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Michael Fisher
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All People

Managing Behaviour in Sport: What Works?

Managing issues in behaviour before they escalate often relies on creating positive environments and addressing smaller challenges early

I can feel the heart rate quicken, the stomach tighten and my will drain away – he’s done it again. We’re not even ten minutes into the session and he’s fired the basketball at another boy. He’d missed a shot seven times in a row during practice. Everyone else was getting at least a few in. He clearly wasn’t expecting that as the alpha male in his peer group. I can only guess this was verging on humiliating for him. He needed to re-establish his alpha-maleness.

Even when I reflect back on the multitude of times I've experienced this, or other similar scenarios, I can sense the same emotions bubble up.

I coached club basketball, curriculum basketball and after-school basketball and by far the most challenging were the schools sessions. Large class sizes, small gyms, little equipment, and varying levels of enthusiasm for the sport. It was challenging for a young, inexperienced coach, who had been fast-tracked through a level two qualification on the back of my playing credentials.

My best, or maybe only, strategy in the face of the challenging behaviour was trial and error – ignore, punish, appease, praise, incentivise, banish, the list goes on. One other worthy of note is ‘publicly putting down a peg or two’, which is one I have seen frequently used and used myself. When you call this what it is, humiliation, it doesn’t sound so good.

What I struggled with most was what to do in the context of the whole group. The immediate aftermath of a flare-up often took ten minutes to resolve. Ten minutes in a one hour session is a lot, especially when you then find yourself thinking about the incident and the individual for the rest of the session, replaying it in your mind. 

I hated the idea that I was going to compromise the quality of the session for the other 20 kids because I was dealing with one individual.

So that everyone doesn’t have to just use the time-consuming 'trial and error' technique that I did, here are some basic suggestions, stolen from a UK Coaching resource.

Most of these are about creating positive environments or addressing smaller challenges that prevent reaching that accumulated point of explosion.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves giving a ‘reward’ for good behaviour, such as following training instructions or performing a skill.

To ensure positive behaviour is maintained, rewards could include simply commenting on good practice or offering a smile. By creating an association between good behaviour and positive feelings, athletes will wish to receive further rewards and will continue to behave well.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves providing negative response to bad behaviour.

The coach can try telling the athletes to stop a bad behaviour or present a situation where if bad behaviour is continued a negative consequence will occur. An example could be the coach stating that if the group is badly behaved, they won’t play the games they most enjoy.

Punishment

This is split into two categories. Similar to negative reinforcement, the first is a negative consequence given when participants behave badly; for example, making the athletes do exercises like press-ups – although caution should be used when adopting this action. If a coach uses press-ups as a form of punishment, members of the group may think they are subsequently being punished if the coach then wishes to include press-ups in a circuit session.

The second type of punishment involves the removal of something positive when athletes behave badly. The punishment can take the form of being excluded from that part of the session in one of three types of ‘time out’.

‘Observational time out’ is taking the athlete out of the session but allowing them to watch. This allows the athlete to see the fun they are missing, thus encouraging a sense of loss.

An ‘exclusion time out’ is where the young athlete is not allowed to watch the session. This could be by sitting the athlete in a safe position in a session going on next to the main session.

A ‘seclusion time out’ is where the young athlete is completely removed from the session, with the coach asking a parent* to take the athlete home.

Tactical ignoring

Tactical ignoring differs from the previous three strategies. As bad behaviour is often an attempt to gain attention, it can be stopped when no reaction is shown.

By ignoring safe inappropriate behaviour, that behaviour is not being ‘rewarded’ with attention and will lead to it stopping. 

When I read through the suggestions above, my immediate reaction was that this is common-sense or basic stuff. However, when I think back to the sessions where I purposefully integrated some of the strategies suggested, especially the preventative ones, I struggle to remember the details of those sessions.

This tells me a few things:

  • I can remember vividly episodes of bad behaviour and if I can’t remember specific sessions from yester-year that is probably a good thing.
  • When I was purposeful about creating a positive coaching environment, good things happened.
  • I don’t claim to understand the psychology of it all but little things, delivered at a personal level, can make a big difference.

Related Content

The strategies above are taken from the UK Coaching resource Positive Behaviour Management in Sport.

Another useful resource from the ConnectedCoaches website - our free online community for coaches of all sports and activities - is How to inspire good behaviour in your sessions.

Inspiring Positive Behaviour in Sport

Book on our eLearning Course to pick up vital skills and confidence to encourage better behaviour

More details here

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Michael Fisher