Positive reinforcement — it’s not a new concept, but in the ultracompetitive, at times overly masculine, world of sports, it’s often sorely underutilized. Some coaches degrade players, reward results over effort and pit teammates against one another.
Candace Hogue, a doctoral candidate in sports psychology at Kansas University, doesn’t think these types of coaches are doing their players any favors. In fact, she believes they’re stunting their athletic performance and, worse, doing them physical harm.
Hogue proved her theory with a recent study in which she taught two different groups of students how to juggle — one with positive reinforcement, the other, negative. The results from her master’s thesis surprised even her: While she expected levels of cortisol, aka “the stress hormone,” to rise in students in the so-called ego-involving environment, she was caught off guard when cortisol levels dropped in the participants showered with praise and encouragement. Her study added a physiological component to the litany of research on negative reinforcement in sports. Your move, coaches.
“Supporting everyone in the group and really focusing on effort and improvement — that’s the way to do it. But for whatever reason, coaches don’t seem to get it,” Hogue said. “Oftentimes we’re still pitting our players against one another; we’re still rewarding whoever’s playing the best.”
Her study has won praise from such places as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and the KU School of Education. It also has the blessing of her teacher and mentor, Mary Fry, who oversees sports psychology at KU.
The two try to get out the word about the research as much as they can, speaking to coaches, fitness professionals and educators.
Fry admits that it’s a tough culture to crack. “They’re used to this mentality of ‘we’ve got to yell and scream at people and that’s what’s going to bring out the best,’” she said. “The evidence is mounting to suggest that’s not the case.”
She and Hogue hope the new research can strike a greater chord, thanks to the previously unreported physiological aspect. Increased cortisol is particularly worrisome to athletes, in that it hampers the ability to recuperate from injuries and impairs cognitive ability. High cortisol levels can also increase abdominal fat and cholesterol, lower immunity and inflammatory responses, and reduce bone density and muscle tissue.
One person who has put their preferred method to use is Haskell Indian Nations University football coach Jimmy Snyder. No players dropped out before classes started last season, in a program with a traditionally low retention rate. As examples like his are spotlighted and negative instances — such as the recent release of a video of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally assaulting his players — come out, it will begin to turn the tide on coaching attitudes, Hogue and Fry say.
They hope American coaches, like many of their foreign counterparts, will one day be required to undergo some type of training and certification. “Our joke is that even to be able to cut hair you have to have the credentials for it,” Fry said.
In the study, Hogue taught juggling the same way to two groups of students.
The leaders of the “caring-task” group focused on effort and improvement, praising the students using their first name and encouraging them to cooperate with and help one another. The students laughed, were motivated to participate and came off relaxed and at ease.
In the ego-involving group, Hogue planted students who actually knew how to juggle. The study leaders ranked participants in order of performance (the undercover students came out on top). “It seemed to really shut down their motivation,” Hogue said. “They didn’t try as hard. They didn’t seem to be having as much fun.”
Using an oral swab, Hogue tested the students’ cortisol levels before and after the juggling. The ego-driven group’s levels spiked, while the nurtured students’ went the opposite direction.
Hogue’s own high school and junior-Olympic volleyball coach, Christi Posey, gave her the type of positive reinforcement she now advocates for. It helped Hogue reach her greatest heights as an athlete, leading her team to multiple state championships. After high school, however, she landed in an ego-driven environment typical of major collegiate athletic programs. What did she do?
“I quit,” she said. “And I loved volleyball. It was my passion.”
Hogue’s ultimate goal is to become a professor — the next Mary Fry. She wants to continue doing research and informing the public on what she believes is an important yet vastly under-reported topic.
Even without a bevy of evidence, Hogue feels that human nature will eventually win out: We all prefer to be treated with kindness rather than contempt, to be praised rather than insulted.
“We know in our heart it’s right,” she said.