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It's Never Smart To Use Running As a Punishment

Published December 15, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Many high school coaches punish their ball players for a bad performance or a bad attitude by having them run around the field. One basketball coach made the whole team run a lap for every missed free throw during practice, until the players could hit six consecutive free throws. A football coach punished the team by making every player run a mile for every game lost. Then, there is Chad, a 7-year-old kid, whose grandmother punishes him for bad behavior on the school bus by making him run laps around the yard.

The use of running as a punishment brings up two fundamental questions. First, do coaches and grandmothers alienate children from running by using it as a punishment? Second, what options are there for track coaches to punish their runners for delinquency?

Before attempting to answer either question, it is important to realize the relative importance of motivation, reward and punishment in achieving the desired learning effect. Of the three mechanisms, punishment must be the choice of last resort. A coach who is blessed with motivated athletes seldom resorts to punishment, but uses rewards to maintain motivation.

Psychologists agree that punishment is necessary under certain circumstances. To be effective in correcting undesirable behavior, punishment must include the three elements of immediacy, intensity and specificity.

Punishment must be inflicted immediately after the undesirable action, it must be of sufficient intensity to effect a correction, and it must be specific to the desired outcome.

Unfortunately, many frustrated adults misunderstand the role of punishment, and inflict it indiscriminately. Running laps around the field neither improves a basketball player's shooting accuracy nor a child's conduct on the school bus. Using running as a punishment may condition children to hate running, and deny them its lifelong benefits.

Some answers to the second question, how to punish delinquent runners, are amusing. Since runners like to run, punishing them with more running may not yield the desired correction. Therefore, coaches have come up with other alternatives, ranging from cleaning the team bus to raking the long-jump pit. One coach punishes delinquent runners with push-ups. Another prevents a late-comer from joining that day's workout. Some punish a sub-par performance by a hard workout, at the risk of breaking the runners' bodies, let alone their spirits.

Many successful coaches credit their success to their runners' motivation, coupled with a careful reward system, that eliminates the need for punishment. Only those runners who show motivation and dedication are allowed on the team. Preseason workouts and tryouts are designed for prevention, to identify and weed out those athletes with mixed priorities. Athletic ability is a lesser criterion for making the team than attitude.

Even under the best possible scenario, personal lives tangle with athletic performances. Blame flies in both directions after a bad race. The coach is accused of incompetence and the runner of obstinacy. A mature coach recognizes a runner's inexperience, and uses the learning opportunity to advantage. When a runner's unhappiness turns into rebellion, a coach's most effective punishment may be to ignore the runner. Young men and women, particularly teen-agers, thrive on attention and guidance. Ignoring an athlete for a few days may be a coach's most effective punishment.

As far as Chad is concerned, running can still play a positive role in correcting the situation. Rather than using running as a punishment, it can be used positively to dissipate the extra energy of a child that may be under-challenged at home and at school.

As for pastime ball games, coaches must recognize the importance of fitness and endurance to their sport, and make long distance running an integral component of their training program. Punishing players with running adds insult to injury. It is enough punishment that these players did not make the cross country team!

Kamal Jabbour rewards his children's running accomplishments with pizza and wings, to delay the inevitable day when they will leave him in the dust. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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