One of the most difficult parts of coaching, especially younger players, is deciding when and how to reward or discipline your players for their actions and behaviors. There’s plenty to consider, from the range of disciplinary consequences you can give to a player to how severe an offense has to be to warrant said consequences. For younger players, positive and negative consequences can go a very long way both in changing their habits and in shifting the way they think about performing when part of the team. For that reason alone, each act of discipline needs to be implemented with plenty of calculation and thought involved, as you never quite know how you might shape the experience of your players in both the short and the long-term. Here are some things to consider when trying to navigate discipline on young sports teams.

Routine and Drill

While trends seem to be shifting toward a more fun-friendly experience when it comes to recreational sports, there was a time when rigid, almost military-style discipline was involved with showing up to practices and games. In a lot of ways, young athletes are used to routine, but not to exerting themselves purposely. It’s easier to set expectations and have the kids follow along to meet them, as they aren’t quite sure yet of the alternative. That said, there’s still a certain way those expectations need to be set. Reward and disincentive are the easiest way to convince young athletes that the expectations set need to be met -- that is to say, for example, that athletes should show up to practice prepared to run plenty, hustle hard, and focus. It should be made clear to them that those who choose to not meet those expectations shouldn’t expect to be treated or rewarded the same way as those who do. This can reflect itself in playing time, privileges during practices, and more. Repeatedly showing them that the players who meet expectations during practices and gatherings will be rewarded will create the impetus amongst the players to try to rise up to (or even exceed) those expectations.

A simple way to set these expectations would be to have practices start and end with an endurance exercise or drill. For example, that can be one run pole-to-pole at the beginning of baseball practice as a warm-up, then one as a cooldown at the end. From there, you’ll figure out who’s showing up to work and who’s trying to avoid it. Players who show up early or on time fully aware that practice begins with an unenjoyable exercise will show a little more resolve than those who try to skip out on these routines or otherwise get around them. Something like this will also build itself up over the course of a season, as players will become used to what is required of them by these exercises. That’s a direct demonstration for them of how putting their heads down and doing the work will only make itself easier over time.

Behavior, Discipline, and Its Effects

Over the course of the season, there will be more specific situations during practices and games where the coach will have to step in and discipline a player or players. Younger players act up, are noisy and energetic, and sometimes can refuse authority; these things are normal and shouldn’t be punished as if they are out of place. If any of these things get to a dramatic or inhibitive point, such that they get in the way of the rest of the team’s experience or otherwise negatively affects the players around them, that’s when a clear example has to be made and expectations once again set. Negative consequences ranging from losing playing time to running laps and more are tools that can be used to negotiate proper behavior of a young athlete. So long as you as a coach have created the right air of authority, these players will have to listen to you when you tell them to go tire themselves out or else face even worse consequences. You’ll find that, in the short-term, such consequences will send a clear message to the team that poor behavior, sportsmanship, or teamwork will result in unpleasant experiences.

That said, there’s a big difference between disciplining a player for acting out and disciplining a player for not performing up to par. As a coach, it’s crucial to your players’ developments that 80 to 90% of your feedback and reinforcement be positive. It’s far too easy to instill fear in the player by penalising them for a failure, especially if it was beyond their control. When a player makes a mistake in the field or on the court, it’s better to approach them and address the mistake in a constructive way. This means talking to them about their thought process leading up to the mistake, asking them why they think they made that mistake, and figuring out a plan to prevent that from happening again. If you resort to harsh treatment of your players because of skill-based mistakes, you’ll quickly create a fear of failure within them, which is the last thing any growing athlete needs. Encourage your players to fix their mistakes and improve, or if anything, create an environment on the team where everyone is invested in each other’s improvement. Use firm negative consequences for players who act out and misbehave to the point of detriment, and remember to consistently build up the players who are working to improve their skills regardless of their performance.

When it comes to disciplining young athletes, coaching becomes very similar to teaching and parenting. These kids are incredibly impressionable, so a sensitive approach is crucial in maintaining a positive experience on the team for all players. That said, it’s equally important to instill values of hard work, focus, and determination at the same time by establishing routine and expectations for players to aspire to meet. So tread carefully, and remember that your job is to develop the athletes as players and as growing human beings.