Sometimes the most visionary leaders stand out not just for their ability to see new solutions to big problems, but also for their unusual skill at identifying problems that few others have seen fit to notice. They take seriously an aspect of social life that most people take for granted. They discern—and then act upon—an urgent need to bring fundamental change to a seemingly unchangeable field of practice.
At first glance, the field of youth sports coaching doesn’t seem like a promising arena for achieving significant social impact. Coaching can be good, or it can be lousy—but either way, how much is really at stake? For many generations, people have viewed less-than-great coaching as an unfortunate fact of life, not as a problem that calls for a solution.
But Jim Thompson arrived at a different view. When he was a young professional—and, not incidentally, a young father—he had a life-altering epiphany: The wrong kind of coaching takes a huge toll on children, whereas the best kind of coaching has a positive and often transformative effect on them. That revelation led Thompson to create Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a nonprofit organization that has reached more than 8.6 million young athletes since its founding in 1998.
“Is there a better place in life [than competitive sports] where kids can learn positive character traits?” Thompson said in an interview with us. “There’s just an endless procession of teachable moments in youth sports.” At any given time, he noted, about 40 million American kids are participating in an organized sports activity. So the scope of potential impact in this field is immense.
Handled properly, Thompson argued, the competitive dynamic that characterizes any sport can be a tool of personal growth and a driver of social impact: “Because sports is so symbolically important in this country and because the other team is trying to beat you, it gives [young people] all kinds of opportunities … to develop themselves.” In particular, Thompson explained, high-quality coaching enables kids to become “triple impact competitors”—people “who make themselves better, [make] their teammates better, and the game better or society better.”
The perseverance of resilient leadership: Sustaining impact on the road to thrive
During his two-decade-long journey to create and build PCA, Thompson has exemplified the practice of strategic leadership—starting with his ability to establish a clear mission on the basis of sound insight. (In our book, Engine of Impact, we explore seven elements of strategic leadership, including mission and insight and courage.) Here, drawing from our in-depth conversation with Thompson, are several lessons that have emerged from that journey. Thompson, we note, clearly practices what he preaches: As a few of these lessons demonstrate, his approach to leading PCA reflects the core principles of positive coaching.
Leverage your deepest insights
“I didn’t have negative coaches when I was growing up. They were positive,” Thompson recalled. But when his son Gabriel started playing sports, Thompson encountered the kind of high-stress culture that many young athletes and their parents know all too well. Initially, his focus was less on creating opportunities for character development than on enabling kids to play up to their potential. “The first idea was, ‘Kids are not performing very well, because they’re so nervous. They’re so afraid to make mistake,’” Thompson said. In that idea lay the origins of the vision that still drives PCA. For Thompson, one episode from his early coaching days helped crystalized this insight. He was coaching a team of first-grade T-ball players. In one game, a player named Ivan was at bat in the last inning with a chance to make a game-winning hit. Ivan swung at a pitch and missed. From the sidelines, his father shouted, “Adjust! Adjust!” He swung at the next pitch and missed again. As Thompson explained, Ivan had “over-adjust[ed].” At that point, Thompson intervened. “I call a time-out, and I go up to him, and I say something to him, and he nods his head, and he goes up and hits the ball over the centerfielder’s head, and we win the game,” Thompson recalled. “All I had done was ask Ivan a question: ‘Is it okay if you strike out? Is it okay to make an out?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ because … a big part of what we did [was to say that] it’s okay to make mistakes.”
Change the frame
Building on his insights about the link between positivity and performance, Thompson developed a far-reaching theory of change—a bold model for transforming youth sports by altering the way that coaches interact with players. “From the beginning, this was about trying to change the culture of youth sports,” he said. Over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to PCA’s work, there has been “a sea change in what is considered good coaching,” according to Thompson. “We’ve been promoting the idea that positive coaching is the way to get the best out of kids,” he said. A growing body of research, he added, has shown that “negativity causes you to get distracted from the task, but positivity helps you develop resilience.”
