Reinforcement And Punishment

Reinforcement  and  punishment  are  common  verbal and nonverbal responses to successes and failures in sport, exercise, and rehabilitation contexts. These practices may be best understood in the context  of  operant  conditioning.  This  entry  defines reinforcement  and  punishment,  reviews  evidence of their frequency in sport, identifies their motivational  implications,  and  reviews  mechanisms  for those effects.

Response Consequences in Operant Conditioning

Operant  conditioning  is  a  process  in  behaviorist theory by which behaviors are influenced by their consequences.  Over  time,  people  learn  to  associate  certain  behaviors  with  specific  consequences and,  to  the  extent  that  the  consequences  of  certain  behaviors  are  satisfying,  those  behaviors  are more likely to be repeated. Correspondingly, to the extent that the consequences of certain behaviors are unsatisfying, those behaviors become less likely to  be  repeated.  Table  1  illustrates  four  general response consequences in operant conditioning as a function of (a) whether the consequence involves adding  or  removing  a  response  and  (b)  whether the response is intended to increase or decrease the future likelihood of a particular behavior.

The  two  response  consequences  that  aim  to increase the likelihood that a desired behavior will be  repeated  are  positive  and  negative  reinforcement.  Positive  reinforcement  refers  to  the  process of introducing a satisfying consequence following a desirable behavior that will increase the likelihood of  that  behavior  being  repeated.  For  example,  in sport,  coaches  often  use  verbal  praise  as  a  reinforcement following a desirable play by an athlete. Negative  reinforcement  refers  to  the  process  of removing  an  unsatisfying  consequence  following a  desirable  behavior  to  increase  the  likelihood  of that behavior being repeated. For example, a basketball coach who constantly criticizes his players about  their  technique  while  shooting  free  throws but  then  quiets  down  after  seeing  a  player  use proper  technique  is  using  negative  reinforcement. Again,  both  positive  and  negative  reinforcement serve  to  increase  the  likelihood  that  a  behavior will  be  repeated.  In  the  latter  example,  the  coach is reinforcing the correct technique by eliminating his verbal criticism following an attempt with the correct technique.

reinforcement-and-punishment-sports-psychologyTable 1    Four Response Consequences

The  two  response  consequences  that  aim  to decrease the likelihood that an undesired behavior will  be  repeated  are  punishment  and  extinction. Punishment refers to the process of introducing an unsatisfying  consequence  following  an  undesired behavior to decrease the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. For example, a coach who criticizes an athlete for making an error is implementing punishment  in  an  effort  to  reduce  the  likelihood  that the athlete will commit that error again. Extinction refers to the process of removing a satisfying consequence following an undesired behavior to decrease the  likelihood  of  that  behavior  being  repeated.  A coach who intentionally ignores an athlete’s undesirable  attention-seeking  behaviors  could  be  looking  to  extinguish  those  behaviors.  The  possibility also  exists,  however,  that  a  coach  who  ignores  a player’s extra hustle during practice may be (inadvertently) extinguishing that desired behavior. Both punishment  and  extinction  serve  to  decrease  the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.

These  examples  focused  on  response  consequences in sport, but these response consequences can be observed in many other contexts of human movement.   For   example,   in   exercise   settings, a  personal  trainer  might  try  to  increase  a  client’s exercise behavior by praising her adherence to an exercise  prescription  (i.e.,  positive  reinforcement) or by eliminating comments about a person’s excess weight after workouts (i.e., negative reinforcement). Alternatively,  a  physical  therapist  could  reduce  a patient’s compliance with an at-home rehabilitation prescription  by  ceasing  to  recognize  the  patient’s progress or effort (i.e., extinction) or by making an ill-advised criticism of the person’s ability during a rehabilitation appointment (i.e., punishment).

