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Hello Dear Readers,

Do you respond best to positive or negative motivation? When you have a difficult task ahead, would you rather someone gently encourage you through it, cheering you on all the way, or scream in your face and threaten you until the job was done?

I’m sure none of us are looking for a negative boss, but what about when it comes to physical training? Tough, nasty coaches–ones that seem to be cut from the same cloth as drill sergeants–are legendary. Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser is the perfect example of a “tough love” trainer, and she definitely gets results. She also gets a lot of criticism for being too harsh. While that show is inspiring, I’m amazed that it manages to avoid seriously injuring the participants.

When it comes to Level 2, KWest muay thai students have both a “good cop” coach and a “bad cop” coach. The good cop still teaches a difficult class, but he is supportive, encouraging, gentle, and unfailingly kind. He wants you to feel positive during his classes and leave on a high–pumped, encouraged, and knowing that you did your best.

The bad cop instills fear. He screams at you, catches you off guard, mocks you if you’re slacking (or if he thinks you’re slacking), and has no compunctions about hitting you upside the head. Forget about water breaks. Forget about everything, actually. The only thing you can focus on is survival.

My question to you is: which method works best? Which one do you prefer? While I look forward to the positive class and dread the negative one, I probably am pushed harder in the latter. And when it comes to my sport, I have to remember that my opponent isn’t going to be kind. The best time to develop a thick skin is before you step into the ring.

But what do you think? Do you have to be “mean” to get good results?

Thanks for reading!
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  1. Kim

    That’s a good question. I think you need a balance. And of course that is the “safe” response. You need someone who is going to encourage you when you make progress and you need someone who will yell at you at the moments you need it. Ultimately, though, it is seeing your own progress that keeps you coming back for more regardless of who is the supreme leader. I think the key thing though is that you have someone training you who is honest with you about your capabilities and where you can go with them. I bet, given your last post, you have honesty out of both those trainers —

  2. Chris

    I think the negative approach can produce more results in the short term, but a positive approach is the only way to achieve long-term success. In the end, it comes down to how much you love to do something, and that is going to depend largely on how enjoyable it is for you. You don’t often hear stories about people who credit their success to teachers who beat them up regularly.

  3. Grant


    I guess my answer would depend upon which type of instructor i am classified under. So my question to you is; which type am I?

  4. Story Teller

    Thanks for your comments! This is an interesting discussion.

    @ Kim – Yep, honesty is definitely not a problem, and I agree that a person needs a lot of internal motivation as well.

    @ Chris – Completely agree. Sometimes it’s harder for me to force myself to do something when I’m dreading it.

    @ Grant – ha ha! I better tread carefully with this one, lest I receive a thousand burpees next time you’re teaching. But honestly, I initially would have categorized you as “bad cop”, since you run a tough class and drive people to reach their limits. Now that I’ve taken more of your classes, though, I’d say you’re a hybrid. You’re extremely supportive and encouraging, and you still have a sense of humor when you’re teaching. You could just be the best of both worlds. Your classes are hard, but ultimately, you just want people to try their best, and that comes through. I can’t imagine you ever belittling anyone or mocking people if they can’t do something…but that could be the difference between Levels 1 and 2 as well.

  5. Angela

    I believe negative motivation NEVER works! I don’t get how humiliating, demeaning and shaming someone could ever work in a civilized world! We should be better than that. I have had more than my share of “Bad cop” teachers, bosses, coaches and parents and all my life I’ve never been good enough or thin enough or smart enough or successful enough! I am so “A type” and anal that I only stop a project because I’ve run out of time, not because it’s ever done. I can never take a compliment, personal or about my work because I never believe it, I think people are just being nice.

    Our experiences are constantly building the people we are. Our concept of who we are is always changing and is a fragile thing. Coaches who play “Bad cop” need to be very careful about the way they impact the students’ self concept. Yes they see immediate results – more endurance, heavier weights…but what lasting effect is that type of motivation having on the mind of the student? We all know a story about an athlete or dancer who became anorexic or used steroids because they couldn’t measure up to expectations and tried to change themselves in drastic and dangerous ways.

    I think we also know the lasting effect of negative comments. Try to think back over the last 5 years of your life. How many compliments or positive comments can you remember? Now recall the negative, and how it feels like just yesterday. That sting lasts forever!

    Coaches hold a lot of power and responsibility – they’re building more than just muscle. It should always be about the student and in the student’s best interest in a wholistic way. There’s nothing wrong with pushing someone to excel or find their limits and surpass them, but the motivation should empower and never demean.

    Just sayin’.

