Rethinking Our Discipline Strategies

5 Minute Read or Listen

 “Hit the line! If we are going to continue to walk through these drills, then we are going to spend the rest of this practice running!”

I definitely used this strategy more times than I can count. Not only is this strategy not beneficial to developing character, but it is also often ineffective at getting compliance.

One practice, in particular, stands out to me as an example of this. As the players did their sprints, one young man decided to jog-walk the sprint. He finished dead last, and he wasn’t the slowest kid on the team. In fact, he was one of the fastest athletes in the area and would go on to play big time Division One football.

So, as he walked across the end line, I shouted, “We are going to keep sprinting until EVERYONE is running hard!” If my anger wasn’t motivating him, then maybe the threat of his teammates’ anger would be enough to get him to comply.

No such luck. I ran that team for the next 25 minutes. My ego was so inflated, I was not going to back down! After 25 minutes, I finally pretended that he wasn’t the last person across the end-line, because we needed to move on.

While using fear was effective at getting compliance from many of the young men I coached, in the case of this athlete—and many other athletes with a lot of ability and just as much entitlement—it was highly ineffective. This young man couldn’t be controlled by fear, because he had a safety net of other coaches and parents to save him from his own actions. He was a rockstar, allowed to do whatever he wanted, both on the field/court and off it. If things didn’t work out with me, his ego would be stroked by plenty of others.

Now, we can complain about the lack of accountability from their parents, other coaches, and the system. But the truth is, we can’t change others. At the end of the day, the only person we can truly change is ourselves. So, I had to change the way I disciplined.

For years, I disciplined through fear, because I thought it was the only way. Now, one could argue that it is better than having no standards and no accountability. However, there is a significantly better way—a way that achieves the following 3 outcomes:

  1. Gets the “compliance” we seek in the short term.

  2. Develops the “character” we seek in the long term.

  3. Strengthens the “relationship” which we hope will last a lifetime.

But first, we have to be willing to evaluate our beliefs, strategies, and behaviors regarding discipline.

Discipline, Fear, and the Brain

There is a very clear and obvious biological problem with coaching and disciplining through fear.  In fact, the most recent research on the brain is really game-changing when it comes to understanding the impact of how we discipline.

When we use anger and fear to push individuals towards compliance, we trigger the lower sections of the brain, which are referred to as the “reptilian brain”. The lower brain is where our amygdala is located. I recently explained this in more depth in “Culture Builders Podcast #67: Name It to Tame It”.

When someone is “being too emotional and irrational” and we respond with our instinctive emotional reaction, we only further trigger the lower areas of the brain (reptilian brain). These parts of the brain are the first to develop because they are important for things like keeping us safe when we sense danger.

However, a more intentional response—one that doesn’t sacrifice the safety and connection of the relationship at the expense of compliance—will activate the upper sections of the brain. The upper sections of the brain, which develop later, are responsible for things like rational thinking, managing emotions, and empathy towards others.

3 Questions to Ask Before We Discipline

So, how do we become intentional?

First, we need to retrain our default mode of operation, and that starts by taking a step back and assessing the situation.

In Daniel J. Siegel’s phenomenal book, No Drama Discipline, Siegel makes three suggestions for parents which I am going to take and apply to us as coaches.  Whether it is an issue with attitude, effort, or respect, we need to first ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Why did the athlete behave this way?

Often, these setbacks are not intentional. They aren’t a product of the individual’s desire to be lazy, negative, or disrespectful. Rather, something has triggered this behavior, and they lack the self-discipline or emotional intelligence to respond appropriately.

2. In this moment, what do I want to train that will truly matter in the long run?

Often, we crave immediate compliance, because we are looking to develop an individual skill or a team strategy. But something matters much more—character! So, identify the area of their character which is most in need of growth.

3. How can I best train character?

Lectures are ineffective, but they tend to be our default response. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple solution or equation. Part of being intentional means equipping ourselves with a tool bag of responses, considering all our options, and deciding what works best for the individual person in their unique context.

—J.P. Nerbun