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Sport Science, Coaching and Physical Education

Sports coaching and physical education have both progressively developed as an educational subject over the years, which demonstrate that there is a critical connection between educating and coaching.

Phil Jackson, head coach of Chicago Bull’s from 1989 until 1998 became an avid practitioner of meditation after reading the book Zen mind beginner’s mind (Suzuki, 2005). Jackson led meditation within his team, resulting with increased compassion and mindfulness. By doing this it massively helped towards him obtaining eleven NBA championships. Jackson discovered that the main goal of mediation was to as it were “build the muscle of the mind” so the athletes could learn to focus, thus, only leaving what was needed to perform on the day.

Graham Taylor a former England football coach says that ‘coaching involves communicating, learning, and maintaining positive relationships’ (Jones, Hughes and Kingston, 2007, p. 4) shows that this is a form of teaching. It has been said, ‘common-sense practices are in fact, informed by particular theories of learning’ (Cassidy, Jones and Potrac, 2004).

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In order to understand and transfer this knowledge into a coaching/teaching environment, it is very important to achieve maximum performance, self-evaluation on the practice that’s being performed becomes easier and being able to ‘reflect upon and know explicitly what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what the consequences are of what it is they are doing’ (Cassidy, Jones and Potrac, 2004).
Skinner’s Operant Conditioning is the theory I’ve decided to discuss, by using this theory within a session it will improve physical and mental performance drastically.

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Skinner (1904-1990) performed an experiment to focus on the use of good and bad stimulus to control behaviour. The experiment began with putting a rat in a “Skinner box”, this has a pedal on the wall that when pulled causes the release of an edible treat. The operant is the behaviour of the subject just before the stimulus is added i.e. the Rat walking around before knocking the bar and receive a treat. In just a short space of time the rat “learns” that the action of pulling the bar results in food being released. By reinforcing this behaviour it focuses on the principles of operant conditioning, this being that the continued behaviour followed by applying stimulus to the environment results in an increased likelihood of that behaviour happening in the future. Skinner discovered ‘Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence’ (McLeod, 2018), individuals will learn whether the behaviour they exert should be repeated, or if it had a bad consequence they’ll learn it’s not to be repeated. This theory has had promising outcomes and to use it in a coaching/teaching environment will prove beneficial to all those involved. Pupils will learn through reward and punishment, then they’ll be able to determine what the correct conduct is in that given environment at that given time and whether their behaviour is acceptable or not. Teachers can use Skinner’s theory in the everyday classroom. For example, if the teacher is talking in the class and one of the pupils begins to speak or do something they’re not supposed to, then the teacher could set an example and tell them to exit the classroom or issue them detention. This will then set the tone within the classroom and the pupils will be aware of what happens when they misbehave, with bad behaviour comes consequences.

Although, if a student were to excel and perform to a high standard then the teacher could reward them with praise or physical reward, by doing this it will influence the learner in a positive way resulting in them to adopt this behaviour more often. This can only work effectively if the user has an understanding of the theory. Skinners learning theory is recognised by many. It’s been used in ‘clinical settings as well as teaching and instructional management’ (Skinner, 1950). Other areas Skinner’s theory has been used is in behaviour management, behaviour modification and programmed instruction but as said before the user applying the theory to practice must first understand it. An example of this would be within a schooling environment, teachers ask students questions all the time, but the range of question and difficulty will be observed so the teacher must ‘arrange the difficulty of the questions so the response is always correct’ (Markle, 1969; Skinner, 1968). By capping the difficulty of the questions asked it will increase the chances of the pupil getting the correct answer resulting in them genuinely learning something, an increase in confidence as well as a morale boost which will help them to perform. This can be used within academics as well as a sporting environment.

Skinner’s theory is recognised and used worldwide, although debates between coaches and psychologists struggle to prove whether it’s effective or not. An advantage to Skinner’s theory is that it’s purely based on reward or punishment; this is one of the easiest forms of learning. By using this method of teaching the pupils will begin to learn for themselves what’s acceptable or not rather than the coach/teacher telling them, Skinner’s theory can be applied in both coaching and teaching allowing the benefits to be numerous. Positive reinforcement has multiple benefits, benefits in real-life situations, this can be how work is marked in schools, and this is because children and young adults learn from everyday life in the open world. Teachers use different methods to enforce Skinner’s theory, such as ‘grading systems are a form of positive reinforcement’ (Renata. R 2005).

With the intention of the grading systems being good it also works as a negative reinforcement; when pupils receive an impressive mark they will carry on trying to better themselves because they’ll thrive of the praise their teachers give them along with improving their confidence. But when a student receives a bad mark then negative reinforcement will motivate them to strive for a better result next time because they will be disappointed with themselves that they didn’t achieve what was expected from them. Skinner’s theory is ‘high in reliability as there was a lot of controls’ (Morey. S 2016) This implies the theory is the most appropriate to use within a teaching environment because it’s the most effective at controlling behaviour within a coaching/teaching scenario, because of this it has been proven to work exceptionally well when working with the young pupils that misbehave because the theory can be altered to suit the child’s needs and cater towards their learning needs. To summarise, Skinner’s theory has been proven to be effective in an academic and sporting environment and the use of positive or negative consequences has had positive outcomes on those who have used it because it develops the learner’s behaviour and attitude in a positive way.

However, this learning style can be controversial; negative reinforcement affects all students differently because everyone is different. Pupils that lack the confidence may become discouraged by their grades not being as good as they should be. This wouldn’t happen regularly but it could happen, if this were to happen negative mindsets might begin to cloud pupils learning and affect their entire academic experience. Skinner’s theory has said to ‘have low ecological validity and is not generalisable to humans’ (Morey. S 2016). What this is trying to say is that Skinner’s theory isn’t expected to work in everyday situations, this then goes against everything that’s already been said about the theory, this is because everyday life doesn’t revolve around a marking system therefor there isn’t one in place. Skinner’s theory is said to be more effective on animals than humans, this is because an experiment already exists for this theory and has been proven to be successfully tested on animals. This has only been proven to work on animals more efficiently because we as humans are able to communicate to one another whereas we are unable to verbally communicate with animals, we have to adopt other ways of communication whether that be with a stimulus to get the response.

In conclusion, Skinner’s theory has shown to be an effective method to use in the world of sports and education, branching over a whole load of different situations and scenarios. The main aspect is the management of behaviour in sports, especially within coaching. It’s crucial to have the correct knowledge on how to discipline and reward children in the learning environment, by doing this they’ll understand and learn what’s expected from them as students. Although this theory has been said to work better on animals, it hasn’t stopped the fact that it’s also been effective at increasing the learning capacity and performance of humans in sporting and educational environments. Skinner’s approach to this theory was to aim towards reducing the chances of making bad decisions and how we react to that when that happens as well as rewarding good behaviour and execution of skills. Skinner’s theory has shown enough evidence to be regarded as one of the top learning theories and should still continue to be used to this day, and due to its reputation of outweighing the negative points, it has it makes this conclusion clear that Skinner’s theory is effective within coaching and teaching due to the effectiveness of the theory in many situations.

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Sport Science, Coaching and Physical Education. (2020, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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