Mental Toughness, Consequences and Youth

One of my dear friends and coach posed this to me:
We had an interesting situation at practice the other day. The middle school is a little more than a mile from the track, and the kids usually simply jog from the school to the track to warm up before beginning some warm-up drills and then starting the actual workouts. On Thursday, one group of kids began walking the mile from school to track and took forever. The coaches operate democratically and openly, and we debated the proper course of action. One coach advocated verbally humiliating the runners in front of the high-school team, which had gathered around the high-jump pit. The high-school team has been considered one of the top teams in the state for the last 12 years, so the coach reasoned this would teach the kids they were not “Their caliber” if they behaved like that. Another coach called for kicking the two “ringleaders” of the walkers off the team, even though it was not clear who the perpetrators really were. Another called for extra work for the walkers, including 30 minutes of core routines, stadium-step climbing, and lots of hard intervals around the track. I said we should tell the runners that they needed to jog over to practice in order to be on time for what we were planning for the day, and if they didn’t do that they would not be participating in any meets. The hard-work principle won out in the end. What would you have done?

The neanderthal approach seems to be alluring. Work the heck out of them so they won’t do that again! Ah yes, humiliate them – embarrass them in front of peers or in fact the very kids they look up to. Embarrassment and putting them down certainly seems effective. Who would want to repeat that undesirable behavior? Besides doesn’t all this build mental toughness?

Let’s look at sound psychology. The issue is to reduce an undesirable behavior (walking when they shouldn’t) while increasing desirable behaviors (working out), yes?

Once upon a time, punishment (Do not confuse this with consequences in general – though punishment is one kind of consequence.) was thought to be the most effective way to change behaviors. The problem is that it carries dual messages. Yes indeed, it is difficult for the tykes to do extra core exercises or be belittled in front of others. However, the second messages are:
1. Those in charge can and should inflict mental and physical pain on those smaller.
2. Trying out for a team, being on a team, and working out (exercising) is punishing and degrading.
3. This kind of treatment is OK because it is a right of passage. (How do you think hazing came about?)

The solution as my kind friend intuited is a consequence that teaches them to do what is desired and expected with respect while sending a strong message of standards to uphold.
1. Be clear in your expectation. Jog the whole way. No walking allowed.
2. If you walk you will not compete in the next meet.
3. If you are caught doing this a second time you will not compete in two meets.
4. If you are caught doing this a third time you are removed from the team.

This approach demonstrates discipline in behavior.
It is clear.
It is fair.
It does not demean anyone.
It allows a youth to choose their behavior and know the consequence.
It holds being with the team and competing as something special and a reward for the right behaviors.
Ultimately it teaches responsibility and promotes a healthy lifestyle.

Using exercise as punishment over the years has sent many an athlete packing never to return to sports. Most of the stories I hear of my contemporaries are the horror stories of the old PE teachers singling kids out and torturing them with exercise. No wonder our society is exercise averse and fat as ever! It starts with our youth.

Mental toughness comes from persistence is solid workouts in a supportive atmosphere – not abusive one. Mental toughness comes from building on success, not reinforcing a failure.

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