Mathews: Positive coaching is a winning strategy
California has failed to contain the excesses of its technology executives. But Californians have made progress in curbing the worst impulses of another group of would-be dictators: Little League coaches.
For the past two decades, Silicon Valley has been the headquarters for a national nonprofit — the Positive Coaching Alliance — that is changing how youth sports are coached. Based in Mountain View, Positive Coaching Alliance has synthesized research — much of it with Stanford roots — in everything from business leadership and marriage counseling to physiology and organizational psychology into a uniquely Californian philosophy of “relentless positivity.”
As a longtime coach in Little League, one of hundreds of youth sports organizations that partner with the Positive Coaching Alliance, I’ve incorporated much wisdom from the organization’s workshops. And I’ve found myself wondering how its lessons might be applied to human enterprises that might be more important than your kid’s baseball team.
At the center of Positive Coaching Alliance is founder Jim Thompson, a man distinguished not only by his accomplishments, but also by his unusual embrace of the benefits of error. Thompson led Stanford’s program for nonprofit business management and is also a founding board member of Recovery Café San Jose, which serves homeless individuals. Thompson advises youth coaches to encourage their players to make mistakes so that they can learn more from sports experiences.
In his books, Thompson describes the Positive Coaching Alliance as the product of lessons he learned from a lifetime of mistakes. Raised in North Dakota, as a young man he took a job at a Minnesota school for emotionally disturbed children whose behaviors could not be contained in mainstream classrooms. While Thompson first tried to control their negative behavior, he learned that the kids did better when he ignored it and instead relentlessly reinforced positive behavior. Eventually, the positive crowded out the negative.
He later switched from teaching to business, ending up at Stanford’s business school. When he coached his own son in youth basketball around Palo Alto, he was stunned at how negative the atmosphere was. He succeeded with more positive methods, and — this being Silicon Valley — in 1998 he started the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance to develop and spread his vision further.
Thompson wanted Positive Coaching’s methods to be grounded in research, and he was drawn to the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, best known for identifying the concept of the “growth mindset.” Dweck found that students who understood that their effort could make them stronger were more resilient after setbacks— and then went on to achieve more. That finding is one reason why Positive Coaching emphasizes praising players for effort, rather than talent.
Thompson fused Dweck’s insights with research from other Stanford faculty members. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy and self-control influences Positive Coaching’s guidance on giving players a strong voice in team decisions. The work of William Damon, of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence, is reflected in Positive Coaching’s emphasis on helping kids find a larger purpose through sports. Beyond Palo Alto, Positive Coaching has also drawn on the work of Harvard Medical School bullying researcher William Pollack and of Harvard education professor Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligences shapes the advice that different kids should be coached in different ways.
If the spirit of Positive Coaching can be distilled into one phrase, it’s that failure should be met with positivity. “We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure,” wrote the late John Gardner, a former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare who supported Positive Coaching (and also founded Common Cause). “It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.”