Positive Coaching Imparts “Life Lessons” Through Sports 3/08

Positive Coaching Imparts “Life Lessons” Through Sports

Learning, Not Just Winning, on Athletic Fields

by Elana Congress

(March 25, 2008) On any given weekend during the fall or the spring, swarms of boys and girls congregate on the playing fields of Larchmont and Mamaroneck to participate in organized sports.

Larchmont-Mamaroneck Listens:

Part III: Hommocks Auditorium, 7:30 pm

  • Thurs. April 17
    Dr. Mel Levine: “Raisin’ Brain: Helping Our Kids Develop Their Full Learning Potential.
Spanish translation will be available.

Keeping the experience positive in youth sports is the aim of Jim Thompson, founder and president of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), who was at the Hommocks on March 11 discussing “Life Lessons from the Playing Field” as part of the “Larchmont-Mamaroneck Listens,” speaker series funded by the Mamaroneck Schools Foundation. (See: Collaboration Yields New Speaker Series for Parents.)

Mr. Thompson’s organization partners with athletic groups across the country with the goal of “transforming youth sports so sports can transform youth.” His local presentation was co-sponsored by all seven Larchmont-Mamaroneck youth sports organizations—lacrosse, Little League, football, hockey, basketball, and both soccer leagues.

jthompsonAt the Hommocks, Mr. Thompson focused on ways parents and coaches can take advantage of the “endless procession of teachable moments” inherent in sports. His techniques are geared toward school-age athletes and highlight the “trickle-up potential” of youth sports. He believes that if athletics teach children the values of integrity and teamwork the world will become a better, more honest place.

Miniature Professionals?

One of the biggest problems in school-age athletics today, he said, is that youth sports are treated like miniature versions of professional sports. The game may be the same, but the goal of professional sport is to make money by having a winning team that attracts spectators. The goal of a youth sports team, he believes, should be to educate children.

Mr. Thompson encouraged the parents, coaches, and athletes who filled the Hommocks auditorium to understand the fundamental differences between professional and youth sports so that they could create a distinct culture in their athletic community. Mike Boynton, vice president of the school board of St. Mary School in Milford, CT helped to implement a partnership with the PCA at his school and attested to its value. “Working with the PCA has improved the culture of the entire school,” he noted. “It’s definitely become more relaxed and more fun for the athletes, and the whole school has become a more pleasant environment.”

Mr. Thompson cautioned that “culture determines behavior.” If a sports team's culture is to scream at players when they make mistakes, he said, then the parents on the sidelines will begin screaming at the players, too. And in Mr. Thompson’s view, screaming parents undermine the sport and the team.

Double-Goal Coaching: Not Just Winning

A key PCA concept is double-goal coaching. The aim of a double-goal coach is to win the game. The second and more important purpose is to teach kids life lessons. The coaches use sports as a vehicle for learning. Mr. Thompson asked the audience of parents, “Should parents be double-goal coaches, too?” The audience fell right into the trap, answering in the affirmative.

Ideally, said Mr. Thompson, parents should only focus on the second goal, teaching kids life lessons. “The only people who should be concerned about winning are the players and the coaches,” he said

This is not to say that winning is insignificant, he conceded —of course winning is important. At the end of the game, the question isn’t “which team learned the most?” but “Who won?”

“I’ve never met a kid who wanted to lose—real competitors want to win,” said Connie Reddicliffe, the mother of three high school athletes. At the same time, though, “you have to remind yourself to dial back the intensity sometimes.” She and her husband, who has some coaching experience, share the same philosophy, she said. “We encourage our kids to strive to get what they want, not what we want.”

What’s the Experience in Mamaroneck?

At the varsity and even the junior varsity level of Mamaroneck High School, the pressure to win can be intense, reported a number of students and coaches.

Mike Meglio, an MHS junior and member of the varsity hockey team, thought that coaches should focus more on spreading out playing time. The hockey team was particularly competitive this year and won the Sectional game against Suffern. (See: MHS Varsity Hockey Hopes Die in Quarterfinal Overtime) Mike, who plays both hockey and lacrosse, said the main difference between the two sports was the pressure to win. “In hockey, we’re expected to play well,” he said. “Some people don’t get to play just so that the team can advance.” He said he didn’t mind sitting out for the good of his team and understood that the team comes first.

