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A League of Fans Special Feature

Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers: Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson is founder and chief executive officer of Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a non-profit formed at Stanford University with the mission to create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports so that all youth athletes have a positive, character-building experience.

Thompson was named one of the Top 100 Sports Educators in the U.S. by the Institute for International Sport (IIS) in October 2007. Dan Doyle, executive director of IIS, described PCA as “the finest organization of its kind in the United States.”

Since its founding in 1998, Positive Coaching Alliance has developed a network of more than 130 trainers across the U.S., who have delivered 10,000-plus workshops for youth sports leaders, coaches, parents and athletes. 

Thompson is the author of numerous books on youth sports, including Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Sports and his most recent book, Elevating Your Game: Becoming a Triple Impact Competitor.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Thompson.

Ken Reed
: What was the trigger that made you decide you wanted to dedicate your career to the calling of reforming youth sports?

Jim Thompson: It was a gradual thing. I was an enthusiastic, but ultimately mediocre athlete. I played basketball for a year in college but got hurt and that was the end of my career. I had kind of lost interest in sports until my son got involved. I went to his games and saw a lot of behavior from well-meaning parents and coaches that was the opposite of what would get the best out of the kids.

After watching my son’s experience for a while, I decided I wanted to try and implement some ideas I had developed through the years. I began coaching my son’s basketball and baseball teams. That led to my first book, Positive Coaching, and it’s progressed from there.

Reed: Let’s get right into it. What is the biggest problem with youth sports today?

Thompson: The win-at-all-cost mentality. It colors everything.

Youth sport seems simple but it’s very complicated. Part of that revolves around how parents see youth sports. We all want to feel important, like our time on earth is meaningful. For parents, part of that meaning comes from their kids. They are concerned about how successful their kids are in life. But research shows that there’s no correlation between success on the little league field and success in life.

In addition, a lot of parents have a belief that says, “How well my kid does on the field reflects on me as a parent.” One of my mentors, John Gardner, once said, “The toughest thing kids have to face is the unfulfilled lives of their parents.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Reed: Haven’t we always had problems with overzealous win-at-all-cost parents in youth sports?

Thompson: There’s always been a win-at-all-cost element in youth sports but it hasn’t been as prevalent, or normalized, or prioritized as it is today.

There are several factors involved. Specialization in one sport is happening earlier these days.

We have people making a living from youth sports. There are basketball and soccer trainers who will benefit financially if you go to their camps, training sessions, and play on their spring and fall teams.

Jay Coakley [a leading sports sociologist] believes youth sport is child labor revisited. You have entrepreneurs making money in youth sports and the staff, in a sense, is made up of young kids. That’s a problem.

Another factor is the popularity of professional sports today. Pro sports leagues, franchises, and the media, like ESPN, are really good at marketing messages to adults and kids.

Reed: How do we change a win-at-all-cost youth sports culture?

Thompson: We have parents with unfulfilled dreams second-guessing the coaches and coaches who’ve come up through the existing sports system and who are in a fish bowl.

It’s a cultural challenge. That’s why we spend a lot of time with the leaders of youth sports organizations, helping them change their culture. Culture is “the way we do things around here.” We assist these leaders in developing organizational culture signals that help coaches and parents behave themselves. Ideally, it gets to the point throughout the organization where violations of the positive sports culture are handled informally by the coaches’ and parents’ peers.

Reed: What’s your long-term goal for the Positive Coaching Alliance?

Thompson: The end-game, the ultimate goal, is to make our model for youth sports the norm, the community standard across the country. We want to get to the point where any coach who isn’t a double-goal coach (a coach who strives to win, but more importantly, strives to develop positive character traits, teach life lessons, and promote sportsmanship) stands out like a sore thumb.

Reed: What accomplishment are you most proud of with the Positive Coaching Alliance?

Thompson: I’ll take credit for creating a vision of an organization and a movement that gets people excited. People that work here make less money working for PCA than they would elsewhere. They believe in the mission. My biggest satisfaction is I’ve started something that’s excited people and is helping to transform youth sports.

Reed: What gives you the most hope that we can transform the youth sports culture to the point where the first thing the vast majority of adults who are involved in youth sports ask is, “What’s best for the kids?”

Thompson: The hope I have comes from seeing so many people implement our tools and have success with them. There are so many people that now believe, with all their heart, that the best way to win is to be positive and build kids up.

Reed: What one thing would you ask folks to do who are interested in youth sports reform and are willing to get involved?

Thompson: Our focal point of change is at the leadership level of youth sports organizations, whether it’s the local soccer club or Little League. We want to help them achieve excellence through culture change. I’d encourage people to get involved in their local youth sports organization at the leadership level. We can help you make a difference.

In many ways, there’s no more important issue than changing the youth sports culture. Transforming youth sports can positively impact our country in many ways. How youth sports are conducted infiltrates our collective mindset. You can definitely see visible results in several areas from developing a positive coaching structure.

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