Positive Social Reinforcement in Sports

Published 17 Jan 2017


Experts agree that the cognitive and psychosocial development of children is influenced by the quality of their social interactions. Developments in positive psychology dating as far back as the 60s suggest, however, that children are more likely to respond in a positive way when given positive stimuli in the form of positive social reinforcement from their environments (Roberts, Spink & Pemberton, 1986).

These reinforcements may come from the conduct of peers, adults, and other inpiduals and groups that children come into contact with (Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1993). Adults, however, especially those who are considered significant by the child such as teachers, parents, and coaches, often have a more lasting impact on the growth of children as children are bound to mirror their actions and behaviors or seek to fulfill their expectations (Horn 2002).

One of the environments where children are naturally exposed to social reinforcers is their active participation in sport activities, wherein, it is assumed by the theory of positive social reinforcement, that the social reinforcers would mediate in children’s performance and learning activities in sport activities (Caruso 2005). These reinforcements may be shown through verbal and non-verbal cues, attitudes, and treatment that a certain child receives from the coach or the gym teacher. Accordingly, children would show better performance when given positive reinforcement than when they are given negative ones (Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo, 1999).

This study therefore attempts to determine the influence of the gym teacher’s reinforcement pattern on the students’ learning and performance in sport activities using the categories of social reinforcement proposed by Smith, Smoll, and Hunt (1977) in their Coaching Behavior Analysis System.

Review of Related Literature

For more than a decade now, a significant number of scholars in the area of psychology have been convinced that positive social reinforcement plays a crucial part in promoting human development (Roberts, Spink & Pemberton, 1986, Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo 1999; Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1993; Gould, 2002). Studies conducted suggest that positive social interactions encourage children to be more open to learning new skills and knowledge (Martens, et. al. 2003) . This situation is observed even among adults, which make positive reinforcement strategies very useful in countering personality- and environment-related psychological and behavioral problems.

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However, the current observed trend toward positive psychology pushes scholars to be able to come up not only with solutions to existing problems but for mechanisms to prevent these problems from arising in the first place (Horn 2002; Gould 2002). The role of positive social reinforcement in the development of children has therefore gained much interest among scholars, especially since studies prove that positive reinforcement may have carry-over effects in the increased ability of children to complete tasks and have confidence in doing things on their own (Martens, et. al. 2003).

In the same manner, psychologists also have long realized that sport and other play activities count among the significant sources of reinforcements for many children (Horn 1985). This is especially true in societies wherein a variety of sports are part of the dominant culture, such as the United States, where children are introduced to sport activities at a very young age.

The very fact that almost forty-five percent (45%) American youth are engaged in sports and similar activities (Chambers 1991), it is argued, reflects the significance of this activities in the life of the country and its children, wherein they form their first self-knowledge of their capabilities and limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. Participation in sports therefore becomes one of the significant influences in the development of identity in children and in building their self-esteem outside their common social networks at home and inside the school (Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1993; Horn 1985).

Consequently, psychologists have long been interested in uncovering the links between participation in sporting activities and children’s development. Numerous studies conducted point to the mediation of motivating factors in the optimization of sport activities in the learning and skill-building abilities of children (Horn 2002). A review of the reasearch conducted in the subject done by Chambers (1991) show that “motivation to participate in youth sport involves a relation between the athlete, coach and athletic environment.” This meant that children and young adults were either encouraged to join such activities based on their self-perception of capabilities, the positive feedback gained from the coach, and the enabling environment where he or she is able to create and reinforce his or her social networks through sports.

Horn (2002) also points out that sports is an “achievement context” where “motivation” may be considered the “central question,” or where an investigation of the factors that affect motivation to participate and engage in sport activities is crucial in determining the benefit that children may acquire not only while they are young but even until their transition to adulthood. Balaguer, Duda, and Crespo (1999) explain that motivation is significant since it is here that the different effects between positive and negative attitudes toward sports may be easily discernible as that of “task-involved motivation” or “ego-involved motivations.”

