PSA 2001 Keynote

I made it in for part of the keynote speech, delivered by Jim Thompson on the subject of positive coaching and organizational culture. He works with the Positive Coaching Alliance out of Stanford University, a group that believes in "reclaiming youth sports as part of educational development for kids."

My favorite statement of his was, "Youth sports is not entertainment for adults." Of course, this is problematic for me, since I freely admit that the Wisssahickon summer competition is one of the highlights of my year. But it's not entertainment for adults. It's for the kids, and that is what should take priority -- not the needs or wants of adult concerns such as spectators, national governing bodies, the ISU, or the USOC.

When a child first enters a sport, they go through a romantic stage first: "I love skating! I can't wait to get on the ice!" Then, that oh-so-tricky moment occurs when someone says, "This kid has talent." This ushers in the technical stage, in which the child concentrates on learning skills. Finally, there is the mature stage, when the skills have been mastered.

The Positive Coaching Alliance teaches how to "honor the game," playing with sportsmanship rather than a sacrificial win-at-all-costs mentality, how to create an encouraging organizational culture within the sports, and how to redefine what it means to be a winner. You can approach sports through an ego orientation, in which the scoreboard is all that matters, or through mastery orientation, in which the reward is not entirely dependent on the scoreboard, and mistakes are viewed as an inevitable part of the learning process. The happy irony is that the mastery approach generally produces better scoreboard results, too. The PCA uses the ELM acronym for the mastery approach: effort, learning, mistakes. Breaking down the process into those steps results in less anxiety and more self-confidence for the athletes, even though, as Thompson joked, the scoreboard approach is difficult to get away from because "that just comes with being American."

One way to deal with performance tension is to "breathe, bounce and break." If your athlete is too nervous before competition, have them inhale deeply, bounce on their feet, and "break" -- which Thompson did by hitting a fist into a palm and releasing tension.

He introduced the notion of "filling the emotional tank." Athletes can't perform well on a depleted emotional tank any more than a car can run without gas. Some comments can drain a kid's emotions, and others can fill them. I think this might have been where we in the audience were told to pair up and make comments that adversaries might make to each other in competition, to deplete each other's emotional tanks, after seeing a competitor fall in warm-up. This was a very funny moment, as people gave in to the little devils whispering in their ears and told each other such things as, "I knew you were going to make that mistake. You always do."

Then, we were supposed to tell each other things that would fill the emotional tank of the person who just fell. This was a lot quieter, as coaches told each other things like, "You recovered well," or "That's okay; keep going." Thompson laughed and said this group was good; normally, this exercise produces silence.

At any rate, he said that instituting a rink buddy system, where skaters pair up and "fill each other's emotional tanks" on a regular basis, watching each other's progress and commenting on it and encouraging each other, tends to improve performances. Since each skater has someone else tracking their progress, the buddies can have team meetings where they can strategize on how to improve further.

The way to create athletes who are mastery oriented rather than ego oriented, said Thompson, was to "make good culture." I am personally not big on "illness as metaphor," but he used an epidemic model to explain. In order to create an "epidemic" of good culture, you need these three things: a virus (idea), which spreads not too quickly; transmitters; and a supportive environment for the virus to grow.

One phenomenon I couldn't ignore at the conference -- or anywhere more than two coaches are gathered -- is that whenever anyone mentions difficult parents, all the coaches present will flinch and look piteously traumatized. An audience member asked what to do about them, and Thompson said the PCA website has a letter to athletes' parents. When you coach the kids, he said, you get the parents. This is just a fact.

If there are problem coaches, who might ruthlessly coach only with results in mind, Thompson said to remember that "facility owners have more power than they think." For example, they can institute a policy requiring coaches to go through a positive coaching workshop if they want to work at that rink.

Shirley Hughes had two suggestions from her own experience. One was to tell students, "You need to tell me when you land a great jump." The coach can't be watching every student all the time, but it helps the student's self-esteem to be able to report success when it wasn't witnessed. The other was for coaches to buddy up as well, and fill "your own pro tank -- band together as coaches."

Nick Perna asked what to do about the influence of televised pro sports, which definitely stress winning at all costs and not mastery orientation. Thompson said candidly that he thought coaches could have only "limited impact changing pro culture," but emphasized that youth sports are different from pro sports, and the participants can behave differently.

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