DR. HILL & THE DIRTBAG UNDERGRAD
The year was 2001, and I was attending Long Beach State as a student-athlete. I was on the baseball team and working toward my Kinesiology degree. The very first Kinesiology (the study of movement) course I attended was KPE 270. A well-respected professor, Dr. Hill, taught the class. It was the first Monday of the semester, and we hadn’t been in class for 20 minutes when Dr. Hill dropped a paradigm-shifting bomb on us students. He bluntly and confidently instructed us to refrain from using exercise as a form of punishment with our students and our athletes. The statement immediately disoriented my coaching thought process. I felt like I was tumbling around under a large ocean wave and not sure which way was up.
Disciplining athletes and PE students via physical exercise is a tactic as common as clouds on a rainy day. I’d never had a coach who didn’t use this protocol. ‘Wall-sits’ for being late to basketball practice, ‘up-downs’ for dropping a pass during football practice, running laps around the field for not getting the bunt down at baseball practice.
From experience, punishing players in this manner had always been a standard course of action, yet it took only a short, pragmatic explanation from Dr. Hill to change my viewpoint forever. He said the following to the class: “If we use exercise as punishment, we are programming our students and athletes to view exercise as a negative action. Thus, it’s illogical to use a desired action, such as physical conditioning, as a punitive one.
We want our athletes to be fit, which requires exercise, therefore, it is imperative that we do our best as coaches to uphold a positive perception of exercise. Exercise should be viewed as a beneficial activity, not a negative consequence.” That was Dr. Hill’s explanation, and to this day, I never punish my players by using exercise, well, that is except for one miserable thing that uniquely fits into a category of its own.
DISCIPLINED PLAYER SELECTION
We’ll come back to punishing players via exercise in a few paragraphs, but first know this, the most effective and most efficient way to establish a disciplined team culture is by staying disciplined when putting the team together. Select players that demonstrate a solid work ethic. Choose players that show genuine enjoyment for playing baseball. Fill your team with players that consistently demonstrate respectful behaviors. If a potential player lacks these characteristics, maintain your own discipline and pass. If you get blinded by the talent, or as I like to call it the ‘talent tease’, and decide to choose talented players with lousy character, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
LEVERAGE WHAT’S VALUED
As coaches, we need to choose our players wisely, and then we need to establish transparent leverage that all players respect. We know that even the most well-behaved kids are not always perfect. Therefore, we must have rules and consequences ready for those situations.
The most enjoyable part of playing baseball, for almost every player, is participating in the official games. Therefore, a reduction of playing time is the ultimate extrinsic consequence for most players. Putting the game uniform on, competing on a nicely prepped field, with umpires, and bleachers full of fans is the pinnacle of enjoyment for most baseball players. These exciting events are the last thing players want to lose. It is the last thing they want to be without. If the loss of playing time is not an extremely frustrating consequence for your players, then they’re not the type of players you want on your team.
As for implementation, once a rule is broken, calmly and concisely inform the player of the rule they broke and the partnered consequence, then get back to coaching the team. Do not justify your decision; kids will see this as indecisiveness. Follow up later, when the emotions have settled. The guilty player’s reaction will give you a good indication of whether or not you’ve done a solid job of communicating the team’s rules and consequences. If you’ve correctly established the rules and the ‘why’ behind them, there should be very little pushback.
“IT IS NOT WHAT YOU PREACH, ITS WHAT YOU TOLERATE”
– Jocko Willink (Former Navy Seal Commander)
Each rule you establish must be applied consistently without wavering. Rules you talk about don’t get the job done; it’s the rules you follow through with that produce change.
The corresponding consequences must be administered equally for all players. You should not coach every player the same way, but you must apply consequences equally for all players.
Rule infractions fall on a severity spectrum. Therefore, it is imperative that each consequence is clearly defined and communicated to all players, parents, and coaches.
Have few rules and always enforce them, even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to. Taking the path of least resistance early on will create a turbulent, uphill climb for the remainder of the season. It takes a disciplined coach to lead a disciplined group of players.
