Sometimes the player will already have a behaviour (or habit) which needs to be changed. In other circumstances, the skill being taught is new.

The timeliness of the feedback is very important to the effectiveness of the feedback.

The purpose of the learning process is the acquisition of, or perfecting, a behaviour (for example, shooting technique).  Accordingly, any feedback should be provided as soon as possible after the player makes an attempt.

If the player produces proper behaviour, either a “reward” should be applied (which can be as simple as saying “well done”) or a “penalty” should be withdrawn (such as not having to run a sprint, which players that did not produce the behaviour have to do) in order to reinforce the behaviour so that the player will repeat it.

If the feedback is given immediately, the athlete will have a good memory of what they did which they can then repeat.  The longer the delay between the athlete attempting the skill and receiving the feedback, the less strong their memory will be of what they did.

Understanding Rewards and Penalties

Rewards and penalties can both be effective in changing behaviour.  For example, the coach can congratulate a player (a “reward”), or they can decide that a particular player has to pick up the balls after practice (a “penalty”).

Withdrawing a penalty (e.g. exempting a player from having to run sprints) is also a reward, however such negative reinforcement may not be as effective as granting a reward because it may not be recognized by the player in the same way that receiving a reward is.

Just as rewards or penalties can be used to promote a certain behaviour, they can also be used if the aim is to eliminate a certain kind of behaviour.  When the player produces an unwanted behaviour (for example, protesting to the referee) a “penalty” should be applied (e.g. being substituted) or a “reward” should be withdrawn so that the behaviour will be less likely to be produced in the future.

In both cases, “rewards” and “penalties” should only be applied based on the athletes’ direct behaviour, never on their results, over which they may not have full control.  Below are some examples of an effective use of rewards/penalties:

  • A 13-year-old player makes a decision that the coach considers correct in a 3 on 3 situation. The coach immediately congratulates them (“reward”);
  • The players of a team of 17-18-year-olds are carrying out a very intense defence drill and they are tired. A player performs a defensive help that the coach wants to develop. As a reward, the coach allows the player to rest for a few minutes. In this case, the coach is withdrawing a “penalty” (performing such an intense drill when the players are tired);
  • The coach wants a 17-year-old to defend without fouling. Besides showing them the necessary technique, the coach sets up an activity in which the player gets a point every time they foul. At the end of the practice, the player will have to stay on for a three-minute defence drill for every point accumulated. At the same time, every time the player defends without fouling, the coach reinforces them by saying “well done!” to strengthen the correct defensive behaviour.  This is particularly important if the offensive player still managed to score.  The coach could also consider deducting a point when good defence is played (whether or not a basket was scored).
  • The coach of a team of 15-16-year-olds organises a half court 3 on 3 game in which they do not want the players to use their right hand when they could use their left. Every time a player uses their right hand when they shouldn´t, their team loses possession of the ball.

As can be seen, “reward” is used to strengthen desired behaviour and “penalty” is used to eliminate undesired behaviour.

Also, when punishment is applied, it is very important to reinforce the alternative behaviour that is required instead of the undesired behaviour.  In the previous examples, defence without fouling or shooting with the left hand.

An example of a less effective use of rewards/penalties would be:

  • On the last possession of a close game, the opposition took an offensive rebound, scored and won the game on the buzzer. No player had attempted to “box out” the player that took the offensive rebound.  At the next practice, the coach made everyone on the team run sprints because of the failure to “box out”.
  • Similar to the above, a team won by taking an offensive rebound and scoring on the last play of the game. The defensive team were playing zone defence and the player that took the offensive rebound had been in an “overload” situation (i.e. there was more than one offensive player in the area they were guarding).

In these examples the penalties may be less effective because players may feel that it is unfair that they be penalized when they did the correct thing and that only the athletes that didn’t box out should be penalised.

In the second example, players may feel that the situation was out of their control.  The defensive player with the overload may have boxed out a player, but simply could not box out two players.  Coaches should be careful to apply rewards/penalties to things that are under the “control” of players.

Applying the penalty at practice (which may be several days later) also means that the players will not have as strong a memory of what occurred.  To overcome this, a coach may use video to demonstrate to players what went wrong.

It is better to use rewards to strengthen behaviour rather than penalties to eliminate behaviour, especially with younger players.  Many coaches also encourage team mates to give a “reward”, for example acknowledging a teammate that has made a good pass.

Using Rewards

Frequent reinforcement (or rewards) will help players obtain a high level of gratification, which strengthens their motivation and helps them “learn” the desired behaviour and repeat it.  This is why it is so important for coaches to use reinforcement frequently.

