Positive Coaching Alliance seeks to eliminate 'poisonous negativity' in youth sports

National program, based in Mountain View, seeks to transform the culture of youth sports

Editor's Note: This article, which you can read by scrolling down this page , was part of an investigative two-part series on high school coaching in Palo Alto published in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 14, 2010 and May 21, 2010. Additional articles appeared only online.

Here is a complete list of all stories with links to them:

Out of bounds? Part 1: In the first half of this special report, published May 14, the Weekly described five recent coaching controversies at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools and explored attributes and examples of positive coaching.

Out of bounds? Part 2: In the second half of this special report, published May 21, the Weekly examines how specific complaints were made and handled by school administrators.

Editorial: Reforming Palo Alto's high school sports

A confusing complaint process: An article about the confusing administrative maze facing athletes and parents when they seek to raise issues about a coach's behavior.

Tips for high school sports parents: Advice to parents of sports-team members from the founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Who oversees high school athletics?: Athletic directors have big jobs managing teams and coaches, with little time and no extra pay.

Sports Boosters help fund athletics: How Palo Alto parent groups fund major athletic projects and team expenses.

Documents and complaints: Complaints submitted by parents, letters in support of coaches, e-mail exchanges with officials and responses of administrators related to baseball controversies at Paly and Gunn, softball at Gunn and girls' basketball and water polo at Paly.

The psychology and effects of bad coaching: Uncontrolled emotions combined with old-school coaching habits can leave lifelong scars

What makes a good coach good? Complex mix of factors results in outstanding coaching, player experience, experts say

Sports and coaches at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools: A comprehensive list of the sports offered at the two schools, plus statistics on the number of athletes and types of coaches who work or volunteer in the athletics programs.

The job of coaching: a review of the working conditions high-school coaches face. For many, the work means long hours, low pay, high expectations and shifting personnel.

Club sports add challenges to school athletics: how the emergence of private club sports in the past 20 years has created a pool of experienced coaches in high-school athletics -- but also has raised concerns about conflicts of interest and favoritism when a club coach has club players on a school team.

Positive Coaching Alliance seeks to eliminate 'poisonous negativity' in youth sports: A national program, based in Mountain View, aims to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.

Positive Coaching Alliance seeks to eliminate 'poisonous negativity'

Jim Thompson has taken on one of the great sports challenges of our time: changing the way some youth coaches treat their teams and players.

"I thought about how poisonous negativity can be to a team or organization, yet how prevalent it is in our world of sports," he wrote in a recent newsletter of the nonprofit organization he formed in 1998, Positive Coaching Alliance. He presently is the group's executive director.

Thompson's focus on youth sports dates from the mid-1980s, when he became interested in a state program on promoting self-esteem in young persons.

In 1993 Thompson, then director of Stanford Business School's Public Management Program, wrote a book, "Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Sports." He quickly rose to national prominence as a leader in the "positive youth-coaching movement" then gaining ground. He has a new book, "The Power of Double-Goal Coaching," about how a coach can both prepare a team to win and use competition to teach life lessons.

Positive Coaching Alliance was first headquartered at the Stanford Athletic Department but later moved to Mountain View as it expanded nationwide.

"The very name of our organization ... came from my observing the harmful effects of unrestrained negativity by coaches and parents on youth athletes," Thompson wrote of Positive Coaching Alliance's origins. It now has partnered with more than 1,100 youth sports organizations, leagues, schools and cities and has conducted more than 6,000 workshops for youth-sports coaches, parents, organizational leaders and athletes.

The program essentially coaches coaches.

It emphasizes the personal discipline it takes "to stay positive in the face of adversity, even boneheaded mistakes by members of one's team. ... It takes discipline to remain positive no matter what happens," he wrote.

"It's not easy, but it leads to a legacy I think every coach wants to create -- to be remembered as someone who made players better.

"And it begins with a commitment to being positive."

