Now that I’ve established myself as a weirdo coach in your eyes with my last article talking about Jedi Mind tricks, microwave buttons and how to make a big perspective shift to improve your coaching, I’m going to continue things by talking about treating your players like dogs. Specifically, I’m going to offer a perspective on coaching that might surprise you…
Remember, we talked about how many coaches do not know or care what the correct buttons to press are. They would sooner use a drill or motivational technique that works 1/20 times instead of 19/20 times, simply because “that is the way it is done”. Or because they don’t want to do the work to figure out what works and what doesn’t…they think “this is the way it should be” and then complain when their players don’t listen.
Imagine if you had a new way to communicate with your players. A way that worked 19/20 times. A way that felt natural to you even though it wasn’t customary to you. A way that, when you heard yourself talk to the players, just “sounded” right. A way that led to results that you immediately saw on the ice.
I’m going to offer you one such way of communicating. I’m not going to say it is perfect, or the “right” way of communicating. Instead, I will say that it is one tool that a coach can put in their toolbox. The challenge I will throw down to you is to ask yourself if the tool you are consistently using is providing the results you want. Just because everyone else is using a hammer around you doesn’t mean you have to use a hammer, especially if it isn’t the right tool for the job. I’d like to offer you another tool that you could use…and I’ll explain how many people are misusing it.
Without further ado, let’s talk about the idea of “reinforcement”. This comes from the field of “Behaviourism” which now influences modern animal trainers (especially some great dog trainers). Let’s break it down:
Conventional animal trainers primarily use something called negative reinforcement. For example, a horse has a “bit” in its mouth, and it learns to turn left when the rider pulls the left reign. This is because when the rider pulls the left reign, it puts pressure on the left side of the horse’s mouth. When the horse turns left, the pressure ceases. So over time, the horse learns to turn left more quickly as soon as it feels the pressure. An example from hockey would be something like: berate a player for making not doing something correctly…when they do it correctly, stop berating them. Simple, right?
This negative reinforcement is indeed effective. It “shapes” behaviour. (Imagine moulding clay into a new shape.) Most players (and organisms) move towards pleasure and away from pain. This is a simple fact of life. So negative reinforcement works for this reason…players try to move away from pain.
But is it the fastest way? Is it the best way? What if you tried having them move towards pleasure instead of away from pain? What if that led to dramatic, unexpected results?
Modern animal trainers use something called “operant conditioning” which uses “positive” reinforcement to “shape” behaviours. They give a reinforcer (or reward) after they see the animal demonstrate the desired behaviour. Basically, the trainers catch the animal doing something right and then reward it. As a coach, you can do the same thing, and the effects are powerful. Imagine rewarding all the behaviours you want your team to demonstrate so that those behaviours happen more – that’s positive reinforcement!
At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Ya ya…positive psychology…blah blah blah…I gotta do that…think positive… [click away]”.
Wait! Before you do…
I want to tell you exactly how most coaches THINK they understand these principles, but are actually applying them in the wrong way. I want to tell you why you might not have been getting the results you were expecting from positive reinforcement and operant conditioning.
Remember, animal trainers and psychologists have found that operant conditioning with positive reinforcement can cut learning time by as much as 80% compared to traditional training methods (that use negative reinforcement). It leads to more accurate learning because the dog/player knows exactly what behaviour is rewarded, versus having to try a bunch of behaviours until the negative reinforcement stops.
Put yourself in the position of the player. I’ve been on the ice where the demands kept changing and we were berated for every mistake. There was confusion, unrest, and no motivation on the part of the players. I personally felt like I was walking (skating) on eggshells all the time and I was afraid to screw up. I talked with other players, and they felt the exact same way. No one enjoyed it. Unfortunately, this describes most players’ entire hockey career.
But one time, I was also on the ice with a coach where every little good thing we did was the cause for a minor celebration. It was seriously motivating. I’ve never worked so hard for praise in my life because it was consistent and noticed. All the other guys on the team, who were so accustomed to negative reinforcement from all their old coaches, went absolutely full tilt. The coach wasn’t just handing out “good jobs” to guys who weren’t doing anything right…he was looking hard to notice who was doing things the right way, and then worked hard to praise each guy for their effort. Guys were even talking about “how motivating” his tactics were. “I’ve never wanted to bag skate so hard in my life… it was so motivating” is an exact quote from a 24 year old…
Let’s pause for a second. Do hockey players ever talk like this? Hockey players rarely use the term “I was so motivated at practice today.” They’re apt to talk about how practice was hard, and how they worked hard, and it was hard work…blah blah. That type of language (“it is so motivating”) is usually reserved for teenage gym goers posting cute “inspiring” quotes on Instagram in their Lululemons. So hearing hocker players effusively expressing their motivation to work hard is a little strange. It’s also rare…
This experience with positive reinforcement has also been a rarity in my career. Almost every teammate I talk to agrees.
