This might sting a little if you are a coach or athlete, but the biggest rewards often fall to the least deserving actors. This occurs when we reward achieving outcomes (such as points and victories) in place of (or even in spite of) executing tasks (like running good routes or blocking effectively), and don’t make conscious efforts to stay task-oriented.
I am all for rewarding production, big or small. Improvement and positive returns should be celebrated and reinforced as the goals of any successful program. But if we start to take execution for granted, even on occasion, we may undermine our athletic accomplishments and hard work. We might even reinforce the wrong habits.
In dynamic sports settings, such as team scenarios, athletes do not always control the outcome the way they control execution of tasks. A 150-pound tight end may get mauled by a 200-pound defensive end every time, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t execute his task. This might sound extreme, but I guarantee similar situations happen every weekend in high school football.
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The simple fix, which great coaches in youth athletics know well, is to focus on tasks more than outcomes. Doing this, we reinforce the learning environment, which eventually leads to the outcomes that lesser coaches obsess over.
Outcome vs. Task-Oriented Goals for Athletes
Although outcomes are important for setting direction, they might not be the best things on which to focus our attention. I consider them a byproduct of proper execution and treat them as such. As we all know, however, the world does not share this point of view—making it much more important for coaches to support.
Sometimes athletes score regardless of what they do. Other times they may not score despite flawless execution. The trick is to focus on the execution until it pays off. I often use an unsound pass as an example. A quarterback might air it up with awful execution, before getting set, heaving from the hip, basically negating everything his coach drilled all week. Yet the receiver might still come up with it and score, despite the QB’s poor execution. Think about half of Johnny Manziel’s passes to Mike Evans, and you get the idea.
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In game scenarios, it might be a good idea to let this pass go and keep the positive energy flowing, so long as perspective is set when the player returns to the sidelines. But in practice, it’s a perfect example of what not to do, and should be treated as such, even though the outcome was successful. If this is also seen by scouts, it might become one of the reasons why a player doesn’t get drafted as high as popular opinion would predict. What seemed like stellar passes by the QB would most likely have been interceptions in the NFL.
We can apply this same perspective across the board, to any sport or fitness goal.
- Did the athlete execute proper lifts?
- Was he or she consistent with training and diet throughout the week?
- Is he or she doing their best and sticking to the program?
These are things that athletes have control over—with outcomes likely varying between individuals and situations. It’s important for coaches to reward and reinforce these habits, because the rest of the world, including the athlete, too often base their achievement on the less reliable outcomes.
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Simply put, this refers to the environment providing an expected response to a specific action. If an athlete performs a given action and the expected result does not occur, it leads to low reinforcement. But if the environment always rewards the task, this leads to higher reinforcement and motivation to continue training. This is less talked about but incredibly important in all learning scenarios, especially sports settings in which environment reliability is far from sound.
A player left to the whims of the environment can quickly become frustrated and may even disengage from practice. This sounds bad at first, but it presents a great opportunity for the coach to step in and align the player’s perspective, eventually battling through such environments. This is a hallmark case where experienced and committed coaches can use adverse and unreliable environments to reinforce character and leadership skills. Furthermore, athletes who can establish this perspective and continue to strive regardless of the outcome will become the kind of determined leaders coaches value. These players, regardless of their talents, are worth their weight in gold to team dynamics.
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For coaches, outcome-oriented goals can give direction when designing programs, but when it comes to communicating with the athletes, tasks hold much higher value. Drill and emphasize proper execution above all else. Be wary of outcomes (whether failures or successes) clouding an athlete’s judgment. Always strive for consistent reliability of reinforcement, especially in unreliable environments, and acknowledge well executed tasks that might otherwise go unnoticed. This perspective is hard enough to instill in young athletes, which makes it that much more important to focus on as coaches and teachers.