Recently I’ve noticed a discouraging sentiment among several local powerlifting coaches, that in order to produce successful athletes you have to be an old school disciplinarian. You have to be hard on your athletes, don’t praise them because excellence is expected, takes no nonsense from anyone and come down hard if the athlete doesn’t do as they’re told.
The idea is that being a hardass is what it takes to make a successful lifter, while compassion is akin to celebrating mediocrity and will breed laziness and complacency in the athlete.
Although this mindset stems from the best intentions I think it’s the wrong approach for several reasons.
When making an argument like this it’s always difficult not to strawman the other side. I’ll do my best to describe the position as objectively as I can, I’ll explain the weaknesses I see and why ultimately, I feel it’s a flawed approach.
So, what are the tenets of this “disciplinarian” style of coaching? These coaches treat their athletes harshly and sternly with the belief that it will help them in the long run.
I think we can break it down into two key parts:
1) the coach wants their athlete to be successful
2) their methodology deliberately doesn’t show much warmth or kindness as this is believed to be the best way to achieve part 1
In practice the “disciplinarian” coach expects excellence from their athletes. This is obviously good. As coaches our goal should be to help our athletes develop into the best powerlifters they can be; not everyone’s destined to be a world record holder, but we should aspire to help them reach the highest levels they’re capable of.
While I think the principle of high expectations is positive my issue comes from the coach’s attitude towards their athletes and how these expectations are put into practice. Here we find an authoritarian leadership style that can be draconian. Where empathy towards the athletes is presumed to promote weakness and harshness bordering on abuse is presumed to produce success.
Under this coaching style success isn’t acknowledged and praise is rare. Instead the focus will be on what the athlete isn’t doing well. While this isn’t terrible in theory, working on improving your weaknesses isn’t a bad thing, in practice I often see this coming across as constant criticism, that “nothing is ever good enough”.
It puts you as a coach in a tricky situation. If you can’t give praise you have to find something negative to give feedback about. You’re constantly nitpicking and that can leave your client feeling annoyed, overwhelmed or even defeated.
If you’re constantly nitpicking your athletes you’ll wear away at their morale and could eventually put them in a headspace where they’ll be thinking “I can’t do anything right, why even bother?” It’s demoralizing to work hard at something, put in a great effort (say hit a PR set for example) only to have your coach ignore the positives and focus on some trivial detail.
The feedback itself is also typically provided in a harsh manner. In psychology you would refer to this as punishment, specifically positive punishment, where you add an unpleasant stimulus to decrease a behaviour. An example would be scolding an athlete to get them to stop relaxing at the bottom of a squat. In this case a stimulus (the reprimand) is added to decrease the behaviour (losing tension at the bottom).
However, punishment isn’t the only way to produce a change in behaviour. The other common technique is reinforcement, in which a pleasant stimulus is added (or a negative stimulus removed) in order to increase a behaviour. The major difference is reinforcement, even when it is negative, always works to increase a behaviour while punishment always works to decrease a behaviour.
Most people are familiar with the idea of positive reinforcement, for example congratulating an athlete for executing a lift with good technique to get them to repeat that technique on subsequent sets. The fear here is constant approval will create stagnation in the lifter because praise will eventually cease to have value. But that simply isn’t supported by the evidence. Positive reinforcement is generally the most effective way to promote a behaviour change. It’s easier to encourage a behaviour than to discourage one and rewards have been shown to be more effective than punishments at motivating action. This makes reinforcement a more powerful tool than punishment in the majority of circumstances.
There are caveats here as to how best to deliver reinforcement. It’s not giving high fives and gold stars all the time and blowing smoke up the client’s ass; rewards must be appropriate, timed properly as well as sincere and relevant to the athlete. And while you could argue the specifics the point remains that learning accompanied by positive feelings and associations is likely to be remembered, making reinforcement an effective means of producing change, especially long term.
In addition, punishments run risks that aren’t present with reinforcement-based corrections. The athlete can harbour resentment when feeling constantly criticised. Punishments create forced discipline and people don’t like feeling controlled and often try to rebel against a perceived domineering authority. So constantly feeling like they’re being bullied can position them in opposition to their coach, instead of seeing the coach as a partner helping them reach their goals they can view them as an adversary. This can lead to conflict and isn’t a strong foundation for a good coach-athlete relationship.
While punishments inherently don’t have to be cruel, in practice I see a lot of these coaches lapse into insulting or shaming their athletes in an attempt to get them to make the corrections they want. Few things are as unpleasant as being mocked so it makes sense that insults are a natural place to gravitate to if you’re looking to provide a negative stimulus to your athlete. I contend that constantly feeling insulted and undervalued can build resentment in the client and overtime sap their enthusiasm for the sport. Yet again this can make it difficult to build a strong coach-athlete relationship. Feeling humiliated by a mentor is particularly hurtful so why would they want to develop the close relationship, buy in and commitment to you and your coaching if you make them feel like that?
Even if insulting them successfully gets them to make the correction, at what cost? Especially if it isn’t the only or even most effective way to do so? Creating strong feelings of shame in your athlete isn’t a good thing! To reiterate, our goal as coaches is to make our athletes the best they can be at powerlifting, not make them miserable.
In extreme situations where shame becomes pervasive enough it can lead to more serious issues like anxiety and depression, but let’s say you don’t believe that in your role as a coach you wield that kind of influence over your client, well even on a less extreme scale shame can still negatively colour their experiences with the sport. If you create enough damaging associations between them and powerlifting, eventually they’ll leave.
And I’m sorry, if your client quits, you failed. Again, our goal is to help them become the best powerlifters they’re capable of being, they can’t get any better if they stop doing it. Part of our responsibility as coaches is to cultivate our athlete’s love for the sport. They provide the spark, but we can choose to nurture it into an inferno or snuff it out.
So, what’s the alternative? How can you help your clients be successful if you’re not an ass to them? Really, we’re talking about two things here 1) holding high expectations for our athletes (good) and 2) promoting those expectations through cruelty and punishment (bad).
It really can be as simple as keeping the good and replacing the bad. Harshness isn’t the only way to get results, in fact there’s quite a bit of support that it isn’t even the best way. Shifting focus to both holding high standards while still being supportive and nurturing to our athletes is entirely possible.
You can still have discipline without resorting to threats and insults. In fact, if you know what you’re doing you won’t need to be an ass, you’ll earn your athlete’s confidence by being detailed and providing solutions to the obstacles that inevitably arise in training, not by playing the role of a stern father figure. You won’t need to demand discipline and respect, you’ll inspire it.
It won’t cause your athletes to lose respect and walk all over you, you can still be firm without being an asshole. And it won’t make them soft and lazy, you can still produce excellence without being draconian.
I’d encourage fellow coaches out there to take a look at how they interact with their athletes, we all want them to be successful but are we taking the best approach possible, or are we clinging to an antiquated notion of coach as disciplinarian that doesn’t really hold up?