But as a coach, isn’t that the experience…the experience of being completely motivated to work hard for YOUR praise…that you want for you players? Can you imagine the respect and admiration they would have for you and your abilities if you consistently elicited this response from them?
Here’s what we usually see though:
Coach sees something that is going wrong: his team isn’t winning races to loose pucks in the D zone. Coach says “nobody is moving their feet out there” with a tone of disapproval. Players lightly respond or don’t respond. Coach sees this behaviour again. Coach gets more frustrated and yells at the players “move your feet out there in the D zone!”. Players hear the coach but don’t change their behaviour. Coach loses his mind and screams at the players for “not working hard enough” and tells them they need to “move their feet or they’re benched”. This doesn’t work. In the intermission, the coach throws an orange at the wall and flips a garbage can. The players are scared. The coach punch a stall. The players don’t play any better in the next period. The coach gets angrier and threatens a bag skate. Team loses the game, ironically, due to lack of intensity. Coach explains to parents/media that the guys just weren’t “working hard enough” and “didn’t execute”. This is code for THE COACH DIDN’T REINFORCE HIS PLAYERS PROPERLY! (I watched and heard this play out on the weekend with a coach (I dramatized the intermission part…but that has happened to me before. Anyway, his team lost that game with some really sloppy defensive zone play).
Contrast that to the coach who uses positive reinforcement: the coach sees his players losing races to pucks in the d zone. Coach gets frustrated. But the coach doesn’t say anything…doesn’t grumble…doesn’t show he/she is upset. Coach watches more closely…and boom! One player wins a race to the puck. Coach gets excited on the bench, makes a big deal out of that win. Says out loud “he’s getting another shift right after” so all the players can hear. Player comes to the bench and the coach makes a big deal about the ONE race that he won and proceeds to double shift him. The coach notices that some of the players have a bit more jump the next shift, but are still losing races…coach doesn’t get frustrated that it didn’t work the first time, but knows it will come…but then another player wins ONE race and BOOM! The coach celebrates the one won race again, announces that player is getting a shift up next and then congratulates that player when they get to the bench. The other players are catching on. They are realizing that they are getting rewarded and praised for winning races. More players start winning more races to pucks, and you make sure to acknowledge each of their successful races. Now 70% of the team is working like mad to get your praise and the rest of them are catching on. You keep noticing and praising the behaviour you want to see (winning races). Now the players are working like mad, and you’re having a great time because you’re encouraging your players, and the parents and fans are going nuts because your team is on fire. Every player is playing to their full capacity, and you hearing their heavy breathing after every shift, and see red sweaty faces smiling after a successful shift.
Think this is impossible? It isn’t. I’ve taken this approach with atom players all the way up to midget players, and it is literally like sticking a rocket up their butt and lighting it. It is amazing what happens to the players as soon as they realize they won’t get yelled at for a mistake.
Ok, here is where most coaches mess this up. There are four common ways that hold you back from achieving unbelievable of results with your team.
1) Not using the Right Reinforcer
2) Not Timing it Right
3) Getting Impatient
4) Trying to Shape Too Many Behaviours
5) Asking too much
6) Reinforcing Yourself
1) Not using the Right Reinforcer: The reinforcer MUST be something that the player WANTS in THAT MOMENT. If they are not hungry and you’re trying to use smarties with them, then smarties are not a good reinforcer in that situation. Likewise, if a player doesn’t like public accolades, but you praise him in front of his team, it might backfire. You have to know your players and figure out what is a simple reinforcer that they will work for. Ice time is usually a good one. Public acknowledgement usually works, but not always. A literal pat on the back for a specific play (that you point out) often works wonders.
2) Not Timing it Right: The reinforcer must be presented with the right timing. That is to say as soon as you can after the behaviour has been demonstrated. As a coach in hockey, you can’t praise the player immediately because they’re skating around the ice with a big plastic thing on their head. But you NEED to praise them immediately upon sitting down on the bench. If you wait until the intermission, or after the game, or three shifts down the line…the effect of reinforcing is lost. It might be nice for the player to hear what you’re telling them, but it doesn’t reinforce or shape the behaviour you want to install in your players.
3) Getting Impatient: It might be tough to “catch them doing it right” while they make mistake after mistake. It is crucial not to take their mistakes personally and remain calm and detached while waiting for that spark…that first behaviour that you want to reinforce. It WILL be painful the first time you try this, especially if you’re used to constantly using negative reinforcement. But once you catch and nurture that spark, it will catch and grow quickly into a raging inferno.
4) Trying to Shape Too Many Behaviours: You might be saying to yourself, “well with negative reinforcement, I can change tons of behaviours at once! This positive reinforcement stuff is BS”. One of the benefits of positive reinforcement is clarity and precision for the player on exactly what the coach wants to see. Negative reinforcement tells the the player what you don’t want to see. You only remove the negative reinforcement when the player stops doing something that you don’t want them to do. This does nothing to tell the player what you DO want them to do. They have to infer that. When you try to shape too many behaviours, you lose some of this clarity. What then, is a coach to do if they feel like they have 7 things to improve with their team? I’ve sat in pre-game talks where the coach or assistant coach comes in and prattles off a list of 20 things we need to focus on. This is not effective. Instead, as a coach, you will have to make a decision on the One Thing that you could shape during the game or drill that would make every other behaviour easier or unnecessary. Every time you say yes to adding another thing to work on, you’re saying no to clarity and precision.
