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by Jim Thompson, MBA ’86

Kids play sports for fun. Jim Thompson believes lessons learned on the playing field can trickle up and positively influence future generations.

The email message was intriguing: “Does lying in Little League lead to Enron?”

The sender, legendary sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, wanted my response for an article he was writing for USA Today.

Since founding the Positive Coaching Alliance in 1998, I have often talked about how professional sports pollute youth sports with a win-at-all-cost mentality. This may have some justification in an entertainment business like pro sports, but it has no place in the educational endeavor of youth sports. Lipsyte turned that issue upside down: Can youth sports, done badly, lead to an ethical pollution in the larger society.

Lipsyte’s question caused me to rethink the impact that the Positive Coaching Alliance might have. We will not abandon our goal, which is to make sports a positive experience for kids and encourage them to stick with it and gain the advantages that sports offer. But could we go beyond that?

The powerful potential in youth sports, as Common Cause founder John W. Gardner pointed out, is that character is tested on the playing field all the time. Character education in the classroom can be remote, abstract, and theoretical. Character education on the playing field is intense, immediate, and in-your-face. The opportunities to teach life lessons are never-ending when coaches and parents are aware of them and prepared to create and seize teachable moments as they arise.

What if we could transform youth sports to the point that athletes learn positive character traits that would cause them to do the right thing when they grow up?

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major-league baseball, he suffered tremendous abuse from opposing players, fans, and even some of his own teammates. At one game in Cincinnati in 1947, Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, the abuse included a death threat. Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ captain, dramatically made a point of walking over to Robinson and putting his arm around him. It was his way of saying, “This man is good enough to be on my team and I stand with him.”

Robinson’s physical and psychological courage in facing the pressure that dogged his career in the major leagues was amazing. Reese showed a different kind of courage, what we call moral courage: the public exercise of personal power to stand up for what’s right, even when others disapprove. Reese, the only Southern-raised Dodger who refused to sign a petition against him, went against the grain of his upbringing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Robinson, who later remembered Reese’s support as something that helped him succeed.

This historical example stands in stark contrast to the hazing incidents reported in Mepham, N.Y., and other places in which older high school athletes have abused, sometimes quite violently, younger athletes on the team. In many of these hazing situations, a single voice raised against the practice might have brought it to an end or at least to the attention of the appropriate authorities, but no Pee Wee Reese equivalent emerged. Where was the player with the moral courage to risk the approbation of his teammates and stand shoulder to shoulder with the young men being abused?

Can youth sports inspire athletes to emulate Pee Wee Reese and stand up for what they believe is right even when the crowd is against them? Yes, if athletes are shown a higher standard and given the tools and encouragement to reach that standard. This is exactly the approach the Positive Coaching Alliance has taken with youth coaches.

We have defined a higher standard of coaching—the “double-goal coach,” who strives to win but has the even more important goal of using sports to teach life lessons. We intend to win the battle of minds and hearts among youth coaches and parents to make the double-goal coach the norm and displace the dominant win-at-all-cost model of coaching. We are doing that by “unfreezing” coaches who tend to work the way they themselves were coached or to emulate what they see done by coaches on television. By engaging them around a set of principles and providing them practical tools that help them with both goals (I have rarely met a coach at any level who doesn’t appreciate tools that will help bring more victories!), we have been able to win the support of youth coaches across the United States as well as elite coaches such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Phil Jackson, Detroit Pistons’ Larry Brown, and New York Jets’ Herm Edwards.

We intend to do the same with athletes: to inspire, encourage, and equip them to embark on a journey from participant to principled competitor. What we describe as the high-road framework in our advanced coaching workshops will be a central part of this journey. When bad things happen, on the playing field or in life, we have a choice. We can take the low road and see the setback as a problem. Or we can take the high road and see it as a challenge. The most painful disappointment can spur personal growth and develop increased strength and integrity when one consistently chooses the high road in sports and in life.

Anyone who comes out for a team is a participant. However, it requires hard work, commitment, and personal growth to become a principled competitor, an endeavor that involves three important relationships: the athlete’s relationship with himself, with her teammates, and with his sport.

Relationship with Himself

A principled competitor does not rely on the scoreboard to evaluate his performance. He knows that one can look good against inferior competition and less stellar against a top-flight opponent. A principled competitor focuses on mastery and continuous improvement.

The Positive Coaching Alliance principle we call the ELM tree of mastery stands for Effort, Learning, and Mistakes. Effort means giving it everything you have. Learning is continuing to learn and improve, even in situations in which winning on the scoreboard is not an option. And Mistakes stands for developing the mental toughness to bounce back from mistakes with renewed determination and to not let fear of mistakes stop one from trying new things.

A principled competitor works to be the very best athlete and person he can be. He understands that this is a lifetime pursuit and recognizes that competitive sports provide a powerful platform for preparing oneself for this lifelong goal.

Relationship with Her Teammates

A principled competitor is someone who makes her teammates better and who plays the role of player-coach, constantly analyzing what is going on and what can be done to improve performance. She focuses on playing her role on the team well but also looks for opportunities to encourage and support her teammates. She understands the Positive Coaching Alliance principle of filling emotional tanks and helps fill the E-tanks of her team members and coaches. She thinks about the bigger picture of what will make the team successful and offers suggestions for the direction the team as a whole should take as well as individual team members.

Relationship with His Sport

A principled competitor understands and embodies the Positive Coaching Alliance principle of honoring the game. A principled competitor shows respect for what we call the ROOTS of positive play (the Rules, his Opponents, the Officials, his Teammates, and his Self). A principled competitor wants to win and competes fiercely to win, but will only strive to win within an ethical context of honoring the game. A principled competitor is intent on becoming a person that his team, his school, and his family can be proud of.

All three of these relationships bear on the question at the beginning of this essay. A principled competitor would not stand by and watch her teammates being abused. He would not look the other way when an employee of his company engages in illegal behavior. She would not go along with the crowd because as much as she wants to be accepted by others, she has respect for herself and is committed to living up to a higher standard.

Our efforts include workshops for high school and middle school-age athletes in which the journey from participant to principled competitor is portrayed as a hero’s journey. We also will develop tools for coaches to mentor and encourage athletes along the road to becoming a principled competitor, such as teaching stories like that of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.

Will it be easy? Not necessarily, but it is the kind of challenge that energizes me and the hundreds of individuals all over this country who are committed to creating what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls a social epidemic of positive coaching.

I believe we can look forward to many Pee Wee Reeses emerging from youth sports. Imagine, if you will, the beauty and power of an individual demonstrating the moral courage to blow the whistle on illegal and unethical behavior with the words, “I couldn’t stand by and let that happen. I didn’t want to let my coach or myself down.”

Jim Thompson, MBA ’86, is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance (www.positivecoach.org). He is the author of three books about youth sports, most recently The Double-Goal Coach (HarperResource, 2003). He was one of five social entrepreneurs from the United States elected fellows of Ashoka, a global nonprofit organization that supports individuals who are developing innovative ways to bring change to their communities.

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