What these two men can teach us about Coaching

Ivan Pavlov and Frederic Skinner

Ivan Pavlov and Frederic Skinner are the leading forefathers to classical and operant conditioning respectively. Although both classical and operant conditioning result in learning, the processes are quite different.

So, in what ways do these theories related to conditioning help us to coach better?

I’m sure many of you have some idea about the question above, but let’s expand a little on these two theories and think about how we can integrate them with our coaching practices and the daily training environment.

Classical Conditioning

It was Ivan Pavlov who first proposed classical conditioning through the ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ experiment. This theory proposes that the mind creates biological responses in response to external stimuli. For example, do you have a song that reminds you of a past event or relationship? When you hear the same tune many years later, the feelings that you felt back then is replicated. The song becomes a window to your past.

In coaching, classical conditioning can be used to help athletes associate sport, and specifically their team, with desired feelings such as excitement, and motivation. If this association can be successfully established, athletes should respond biologically upon arrival to training and games.

How can coaches create positive psychological associations with the daily training environment?

Here are some suggestions…

  • Positive greetings on players arrival and end the session with a team cheer
  • Immediately deal with negative body language and conversations
  • Fun! Don’t take yourself too seriously and design enjoyable and varied training activities  
  • Ensure players leave without any negative feelings or issues from within the environment.

Operant Conditioning

Meanwhile, Operant conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner, uses both positive and negative reinforcement to control behaviour. This reinforcement creates an association between the specific behaviour and its consequence.

For example, a coach looking to improve ball possession could punish the players with suicide running (negative reinforcement) if they lost the ball more than five times during a modified game. Team possession would likely increase as the players begin to associate losing the ball with the pain of suicide running. If the coach rewards the players with praises (positive reinforcement) for successful passes, there should be a further increase in possession since players begin to associate these behaviours with praises and acknowledgment.

Although both reinforcements may produce the desired outcome, it is important to note that relying primarily on negative reinforcement may increase anxiety and ultimately limit an athlete’s motivation and ability to perform under pressure. Meanwhile, positive reinforcement likely improve decision making and the ability to perform freely.

Another important point to note is that negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment which often involves ridiculing or embarrassing the athlete.

Consequently, positive reinforcement should far outweigh negative reinforcement to maintain an optimal training environment.

Some suggestions for operant conditioning include:

  • Praise the specific behaviors that will lead to the outcome that you want. For example, when players begin to communicate and positioning themselves in passing lanes, the team will have a higher chance of retaining possession.
  • Do not criticize behaviors that are not within the athlete’s direct control
  • Public positive reinforcement such as praising a player for exhibiting positive behaviors in front of their peers is very powerful
  • Negative reinforcement would be most relevant when dealing with disrespectful behaviors that may breaks the team culture

In a nutshell…

Classical conditioning is less direct, and is more of a subconscious kind of conditioning, whereas operant conditioning is more direct, and the individual is likely to know that he or she is being conditioned.

Finally, I am certain many coaches are already applying both theories, and many of you would have your own practices about reinforcing desired behaviors in order to create an optimal training environment.

As always, do feel free to share any ideas and suggestions that you may have!

Coach Hansen


Cherry, K. (2020, June 4th) Classical vs. Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/classical-vs-operant-conditioning-2794861#:~:text=Classical%20conditioning%20involves%20associating%20an,conditioning%20involves%20no%20such%20enticements.

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