Reinforcement and the Athlete

I made another dangerous assumption – that my readers all know what reinforcement is and how it can be applied to the athlete.

According to Miriam Webster’s Dictionary, Reinforcement means the act of strengthening. Their take on “psychology” needs work (classical conditioning doesn’t involve reinforcement). The part about strengthening is actually closer to a behavior analytic definition. By presenting something (or taking away something aversive) you increase the probability of that response. You strengthen it.

Yeah, yeah, ok. So we have to reward ourselves. I’ll go get a pedicure.

Wait. Put the car keys down. That isn’t what I meant.

Anything, and I mean anything, can end up being a reinforcer. It doesn’t have to be happy or nice. It just needs to maintain our behaviors. Your behavior can be positively reinforced while you feel absolutely miserable. Remember how you felt when you downed that whole box of Oreos? Yet, if you do it again in just such a situation, that behavior was reinforced. Yelling at you to keep moving can be a positive reinforcer – remember when that was a fad? And it doesn’t have to be tangible, either. It could be as simple as breaking a sweat. Or meeting a bunch of nice people at the gym. Or getting back at an ex.

What are your reinforcers? Well, to be honest, I don’t know. Everyone is different, and what is one person’s reinforcer is another’s punisher. The best way to start to figure it out is through taking note of the things you choose to do repeatedly. Or, you might want to fill out a reinforcer inventory like the one here. This survey definitely needs some updates, but it’ll do for now. The things and activities you identify might be reinforcers, but the only way to know for sure is to try them out. If they maintain your behavior, you’re golden. If not, try again.

Want to make the workout itself reinforcing? Take the reinforcers with you. Pairing is where you – well – pair one situation or thing with an already reinforcing situation or thing. You might want to binge-watch your favorite show on Netflix while you work out. Or maybe you like podcasts. It doesn’t so much matter what it is as long as you do it repeatedly. Now, admittedly showing up with a huge tub of ice cream to eat on the treadmill might be frowned upon, so be sure your reinforcers are appropriate to the setting. After a while, the workout itself will be the motivating factor.

For my next blog, I’ll talk more about how to use reinforcement effectively.

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