A decade ago, Cal State Fullerton’s baseball team was struggling through a mediocre start.
At 15-16, even qualifying for the playoffs seemed optimistic.
The staff brought in a sports psychologist, who spent time talking with the players.
They were being too hard on themselves, the psychologist said, and brought them a present from the novelty store. A plastic toilet was set up by the bat rack.
Instead of throwing your bat when you strike out or ground into a double play, flush the toilet.
The message was, “Let it go. Move on.”
The players did, albeit a little skeptically at first.
Cal State Fullerton went 32-6 the rest of the season and won its fourth national championship that year.
It was about that same time that longtime Wesleyan football coach Will Jackson got involved with the Positive Coaching Alliance, which espouses that kind of reset ritual as a crucial part of its philosophy.
It allows the athlete to get ready for the next play without beating themselves up or letting fear of making a mistake lead to timidity. One of the most powerful tools for improvement, it produces more aggressive players — and the more aggressive team usually wins.
“It’s important to teach as a way to compete — if you’re going to be the best, you’re going to fail,” Jackson said. “Especially for coaches, when your players are young, most of what they do is wrong. You’ve got to point out the mistakes, but you’ve also got to teach the kids it’s not a negative.
“There’s no reason for failure to be a defeat. You’ve got the let that go and let’s go get better. How to handle failure — it’s such a key thing in life. Because you’re going to mess up. But there are kids, and I’ve coached them, if they goof up, they’re done.”
Jackson, a multiple state title winner during his long coaching career, stumbled upon a link for PCA on Stanford’s athletics website when his own son, David, was looking at attending the prestigious school in 2003.
“It’s one of the greatest groups I’ve ever been around,” Jackson said. “It’s backed by highly respected coaches and players — Phil Jackson, Julie Foudy, Steve Young, Doc Rivers, Shane Battier. The goal is trying to keep the sanity in youth sports. Now you can find out who the top-ranked 13-year-old No. 2 guard in the country is.
“We recognize that winning is important. I know it sounds like everyone is getting cupcakes and orange slices. If you’re going it the right way, you’ll win more than your share anyway, but the goal for us as coaches of young people is to honor the game.”
The examples of emotions run amok in youth sports are rampant. And it’s rarely the kids getting featured on YouTube.
Youth soccer leagues from Washington to New York have instituted Silent Saturdays as a way to, hopefully, put the fun back in sports for the participants.
“(Those didn’t come up with Silent Saturday out of the blue,” Jackson said. “They came up with it because of a problem. PCA used to sell a parent pop, a sucker to stick in their mouth when things get out of hand.
“It’s not just fluff. I love to watch Doc Rivers coach. And Steve Kerr, who is on the (PCA) board. Listen to him in the huddle. He sounds like a high school coach: ‘Guys we’re doing great. Keep it up, it’s a tough part of the game.’ He’s not screaming. Doc is the same: ‘Keep hustling. Keep shooting.’”
PCA was founded by Stanford professor Jim Thompson after he noticed a great disconnect in how he was teaching the future business leaders of the nation — students who later formed companies like Google and Microsoft — to build productive teams and what he was seeing at his own kid’s youth sports games.
“He started looking around and thought, ‘This is awful,’” Jackson said. “’Parents are fighting in the stands, calling names at the umpire, the kids are crying. All these things violate everything I’m teaching about how to do it right.’”
Thompson started PCA in a small office in the Stanford athletic building. Fifteen year later, there’s a home campus in the bay area and nearly a dozen satellite offices around the country. Jackson is hoping the organization will be able to add an office in Atlanta in the near future. Right now, the closest one is in Tampa. In the recent MLB first-year player draft, Georgia had the fourth-most representatives, behind the perennial big three, California, Texas and Florida.
“And our population is significantly less than California and Texas,” Jackson said. “So per capita, it’s a huge area of influence.
“What we’re trying to do, and it’s a little corny, but we’re trying to give coaches more tools for their tool box. Especially youth coaches. We ask them, ‘Why do you coach the way you do?’ ‘It’s the way I was coached,’ is the most common answer.”
