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Bringing a New Ethos to Youth Sports—and the Classroom

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: “The Power of Positive Coaching,” by David Bornstein in The New York Times Opinionator, 20 October 2011;
In this New York Times Opinionator column, author David Bornstein comments on the way inexperienced, untrained coaches of youth sports often give inappropriate and unhelpful advice to their players. (Like so much in athletic coaching, this also applies to K-12 classrooms.)
Some examples:
-Putting pressure on children to perform;
-Trying to give them technical advice when they are anxious or frustrated;
-Rewarding misbehavior by giving it extra attention;
-Making children worry about making mistakes.
“I did this in soccer,” says Mr. Bornstein, “and, through my over-eagerness, almost destroyed my then-six-year-old son’s delight in the game… Youth sports is supposed to be about education and human development.”
Under this kind of pressure, many young players end up imitating professional athletes behaving badly, which has produced an increase in cheating, poor sportsmanship, and acts of aggression. Sadly, most students drop out of sports after middle school.
“What is needed is a culture change,” says Mr. Bornstein, and he describes the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), which shows coaches how to restore the proper ethos to competitive youth sports. PCA is not against winning, but trains coaches in a set of techniques that restore the joy to the game and keep most students actively engaged in sports through high school and college.
PCA was founded in 1998 by Jim Thompson, a former K-12 teacher and director of the Public Management Program at Stanford Business School. The core of PCA’s approach is the “double goal”—balancing the desire to win with teaching life lessons.
Coaches are trained to get their players focused on how to:
-Improve their own game;
-Help teammates improve their game;
-Improve the game as a whole.
Parents are coaxed into putting less emphasis on winning and more on life lessons—teaching children to improve themselves, be a leader who helps others flourish, and make society better.
“Because there are so many opportunities to fail in sports,” says Mr. Bornstein, “it is a gold mine of teachable moments.” The key is getting children to focus on the things they can control, not external factors. This makes them less anxious, more confident, and thus happier and more effective players. Here are some key PCA points:
• The ELM tree of mastery – It is ineffective to praise good performance and criticize bad performance. Instead, coaches need to focus on players’ level of Effort, whether they Learn from experiences, and how they respond to Mistakes.
• Teaching stick-to-it-iveness – “If a child misses a big play, it’s a perfect opportunity to talk about resilience,” says Thompson, and he suggests a statement like this: “I know you are disappointed and I feel bad for you, but the question is what are you going to do now? Are you going to hang your head? Or are you going to bounce back with renewed determination?”
• Not being afraid of making mistakes – When they mess up on the playing field, young players immediately look at their coach and/or parent. Saying, “Don’t worry about it” isn’t helpful. The key is getting rid of the mistake quickly and decisively. PCA teaches coaches to make a toilet-flushing hand signal from the sidelines. The player and teammates see this and say, “Flush it, we’ll get it back.” This helps the player focus on the next play rather than beating up on him- or herself. After the game, the coach talks to the player about what happened and why.
• The emotional tank – When a player’s tank is empty, it is difficult to take on challenges and perform well. PCA teaches coaches to get to the “magic ratio” of tank-filling praise and criticism: 5 to 1. Of course, the praise has to be specific and honest, since children can immediately spot phony praise.
• Timing and affect – PCA isn’t against hard conversations with players, but teaches how to deliver criticism when it is most helpful—not when a child is angry or sulking or defensive. “When you ask people to focus on mastery, it is not soft,” says Thompson. “And screaming at a kid is not tough. That is just a lack of impulse control.”
• The criticism sandwich: praise-critique-praise – “Instead of getting into a kid: ‘Hey, what is the matter with you? Didn’t we just go over this?’”, says Ken Eriksen, head coach for the USA Softball Women’s National Team and a disciple of PCA, “I like to take the approach: ‘Hey, young lady, you’re doing a great job. You know on that approach to a ground ball, maybe I would use a different footwork. Other than that I cannot commend you enough on your hard work.’ It works much better.”

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