  6. Chris

    I’d say that mocking and derision have their place if they inspire anger in you, or give you some type of strong energy to work with. If you’re defensive or easily intimidated, though, they can have the opposite effect. And even when a teacher/boss/instructor uses negative techniques to force you to give your all, I’d say it’s still much more effective if they pair that with positive reinforcement once the class is done. It would be nice if they convey that the negative tactics are a technique to produce results, not a reflection of their actual feelings towards you.

  7. Grant


    Thanks for the reply. Well, time for me to hold up my end of the deal.

    First off; to touch on my teaching style:

    I am glad to read that you think my style is a hybrid of both bad cop & good cop. And with your honesty it tells me that some of my madness is coming true to my method. 🙂
    I DO try to run a hard and intense class. It has been a good mannered joke that I was the “Bad cop” instructor (no offense taken). But I do try to run my classes with a sense of humor while incorporating different exercises than the week before.


    Although some people do enjoy that style of hard paced class; sadly the truth of the matter is most don’t. And I can tell you this based on class sizes, the “Easier” or “gentler” classes are always much more packed than the hard run stamina Mondays.

    Unfortunately it is just the fact of the matter that people will naturally come to the easier classes. It is just too bad that more people don’t desire to be pushed a little harder.

    So on to me, well…. to be fully honest with myself… I don’t really enjoy the harder classes while i am there; nor do i enjoy the instructor much during them. But after I have gotten home and I am standing in that hot shower I have feel a great sense of pride in knowing I survived them. No matter what my feelings may be; I always get a better work out from the instructor who is pushing the pace and is demanding more of me than I feel I can handle!

    Thanks for the interesting blog topic, keep it up!

  8. Story Teller

    @ Angela – that’s great food for thought. I certainly agree that, when it comes to children especially, positivity should rule. Kids are the most effected by negative feedback. Your experience certainly shows the lasting effects of hearing the message “you’re not good enough” repeatedly. And, for the record, people aren’t just being nice when they compliment your work. You ARE that awesome. Thanks for your perspective on this.

    @ Chris – one of the first lessons I was taught in boxing is that anger doesn’t work. Let anger get the upper hand, and you can literally feel the strength drain out of you. It’s a useless energy suck. God knows I’m stubborn as hell, and a coach who tells me I can’t do something has just ensured that I will. It works for a time, but if I never did anything that pleased him, I’d no doubt become frustrated and discouraged and might even leave that particular club. A balance is definitely necessary.

    @ Grant – I love that you’re contributing – thank you! It’s great to benefit from a coach’s perspective. That proud feeling of survival is why people kept going to Sik Tai, and why they want to join KWest’s Level 2. If a workout is easy, what’s the point?

    Human nature is inherently lazy, which could account for lower numbers on Mondays, but I think fear also plays a part. People hear the word “stamina” and worry that they won’t be able to keep up or will make fools of themselves. I want to do double classes on Mondays, but the challenge of trying to follow a stamina class with a Level 2 class gives me pause as well.

    You are a fantastic teacher, and your creativity and energy make a big difference. It’s also nice to see you suffering along with us in Joscelyn’s class. 🙂 The longer people stick with the sport, the more they will appreciate what you have to offer as an instructor.

  9. Boxing scientist

    This is a fascinating post for me, because it’s a question that I never been able to make up my mind about it.

    In science, I prefer people who are encouraging, and people who inspire through their brilliance rather than telling what to do.

    But in my alter ego, in the ring, it’s the opposite. I prefer to be pushed hard because that’s what makes you win. Let’s face it, combat sports are tough and physical. That’s why they provided a complete contrast with science and a good break that I welcomed. When I started boxing, at age 11, our training was positively Spartan, but because winning was so important, I was prepared to tolerate the pressure, and even welcome it. When I was older, I found a club that allowed amateurs to compete under pro rules and that’s a challenge I really wanted. So again I was prepared to tolerate a trainer who’d make you fight 3 times in the same day, or do 20 rounds of sparring’ I guess you might describe him as hybrid -in the gym he could be brutal, but he was also very encouraging.

    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks for your comment and welcome back, Boxing Scientist. I don’t think the coaches who are positive and encouraging aren’t tough–my own coach was plenty tough when I was training to fight, and he made me do lots of things I didn’t want to do.

      The difference is all in how they motivate, and while I may move faster for a little while for someone who screams at me, eventually that kind of motivation wears me out. It doesn’t lift me up. It doesn’t inspire me.

      I don’t mind working hard, but I’d rather be told I can do it than be told I suck. Sounds like you found a hybrid method to work as well. I’m sure purely negative motivation works for some people, but I haven’t met one yet!

      Thanks for commenting.


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