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Take a Lap: Alternative to Exercise as Punishment in Youth Sports

By TrueSport, 07/17/18, 12:30PM CDT

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Do you make your team run laps as punishment?

Using exercise as a form of consequence isn't a new tactic in coaching. But is it an effective and healthy tool?

Framing physical activity as fun, instead of punishment, can offer long-term benefits.

“Drop and give me 20.”

“Take a lap.”

“The losers of this drill have to do five extra sprints at the end of practice.”

For generations, using exercise as punishment in youth sports was the norm. The practice has even been romanticized, like in the movie Miracle where hockey players are forced to skate seemingly endless ‘suicide’ drills after a bad loss.

But in a time when people already have enough trouble getting exercise, it’s a disservice to use exercise as punishment, which paints it as something negative instead of something that should be enjoyed.

In fact, using exercise as a disciplinary tool is considered corporal punishment and thereby illegal in more than half of U.S. states, several of which also have laws against withholding exercise (e.g., keeping kids from recess). The Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) has also made an official statementshunning the practice.  

At the end of the day, youth athletes are still kids. So, if taking more laps at the end of practice shouldn’t be used as punishment, what can be done to hold athletes accountable?

Alternative 1: Verbal Warning

Even if an athlete has a penchant for acting independently from the team, sometimes being called out in front of peers can be enough to create a positive behavior change.

Be wary, however, that drawing attention to misbehavior can feel like a reward to some kids, so consider carefully whether a one-on-one approach would be more effective than addressing them in front of the entire group.

Alternative 2: Academic and Non-Traditional Punishments

If coaching a school-sponsored team, research if school-related punishments, such as before or after school detention, can be handed out to youth athletes that violate their team or sport rules. In addition to being an effective punishment any student-athlete would want to avoid, it might further underscore the importance of acting in a mature manner in organized settings.

Instead of exercise as punishment, the United Kingdom’s education secretary once explained the value of alternate and equally undesirable punishments, such as “writing lines, picking up litter in playgrounds, weeding, tidying classrooms and removing graffiti,” that would not blacken an athlete’s view of exercise.

For athletes on non-school teams, this idea could transposed into cleaning up the playing field after practice, or writing an essay about their role on the team or why it’s important to keep a cool-head.

Alternative 3: Brief Removal

If an athlete’s transgression resulted from frustrations about a call or heated moment during a game, it’s the coach’s responsibility to step in and pull that player from the game for as long as it takes. Depending on their role on the team, the punishment might come with the added of weight of having to watch their teammates struggle without them.  

Not allowing them to re-enter until they have regained their composure also communicates that their behavior has no place in sports, no matter how frustrating the context. Explain that it’s the coach’s job to discuss issues with the referee or to point out dangerous play, not theirs. 

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About TrueSport

TrueSport® is a grassroots movement born and powered by the experience and values of USADA–the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The TrueSport® mission is simple and bold: to change the culture of youth sport by providing powerful educational tools to equip young athletes with the resources to build the life skills and core values for lasting success on and off the field.

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