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Monday, March 22, 2010

Positive Coaching – A Win-Win Approach

In any sport you play, you play to win. That is the very nature of competition. But for most people, being a winner is defined solely by what the scoreboard says. If your team has more goals or points than the opponent, you are the winner. If not, you lose.

For many coaches, winning is the bottom line. Win the majority of your games and you are considered a winner, a coach who players want to play for, and one whose team that parents want their kids to play on. Lose more games than you win, and you are not considered successful.

Winning as the primary objective
So ultimately, for most coaches, the majority of their planning, decision-making and actions take place with winning as the primary objective. No matter what the cost. And for coaches in youth sports, although not immediately apparent, those costs can turn out to be pretty significant in the long run, in terms of the effect on the lives of the kids participating.

Winning at all costs might be the right approach at the upper levels of sports, where coaches are professionals and the success of the team has a direct effect on putting people in the seats and money in the bank.

But even at the college level, where coaches are paid professionals, there are other considerations in determining whether a coach is successful or not. Are the players representing the program and the institution in a positive manner? Are they graduating? Are they improving and developing in their sport? Are they being prepared to be productive members of society as they live their lives? Winning is in there somewhere as well, but it is not the only criteria.

At the minor professional levels, coaches want to win to be considered for advancement. But in addition to a winning environment, they are also responsible to ensure that their players are being developed with the necessary skills and knowledge to give them the best chance to be successful at the major league level.

Changing that mentality
At every level of every sport, winning is important. No doubt about it. But it is not the most important element. Especially for youth sports.

With that thought in mind, Jim Thompson left his teaching position at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1998 to start the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to "transforming youth sports so sports can transform youth." The organization has established a very impressive advisory committee that includes Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, retired college basketball coaching icon Dean Smith, NFL Director of Football Development Gene Washington, NFL Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Lott, former NHL player and current Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Tony Granato and Olympic athletes Nadia Comaneci, Summer Sanders and Bart Conner, among others.

One of the main objectives of the PCA is to change the very nature of what it means to be a youth sports coach, and changing the "win-at-all-cost" mindset is a big part of that.

The approach of the PCA is a little different than that of most organizations that attempt to change the environment of youth sports in this country, and that is why I think it will have an impact. It recognizes that winning is an important part of competition. But it also teaches coaches to recognize that their role has another even more important goal of developing positive character traits in their players. The beauty of it is, if you approach the game by focusing on the second one, you have a better chance of achieving the first one.

What it means to be a winner
Positive coaches teach their players respect for the rules, the intent of the rules and how the game should be played within those rules. Opponents are to be respected and should be looked at from a "fierce and friendly" approach. A worthy opponent brings out the best in your players and your team. Officials should be respected at all times, even when you disagree with their call, or their interpretation of the rules. Team members need to make a commitment to respect their teammates, both on and off the ice. And finally, positive coaches teach respect for the game and its history and traditions, that the game is bigger than each team and each player, and that it is a privilege to participate.

Positive coaches also redefine what it is to be a winner. The emphasis is not on the result, but on the effort that goes into it, not on comparing ourselves with others, but on learning what we can to improve ourselves, and that mistakes are okay, they are part of the learning process. By changing the focus from the outcome to the process, players have less anxiety, more self-confidence and are willing to work harder and longer to get better.

Removing the fear factor
Positive coaches create an environment similar to a "home team advantage" by making it a place where players feel good about playing (like they do in the friendly confines of their home arena), by being positive, upbeat, and non-critical.

To some, this approach might seem soft, and they believe coaches have to be more demanding, more aggressive, to get things done. Those are the people who subscribe to the Bobby Knight-style of coaching through intimidation, ridicule and fear. But can you really play to your full potential if you are afraid to make a mistake? If you are being motivated by fear, can you really be enjoying playing the game?

I have played for both styles of coaches, and while I admit that there are some players who play very well for the "in-your-face screamer" coaches, those same players, and the majority of other players, play much better for coaches whom they respect and enjoy playing for. And you can still be demanding and detailed. Just without the fear factor. Phil Jackson (although he has had the luxury of working with some outstanding talent) certainly has had some pretty substantial success with this approach (and there are many other coaches who had teams with great talent who weren’t able to get it done).

Volunteer youth hockey coaches receive very little training. It’s a difficult thing to accomplish, as the season is so long and the time commitment is huge to begin with. Over a period of years, they attend some clinics by USA Hockey, which although well done, certainly aren’t long enough to have substantial emphasis on anything but the nuts and bolts of coaching. In reality, the majority of training to coach comes from their years of experience in playing and coaching the game. Which might be good. Or might not.

And chances are, that experience included looking only at winning as the bottom line, focusing on the outcome rather than the approach. Positive coaches understand that their approach does affect the outcome. Both on the scoreboard and in life.

Check out the Positive Coaching Alliance web site at

Monday, March 8, 2010


This just might be it. It could be the time. The cataclysmic event, the violent upheaval that finally results in significant change in the youth hockey world in Michigan. Just maybe.

