Did you ever have to run laps when you were late to practice? For many of us, we grew up with coaches and dance directors who used physical punishment for bad behavior and mistakes. It’s relatively common to have a team do wall-sits when someone forgets their poms or do pushups if the pom routine looks lazy.

physical punishment

So, if you currently use any type of physical punishment on your team, I want to challenge that coaching decision. Based on not only my time coaching, but based on science and what psychology tells us about behavior change and motivation. I want to encourage you to try another approach, and I hope you consider these 4 reasons why you should not punish with pushups.

Punishment only works in the short-term

When you impose a physical punishment, what do you hope will be the outcome? Usually you want whatever behavior you just saw to never happen again. You want the dancer to be on time or responsible or work harder in practice.

Let me ask the simple question: how does running help them be on time in the future? Well, in the short term it will probably work. We know from decades of psychological research that punishment works in the sense that people do learn. Behavior will change. But only in the short-term.  For about a week or so, you dancers will be on time. But they have changed their behavior OUT OF FEAR. But then, the lesson wears off and the same bad habits that made them late in the first place start to happen again.

Punishment doesn’t help you make long-term change.

Yes, you will likely see an immediate improvement, but what you don’t see is the psychological affect. When your dancer is doing pushups because they forgot all the corrections from yesterday what do you imagine is going through their head at the time? Either they are now scared to make any mistake in the future which will frankly destroy their growth as a dancer, or they’re just cursing at you. Now you may not care if your dancers like you or not, but I bet you hope they respect you. Physical punishment will end your chances of ever having the positive team culture most of us are striving for.

Conditioning shouldn’t be punishment

If you want your dancers to improve their cardio training, or work on explosion in their legs for better jumps, then running and wall sits shouldn’t be a punishment. Training is just that, training for improvement. If you want your dancers to grow, you want them to push themselves in training. There’s a much better chance of internal drive if they WANT to get better rather than being forced to do it when they are being punished.

Doing the hard work in training is about learning the self-discipline it takes to persevere and stay the course. If you expect a high work ethic and intrinsic drive during training, but then the next day you expect that same pushup drill to be a punishment for poor behavior your dancers will be confused.

You will never see self-motivated athletes train hard if that same training is also a punishment.

If you don’t want eye-rolling, lazy athletes during cardio training, separate the physical training from punishment.

Physical punishment is usually not related to the behavior you are trying to punish

When it’s not contingent on the actual behavior, it won’t create the outcome you want. A general principle with punishment is like the old saying, “make the punishment fit the crime.” If they are late, have them sit out and write down their weekly schedule in a planner and show it to you every day for the rest of the week. If sitting out means they have to be blocked out of a routine, that might be a natural consequence. But running laps doesn’t have anything to do with the behavior you want to fix, and it doesn’t give them any strategies to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If they are being lazy in practice, punishing them just brings up negative feelings and emotions which makes them LESS likely to work hard, not more. Instead you may need to talk about why they are having such a bad day. Talk about your goals and expectations again, remind them why it matters and what they really want.

The psychological definition of punishment says that the behavior will be reduced.

When a behavior is punished, you reduce the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. But when you hand out a physical punishment, WHAT behavior is being punished? Because the punishment is not related to the behavior, you are likely sending a mixed message. Let’s stick with the late to practice example. What if they were late because they had a fight with their mom, or they stayed after to talk to a math teacher about an upcoming quiz. When you make that dancer run laps, the hope is they won’t be late again. When really, they will likely stop doing whatever made them late and that might be a bad choice. They might learn that there’s no time to talk to teachers about academics or feel like they can’t be honest with their mom because it might blow up and they don’t have time for that.

You don’t know exactly what lesson they will take away from that punishment. But the bottom line, physical punishment is likely not related to the behavior you want to change, so the lesson will also have nothing to do with the behavior you wanted changed in the first place.

Our brains are very good at learning and making connections, but you can’t control what that lesson is unless you actually have a conversation with your athlete. While you may hope they think, “ok being late sucked because my whole team had to do pushups so I will make sure I’m not late again.” They are more likely thinking, “I’m so embarrassed and I can’t believe I screwed up this bad. Now coach is disappointed and probably hates me and my whole team is mad at me.”

I ask you coach, how does that mindset serve you and your team now that practice is about to start?!?

Physical punishment makes dancers afraid to fail

Usually the punishment is embarrassing and demeaning in front of the team. So, the lesson learned is that, “I never want that emotion again.” Now that may seem ok and you think, “good maybe they’ll get their act together!” To be blunt, that’s just not how it works. Instead they will likely internalize the mistake and believe they are a bad person (not that the act was bad) and they will do anything to avoid that in the future. So a week later when you want that dancer to work on a new hard skill, she will play it small so she doesn’t make a mistake and embarrass herself in front of a teammate.

If you want dancers to differentiate between making a mistakes by breaking the rules and making a mistake on the dance floor, you’re expecting too much.

Our brains make all sorts of connections every day, and sometimes they are unconscious. They may take that punishment from forgetting to bring in their fundraising money and generalize it to mean they can’t make any mistakes ever. So they dance small, they won’t go for it, and in our world as performers, they will never look their best on the floor.

All of these are the same reasons not to use demerit systems. When you use this style of behavior modification, you’re tracking infractions which highlights the problems and makes dancers afraid to make mistakes. Instead, reward and focus on the good things. Celebrate the dancers who are prepared and working hard. Highlight the behaviors you want to see more of rather than focusing and punishing the behaviors you want to get rid of.

Bottom line:

All of this isn’t to say that punishment itself is bad. It has a time and place, and if it’s contingent on the behavior and comes with a two-way conversation it can be effective. But based on how our brains work, physical punishment is not effective.

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