Ask The Experts
Flexible rewards

Flexible rewards

11/26/2014

Q: I coach a 6th grade baseball team. I was thinking about starting to reward a standout player of each game with something small, like the game ball. Do you have tips on how to execute this without opening a can of worms (complaints, jealousy)?

A: Rewards can be an effective strategy for reinforcing athletes’ good performances and motivating them to continue performing well. Consider these two guidelines when implementing rewards: (1) make sure the rewards are available to all players and (2) only give rewards that are contingent on successful performances.

First, in your example, you thought about rewarding the “standout player” of the game, but how are you going to define a standout player? Often, coaches provide narrow definitions (e.g., most runs scored, highest batting average), which means only the best players on the team will get them. If not attainable for the majority of players, the reward is not motivating.

Think about defining “standout player” more broadly—best defensive play, most improved player, best display of sportsmanship, most hustle, etc. With this flexibility, all players on your team will see the reward as attainable and motivating. Plus, if all athletes can receive awards, it fosters mutual respect for each other’s skill level and contribution to the team. 

Second, when giving any reward, make sure the athlete achieved a level of performance deserving of a reward. Sometimes rewards are given to players for suboptimal performance because we think it makes kids feel good. If you reward athletes for subpar performances, the athlete thinks you believe they are not very good and, in turn, the athlete feels worse about their ability. Also, teammates who see an athlete rewarded for a mediocre performance pick up on your cue that this player is of lower ability and that it is okay to expect less from them. For each reward given, clarify specifically why the performance was deserving of such an award. Athletes will understand that rewards are only given contingent on excellence and will admire any teammate who receives one.

Dr. Nicole Bolter joined the faculty of the Department of Kinesiology at Boise State University in 2012. She has a Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota, where she specialized in sport and exercise psychology and positive youth development. Her research and outreach focus on character development through sport, coaching education and youth sport specialization.

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