Personal training: Reinforcement to strengthen correct performance

This type of feedback acts as reinforcement, strengthening the response the personal trainer wants the client to learn. Reinforcement refers to the use of rewards and punishments that either increase or decrease the likelihood of a similar response in similar future situations. However, punishments should not ideally be used, and will therefore not be discussed here.

Reinforcement can be either positive or negative.

Positive reinforcement

If doing something results in a good consequence, there is a tendency for the behaviour to be repeated so additional positive consequences can be received – this is essentially positive reinforcement.

Feedback that acts as positive reinforcement is pleasurable in some way to the client who wants to experience this positive event again. For feedback to act in this way, it must immediately follow the action to increase the chances of this action occurring again under the same or similar conditions.

This type of feedback may be intrinsic in nature and may be connected with a feeling of achievement, accomplishment or success. An example of intrinsic feedback that acts as positive reinforcement may include a client running their target distance and not feeling exhausted. It can also be extrinsic in nature – such as verbal complements or praise from the personal trainer, or nonverbal forms of communication (for example, a smile, a nod, thumbs up, etc). A client receiving this type of feedback immediately after successfully performing an exercise can feel much rewarded by their success. To obtain this feeling again, the client will try to perform the same technique in the same way in the future under similar conditions.

The same reinforcer will affect two people in different ways; what appears to be positive reinforcement to one client can be seen as entirely something else by another. For example, public recognition may be welcomed and bolster the confidence of one client, whereas it might be embarrassing for another. Another example might include correcting an individual in a group exercise class; one person may perceive it as a reprimand (and therefore a punishment), whereas it may provide another with attention and recognition (a reward). Personal trainers should be aware that positive reinforcement, although a very powerful tool, does not guarantee successful performance.

Negative reinforcement

If doing something results in an unpleasant consequence, there is a tendency for the behaviour to be avoided so negative consequences can also be avoided – this is essentially the premise behind negative reinforcement.

Feedback that acts as negative reinforcement possesses unpleasant qualities that a client will avoid in the future if possible. For feedback to act as negative reinforcement, its removal or avoidance must strengthen the action the client needs to learn. For example, a beginner to resistance training who crashes the weights together whilst performing a leg press, experiences feedback in the form of other gym users turning to look, a comment from his personal trainer, and a feeling of embarrassment. This all acts as negative reinforcement as he does not want to experience this again. Another example might include intrinsic feedback, such as dissatisfaction felt by the client when they give up on a timed run. If she later ‘digs deeper’ and completes her run, the negative dissatisfaction felt earlier may be replaced with feelings of pride and satisfaction, a positive reinforcer.

Isn’t negative reinforcement the same as punishment?

Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Punishment involves the personal trainer causing an unpleasant situation for the client after the behaviour has taken place. It has the purpose of eliminating the unwanted behaviour. Negative reinforcement involves removing an unpleasant situation that occurs because of the client’s performance. The unpleasant situation needs a change in behaviour to remove it, so the client is forced to improve to remove the unpleasant experience; punishment is concerned with eliminating a behaviour whereas negative reinforcement aims to strengthen the desired behaviour. Punishment should never be used by the personal trainer.

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