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Exercise As Punishment: A Vicious Cycle

The strength and conditioning world blew up in early January as multiple occurrences of athletes being hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo for short) hit the news cycles. Between a college in Illinois, and a high school in Texas, a total of 15 athletes were hospitalized for the condition following workouts which fell into what I consider a vicious cycle. In either instance, athletes were forced to run or carry out exercise movements as a punishment for making mistakes in a game or in practice, and the total impact was devastating.

Fatigue in training is the limiter of learning new skills

We've all heard it before: "Get on the line!" An angry coach yelling and exclaiming you're about to run as payment or punishment for something performed wrong or poorly. Sometimes it's a technical failure of a drill or skill, or an attitude presented by an athlete or team. For some athletes, they know this phrase all too well. And they are far too familiar with this vicious cycle because they know what ultimately happens: it always gets worse.

So what happens when we use exercise as punishment? And why does it have a negative impact on sports as a whole?

I think it's pretty common sense how exercise, or overall workload, creates fatigue in individuals. This is true mentally and physically. We strain physically, and we fatigue on a mental and physical level. We have a hard time focusing, and a hard time executing even simple tasks. The more tired we become, the more challenging the ability to complete a task is. This is the vicious cycle:

The more tired you become, the less likely you'll successfully learn or complete a new skill.
You fail a task. You are forced to exercise as a result. You fatigue faster. You fail the task because you are fatigued. You are forced to exercise. And the cycle repeats until the coach is bored or all hopes of skill acquisition is lost.

This is one of the main problems when we use exercise as punishment, especially with new skills, and especially with younger athletes. Your brain has to strain from a focus perspective to acquire new skills. New connections have to be grown and have to be developed. Your body also then demands signals from the brain to complete exercise. So as we learn new skills, fatigue becomes Enemy #1. The more fatigue we have, both in the skill and in physical exertion, the harder it becomes to correctly execute the thing we are trying to learn. This is where many coaches get it wrong.

Being tired decreases your ability to successfully learn a new skill, drill, or exercise.

Volume, or workload, produces fatigue. When we take tons of reps of a new skill, ultimately, the fatigue of learning it is going to alter how the drill or skill is created. This is going to lead to errors. To correctly execute a skill or drill, we only want to utilize enough reps of it to have a basic understanding (what's called a cognitive awareness). We then need to move to a less complex skill, or take time to recover and recuperate in order to restore the ability to learn. This may mean slowly dosing in new skills, drills, or plays over time to ensure learning.

If volume or workload of a skill is too high, athletes will start to make mistakes. Many coaches then rely on exercise as a punishment for failing the task. The good old Coach Boone schtick of "If you drop a pass, you will run a mile," seems to be what so many coaches have adopted as philosophy. And so our vicious cycle starts to accelerate. More fatigue is introduced because of an acute spike in workload. The skill is now performed with more error because fatigue has taken over, and there was not enough energy to imprint it upon the brain. The errors become more frequent, and so do the punishments. You can see how this ends.

Mental toughness is a hard thing to coach into young athletes.

Now, if we look at the psychology of this, many coaches also like to think this is a pathway to building mental toughness. But mental toughness is not merely an endurance thing. It's a combination of physical endurance, previous experience of task completion, and confidence. Sure, enduring a brutal conditioning session may lead to confidence in one's physical ability, but if all you've learned to do is fail a task because you were tired while trying to learn it, then your mental toughness may not be where you want it to be. We need to make sure we're creating the right recipe for success here. Additionally, for the younger generations of athletes we now currently see, punishment via exercise seems to create a negative association with training. They associate exercise with having been a failure, and their effort in subsequent training sessions which aren't punishment may decrease.

This is where the vicious cycle has so much detriment. We punish athletes with exercise as a consequence for failing a task. As a result, they get worse at the task and experience more punishment. All the while, we decrease their confidence in the ability to execute the skill or task, and increase the negative association they have in training. As a whole exercise as a punishment presents itself as a major lose-lose in the long-term perspective of developing athletes.

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