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Jim Thompson worked decades ago in Minnesota as a teacher’s aide for kids with behavioral problems and then as a youth baseball and basketball coach while finishing his MBA at Stanford. From those “disconnected experiences,” as he calls them, the Positive Coaching Alliance was born. Founded in 1998 by Thompson, who is also the CEO, the organization has many missions. Among them is tackling this difficult question: When dealing with youth athletes, how can coaches ensure a healthy balance between fun and competition?
For Thompson, that meant creating a new set of words to describe the desired results. “We felt at the beginning that ‘sportsmanship’ is a weak term. It’s a consolation prize. If you can’t win, maybe you can be a good sport,” Thompson says. Instead, his organization came up with a different phrase—“honoring the game”—to emphasize the importance of fair play. “We feel that promoting [the term] ‘honoring the game’ is part of what it means to be an outstanding coach or athlete.”? To that end, the PCA emphasizes, via workshops and programs across the country, the acronym R.O.O.T.S., which stands for respecting Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates, and Self. The goal is to reinforce that playing hard, having fun, and winning are not separate experiences, but rather part of one ideal experience.
This ideal experience, though, can start to slip away as young athletes approach the fine line between playing for fun and playing to win—a point emphasized by Dr. Daniel Gould, director of The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “As the stakes go up, there is a greater temptation to go to the dark side, Gould explains. “As parents invest more in the sports and the kids invest more time…the more there is pressure to deviate by kids and coaches.”
The antidote to losing proper perspective about youth sports is doing the legwork beforehand, while also having coaches and parents who set good examples, Gould says.
“It helps when coaches are much more intentional and talk about sportsmanship—they actually teach it,” Gould says. “It’s not like they’re saying ‘don’t compete.’ But do it with class and honor. Do the talking on the field.”
What can parents do? Greg Bach, Vice President for Communications at the National Alliance for Youth Sports, offers these tips: “Parents can set a good example for their child by cheering for players on both teams. Plus, after games if parents congratulate the players on the opposing team or go out of their way to acknowledge a youngster who made a great play, their child will adopt those same types of behaviors.”
But regardless of the terms used or techniques recommended, these experts agree on the overall goal: giving youth athletes the best possible experience and teaching the types of positive lessons that carry over to life.
“It’s a way to play that you can be proud of and that everyone can be proud of,” Thompson says.