5) Asking too much: If the team currently chips and dumps every time they touch the puck, you’re not going to decide to shape the behaviour of making 3 passes to exit the zone. You would never be able to use a positive reinforcer and it is simply too challenging. If instead you chose to ask for less, and started by reinforcing them for making a single pass, you would have an opportunity to use the positive reinforcer more often to install the behaviour deeper and deeper.
6) Reinforcing Yourself: This is a meta concept that could be slightly confusing. But in the interest of thoroughness I will include it. Be aware that when you use negative reinforcement on your players and it works, that you are reinforcing your own use of using negative reinforcement. That is why you might still cling to using it even in the face of a more powerful solution – positive reinforcement. As mentioned above, it will be hard to break your own trained behaviour of using negative reinforcement, but once you see success with operant conditioning, the positive results will reinforce your own use of positive reinforcement. The key is getting started, shifting your perspective and gathering momentum.
If I’ve done my job right, I’m hoping that you now see that “positive reinforcement” is very different from “positive thinking”. Thinking to yourself “our team is strong enough, fast enough, and by golly everyone likes us” is delusional and useless – positive thinking. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, is a proven and powerful system of shaping behaviours that you want to see your team exhibit.
Remember that coaches everywhere KNOW the outcome they want to see. The coaches that GET the result they want, know HOW to get it. In my experience as a player and coach, using operant conditioning with “positive reinforcement”, just like successful dog trainers do, is one way to get to the target…faster and with better emotional outcomes.
Consider this as one page in your microwave manual…how to press the right buttons. Before I go, I’m going to give you two Bonus methods you can use to apply principles of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to two tricky issues most coaches face.
Bonus #1: Creating Consistency
Can you create consistent and obsessive behaviour? Yes. It is possible to train a chicken to peck a button over 100 times before receiving a reward. How? Using what is called a variable schedule. Why would you want to? What if you made shooting on the power play to be an obsessive behaviour on your team? Or fast and precise breakouts…what if that was an addictive and obsessive behaviour for your team? What would that do for you?
Using the same psychology that makes gambling addicting and obsessive, we can set up a reinforcement schedule to create obsessive levels of consistency on your team. Gambling, for example the slot machines, use a variable schedule of reinforcement. You pull the lever, and you know for sure that you will get some reward, but you’re never sure of when and how much.
Once you establish a behaviour that your team is exhibiting consistently, you next step is to put it on a variable schedule. The key is to achieve exactly the desired behaviour before starting to put it on a variable schedule. Once you are confident that it is fully shaped, you start reinforcing your players not on every single exhibition of the desired behaviour, but at random. You might only start rewarding for behaviours that meet higher and higher levels of criteria.
Remember, only do this once you are completely confident that you can get your team to elicit a behaviour consistently, or you will be stuck at mediocre levels of inconsistent performance.
Bonus #2: An advanced way to eliminate bad habits
Let’s say your team has a bad habit and you want to get rid of it. Here is an elegant way of extinguishing that behaviour. It is also counterintuitive, so bear with me…but it works and it is fun to play with.
Put the bad habit on cue. Then stop giving the cue.
So let’s say that your team has the bad habit of not having a middle driver on zone entries. Here’s what you do:
Do your 3on2 drill like normal, but you’ll tell them that as they’re crossing the red line, you will either blow your whistle once or twice. If you blow the whistle once, they are to enter the zone with NO middle driver. If you blow the whistle twice, they are to enter the zone WITH a middle driver. So run through the drill a few times, blowing your whistle once or twice roughly 50/50. Make sure to praise the line only if they followed your instructions (as per the rest of this article). If they do not follow the whistle cue, give no praise. The key is to establish their sensitivity to the whistle cues. Once they are following your instructions (the cue of one or two whistles), slowly stop using the one whistle cue. Pretty soon, you will only be using the two whistle cue, and the players will only be exhibiting middle driver on their entries.
Never give the single whistle cue again…and voila! You’ll always have a middle driver so long as you never mention the single whistle cue again. The best part about this? You never had to get angry at your players or do any explaining whatsoever! It just happened automatically…what a smart coach you are!
Use this technique to extinguish any bad habits your team has. Slow multiple pass regroups? Put it on cue and extinguish! Dangerous drop passes? Put it on cue and extinguish! Slow back checks? Put it on cue and extinguish!
I find that coaches who exclusively use positive reinforcement and operant conditioning are rare, but extremely valuable. Who do you know who coaches in that way? Share it with me!
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