It’s the opposite of just about every job out there where people are educated beforehand or have some training when hired.
“Often the extent is, here’s your ball bag and your practice time is 3 p.m. Thursday,” Jackson said. “But they’ll have to think about how to handle playing time, substitutions, a disagreement with a parent.”
Of the many articles available for free on the PCA website (www.positivecoach.org), the greatest number are for parents.
“A lot of kids say, if they had a bad experience with sports, the worst part was the ride home, getting grilled by a parent,” Jackson said. “There’s a real need for doing it right.”
The advisory board is a veritable who’s who of successful coaches and players. Jackson is one of many trainers who go around the country teaching workshops to coaches, parents, administrators and players. They all have the same mission — to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.
“PCA gives a structure and a delivery mechanism that’s really cool,” Jackson said. “It’s validated stuff. And their delivery method is so polished.
“It’s backed by some of the greatest coaches and athletes. It’s not this guy from Georgia who talks funny,” he said, poking fun at himself. “It’s a personal niche for me, to still be involved and the message really is good.”
Last year, PCA did about 1,500 workshops around the country.
“Seven days a week, that’s four or five workshops going on with a presenter, like what I do, and 25, 45 or 105 coaches or parents sitting there every day,” Jackson said. “So every person you’re talking to, it has a ripple effect.”
There’s a staggering statistic about the drop-out rate in youth sports. Of the 40 million kids that start playing, 70 percent have quit sports entirely by the time they turn 13. The most consistent reason? Because it’s not fun.
It’s a number that bothers Jackson, who played football at Davidson before going on to a long and impressive coaching career.
“Think about all the kids that might have developed and had great sports experiences, maybe even great athletic careers,” Jackson said. “There are so many benefits of playing.
“Life is a team sport.”
PCA uses a number of easily digestible teaching bites to help absorb the key points.
ROOTS is one: Respect for the rules, respect for your opponent, respect for the officials, respect for your team (and how your behavior reflects on them) and respect for self.
ELM is another: Measuring victory by effort, by learning and how you handle mistakes.
“It’s not, did we get beat?” Jackson said. “It’s, did we get better?”
It helps that Jackson not only taught psychology and coached for a long time, but also raised four kids with his wife, Frances.
“There’s a sense of credibility,” he said. “That I know what you’re going through.”
Jackson, who has been lured out of semi-retirement several times to help coach the football program at Wesleyan, has done about 100 workshops around the country in the last 10 years. He has six next month in the South and then is spending several weeks in August teaching in California.
Most of the workshops are about 90 minutes, predicated mostly on how long the Q&A portion lasts, a focuses on how to handle specific situations such as parents shouting at referees or kids terrified of having to play the best team in the league. Or what if your best player doesn’t come to practice and you’re playing in the championship the next day?
“There are great lessons to learn and a lot of times it gets screwed up,” Jackson said, pointing to the myriad of professional athletes that regularly get off the hook for all manner of infractions.
“What does that kid learn? If you’re good enough, you get away with it. It’s a mess. Yet we do have a chance to do it better. And maybe even do it right. When you say honor the game, that sounds pretty high-minded. But it is.”
And maybe it should be.
Winning is still a goal. But it’s not THE goal for PCA.
“Arthur Blank is not in the job of making better humans,” Jackson said. “If they don’t win, they don’t put fans in the seats and they don’t make money.
“That’s not the goal at the youth level, although the line gets blurred. It’s not win, or else. Or it shouldn’t be. But the problem is, that win-at-all-costs mentality filters down. There’s a line and our job is to make better people.”
When he goes to workshops, Jackson asks people to tell him about a great coach they had growing up.
“After they talk about it a little bit, it’s always the same,” Jackson said. “It’s about somebody who pushed them and cheered for them and encouraged them and was smart. And nobody can tell you what their record was that season.
“A veteran football coach with all kinds of championships was asked how is team was looking at the start of a season. He said, ‘I’ll know what kind of team we’ve got in 20 years when I see what kind of life these boys have had.’”