“Our sport is your sports punishment”

Way back when I was a high school runner, quotes like these would invariably pop up on the back of a High School Cross-Country team’s shirt. The obvious point was that what we do as runners is often what team sports were assigned to do when they showed up late to practice, missed a crucial play, or made some sort of mistake.It’s not unusual for teams to invoke punishment for athletes who show up late or miss practice. The thinking goes flows along the lines of “We’ll teach them a lesson so that they never want to make that mistake again.” It sounds good in theory, if we make them do bear crawls after arriving 2 minutes late, then they will make sure they are on time. They will learn their lesson!

We were partially correct. They learn a lesson. Just not the one intended.

If we look into the psychology books for an answer, we can see some peculiar findings related to parents picking up their children at daycare (Gneezy and Price 2000). One would think that most parents are responsible enough to pick up their kids in a reasonable amount of time. Initially, in Gneezy and Price’s research, this turned out to be true. Parents tended to be punctual when picking up their children

But when the daycare introduced monetary fines for those parents who picked up their children late, they got the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of increasing compliance, the rate of parents showing up late increased! What’s worse, when the daycare took away the punishment, punctuality didn’t return to pre-fine levels. Their mindset had been shifted.

While this applies to money as a punishment, which carries its own connotations, I can’t help but think similar results would be seen regardless of the type of punishment. What the researchers found in the aforementioned study was the introduction of money as a punishment shifted the psychological framework people had for being late. It shifted it from a social dynamic (respecting everyone’s time, being socially responsible) to a very self-centered individualistic one. This shift in mindset altered the reasons or justifications people develop in their head for why they show up on time. In turn, the behavior changed.

When we think of punishment in athletics, we need to stop thinking about compliance but instead about what message we are sending athletes. If I’m a soccer player or a football player, what does ‘running’ a few laps if I show up late do to me? It shifts my mindset to ‘the only reason I’m showing up is that I don’t want to get punished’ instead of “I show up on time to get better and out of respect for others.’ Additionally, it frames running (or whatever exercise) as a negative. All of the sudden, running becomes tied to ‘I’m in trouble.’

What this does is even more detrimental. It means that any time this player has to run, he’s not looking at it as an opportunity to get better, he’s looking at it as something he has to suffer through because of something he did wrong. That means, we further reinforce the horrible sloppy shuffle run thing that team players often do, as they go through the motions with no intention or focus.

Now, my college team isn’t perfect. My women are almost always spot on time, while my men occasionally stroll in a few minutes late (I’m looking at you Parms…)

Now, not exactly related to being late or showing up on time, but after the season I went back to our practice logs and counted who missed the least amount of days of practice. Unsurprisingly, as I went down this list, the people who showed up the most, tended to have the largest improvements in their performances. The athletes who missed little to no practice, other than excused ones (injury, etc.) had big improvements. Now there were some who showed up consistently and didn’t get improvement, which is my job to figure out why, but on the whole the people who showed up day in day out did best. This might seem like a ‘well duh’ moment, but to me it shows a mindset.

It’s not about getting in the work, as I know that even the guys who occasionally missed a practice or two got in their work, it’s more about the commitment. It’s about setting yourself up so that it’s an ingrained activity, like brushing your teeth. It’s not a chore that you occasionally try to avoid.

And that’s where motivation and punishment come back into play. When you start setting up punishment as a way to motivate people to comply, it creates the wrong mindset. It sends the message that “I better show up or else…” instead of “I’m showing up because I choose to.” The latter ingrains the message that training is an important part of who you are. We’re not showing up for the paycheck or to avoid being punished.

We’re showing up because we choose to.

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    1. […] “Our Entire Sport is Your sport’s Punishment”- A Brief Look at Motivation and Punishment. (Science of Running.) […]

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