talked about not liking the idea of making exercise, strength & conditioning, etc. a penal thing. Neither of us want players to view that stuff in a negative light rather. They should think of it as constructive and developmental, not something to avoid. We then talked about how consequences can come in different forms. In a match, it usually comes in the form of a lost point – perhaps a lost set or match. That is pretty obvious and straight-forward feedback.

In training there tends to be a handful of ways players face consequences for actions. During game play, obviously we’re back in the points gained/lost situations. In some cases, like the game Winners, the consequence for bad play is having to leave the court, and getting to keep playing the consequence of good play (it does work both ways). This needs to be handled a bit carefully, though, as having players go out on an error can be counter-productive, as I talk about in relation to the Amoeba drill. During counting drills one can gain or lose points/repetitions as a result of good/bad performance (which is also a factor in bonus point scoring).

Getting focus and attention

Then there’s the consequence of failure as noted by the emailer above in regards to my 5 push-ups for those who couldn’t complete the required number of good reps in the allotted time. The inclusion of the “punishment” in these sorts of cases is because otherwise there is no consequence of note – good or bad. As such, the 5 push-ups, or whatever (Ruben used a dive one session as a consequence for players over-passing in a free ball drill), serve to reinforce the importance of the point the coach is trying to make. The consequence isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any sort of conditioning element – just an attention getter.

For example, I often have players who miss two serves in a row in certain types of drills/games do something like five crunches. This isn’t the sort of thing anyone is going to ever consider particularly straining or stressful physical activity. That isn’t the point at all. It is simply reinforcement that the player needs to focus better on making sure that second serve is a good one.

Attitude and effort

The only place I push things some is in the area of balls dropping, which is an absolute no-no for my teams that is established from the outset. In counting drills it results in a back-to-0. In games it obviously means a point to the other team or exiting the court in something like Winners, but if it becomes a repeating pattern it gets addressed additionally. The standard consequence is a set of four sprints from side line to side line. Again, not a super hard thing, but players would obviously rather not have to do it.

As my players will tell you, I want trainings to be a positive place. I do not punish errors and I use positive reinforcement as much as possible. There are times, though, when negative reinforcement is required to get their attention because just as too much screaming and yelling will make them numb to it, too much patting on the back also loses it’s value. I don’t like “punishing” my players, but I also know I’m not doing my job properly as coach if I don’t incorporate negative consequences from time to time.

By the way, when I was in the Army they didn’t use the term punishment for all the push-ups and stuff they made us do when we goofed up. They instead called it motivation. 🙂

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

6 comments

  1. Interesting topic. I had a similar discussion with Dr. Jimmy Czimek who is head of the German A level course about not digging/dropping balls. I am pretty sure that the extrinsic motivation of push ups (or whatever) is aiming at changing the behavior of the players, but shouldn’t we try to change the attitude of the players instead?

    We want them to watch, react and try everything to not only prevent the ball from hitting the floor but also to give it a certain direction to make transition as easy as possible. And this is a complex thing to do which requires a lot of different skills. Which brings me to my second thought: how motivation works. And here science says without any doubt that concerning complex tasks neither punishment nor reward does any good. Dan Pink explains it in a funny and diverting TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y

  2. Kelly Daniels says:

    As the author of this conversation I concur with the ‘drop ball’ consequence action. My belief is a drop ball comes from behavior. In this case behavior need to be addressed to get the athlete(s) attention and to encourage change in the behavior. I feel attitude is a type of behavior (positive and negative). My teams know I love an all out effort and I consistently praise the effort. I support the attempt and address the lack of effort. I have specific sayings that my teams tend to like me say. Some of the athletes mimic the saying when the accomplishment or lack of accomplishment occurs. I.E. If an athlete blocks a ball, I respond, “She said WHAT? (in a masculine manner) She said nooooooo” (in a feminine manner while snapping my fingers). If our team overpass a ball and the opponent crush it back at us. I respond with, “Don’t feed the bears, they’ll get hungrier!” and then laugh.Then I respond hey guys “Let’s pass / dig like we do in practice.” Sometimes after having a negative play, I’ll say, “Hey ladies, don’t seem like that is helping the program. Control the ball and we’ll control the game.” Every once in a while my emotions get the better of me and then my U.S. Marine Corps Drill Instructor experience comes out. That usually really gets their attention! hahahahaaa

    Thanks for bringing this topic to other coaches. I am sure most will agree that ‘punishment’ is not something we as coaches should be doing unless it’s behavior related.

    • Probably I did not find the correct terms. English is not my native language…

      Behavior for me means something I do without an intrinsic motivation. Mostly I do it, because someone else expects me to do so or I fear the consequences that come with not doing right. Behavior always comes with a feeling of right and wrong.

      Attitude for me means something I want to do, I want to focus on. It doesn’t come with terms like right or wrong. Instead it gives me the chance to figure it out, to find my own way. To add tp the problem solving of my team (too many dropped balls).
      I understand that changing my approach helps me and the team.

      Understanding what I do and why in my opinion is mandatory for being good in anything.

      • John Forman John Forman says:

        I think that’s a meaningful differentiation Oliver. I would take it a step further to suggest that the correct work on behaviors can actually lead to a change in attitudes.

  3. Alexis says:

    I think this discussion is on the right track while discussion behavioural change.

    I have no problem with consequences in training (I don’t like using the word punishment either). But it needs to be in the context of behavioural change. And we need to be particularly cognisant of what behaviour we are actually changing from/to. The example of teaching athletes to hate/resent physical training is key here. This is actually a change, but an undesired one and not the one we really want.

    One of the challenges with coaching developing players is that they don’t actually notice when they are making errors, or when their standards aren’t high enough. With older athletes you can explain to them that things are not acceptable and they know enough to be able to raise the standards. Developing athletes often don’t understand this process, so building consequences into drills (both positive and negative) is a means to an end.

    For the record, I also favour very quick consequences that don’t slow training down. I generally use ‘5 of anything’. The other consequence which I find useful is that the loser (if we are competing at the end of practice) has to collect the balls, pack up the court, and set it up for the next session.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.