Being positive and applying positive reinforcement are two totally different things. Most people like to think they are positive people, consequently they think they are using positive reinforcement. If this was the case they would be getting the behaviour they want regularly. We all know this not to be the case when it comes to coaching young players.
Coaches need to learn how to use positive reinforcement as a tool for development. If this key skill could be used effectively then development would be on a upward exponential curve. I know many ‘positive’ coaches but not sure how many use positive reinforcement. By definition, positive reinforcement is getting players to do things because they want to rather than because they have to. Recently I have been doing some 1-1 coaching sessions as the season has finished as a few players would like to work on some aspects of their game. This is ultimately reinforcing for me as I get feedback that they are enjoying the sessions and learning at the same time. It is reinforcing for the player as they are working to get better and seeing the effects of this. Ultimately, positive reinforcement is being applied all round. This is success.
So how can we set up our sessions utilising positive reinforcement? Now it becomes harder in a group session as what is reinforcing to one player, may not be to another. Just think of all the complex characters that make up your team! So how can we achieve it (if it is indeed the road to success)? Here is my attempt at a solution:
- You must find out what reinforces every single player. Don’t assume everyone will be the same. There’s nothing everyone wants and likes and no single thing will please everyone. I used to make the mistake thinking everyone loved shooting. Many did but not all. Some players were reinforced to stop a shot. Know your players.
- Don’t look for the quick and easy solution to reinforcement. I know some coaches who love to give out medals, man of the match awards, singling out players for special praise. While this may be reinforcing for the few players that receive them, it is not for the many who do not.
- Don’t fall for the ‘perception error’ this is where we treat players as they ought to be rather than what they really are. We also assume these are shared by everyone and this will not be the case.
- The closest thing to achieving what most like is giving attention. In my experience, this is a powerful reinforcer. Players will do many things to get this attention. It is undoubtedly a powerful reinforcer.
So if getting to know each player’s reinforcers is so important to their development then how can this be done? Again here is my attempt:
- ASK – A bit simple but just ask the person. The danger is that the players might give you want you want to hear rather than what actually reinforces them. They may give you a couple but a really each player has hundreds of reinforcers. If you have a good relationship with the player then asking works.
- OBSERVE – This is the secret sauce. What a person says and what they do may be miles apart. You can work out a players reinforcers by watching them. Where they spend their time and what they do is key to working this out. Give players a choice and see what they pick and you will be halfway there to working out their reinforcers.
- EXPERIMENT- Try a reinforcer and see if it works. When you find the person doing the thing you want then you have found a reinforcer for them. If they don’t then you have still to find the reinforcer. Have fun trying but remember success is defined by what the player does and not what you do. If it is reinforcing for you but not for them then you haven’t achieved positive reinforcement.
Now you can see why it is much easier to achieve in 1-1 sessions as opposed to group sessions. The best coaches understand how this works and achieve this. Think of Ferguson, Guardiola and Mourinho (pre-last season) and you can see where they achieved this. They knew their players and they used positive reinforment to get the required discretionary effort and ultimately high performing teams.
Now think, how do I do the same at grassroots level? This is even harder as we are doing this in our spare time but it is ultimately positively reinforced for us as coaches and that is why we keep doing it. You will know when you get it as all of sudden it becomes just a little easier. The downside is that it may take many years for some to achieve.
To quote behavioural expert Aubrey Daniels “only positive reinforcement brings out the best in people”