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Group Teaches Parents How to Be Good Sports

The Positive Coaching Alliance seeks to restore civility to playing fields and change the culture of youth athletics so that children don't drop out.

June 09, 2003|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

It should have been a moment of triumph for Nick Davidson. Instead, it stands as one of his greatest regrets.

Rather than relish the first time one of his youth basketball teams clinched a championship, Davidson is haunted by the image of a little girl bawling her eyes out on the bench as her teammates celebrated. Davidson, her coach, had never let her play.

"We were so happy, and there she was in tears," he said of his Silver Lake team. "She was good, she came to practices, she worked hard, and there I was: gotta win, gotta win, gotta win."

Now a volunteer with a group called the Positive Coaching Alliance, Davidson shows other coaches how to avoid the mistakes he made, and is among a growing number of amateur and professional coaches who want to remind adults that, in youth sports, it's not if you win or lose, but how you play the game.

It's an adage that has lost currency in an era of show-boating pro sports and the screaming Little League coach as a suburban stereotype. Extreme behavior has made headlines, as with the hockey dad who beat another father to death three years ago at a suburban Boston ice rink while their children watched.

The Positive Coaching Alliance offers a Miss Manners program of sorts to show adults how to properly coach children and behave at youth sporting events.

Its supporters include Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who serves as national spokesman and has helped develop its workshops, and Detroit Pistons Coach Larry Brown, the newest member of the advisory committee.

Aside from restoring civility to playing fields, the alliance hopes the program might keep children playing longer by changing the culture of youth sports.

Jim Thompson, a former Stanford University business school administrator who founded the nonprofit alliance, believes that boorish behavior by parents drives youngsters away from sports. He estimates that of 40 million children involved in youth sports, 70% stop playing by age 13 -- some diverted by new interests, but many discouraged by yelling and screaming parents.

Thompson said parents today are less inclined to let children run about willy-nilly, as perhaps they did when they were kids. The change has helped fuel the rise of organized youth sports and adult involvement.

At the same time, he said, society has become more competitive, and some parents transfer the pressures of work to the playing field.

"I think parents bring to the sporting events all this anxiety about their own situation and their kids' future," he said. "So while there's very little connection between whether a kid gets a hit at one moment and whether he's successful in life, I think there's a feeling among parents there is. They put pressure on kids to perform."

Hoping to make sports enjoyable for children, Thompson published his ideas in the 1995 book "Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Sports." Three years later, he founded the alliance, which holds training sessions in Los Angeles; the Bay Area; Sacramento; Portland, Ore.; Chicago; and Washington.

Davidson, who within a year went from attending one of Thompson's workshops to acting as a presenter, urged a group of parents at the Silver Lake Recreation Center earlier this year to praise youngsters five times for each criticism. He acknowledged the difficulties of achieving what he described as the "magic ratio" at which relationships flourish.

"I'm a parent, a coach and a PCA presenter," Davidson told the crowd. "I'm still having trouble getting to 5-1. A lot of times, I just have to zip it."

The group's efforts are part of a broader, international movement to promote sportsmanship by placing the critical focus on parents.

The Canadian Hockey Assn. aired ads that feature children berating parents for not being better golfers or shoppers. "You're not just going to sit there and take this?" a boy asks his dad, who is being ticketed by a peace officer for making an illegal turn. "Stand up to this moron."

The National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Fla., produced a video that shows children talking about how it makes them feel when their parents embarrass them at sporting events.

"We show parents the ugly behavior that can exist when people lose perspective," said Fred Engh, the group's president.

The American Sport Education Program, a Champaign, Ill.-based group, also has long-advocated an "Athletes First, Winning Second," approach when it comes to youth sports. The group's "SportParent" book, video and survival guide, explain why children drop out of sports -- ranging from a lack of playing time to receiving too much criticism from coaches -- and how parents should behave at events.

In Los Angeles, recreation officials have tapped Thompson's group, the Positive Coaching Alliance, to teach sportsmanship to parents and coaches.

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