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Positive Coaching: For the Love of Sports—and Kids


When our kids attend school, we entrust them to their teachers. We have a reasonably clear idea of what the teachers do. The education profession comes under the scrutiny of academicians, government authorities, teachers, and parents. Accountability structures exist.

We also entrust our children to coaches—about 30,000,000 kids and 3,000,000 coaches annually in the United States. Most coaches are volunteers or based in private clubs or organizations. Do we also know what we want from them? Are we content that no specific training is required or standards set? Do we need change? (We all have a few unpleasant tales.) And the coaches—are they satisfied with the status quo?

Jim Thompson, the founder and director of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA, based in Stanford, California, believes that change is needed. Indeed, his group's goal is to "transform youth sports so sports can transform youth." The problem, as Thompson sees it, is that the current focus of sports is winning at all costs. Coaching is thus primarily devoted to developing high-level, sport-specific skills. While this might be appropriate for a few highly talented and motivated kids, the model ignores the vast majority—the ones who want to learn a sport and have fun doing it.

The cost of winning, then, may be the toll on the less talented child's spirit, and the result may be the loss of enjoyment of the physical activity. It is not known for certain why participation in organized sports peaks at age 10. If the win-at-all-costs approach is partly responsible for the dropout during the teen years, it is unquestionably affecting public health as well as individual self esteem. Would as many kids drop out if coaches adopted the PCA's suggestions? Those goals are that coaches: (1) help players redefine what it means to be a "winner" by focusing on effort and improvement rather than exclusively on the scoreboard; (2) fill players' "emotional tanks" by using encouragement to help them play their best; and (3) honor the game by showing respect for the rules, opponents, officials, teammates, and game tradition.

The PCA believes that this approach would provide more long-term benefits. Coaching would be teaching, its curriculum stemming from the positive potential of sports. Rather than sending kids to practice only to learn to win, parents could expect children to grasp the intrinsic joy of sports (vs its extrinsic rewards) and to develop traits and absorb moral lessons useful in other dimensions of life. The PCA supports a dual role for coaches: The primary emphasis should be education, and the minor emphasis winning.

To address these issues, the PCA has begun work on three initiatives: formulating a new "mental model" of coaching (the numbered list at left), teaching leadership skills and setting criteria for excellence for youth sports organizations, and enlisting academicians to investigate relevant issues. Over time, the PCA wants coaches and youth sports organizations to have the tools to judge their own performance—not just by a win-loss record, but by the character development, continuous improvement, and love of the game instilled in their players.

The movement is gaining national recognition. Attendees at the PCA's first major forum—conducted in March in conjunction with the Center for Sports, Character, and Culture of the University of Notre Dame—represented diverse groups. These included the YMCA, YWCA, US Youth Soccer, the US Olympic Committee, USA Swimming, the Special Olympics, and many others.

Obviously, it will require a major cultural shift to change attitudes toward coaching and winning. (Would your high school football coach use concepts like "love" and "emotional tank"?) In particular, it may be difficult to convey the fact that positive coaching is consistent with hard work and achievement of excellence. But I, like Jim Thompson, think it's time for a change.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD