Positive Coaching Alliance founder brings fresh outlook to mentoring

Jim Thompson has carved out an important role, creating Positive Coaching Alliance, a Mountain View, Calif.-based non-profit organization that promotes positive role models in coaching and youth sports.

*Since 1998, Thompson has grown PCA from an idea to 50 staff members, 10 chapters with their respective board of directors, 100 coaching trainers and an advisory board that features such names as Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, Ronnie Lott, Steve Mariucci and Steve Young. *

Thompson talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley on Tuesday about the origin of PCA, its mission and what's next for the organization.

What spurred you to start PCA?

It wasn't one event. There were two distinct experiences. I used to work with emotionally disturbed and behavior-problem kids in Minnesota. These kids were very troubled and frequently acted out. They were bussed in from regular schools. I got a job there, and I remember two principles: There were no limits for them, and everything those kids did was met with a climate of relentless positivity. I compared them to potted plants. You talk to it, water it and it will grow. If you don't, it will wilt. These kids were the same way.

Then years later, my son was playing soccer, basketball and baseball while I was working at Stanford. I saw so much negativity from the youth coaching that it bothered me. Those two experiences together made me think that there had to be a better way to get the best out of kids.

From there, how did PCA evolve?

The original vision of PCA was in my head. It was all about the coaches. It was how to keep the adults doing things in a positive way in youth sports without driving the kids out of sports. We're now into our 15th year at the PCA. Now it is as much an opportunity to use sports to develop character as it is to develop the potential athletes. It's all part of our mission: better athletes, better people.

What were the early days of PCA like for you?

There was a lot of mucking around before we really got going. We were looking for a better way to develop coaches through workshops. We created training sessions for coaches, like how to be a positive coach. It wasn't long before we realized that working with coaches alone wasn't going to cut it. We had to work with the entire ecosystem of sports. That is, we had to develop the coaches, parents and athletes. Early on, we were working on how we could get coaches to coach in a more effective way. If all you ever wanted to do was to win games, you do that how you wanted. But there had to be a positive approach to develop the kids.

What did you do that helped to spur PCA to the size it is today?

We have been in different stages of growing for years. In our old office building, on the white board, we have written the three stages of the Positive Coaching Alliance story. One is getting smart -- it's what we're always trying to do. Two is developing infrastructure. Third is training or creating top-notch workshops. Early on, I went to a sports psychology lecture at Michigan State University. The conference was on youth sports. It was a slide-filled presentation with tiny little numbers. I remember thinking, 'I can't put something like this in front of coaches. Their eyes will glaze over.'

A few days later, I had the image of an elm tree and how that stands for what we wanted to do. 'E' is for effort, 'L' is for learning and 'M' is for bouncing back from mistakes. It all played into the big idea in what we were trying to do in sports -- focus on what you can control. Things you cannot control are the outcome of the game, the opponents, the weather, the luck or the referees. What you can control is the effort level, how much you learn and improve through what we call a teachable spirit. And you can control how you respond to mistakes. We tell our coaches to learn to master the ELM tree.

We wanted to create the best training program, and that was great. The second part of the positivity piece was the idea of an emotional tank. We wanted to fill the kids' emotional tanks. They will perform better with positive reinforcement. Then there's the ethics piece. We wanted kids and coaches to respect the game. Those became the cornerstones of our teaching. We began to build in tools, such as how do you teach mastery or how do you bounce back from mistakes or how do you develop emotional tanks. ... Another aspect of our teachings was the buddy system. As a coach, you can't fill all of the kids' tanks all of the time. But players can fill each other's emotional tanks.

The principles came pretty quickly. We got some best practices from the greatest coaches in the game. When we found out we had to work with parents, we created workshops for them. We've grown in many areas with key people who were leaders of some major organizations. Initially, we thought we would work with adults and the adults would work with the kids. However, some of our high school partners started asking if we did any programs that worked with kids directly. That started us down that road, too.

What organizations has PCA worked with over the years?

In football, we have had a partnership with Pop Warner Football, the NFL Player Engagement office -- we just talked to a group of high school kids on their behalf in Philadelphia last month. We work with the National Soccer Coaches of America and in baseball with the Little League headquarters and with the AAU in basketball. A lot of the work we do is on the national level, but we also do work on the local level with Little League and soccer.

Have you had any negative feedback to your workshops?

It's been a lot less than I would have thought. Some coaches say winning is everything. Nobody can really argue that winning at all costs works on a broader scale. ... The first goal of our model is based on helping teams to win. The second goal, and the more important goal, is to use sports to teach life lessons. In actuality, the second goal leads to the first goal of winning. Once the people who think it's only about winning look at what we have to offer, they realize they don't have a leg to stand on.

The other thing that comes to mind is the reasons we think leaders are so important: People respond to the culture. The way we do things here is that if the culture is win at all costs, then coaches get rewarded for winning and not for anything else. Coaches who build better people get so much out of their teams and themselves. We realize we have got to change the culture out there. How else do you create a positive environment for sports?

Are you still energized by the concept 15 years later?

... There's a silent majority out there in youth sports. They don't like a win-at-all-costs mentality. And they don't know what to do. When people learn about our programs, it seems that the silent majority comes out of the woodwork. Take, for example, Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro. He's been in professional sports his whole life. He said the education he received from one year of his son's involvement in PCA through Little League was more inspiring than what he got his whole life. He wanted to be involved in PCA. We created a Cleveland chapter. He got the Indians to kick in for youth funding to the chapter. ... We have opened three new chapters this year. We're growing rather rapidly.

What's next for PCA?

We recently launched a sexual-abuse prevention initiative. We want to keep kids safe from sexual predators. Wherever you have kids, that's where they tend to be drawn. We want to make sports safe for kids in this regard. Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers who is on our national advisory board, did the introduction to our videos for this program. He did a really good job, and we're looking forward to rolling it out.

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