Thompson cites extensive academic research to support a "Positive Coach Mental Model." The research examines effects of emotions on the brain's ability to focus and learn.

Negative emotions (such as fear and anxiety) narrow the focus while positive emotions expand it. The conclusions are that athletes in a positive emotional state can take in more information and have more energy to apply it creatively. They are able to build physical, intellectual and social resources more effectively, Thompson said. The result is a happier, healthier athlete and team.

Positive Coaching Alliance promotes a new definition of what it means to be a "winner" in sports, along with strategies for accomplishing this through positive coaching methods developed by Thompson and taught in workshops.

Both Paly and Gunn have offered Positive Coaching Alliance workshops to coaches in past years, although lack of funding prohibits that from happening regularly.

According to Positive Coaching Alliance, a positive coach:

* Focuses on effort rather than outcome.

* Helps athletes see mistakes as a vital part of learning anything complicated. Fear of making a mistake is a paralyzing force that robs athletes of spontaneity, love of the game and a willingness to try new things.

* Fills the athlete's "emotional tank" with compliments, praise and positive recognition and refuses to motivate through fear, intimidation or shame.

* Makes corrections "sandwiched" with praise. Positive Coaching Alliance recommends a 5-to-1 ratio of praise to criticism, based on research studies. Players can rarely absorb criticism during the heat of a game or when a coach is angry.

* Communicates in unmistakable ways that each athlete is accepted and valued. For a young athlete, the coach is one of the most important individuals in his or her life, and the perception of how the coach regards the athlete impacts the athlete's developing identity and self-esteem.

* Apologizes to kids for mistakes made. A coach who apologizes to a player is communicating that he or she values the player.

* Engages athletes in the learning process by giving them opportunities to participate in decision-making and goal-setting.

* Remains positive with players, rain or shine. This takes discipline. There is nothing tough about getting negative when things don't go your way. A coach who can have hard conversations with kids while remaining positive is more likely to change behavior. A coach who establishes a positive team culture will be remembered by players long after they have moved on.

* Honors the game by modeling respect for all participants, including officials and opponents.

For school administrators, Positive Coaching Alliance emphasizes the importance of creating a sports culture with clear standards, so everyone knows what is expected. Positive Coaching Alliance advises taking action ("fixing broken windows") when standards are violated. Otherwise, the sports culture begins to degrade, the Alliance warns.

To assist school leaders, Positive Coaching Alliance training materials include job descriptions for coaches and coach evaluation forms for players and parents to fill out mid-season and at season's end.

"The athletic director can't do it alone," Positive Coaching Alliance states.

Five years ago, the organization began a partnership with San Jose's Oak Grove High School, under the leadership of Athletic Director (and football coach) Ed Buller. The partnership (funded by private donations to Positive Coaching Alliance) was launched with workshops for all administrators and coaches. Then both the football and basketball teams were targeted with an annual Positive Coaching Alliance workshop for players and coaches combined.

"Repetition is important. They hear the same messages year after year," Buller told the Weekly.

Last year the Positive Coaching Alliance program was expanded to include weekly "talking points" (e-mailed by Thompson each Sunday night) used in half-hour discussion sessions before practice once a week.

Buller is enthusiastic.

"This is good for kids," he said. "As coaches, we have a wonderful platform to teach our kids life skills. (Positive Coaching Alliance) helps us do that."

He said the teams have thrived by learning how to deal with mistakes and support each other.

Since many of Oak Grove's athletes play multiple sports, Buller has noticed that the Positive Coaching Alliance teachings are spreading into other sports through the athletes and stimulating other athletes and coaches to want to be involved, too.

"Once a coach goes through the workshop, he sees it's helpful and positive. Coaches come out as believers," Buller said.

The players become partners in the process. If coaches forget, the kids remind them about remaining positive.

"The kids turn into mentors," Buller said. "They use and can recite the (Positive Coaching Alliance ) principles. It's exciting."

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