His teammate Will Thompson (no relation to Jim Thompson) was not as content to sit out while the team skated to glory. “During the second half of the season, as it got more competitive, Mike and I never saw the ice,” said Will. “Sitting on the bench sucks.”

Though Mike Meglio wished he could have played more during the season, he considered his hockey coach, Mike Chiapparelli, a double-goal coach. “Chapp won’t get angry at us if we try our best and lose a game,” Mike said. If a player makes a huge, game-altering mistake, though, the coaches might get angry. “In general you get mad at yourself more often than the coaches get mad at you,” he said.

What about the PCA “magic ratio” that Jim Thompson prescribed: for every criticism a coach or parent gives a child, he should praise the child five times. Mike Meglio thought the “magic ratio” was “a nice idea but kind of pushing it.”

Varsity Team Goals Versus Lower Levels

All of the interviewed athletes and coaches agreed that varsity sports are different from youth sports at lower levels. At the varsity level, the focus is on winning because “the athletes are competing against each other to be able to play in college,” said David Smith, who coaches football, basketball and track. “The only time I yell at players is if they are disrespectful.” Mr. Smith believed that “every level beneath varsity should emphasize skill development, growth and life lessons.” It’s important that the players buy into and understand the athletic program so that they’re motivated to continue with the sport, he said.

A freshman girl on the MHS junior varsity field hockey team, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with Mr. Smith. “At the varsity level, it’s important to win because it’s the end of the players’ high school careers,” she said. “After so many hours of hard work, it would be a waste if the team wasn’t trying to win.” But she thought that the JV team should be more focused on learning the skills to play well than about winning.

The JV field hockey player thought that her coaches had a lot to learn about expressing their emotions. “I love my coaches, and they know their stuff,” she said. “They’re just a little bit cruel sometimes.” When asked if her coaches abided by the “magic ratio” -- five praises for every one criticism -- she laughed. “It’s more like three criticisms for every one praise,” she said. She recalled a time when one coach made a girl cry by yelling at her over and over again. “She was just so frustrated that she kept playing worse and worse,” she said of her teammate.

Playing on a “Full Emotional Tank”

The frustrated player was experiencing what Mr. Thompson referred to as an “empty emotional tank.” Her reservoir of self-esteem had been emptied by her coach’s harsh words, leaving her unable to play well. Conversely, “people with full emotional tanks can surprise even themselves,” said Mr. Thompson. He encouraged coaches to praise their players before games so that they have the confidence necessary to play their best.

Mr. Thompson stressed in his lecture that “fearing mistakes is worse than making mistakes.” The best thing a coach can do when players mess up is to encourage them to move on.

Lessons from Little League Baseball: Stress Is Part of the Game

David Fishman, the president of Larchmont-Mamaroneck Little League (LMLL) found Jim Thompson’s lecture informative and “incredibly valuable.” He believes that some of the coaches “don’t recognize their own faults,” making it hard to correct their errors. At the same time, some of the parents that call him to complain about mean coaches are actually just frustrated with their child’s lack of playing time.

Although Mr. Fishman supported the idea of an emotional tank and the “magic ratio,” he thought that “even strong criticism can be framed in a way that’s instructional,” and that sometimes people can overdo the praise. Parents tend to overreact to a coach’s often because it’s the first time that their child is being criticized by someone outside of the family.

Mr. Fishman agreed that positive coaches who understand the dual purpose of youth sports are essential to players’ development. Of course it’s natural for parents to want their children to be coached in a positive and kind way. At the same time, parents have to let go a little bit, he said. “You wouldn’t want to distill all of the stress out of sports because stress is an integral part of life.”

According to him, the Little League season starts out with a “stressful try-out situation.” Each child has the chance to hit three balls while a crowd of 40 coaches watch in the bleachers. “Many of the parents think the try-out is overtly outrageous and stressful for the kids,” said Fishman. “I think that the try-out is important, because kids come out of it proud of themselves for having accomplished something difficult.”

Part of learning life lessons is facing challenges. “Parents can’t put their children in a room full of pillows at every point in their lives,” said Mr. Fishman. At one point or another, children are going to have to deal with competition.

Elana Congress is a senior at Mamaroneck High School and writes for The Globe.