In the question of motivation, the role of coaches as significant source of social reinforcement has increased in importance. This analysis stems from researches conducted that show the mediating factor of coaches’ reinforcement patterns on the motivation of athletes (Amorose and Horn 2000; Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo 1999; Horn 1985; Chambers 1991). Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo (1999) argue that positive reinforcement develops “task-involved motivations” where children involved in sports become more concerned with the means and the process to achieve goals—focusing on their ability to accomplish difficult tasks, exert enough effort, and development of skills and knowledge—rather than on being focused only on winning.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement develops a consciousness that is more ego-satisfying in nature, wherein “inpiduals are concerned with demonstrating normatively-referenced high ability and, thus, perceive a successful event when they have surpassed others or performed equally with less effort.” (Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo 1999) In the same manner, positive reinforcement from coaches also enable athletes and children involved in sports to keep negative things off their mind and focus on improving their performance in the game. (Caruso 2005)

Techniques such as encouraging cue words from coaches and positive affirmations are also seen as effective “because the mind does not know the difference between real and vividly imagined experience.” (Caruso 2005) Herein lie the difference between mechanically doing what is needed in order to win and being genuinely motivated to demonstrate a good performance in the game, and a difference between being able to demonstrate superiority over others and being able to demonstrate a drive to contribute to the goals of the team (Balaguer, Duda, & Crespo 1999).

Subsequent studies validate the coach-performance relationship theory. It has been observed by Amorose and Horn (2000) that “perceived coaching behaviors were related to athletes’ intrinsic motivation,” with athletes who perceived their coaches to put more emphasis on training and instruction, and who employed democratic approaches in the management of athletes to have higher levels of intrinsic motivation than athletes under coaches with autocratic behavior. The former also received generous positive feedback from their coaches and “low frequencies of punishment-oriented and ignoring behaviors.” (Amorose & Horn, 2000)

Another study involving junior cricketers found “significant correlations between dimensions of self-esteem, cricket self-perceptions and the affective outcomes of pride, excitement and happiness” and “significant correlations between the cricketers’ perceptions of their coaches application of the instructional strategies and dimensions of their post-season self-esteem, cricket self-perceptions, affective outcomes and intrinsic motivation orientation.” (Paterson 1999) These studies supported the findings of Horn’s research in 1985 which suggested that coaches’ feedback had a significant effect on the changes of athletes’ self-perceptions and competence and that the athletes’ psychosocial growth was as much a function of their skills and the response they received from their coaches on their performance.

A survey of the inventory of research conducted in the past two decades therefore clearly support the notion that coaches, as inpiduals considered as significant others in the life of children and young adults, influence the way that children and young adults will develop their identities and their perception of their capabilities and limitations.

It is in this manner that the link between the children’s motivation to participate and excel in sports has been explained, as a function of the positive or negative reinforcement received from parents and coaches, and how these feedbacks ultimately reinforce the children’s self-identification and perceptions, and they become interested in overcoming existing challenges in sport activities to achieve goals and expectations. It is also shown that positive reinforcement may in turn influence positive outcomes not only in terms of performance in sport activities but even the level by which children learn to handle competition.

Works Cited:

  • Balaguer, I., Duda, J.L., & M. Crespo (1999). Motivational climate and goal orientations as predictors of perceptions of improvement, satisfaction, and coach ratings among tennis players. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 9: 381-388.
  • Caruso, A. (2005). Sports Psychology Basics. Spring City, PA: Reedswain, Inc.
  • Danish, S.J., Petitpas, A. J., & B. D. Hale (1993). Life development intervention for athletes: Life skills through sports. The Counselling Psychologist, 21(3): 352-385.
  • Gould, D. (2002). Sport psychology in the new millennium: the psychology of athletic excellence and beyond. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14: 137-139.
  • Amorose, A.J. & T. S. Horn (2000). Intrinsic motivation: Relationship with collegiate athletes’ gender, scholarship status, and perceptions of their coaches’ behavior. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 22 (1).
  • Horn, T.S. (2002). Advances in Sport Psychology. Human Kinetics.
  • Horn, T. (1985). Coaches’ feedback and changes in children’s perception of their physical competence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77 (2): 174-186.
  • Chambers, S.T. (1991). Factors affecting elementary students’ participation in sports. The Elementary School Journal, 91 (5), Special Issue: Sports and Physical Education: 413-419.
  • Martens, B. K., Hilt, A.M., Needham, L. R., Sutterer, J.R., Panahon, C.J., and A.L. Lannie (2003). Carry-over effects of free reinforcement on children’s work completion. Behavior Modification, 27: 560.
  • Paterson, G. D. (1999). Coaching for the development of athlete self-esteem: The relationship between the self-perceptions of junior cricketers and their perceptions of coaching behavior. Sociology of Sport Online 2(1). http://physed.otago.ac.nz/sosol/v2i1/v2i1a.htm
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