The Natural Frequency of Response Consequences in Sport

Little  is  known  about  the  frequency  of  different response  consequences  in  exercise,  but  the  frequency of response consequences in sport has been examined. One classic study of coaching observed legendary  UCLA  basketball  coach  John  Wooden over  the  course  of  15  practices.  These  practices totaled  30  hours  of  coaching  and  2,326  codable coaching  behaviors.  The  coding  scheme  used  in this  study  was  derived  from  educational  research and modified after some preliminary observations of Coach Wooden but it was not designed specifically to study response consequences. Surprisingly, positive  reinforcement  was  relatively  rare  in  this study, with approximately 8% of the coded behaviors classified as “praises” (6.9%) and “nonverbal rewards”  (1.2%).  Punishment  was,  fortunately, also  relatively  rare  with  only  6.6%  of  the  coded behaviors classified as “scolds” (or “reproofs” as Coach  Wooden  preferred  to  call  them).  Another

8%  of  the  coded  behaviors  were  classified  as “Woodens”—a  sequence  in  which  a  scold  or reproof  was  followed  immediately  by  a  demonstration  of  how  to  perform  a  behavior  correctly, a  demonstration  of  how  the  player  performed  a behavior, and a repeated demonstration of how the player  should  perform  a  behavior.  This  combination was consistent with Coach Wooden’s tendency to  emphasize  instructional  comments  (50.3%) and demonstrations (4.4%) in his coaching. Only trace  amounts  of  “nonverbal  punishment”  were observed. None of the coding categories captured negative  reinforcement  or  extinction,  but  that finding  likely  reflects  the  difficulty  of  capturing the  absence  of  behavior  using  behavior  observation  methods.  The  behaviors  exhibited  by  Coach Wooden while coaching an elite college basketball team may not generalize to all sport contexts.

A  subsequent  line  of  studies  on  youth  sport developed a system for coding the observed behaviors  of  youth  sport  coaches  that  sheds  light  on operant  conditioning  processes  in  the  context  of youth  sport.  The  Coaching  Behavior  Assessment System (CBAS) divides behaviors into (a) reactions to  athlete  behavior  and  (b)  spontaneous  actions (e.g.,  organizational  activity,  general  communication). The responses to athlete actions are the most relevant  to  operant  conditioning  processes  and include  responses  to  desirable  athlete  behaviors, responses to athlete mistakes, and responses to athlete  misbehaviors.  The  responses  to  desirable  athlete  behaviors  include  positive  reinforcement  and nonreinforcement,  which  can  be  linked  to  extinction  processes  in  an  operant  conditioning  framework.  The  responses  to  athlete  mistakes  include punishment  and  punitive  technical  instruction  as well  as  mistake-contingent  technical  instruction, mistake-contingent  encouragement,  and  ignoring mistakes.  The  first  two  of  these  responses  might be  described  as  punishment  in  the  operant  conditioning  sense.  Responses  to  athlete  misbehaviors involve keeping control and may involve an element of punishment depending on the eliciting event.

Across  studies  of  youth  baseball,  basketball, and  swimming,  positive  reinforcement  is  consistently one of the most common behaviors observed by trained coders and perceived by young athletes. In  contrast,  punishment  and  punitive  technical instruction are among the most infrequent behaviors  observed  by  trained  coders  and  perceived  by young athletes. Unfortunately, even trace amounts of  punishment  can  have  devastating  motivational consequences for young athletes’ motivation, anxiety, and self-perceptions. Another significant finding  from  this  work  was  that  a  brief  educational training  program  with  a  self-monitoring  component  can  lead  coaches  to  use  more  reinforcement and less punishment.

In sum, the frequency of response consequences in sport varies as a function of the competitive level of  the  participants.  Youth  sport  coaches  tend  to use high levels of positive reinforcement and only infrequent punishment, but those proportions may change at different competitive levels. In the youth sport  context,  even  trace  amounts  of  punishment can have detrimental effects on youth development.

