Accentuating the positive
• Photo gallery: Coaches accentuate the positive in kids' sports
BY MAUREEN O'CONNELL
Advertiser Staff Writer
Brandon Perreira learned to play baseball a few decades ago in the presence of often-scowling coaches. At least a few could always be counted on to shake their heads in frustration and holler biting criticisms more frequently than to cheer on players.
Despite such negativity, Perreira loved the game. He played in a Wai'anae youth league and later made the cut at Kaiser High School and for a college team.
These days, the Hawai'i Kai Youth Baseball president has hopes that his 7-year-old son will thrive as an athlete, too. More importantly, though, Perreira wants to ensure that the sport is a largely positive, character-building experience for his child and the rest of the league's 300 young players.
"We're going with the approach of using just a little more praising," Perreira said referring to Positive Coaching Alliance strategies recently adopted by the Hawai'i Kai league.
He credits the nonprofit PCA, based at Stanford University, for "getting the parents and the coaches on the same page on how to coach kids in a positive way without using that old mentality of yelling, yelling."
Founded in 1998, the alliance espouses "double-goal" coaching — simultaneously prepping athletes to win and teaching life lessons through sports. It has offered more than 5,000 workshops, reaching an estimated 200,000 coaches and 2 million athletes nationwide. More than two dozen Hawai'i athletic groups and schools have formed partnerships with the alliance.
Punahou School's new athletic director, Jeaney Garcia, served five years as the PCA's Los Angeles coordinator. This year, she is requiring all coaches at Punahou — ranked by Sports Illustrated as the No. 1 school athletics program in the nation — to take part in a positive coaching workshop.
"There are coaches here who have felt pressure to win, and I'm trying to relieve them of that pressure," Garcia said, laughing lightly at the comment that could puzzle win-at-all-costs sports fans.
"That doesn't mean that we have a lower standard of excellence," she said. "It just means: 'Put your focus on the process and on the kids.' As a result, Garcia added, "The winning part of it will take care of itself."
Among the principles embraced by positive coaching is a redefining of the term "winner," said Gary Pacarro, a Punahou basketball coach and the PCA's Hawai'i coordinator.
While traditional coaching stresses scoreboard results, comparisons to other athletes and no tolerance for mistakes, the alliance opts for a "mastery" definition that focuses on three things athletes can control: effort, learning and improvement, and response to mistakes.
"The effort that they put out is more important than the statistic" or a competition win, Pacarro said.
When the vibe of high-stakes athletics glorified in professional sports trickles down to youth leagues, Pacarro said, kids are likely to feel more anxiety and have less fun. The alliance cites studies noting that the highest rate of participation in sports occurs at age 10, and that nearly 70 percent of participants drop out of organized sports altogether by age 13.
Garcia maintains that positive coaching is helping to turn around the dropout rate. During a recent workshop session, she introduced softball teams to a "mistake ritual" that reduces fear of mistakes and increases willingness to bounce back. The ritual is a simple, neutral gesture — put your hand above your shoulder and make a toilet-flushing motion.
Now, Garcia said, from the bleachers, "adults in the community will right away just 'flush' the mistake so that the child understands that it's OK ... learn from it and move on." She continued, "When you make light of it and put in the framework of 'What have I learned from this mistake?,' " research shows that athletes will make fewer errors and gain confidence.
Another confidence-builder comes by way of the "criticism sandwich," Garcia said.
Here's an example: When novice baseball player, Johnny, throws the bat after hitting the ball, a coaching impulse may be to yell, "Don't throw the bat!" with a sarcastic tone that also implies "You idiot!"
Positive coaching aims to stifle such negativity with constructive feedback.
Garcia offered this sandwich — two positive statements on either side of a learning point: "'I love that you made contact with the ball, Johnny. Next time ... don't throw the bat. You need to set it down because you're going to hurt someone when you throw it. Oh, and I really liked how you sprinted to first base. That was great."
Positive coaching takes practice and patience, but the rewards can be satisfying and long-lasting.
During a recent PCA workshop, 70 coaches from the Hawai'i Kai league were asked about influential people in their lives. "Everybody brought up a former coach who made an impact," Perreira said.
"I had a coach in high school who ... found a good balance," somewhere between drill sergeant and cheerleader, Perreira said. "He was way ahead of his time."
Pacarro, who has been coaching since the late 1980s, has seen sports make a positive difference in young lives.
Over the years, he said, "I've had kids who have come back and coached for me" or simply kept in touch. He most enjoys hearing former players say, " 'The bottom line is we learned a lot and had fun doing it.' "