Understanding Dopamine & How it Effects Your Coaching

The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behaviour.

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This is an article I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. It’s about coaches, how we operate, and how our methods effect young hockey players on a cellular level. Now, I’m not a scientist – maybe a psychologist from time to time, especially during midterms – but every coach understands the power of reward-motivated behaviour. Dopamine is a neural transmitter in the brain that regulates how we perceive reward, or how we accept pleasure. That feeling you get when you crush a brownie straight out of the oven? That’s dopamine telling you to repeat that process over and over again.

It’s the same feeling hockey players get when they score a goal, make a save, or make a play that the coach asked them to make. Extreme sports such as bungee jumping or sky-diving or rugby release dopamine in the brain like its going out of style.

Dopamine helps you pay attention in short bursts and improves short term memory recall. Sounds like a handy tool for a coach to use, right? This is the scientific explanation of why it’s better to reward good behaviour instead of punishing bad behaviour.

It’s also the reason dopamine release in the brain is addictive. Think brownies again – your brain wants that feeling back. When you score a goal, your brain wants that feeling back. When the coach praises you, the players will do whatever it takes (in most cases) to repeat that feeling.

The problem is that coaches get that release as well when a hockey player does something asked of them. And if they don’t quite reach it, if they miss a breakout pass, or get burned on a 1on1, then the coach narrowly misses out on that dopamine release. So how do we cope?

We shout. We call players out. We get fired up. And so do the players. When the coach starts acting up and pushing harder for success, the player inevitably does the same. We become addicted to the burst of pleasure we receive from accomplishing something on the ice, and we lose control. And losing control, from the brain outward, is bad:

Addiction implies an intense desire for something, loss of control of its use, and continuing to use it in spite of the negative consequences it implies. Addiction changes brain structure and modifies how the brain registers pleasure. Over time, the brain adapts and dopamine stops having the same effect as it did originally, which causes us to search for more of what we crave. This effect is called tolerance. 

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When hockey players become tolerant of their dopamine levels, their motivation wanes. That’s what you’re actually accomplishing when you yell at your players or try to joystick coach them from the bench – you’re increasing their tolerance for their own brains. Sure, it might work in short bursts, but if you’re losing your voice on a regular basis, then you’re simply dulling the sharpness of the message for the player, for yourself, and for the rest of the team.

Every hockey player is different, but all of us have brains made up of roughly the same chemical composition. Some people have a higher dopamine response than others.

It’s up to you to find that balance and help your players use their own brains to the peak of their abilities.

Kelvin is the Editor in Chief of The Coaches' Site and an assistant coach with the UBC Thunderbirds Men's Varsity hockey team.