To change the culture of youth sports, PCA has worked to to create a new framework for how coaches and players view the purpose of competition. “The problem is not ‘winning.’ The problem is what I call the ‘entertainment sports culture.’ Professional sports is about entertaining fans, and you really can’t entertain fans if you don’t win,” Thompson explained. Striving to win is healthy, in other words—as long as it isn’t the overriding goal. The alternative framework that PCA has developed involves fostering a “development zone culture,” Thompson said: “You are still trying to win, but the ultimate goal is to develop better people.”
Make your move(ment)
“To change the culture of a major institution,” Thompson said, an organization like PCA must chart a strategy that includes four core elements. The first element is vision. Leaders need to develop a concept of change that is “compelling enough to draw people in,” he explained. PCA, for example, has garnered support from big-name figures such as Phil Jackson, the legendary former coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, and Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors. “People like that don’t like what’s going on in youth sports, and they want to be part of this,” Thompson said.
The second element is program. “We take a systems approach,” Thompson said, referring to PCA’s model for reaching coaches, players, league officials, and other stakeholders in the world of the youth sports. Through live and online workshops, along with award and certification programs, PCA offers participants a range of opportunities to learn and share the principles of positive coaching.
The third element is organization. “I’m really proud that we have an organization that can deliver almost 3,000 live workshops [per year],” Thompson said. “That means the coach has to show up, the trainer has to show up, the books have to be there.” In recent years, PCA has built organizational structure that now includes 17 regional chapters, each of which has its own staff and its own programming operation.
The fourth element is movement. “You really can’t change a major institution without thousands and thousands of people involved,” Thompson argued. Even as PCA focuses on making an impact locally—on a coach-by-coach basis—the organization also works to change the mindset around youth sports by promoting sports-psychology research and amplifying the voices of people like Jackson and Kerr. “At the national level, it’s about changing the conversation [about] what coaching is,” Thompson said.
Embrace effort. Embrace learning. Embrace mistakes.
The “secret sauce” of PCA, Thompson said, “is our content.” And at the center of PCA’s content structure is a three-part lesson that helps define its vision of positive coaching. “One day, I had this epiphany. It was in the form of an elm tree,” Thompson explained. Taking the letters in the word “elm,” he formulated the core lesson as follows: “E is for effort. Give your best effort every time. L is for learning and improvement. No matter how bad you’re getting beat, … learn something from this. And M is [for] bouncing back from mistakes.”
The ability to move beyond failure is essential to becoming a resilient competitor. “A mistake is a time machine,” Thompson said. “It takes you back in the past: ‘I made a mistake, and now I’m beating myself up over it.’” Citing the example of Ivan the T-ball player, he described the benefit of coaching kids to adopt a “mistake ritual”—a routine that helps them shift mentally from the past into the present by “brushing” or “wiping” a mistake away. “Then the kid says, ‘Oh, yeah, okay,’ and he focuses on the next play,” Thompson said.
Have the courage not to be perfect
For Thompson, the core principles of positive coaching have a strong personal resonance. “I’ve pretty much been a perfectionist all my life, and ‘perfectionism’ is a dirty word for me,” he said. The ELM framework, he explained, helps him and others to counteract their tendency to dwell on the goal of achieving a perfect outcome: “When you focus just on the results, your anxiety level goes up, because you can’t control the results. [But] if you focus on your effort, you can calm down a little bit.” In place of an ego-driven mindset, which puts a premium on attaining “victory” or “success,” Thompson favors a “mastery approach,” in which the focus in on learning and recovering from mistakes. “In the long run—maybe even in the short run—you actually get better results,” he said.
Thompson has also integrated that mindset into the organization that he leads. “What we’re trying to do is really hard,” he said. “So we fill each other’s emotional tanks. When our emotional tanks are full—like the gas tank in a car—we can respond more positively.” In 2016, Nonprofit Times named PCA one of the “best nonprofits to work,” and Thompson attributed that honor in part to PCA’s culture of positivity. “We really try to live the same way we want coaches to treat kids,” he said.
Originally published in Forbes