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The Power of Positive

by Jim Thompson


PCA has always been about the Power of Positive, from the very beginning.

As a young teacher aide working for Shirley Pearl and Don Challman – who were way ahead of their time – I saw how kids with few advantages in life blossomed when they were treated to relentless doses of positive reinforcement to fill their Emotional Tanks. As a youth coach, I saw how kids with every advantage did poorly when they received negative feedback. The result of those two experiences was Positive Coaching Alliance.

Mary Fry of the University of Kansas and PCA’s National Advisory Board, summed it up, “Many coaches don’t realize how much good they could do if they supported athletes, built them up, and believed in their incredible potential. It especially saddens me to see kids dealing with hardships in life (e.g., parents going through a divorce; having a sick sibling; families with financial difficulties), treated harshly by coaches who don’t realize the damage they do by being too critical, too negative, and by dealing with athletes only in terms of their sport performance and not as people.”

The single most harmful aspect to youth sports is rampant negativity.

And the most crying need in youth sports is to make positive coaching the keystone of the youth sports culture. Consider:

As Alex Wolff wrote in “The Last Days of the Abusive Coach” – the Sports Illustrated article for which I was interviewed – “Study after study shows the benefits of a more positive approach.”

Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina and PCA’s National Advisory Board, describes the problem and the solution: “…there’s a perception that the best way to get what you want out of employees or players is by negativity or threats…But…negativity doesn’t work as well as positivity.”

Barbara coined a term I love, “Upward Spiral,” which every coach and leader needs to understand. “Positive emotions are especially contagious and a leader’s positive emotions are more contagious than anyone else’s.”

When we honored San Francisco Giants’ Manager Bruce Bochy with our Ronald L. Jensen Award for Lifetime Achievement several years ago, he addressed the need for resilience in baseball’s long season. “You are going to have slumps and the key to resilience is to remain positive.” Bruce has used that positivity to win three World Series Championships in the last few years.

Phil Jackson, PCA’s national spokesperson, attributed some of his amazing success to PCA: “I became a better, more positive coach because of my association with Jim and PCA…” He especially appreciated what Professor John Gottman calls the Magic Ratio. “About that time, Jim’s book shows up and Positive Coaching becomes an influence in my life, the 5:1 ratio, five praises to one critique…and of course the rest we know is that these Bulls won three championships in a row.”

The plus-minus ratio is such a powerful tool that we believe that the single most important action most coaches can take to become more effective is to up their own ratio to get closer to the Magic Ratio of five pieces of positive feed-back for every criticism.

PCA benefits from the advice and involvement of some of the top sport psychology practitioners in the world such as Ken Ravizza and Charlie Maher of the Cleveland Indians (podcasts with both Ken and Charlie are within, and it is time well spent to listen to them!). Charlie has a great phrase, “mind in the moment,” which is what athletes need in order to excel in their sports. And what does negativity do? It distracts! It takes your mind out of the moment!

Negativity distracts athletes from devoting their full attention to the task they are trying to accomplish. Ohio State’s Ben Tepper, a member of PCA’s National Advisory Board, says, “We all have a finite amount of energy. You’re concerned with whether your coach will yell at you rather than doing your job, so it impairs your executive function.”

So I am excited that PCA is making a renewed commitment to vigorously promote the Power of Positive as the key to making youth sports the valuable and impactful experience it can (and needs to) be. When youth athletes feel they are connected to their coach and teammates, they will commit to giving their best effort to the team. And the reverse is also true. Kids will not commit to a team until they feel connected to their coach and teammates. It is the relentless filling of Emotional Tanks that connects athletes and unlocks all the wonderful benefits that sports can convey to kids.

Remember this phrase: The Power of Positive. You’ll be hearing it a lot as PCA makes it a rallying cry in our mission to develop Better Athletes, Better People!

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PCA Founder Jim Thompson started PCA at Stanford University in 1998 to create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports into a Development Zone® with the goal to develop Better Athletes, Better People. PCA has helped lead a sea change in public awareness that positive coaching is the key to get the best out of youth athletes (everyone, really!) and help them become a Triple-Impact Competitor® who elevates self, teammates, and the game. PCA has 18 Chapters across the U.S. and does more than 3,000 live workshops annually for more than 1,000 youth sports organizations and partnerships with Major League Baseball and the NBA.