There are two types of rewards (or reinforcers):

  • Social reinforcers include respect, recognition, approval and the coach´s attention. For example, the coach appreciates the effort made by a player to recover the ball, “Well done!”, “That´s the way!”, “Good!”

Material reinforcers are physical rewards that should be important to the players. For example, rest periods, being able to skip a difficult or boring drill, choosing the drill they want to do, winning a cup, etc.

Reinforcers should not be applied arbitrarily but rather they should be a consequence of the players’ behaviour. In fact, the key to reinforcement is that the players perceive that they are obtaining something because of what they did, which then makes it likely that they will repeat that behaviour.

This effect that a reward will have is directly related to the feeling of “control” that players had in the situation.  For example, if a player fumbles a ball and it happens to go to a teammate and then the coach (who didn’t see a fumble) congratulates them on making a good pass: the player is unlikely to feel good.

During training sessions, social reinforcement is also very valuable because:

  • it provides the player with information on their behaviour (feedback);
  • it is very rewarding, because the player appreciates the coach´s recognition;
  • it contributes to the creation of a positive atmosphere within the training environment.

The coach should not constantly stop players in order to provide a “reward” or acknowledge a behaviour.  Instead, in activities, points can be awarded for the particular behaviours the coach wishes to emphasize, with a “reward” given at the end.  This will be most effective if explained at the start of the activity.

For example: the coach wants a team of 15-16-year-olds to pass the ball more often to the post from specific positions on the court.  To practice this they organize a 4 on 4 half court game for this purpose.   The rules of the activity are that every time a player passes the ball to the post from those positions, their team gets a point. At the end of the game, which lasts ten minutes, the team that has made a minimum of seven points will have a five-minute break.

To be successful, points need to be noted immediately, which the coach can do by calling “point”.   To make this technique work, the following aspects should be taken into account:

  • the reward should be attractive. For example, it would be attractive for the players to be able to rest during an intense training session or play a game where they can pick their teammates;
  • to make this strategy more valuable, the coach should take into account the age of the players and what they know about them. In general, an infrequent stimulus will be more attractive than a frequent one.  For example, it will be more attractive for them to play a game with no rules, in which they choose their teammates, if they do not often do this;
  • the total number of points needed to obtain the final award should be attainable in the time allowed and under the conditions of the drill;
  • The precise behaviour and the rules necessary to obtain points should be made very clear.

In this example, the awarding of points can be in the overall context of the activity.  For example, the teams may be looking to score baskets as well.  Often, at the end the coach will be able to highlight that the team that achieved the most points (passing to the post) also scored the most baskets!

Most importantly, the reward is not dependent upon the overall outcome.  A pass may be made into the post and then the shot is missed.  In the game this is simply recorded as a missed field goal.  There is no assist, there are no points scored and players may be discouraged from repeating the behaviour.

Coaches can use the “points game” during games by having an assistant coach keeping track and then providing feedback at time-outs.

Using Penalties

A coach working with young players should predominantly use rewards, but the use of “penalties” can be educational, as long as it:

  • is proportionate in value and basically symbolic;
  • defines as clearly as possible what it involves and why it is being applied (rather than having the coach decide arbitrarily);
  • increases the players’ interest in challenging but achievable goals related to avoiding the punishment;
  • at the same time, reinforcement should be applied to strengthen alternative behaviour.

For example: before starting a 3 on 3 game, the coach could establish that every time a player dribbles with the wrong hand they get a negative point and that, at the end of the game, the team with the most points will have to fill the water bottles for their opponents.

An alternative penalty could be to make dribbling with the wrong hand a violation and give the other team possession each time that violation occurs.  However, this can result in the activity being very “stop and start”.

Accordingly, using a point penalty can let the activity be more game like, whilst also emphasizing the required behaviour.

Even though the penalty is symbolic it can increase the players’ motivation towards the goal of the drill and will help them to concentrate on not dribbling with the wrong hand. At the same time, the coach can use social reinforcement saying “Well done!” when players use the correct hand.

Most importantly, the purpose of using penalties is not to make the coach look tough or show that they are strict.  Instead, just like a reward, any penalty must be designed to provoke a desire in the players to avoid the punishment by executing the desired behaviour.

In this way, the “penalty” hopefully can have a “positive” focus – having the players think about what they need to do to avoid the penalty.  Coaches should always try to describe activities with positively action-oriented language such  as “this is what I want you to do” rather than “don’t do this”.