“Losing team has to do ten pushups!”
We hear this all the time on the practice field. “Pushups” is often substituted by sprints, crunches, burpees, etc. There’s something seriously wrong with this.
Why is fitness being used as a consequence for losing? Why are exercises a punishment?
I will be the first one to admit that I am guilty of using all kinds of fitness as the consequence for losing teams. I’ve even done it at way too young of ages. Therefore, I will not hesitate to say the following:
We use fitness as a punishment because we are lazy. We don’t know what else to do to motivate our players. We’ve seen it used and just accept it as a good practice instead of figuring out a better way.
Here’s a secret: there is a better way. But first, let's understand why fitness is a poor form of punishment:
1. It is a waste of time
Time in practice is precious. We don’t have very much of it, and we need to make the most of every moment. Whenever we take time to do pushups, sprints, or crunches, we are taking away from the time we could be passing, dribbling, or learning tactics. Certainly, these exercises might only take one minute, but a lot can happen in one minute. Players can take 80 touches in a minute. They can score an equalizer or game winner in the scrimmage. They can get one more perfect repetition in an activity. Add up all these minutes over the course of a season, and we’ve wasted a lot of opportunity.
2. Players learn to hate fitness
Fitness is a benefit to our players, not a detriment. It helps our players become stronger and heathier. Shouldn’t we want our players to want to do fitness? Wouldn’t it be great if our players spent extra time on their own getting in better shape? If we make fitness the punishment for losing, we are framing it as a negative thing in our players’ minds. They learn to associate it with bad feelings. Think about the opening sentence above: “Losing team has to do ten pushups.” “Has to do” makes it a chore. What if we said “gets to do?” Then it suddenly becomes a reward! We need to help our players realize that fitness is their friend, not their enemy. It is something they should want to do because it will make them better. Yes, it is physically exhausting, but that pain is the proof that we are improving ourselves. If we use fitness as a punishment, our players won’t learn this.
3. It over-emphasizes results
It should be no secret that winning is not the definition of success in youth soccer. Yes, winning does matter. And more importantly, competing is crucial. But results are not our main focus. The focus is on developing players. Improvement defines success. If we are doing it right, our players will want to win and compete, no punishment necessary (see number 4 below). As coaches, we should keep the focus on learning the concepts that will help our players improve. Even if a team loses a game or activity in practice, it does not mean that they failed. They might have been improving and doing everything we wanted, the result just wasn’t there. But our players won’t realize this if they end up getting punished with fitness every time they lose.
4. It is an extrinsic form of motivation
Extrinsic means something is created externally. Extrinsic motivation means that someone is motivated because of an outside influence, rather than their own drive and desire to do their best. Extrinsic motivators are harmful to our players' development. If they are going to have long-term success, they need to be intrinsically (internally) motivated and always want to be their best because it’s who they are, not because something else is provoking them. Extrinsic rewards don’t last. Intrinsic ones do. By using fitness as a consequence, our players are learning to compete in order to avoid punishment, not simply for the sake of competing and the desire to win.
5. Losing should be punishment enough
As stated earlier, if we are doing our jobs as coaches correctly, our players will develop the drive to compete and a desire to win. If we create a healthy, competitive spirit in our players, the simple act of losing is worse than any form of fitness. They’ll want to play another round immediately so that they can make up for losing. If this is not the case for our players, we need to look at how we can help them develop this mentality, not simply put them through fitness exercises.
Motivating Players Without Fitness
Here is how we can motivate our players – or better yet, help them develop a competitive mentality – without using fitness as a punishment for losing:
Use competition in every session. This does not need to be one person or team winning and another losing. It can be trying to beat personal bests or personal records. Competing with ourselves is the most healthy, meaningful, and long-lasting method of developing a competitive or winning mentality.
People respond best to positive reinforcement. People also focus on things based on how we say them. If we say “don’t mess up,” players focus on the words “mess up” and end up making mistakes. If we say “do your best,” players focus on “best” and have more success. Therefore, if we always focus on the losing team and try to avoid punishment, we are not developing a focus on or a desire to win – we are only developing a focus and desire to not lose. So instead of punishing the losing team or players, praise and/or reward the winners (remember: winning can simply be improving one’s own personal performance, which will result in multiple winners). It can be as simple saying “great work” or “your hard work really paid off to help you improve.” You can also give high-fives or dedicate a dance move to them (the six-year olds really appreciate that last one). Praising the positive result puts the focus on what we want, and motivates those who did not achieve it to want it and strive for it.
Use Productive Consequences
This one kind of goes against some of the above points, but if we frame it correctly, the emphasis can be on positive outcomes. Instead of using fitness as a punishment, we can use something more useful, such as picking up the cones or putting away equipment. Meanwhile, the winners get a longer water break. Although there is still some sort of consequence for losing, we can use words like “winners get an extended water break, everyone else picks up the cones” to emphasize a small reward for winning, rather than a punishment for losing. It’s a very small gesture that gets the point across, and the players are doing things that need to be done and that they would be doing anyway.