Good coaches make sports about joy

Coach Hardy Kalisher is a winner of Positive Coaching Alliance’s Double-Goal Coach Award (JEREMY PAPASSO)

Whenever I spend time with Jim Thompson, the CEO and founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, I come away with a long list of books to read, articles to follow up on and quotes to remember. In the twenty minutes I spent talking with him for this post, the list included Roger Caillois’ Man, Play and Games;Fathers Playing Catch with Sons by Donald Hall; Carol Dweck on ‘false growth mindset’; Dacher Keltner’s research about the impact of touch on NBA game scores; and Billie Jean King’s quote, “Pressure is a privilege.”

The Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) is so successful precisely because of this heady foundation. In talking with Jim about the power of sport, and specifically the power of sport to build character, it is clear that he has deeply considered sports’ nuances, contradictions, and extraordinary potential for inspiring joy.

PCA develops ‘better athletes, better people’ through resources for youth and for high school coaches, parents, administrators, and student-athletes. Since their founding in 1998, they have reached over 8.6 million kids through their programs and resources, providing over 18,000 live workshops, and over 3,500 partnerships with schools and youth serving organizations.

At the heart of their work is a focus on keeping the joy in sports.

Jim notes the subtle difference between joy and fun, acknowledging that sport includes both fear and challenge. He refers to Bill Russell’s insight, “I used to joke that if you could bottle all the emotions let loose in a basketball game, you’d have enough hate to fight a war and enough joy to prevent one.”

The art in building healthy sports experiences, Jim offers, is in helping kids manage the high stakes created by the social construct of sport, with the goal of building their capacity to manage other high stake situations. As Billie Jean King put it, “Pressure is a privilege.”

PCA’s core insight is that kids need three things to thrive in sports:

  1. To be connected to coach and teammates (this is where Dacher Keltner’s research comes in)
  2. To believe they can get better (drawing on Carol Dweck’s growth mindsetwork)
  3. To be proud to be associated with a team that does things the ‘right way’.

PCA calls their approach the development of the ‘ Triple-Impact Competitor®,’ and it focuses on a player’s responsibility to self, teammates, and the game.

Strong coaches are key to developing Triple-Impact Competitors®. The Positive Coaching Alliance champions an approach that aligns closely with Carol Dweck’s work: successful coaches and parents are “noticers of effort” who encourage the growth mindset — and it turns out this is associated with winning.

So while PCA puts a greater emphasis on sports than play, there is no doubt that they are an extraordinary partner in working to bring out the best in young athletes and adult coaches alike.

With the advent of Playworks’ 20th Anniversary and our aim for 3.5 million kids in 7,000 schools to experience safe, healthy play by 2020, I’ve launched a blog about people and organizations Bringing out the Best through play. I welcome your ideas and suggestions for stories!

Bio: Jill Vialet is the founder of Playworks, Washington DC.