Playing Favorites

You've seen the meme. I've spotted it over and over again. "I play favorites", or something to that effect.

It goes on to list what makes someone the coaches favorite. That they work hard, show up on time, do all the "right stuff", etc.

I hear it in another form. When an athlete makes a mistake, I find myself slipping too. I say "I don't want to reward that behavior". I start thinking simplistically about how I can use the carrot and the stick to get the swimmers in the water to do what I want.

It's another coaching myth that lies on faulty ground. Psychological behaviorism has persisted in popular usage for decades, despite the fact that Psychology has largely moved on.

Rats and Dogs

The underpinnings of behaviorism are well known to most people. Remember Pavlov's dog? Pavlov rang the bell, fed the dog, and eventually rang the bell and the dog's mouth watered.

He conditioned the dog to exhibit a behavior. Later B.F. Skinner got some rats to change their behavior by isolating them in boxes and using reward/punishment to get them to do certain behaviors.

Behaviorism rests mainly on this- that we have behaviors and that reactions to outside stimuli can change those. Reward good behaviors and they become more likely. Punish the bad ones and they become less likely.

The problem is that we are not dogs being fed or rats in a maze. Even Skinner came to realize that human beings were a lot more complex, that there was a web of other factors (emotions, thoughts and states of mind) that went into what we actually do.

Back to Favorites

Now, it is actually impossible to not have favorites. And I don't mean to suggest to anyone that they stop checking behaviors that they don't like on their team. However, don't think of setting those boundaries in behaviorist terms: you don't need to measure the harshness of your reaction to bad behavior as a means to stop it.

Consider the research on corporal punishment for kids. It has fallen almost entirely out of use, and for good reason. The severe reaction of hitting someone may be effective for curbing a specific behavior, but it leads to a host of other problems that mean that it's a really bad idea. 

I also don't mean to suggest that you shouldn't call out the people on your team who are doing it best. Having an ongoing conversation about this is crucial to communicating to athletes what it is you value as a coach.

However, what athletes should not get from you is that your feelings toward them are a product of their behavior. This is corrosive to relationships. 

Consider the "favorites": you're communicating to them that they are just a few bad days away from you not liking them. On the other end of the spectrum, athletes may just feel that you really just don't care about them.

If you truly want to sustain (or encourage) good processes with the people that you coach, you need to make sure that you communicate first that you see them as people, not a set of behaviors.

The athletes that are already thriving need that security. And those that struggle to do the right thing are often one really positive relationship away from breaking their cycle. You have the opportunity to be that relationship.