Running for Punishment: Why coaches should give it up
At a high school baseball game, I watched as the batter took a called third strike and immediately began running toward the dugout. “Nice hustle,” I thought. That’s until he bypassed the dugout, ran to the outfield fence, and tapped the foul pole. He then sprinted back to rejoin his team.
A couple of years later, I got to know a player from that team. He confirmed what I had suspected that day: Running to the fence and back — during a game — was how his coach punished players for taking a called third strike. I’ll bet that several players on that team swung at a lot of bad two-strike pitches, just to avoid a humiliating trip to the outfield fence.
I could cite countless other examples of coaches using running as punishment. It’s a common practice. But this method of supposedly motivating players to avoid mistakes is not only ineffective, it’s counterproductive. It can even have negative effects that last into the athlete’s adult years.
Here’s why it doesn’t work:
1. It doesn’t address the problem.
Making players do pushups or run laps for missed free throws does not improve their free-throw shooting. What will? Reteaching free-throw technique and devoting more time to it during practice. It’s common sense. The same can be said for batters who take called third strikes, football players who miss tackles, tennis players who double-fault, and volleyball players who serve into the net. Revisit the fundamentals, modify your teaching techniques, and spend more time practicing the skill.
2. It creates a negative attitude.
Using running as a punishment creates a negative attitude toward conditioning and could create animosity toward the coach. Anything that’s used for punishment is typically looked on with distaste. That’s not how we want athletes to view such an important part of their preparation. Wouldn’t it be better for them to see conditioning in a positive light, as something to develop their bodies and make them better athletes?
Coaches who use conditioning as punishment foster an adversarial relationship with their athletes instead of a cooperative one. Athletes begin to see their coach as someone who abandoned the role of teacher. Instead, they’ve taken on the role of enforcer. Furthermore, the association of conditioning with punishment causes many athletes to carry a negative attitude toward conditioning for the rest of their lives, to the detriment of their health. It’s hard to see running as a pleasurable activity if you remember it as punishment from your days as a competitive athlete.
3. It makes the volume of conditioning random rather than well-planned.
A big part of a coach’s job is to give their athletes the optimal amount of conditioning. It should be enough to provide the appropriate training stimulus, but not so much that the athletes are insufficiently recovered for competition or practice.
Coaches who base their athletes’ conditioning on missed free throws or turnovers are not executing a conditioning plan; they are reacting to unrelated performances. If the previous game went well and mistakes were few, they run the risk of insufficiently conditioning their athletes. If the game went poorly and mistakes were many, they could overcondition their athletes.
4. It implies a lack of trust in athletes.
If we contemplate the assumptions that underlie the use of conditioning as punishment, we see that they’re based on a belief that coaches must impose motivation on their athletes to not make mistakes. But here’s the truth: Athletes already want to succeed.
Experience tells me that nobody wants that free throw to swish through the net more than the player standing at the free-throw line. No one wants that two-strike swing to connect with the pitch more than the hitter. No one wants that bounce pass to thread the needle and hit the waiting hands of a teammate more than the point guard who made the pass.
When I was a player, no amount of threatened punishment would have made me want to succeed more than I already did. In fact, the threat of punishment added unwanted and unhelpful pressure. I think all athletes feel the same way, and they may resent coaches who show that they don’t trust their athletes’ desire to succeed.
During my senior year of high school, my basketball team hired a new coach who brought a fresh perspective on conditioning. He had a different name for the conditioning drill traditionally known as “suicides,” which are often used by coaches as punishment. He called them championship trips. Yes, it was corny, and we all knew it, but his point — which he explained on day one — was that quality conditioning would help us win games. My coach never used it as punishment, but he conditioned us harder than any coach I ever had.
We made countless championship trips that year, and we ran them without complaint because of the way he framed them. Had he used the same volume of conditioning as punishment, there would have been a lot of grumbling and much less enthusiasm. It was not a coincidence that we had the most successful season of my high school career.
During my 38 years of coaching, I found that most athletes will work incredibly hard for you if they see the purpose behind the work and understand that you’re trying to help and not punish them. I’ve never had an administrator make me run laps for poor game strategy or ineffective use of my bench players in a big game. As coaches, we wouldn’t like it much if administrators took that approach. Neither would we find it helpful. Why should we expect our athletes to view such methods any differently?
Randy Hisner coaches cross country at Bellmont High School in Decatur, Indiana, and umpires high school and college baseball. He also has coached high school baseball and middle school track and basketball.