We must never forget, one of the greatest gifts we can give our youth is an appreciation for discipline. Our youth need a clear understanding of the value of discipline. Along the way, many players will show signs of frustration when they receive a consequence, such as the loss of playing time, but do not worry, this is to be expected, and it’s part of their journey to becoming disciplined. Minimize those early frustrations by setting clear expectations from the get-go, and then maintain consistency in the application of said rules. You may have a few ‘guinea pigs’ that may need to learn the hard way, but overall, your players will rise or fall to the level of your expectations.
BE BENDABLE, NOT BREAKABLE
As a coach, you must draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to each of your rules, and removing a player from the team can be no different. I believe in second, and third chances for our youth but there needs to be a clearly communicated line of no return.
Bend but don’t break. Kids will not be perfect, but they can’t be allowed unlimited infractions either. Using this type of policy allows your players to improve themselves while simultaneously having a clearly defined endpoint. Ideally, you’ll never need to remove a player from your team, but better to lose one player than to lose them all. The biggest mistake coaches make, in regards to rules and discipline, is they prioritize the individual over the well-being of the entire team.
Remember, if you build your team with coachable players, then there is almost no chance you’ll get to the point of having to remove a player. If you’re given a team with the roster already in place, then your season will likely include more broken rules, and the administering of more consequences, but either way, you’ll need rules, consequences, and follow-through.
Whether you carefully choose each player for your team, or whether you are given a team already assembled, the process doesn’t change, and in both situations, you can be super-successful.
THE BEAR-CRAWL EXCEPTION
Here is where we bring the conversation back to disciplining players with physical means. After reading that first paragraph, most of you probably thought I would avoid recommending physical exercise as a punishment altogether. Well, let me ask you this: Have you’ve heard of the infamous ‘BEAR CRAWL’? Those of you that have, probably never forgot it, and that’s not because it sounds like those popular donut shop delicacies, but rather because of how physically demanding they are. My experience has shown that bear crawls are so different from other baseball training movements that the players avoid receiving the contradictory message that Dr. Hill understandably disapproved of. Now, the great bear crawl is best used during practice time to increase the focus level for all practice activities. Bear crawls are great reminders for our players that we expect them to maintain focus and hustle throughout the practice. They are great reminders for our players, and bear crawls provide the coach with valuable leverage.
Yelling and screaming is so much work with a minimal payoff, and more often than not it comes with a negative return on investment. Thirty-plus years of playing and coaching sports have shown that the consequence of bear-crawling does wonders to reengage a team’s focus and instantly reinvigorate their motivation. The bear crawl is a super simple movement to execute, it requires no experience, it requires no equipment, it can be done almost anywhere, and it has an extremely low risk of injury.
To add another layer of icing on the bear-crawl cake is it takes only 45-60 grueling seconds to complete. It is very efficient, and more importantly, it will never be mistaken for a baseball training drill. It looks, feels, and sounds like a consequence. Now, if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “my team is going to be full of self-motivated players that will never need a reminder to get them to hustle or focus,“ well then, I’d like to take a moment here to be the first to welcome you to the world of coaching.
THE HIDDEN GIFT OF DISCIPLINE
Kids want a disciplined environment, but most kids will push back against discipline. Kids thrive with discipline but do not like the process of becoming disciplined. Coaches that don’t foster a disciplined environment are letting their players down. They are failing to give them something that will help their life more than almost anything else.
The easiest way to improve your team’s discipline is to fill your team with players that make the rules obsolete. From there, only implement crucial rules. We can’t always choose what players are on our team, and no player is perfect, so you must clarify your team’s rules and related consequences early and often.
Always enforce each established rule, even when you don’t feel like it. Players are much likelier to follow what you tolerate than they are to follow along with the words you preach.
Remember to apply each consequence equally and consistently for all players. Never take it personally when your players break the rules. Keep your ego buried at all times. Simply stay calm and apply the consequence.
Yelling is not disciplining. It’s annoying at best. Lecturing and yelling will not produce consistently positive results.
Lastly, be the team’s anchor. Stay calm and strong when the seas get rough.
I want to personally thank you for taking on the important role of being a positive leader for our youth. Thank you for being a coach.
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