Motivational Implications of External Rewards

An interesting debate early in the 20th century centered on the question of whether external rewards might actually harm intrinsic motivation and reduce the  likelihood  that  a  behavior  will  be  repeated. From an operant conditioning perspective, external rewards  for  a  behavior  should  increase  the  odds that it will be repeated (i.e., positive reinforcement); however, considerable evidence that challenged this view had accumulated by the end of the 1990s. In a  now-classic  meta-analysis,  researchers  summarized  studies  that  assessed  intrinsic  motivation  as either  people’s  free-choice  behavior  (i.e.,  did  they select  the  behavior  absent  any  external  pressure?) or people’s self-reported interest in a behavior. On average,  results  were  consistent  with  the  proposition  that  external  rewards  reduce  future  intrinsic motivation regardless of which measure was used; however,  closer  inspection  of  the  results  revealed some important nuances in the data.

The inhibiting effects of external rewards were limited  to  certain  types  of  external  rewards  and specifically those rewards that were expected and tangible  with  one  of  three  task-related  contingency structures. First, external rewards that were contingent  on  a  person’s  mere  engagement  in  the activity  reduced  intrinsic  motivation  for  desired behaviors. This reward structure is relatively common  in  sport.  For  example,  the  custom  of  giving out  “free”  T-shirts  to  runners  who  register  for  a race  is  an  engagement-contingent  expected  tangible reward. Second, external rewards that are contingent on a person completing an activity reduced intrinsic motivation for that activity. Many youth sport  programs  implement  this  type  of  reward by  distributing  participation  awards,  such  as  trophies or certificates, at the end of a sport season. Finally, external rewards that were contingent on a person’s level of performance reduced free choice of  the  desired  behaviors,  although  these  rewards appear to have no effect on people’s interest in the behavior.  These  performance-contingent  rewards are pervasive in sport (e.g., medals to the top three finishers in the Olympics, trophies to tournament champions and runners-up).

This meta-analysis also revealed two important exceptions to the general conclusion that external rewards reduce intrinsic motivation for a behavior. First,  unexpected  external  tangible  rewards  have no effect on intrinsic motivation. Second, one particular type of external reward, verbal praise, actually has the opposite effect and enhances intrinsic motivation  for  a  stimulus  behavior.  This  finding helps  to  reconcile  two  competing  views  on  the effects  of  a  popular  response  consequence.  When the reward is verbal praise, behaviorists are correct that  positive  reinforcement  should  increase  the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. When the reward is an expected tangible reward that is somehow contingent on the task, the reward will actually serve to reduce intrinsic motivation (what behaviorists might describe as extinction).

Mechanisms Underlying the Effects of External Rewards

Two general explanations have emerged to account for  the  differential  effects  of  rewards  on  intrinsic motivation  and  behavior.  Cognitive  evaluation theory  (CET)  posits  that  the  effects  of  rewards depend  on  whether  the  rewards  assume  informational  or  controlling  properties.  When  people construe  rewards  as  providing  feedback  on  the level of their performance, the informational properties of the reward should help to satisfy people’s need for competence and therefore boost intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, when the expectation of an external reward becomes the reason for one’s behavior, the reward is said to have assumed controlling properties (i.e., the rewards become the reason for the behavior). These controlling properties  are  thought  to  interfere  with  or  thwart  people’s need to feel autonomous (i.e., like the origins of  their  behavior)  and  therefore  reduce  intrinsic motivation.

A   complementary   explanation   posits   that expected tangible rewards undermine the intrinsic value of activities. Recent research has shown that, after  training  with  a  task  under  a  performance contingent  expected  tangible  reward  structure, people display less free choice behavior when the reward  is  withdrawn.  This  reduction  in  intrinsic motivation  corresponds  with  reduced  activation in the striatum and midbrain—regions associated with  task  valuation.  These  findings  indicate  that performance-contingent expected tangible rewards undermine  intrinsic  motivation  by  reducing  the value that people associate with the task.


In sum, reinforcement and punishment are simple behaviors  with  complex  consequences.  They  may be used effectively to modify behavior but should be selected carefully to avoid unwanted long-term consequences.  Considerably  less  is  known  about negative reinforcement and extinction processes in sport, exercise, and rehabilitation contexts.


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