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Former Gymnastics Phenom Larissa Fontaine: Why I Support PCA

by Larissa Fontaine


I support PCA because I know firsthand the power of sports to create growth opportunities, develop meaningful life skills, and form lifelong friendships - and the importance of positive coaching is at the heart of each of these. 

I made the US National Gymnastics team when I was 11 years old, competed internationally for 9 years, medaled at the World Championships, and won Pac-10 and NCAA titles as a student-athlete at Stanford University. I was fortunate to have incredibly supportive coaches throughout my career but there’s no denying that the US gymnastics community is facing a difficult reckoning around a history of abusive training environments. I certainly witnessed and experienced those as well. This early exposure to both ends of the coaching spectrum had a profound impact on my experience as an athlete, as a college coach, as a parent, and today as a product leader at Google. 

As a kid growing up in Illinois I dreamed about getting a college scholarship in gymnastics. As the oldest of three kids, a scholarship would be my only path to college and I looked up to the older girls who had plans to attend nearby universities. I listened to their conversations at the chalk box, soaking up all the details of different programs. My coach is the one who introduced the idea of Stanford University to me, a seemingly magical place far away in California that had stellar academics and a competitive gymnastics team. No one from my gym or my high school had ever attended Stanford so it was all new to me. For the next 10 years, in between routines, while taking breaks from conditioning circuits, during long stretching sessions, he helped me see that Stanford could become my reality. We talked about what a Stanford education could provide for my future, the types of doors a degree like that would open, the different majors they offered, and what I could do after gymnastics. He was fully invested in my success, both in and out of the gym, and he made me believe that if I worked hard enough that this was an opportunity I could earn.  

There have been many studies that show that sports help individuals develop critical life skills like confidence, resilience, leadership, and teamwork. In fact, research from EY shows that 94% of women in C-Suite roles identify as former or current athletes, reflecting the importance of athletic experience in long term business success. More research shows that kids stay in sports when they feel supported and encouraged by their coaches - positive coaching leads directly to better professional outcomes for individuals with these foundational skills, and better leaders who learned how to work hard and how to be good teammates. Coaches who understand and embrace the impact of their role in kids’ lives teach these life skills across all sports, at all levels. This was my experience in the gymnastics community and I am so grateful to the many coaches who supported growth that has extended beyond my athletic aspirations.

College gymnastics, and my college coaches, taught me what it meant to be part of a team. For the first time, I was training and living with my teammates, day in and day out, working towards a shared goal. Gymnastics is really an individual sport most of the time, focused on earning your spot in the next competition or achieving an individual accolade. In college we needed to evolve our mindset, to see our teammates not as other competitors vying for the same spot, but as partners in a shared journey

Individual awards meant far less than team accomplishments and it required a new way of thinking. Our coaches orchestrated this masterfully - they created team challenges that demanded collaboration, they developed fun and hilarious games that deepened our bonds and commitment to each other, they ensured we had time outside of the gym to explore new cities together and create lasting memories. This commitment to building a true team, with deep trust between coaches and teammates, and a focus on positive motivation and encouragement, served us well in and out of the gym. We won Stanford Women’s Gymnastics’ 1st ever Pac-10 Team title while developing friendships that last to this day. 

I first learned about PCA as a student-athlete at Stanford when it was founded in 1998 and I joined the Leadership Council after being reintroduced by a fellow former Stanford gymnast. PCA’s mission resonated so strongly with my personal experience as an athlete, and was also directly applicable to what I was observing professionally. The Power of Positive is based on a compelling insight - positivity creates a better environment for learning and development, which in turn creates better outcomes. Talk about a winning philosophy!

My kids are now playing sports and I’ve again witnessed both ends of the coaching spectrum - fortunately, their coaches have all been excellent but some coach and parent behavior on other teams have offered stark reminders that the work is not done. With stress and anxiety among youth on the rise, cultivating positivity within youth sports environments that have such profound impact on our children and future leaders has never been more important.

I spent 5 years as a college assistant coach before starting my career in technology. The parallels between coaching sports and leading corporate teams are numerous and PCA’s principles translate seamlessly. One of my favorite principles is the 5:1 ratio - five parts specific, truthful praise for each piece of constructive correction. We all intrinsically know that we perform better when we have confidence in our abilities and feel trusted by those around us. Knowing that it’s possible to create a positive environment through a well-defined practice, based on science and data, is incredibly powerful. PCA is having a meaningful impact on the culture of our society and the healthy development of our children. I’m proud to be a PCA supporter. 

Larissa joined Google in 2005 and is currently Vice President, Google One at Google. Also a former elite athlete, Larissa was a member of the US National Gymnastics team from 1989-1997, is a World Championship silver medalist, and competed at the 1996 Olympic Trials.