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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

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