But why? And why now? What is so different about this year from previous years? The answer is uncertainty. And this year there appears to be much, much more of it than there has ever been before.

The signs have been there for several years now. Each year we have spun a little more out of control, careening wildly down a slippery slope. But somehow, someway, things always seem to find a way to come together. We manage to stay in control and get through yet another season.
This year we might have reached the tipping point. Where that will take us I have no idea. But it could prove to be an interesting ride.

The 1990’s was a fantastic decade for hockey, and for that matter many other facets of life in Michigan. The economy was humming along with the auto industry locked on cruise control in the fast lane.
Team USA’s miracle on ice gold medal winning performance at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid had sparked unprecedented interest in a generation of new hockey families.

After fifteen years of mediocrity, the Red Wings embarked on what would become a twenty plus year run of excellence as the model franchise in the National Hockey League. New ice arenas opened all over the state, many in areas that had never had hockey before. Older facilities added a second sheet or upgraded to handle the increased demand. Hockey participation experienced remarkable growth at every level of the game. Hockey life was good.

Adapting and changing
All good things eventually come to an end, don’t they? Eventually. Some more quickly than others. It depends on the ability to adapt and change with the times. The Red Wings have been a great example of longevity, having changed general managers, gone through several coaches and re-tooled their roster a number of times to stay ahead of the game and maintain their level of success. But it’s not easy to do.

Even before the economy went south, the youth hockey world in Michigan started its decline as the new millennium began. Fewer players were getting into the game at the younger ages, which was the first sign that trouble was brewing somewhere down the road. But those signs were not really that easy to see. There were still plenty of players and plenty of teams. There was incredible demand for prime time ice time. Smooth sailing. Right?

That’s what they thought on the Titanic too until they took their eye off of the horizon and failed to notice the iceberg in the way.

Lots of players, lots of teams and lots of demand for prime ice times. But the players have to come from somewhere don’t they? For many arenas, associations or independent teams attracting players was no problem. How? Create the demand. What’s the demand? Tryout-based hockey teams.
That’s the easy part. Let the market decide. There are a number of reasons why players, and more often their parents on their behalf, choose tryout based hockey teams. For some it is the desire to play at the highest level - in some cases reality, in others in perception or in name only. Most Tier I or AAA teams never have and never will have trouble getting players. There are always enough people looking to be upwardly mobile. The better Tier I or AAA teams are oftentimes constantly re-stocked with the better players from the weaker teams that they beat up on year after year. Why be the best player on a weak team? If you can’t beat ‘em, join em.

More stratification
Other tryout-based teams at the A and AA level utilize the same model to attract players to their teams. Now there are even very clear stratifications between the upper level A/AA teams and the lower level teams in the same age group. The better teams have no problem finding players, the weaker teams take what they can get to fill their roster.

The desire to play at a higher level is not the only reason that the majority of players migrate to tryout-based teams. For some they just want to play with friends, something that they can’t necessarily do in B level leagues where teams are formed by drafts. Others want to get away from the sometimes perceived, sometimes very real, politics and personal agendas that can be a part of some associations. Some seek out the best coaching. Some coaches don’t want to play by any rules except their own, they want to do things their way and answer to no one.

Some parents want to get their players away from the "weaker players", to a level that "challenges" their player to develop. While there is some merit to that, in many cases it can ironically have the exact opposite result. Some parents need the status of a higher level. No way their child should be playing at the lowest level.

Icebergs ahead
The list goes on and one. The result is that there are way more tryout-based or travel teams than there were ten years ago. And this comes at a time when there are less players entering the game. While we have all been strutting around like peacocks in an effort to attract someone else’s players to our team to form the best team or in some cases to just have enough players to even have a team, nobody has been watching the horizon. There are plenty of icebergs ahead.

Who is feeding this monster? Does anybody know? Does anybody care? We’re about to find out. The biggest bubble of players born in the 90’s has almost moved its way through. Very few arenas or associations have been putting the time and effort into getting more new players into the game. Why should they when it is so easy just to attract them from somewhere else? More tryout-based teams. Less players in the player pool. Less house league and entry level hockey opportunities available for players to get started playing. Something has got to give. And it will. Soon.

This year there are even more tryout-based teams. In a weirdly ironic twist, in an effort to move toward "compliance" with USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which was created with the intent of getting more players into the game and giving more players the opportunity to develop into better hockey players, many organizations are adding even more tryout-based teams to their programs. New players? No. Players from somewhere else? Hopefully.

It’s the modus operandi of hockey in Michigan. We want freedom to play anywhere we want to. We want freedom to form our teams from players from anywhere we want. And there is nothing wrong with that. We should have that right. But with freedom and rights also comes responsibility.

Nobody seems to want that though. Nobody has been watching the door. Not enough new players have been coming through it. And now the-you-know what is going to hit the fan. There are not enough players for all of these teams. Many will fold. Already struggling rinks will be hit even harder and some will shut their doors for good. More opportunities will be lost for players to get into the game.

Freedom of choice and a market-driven approach can sometimes be good. But sometimes the competitive pressures of the marketplace can lead us in a direction that is best not to go.