It's a tie game, final inning, with two runners on base. Your child is playing center field. The fly ball comes to her, but she loses it in the sun.
With that setup, Tonya Booker turned to the audience of Little League parents and said, “Now drain her emotional tank! What could you yell that would be really critical?”
The parents were momentarily speechless. They thought they had turned out on a rainy Sunday afternoon to learn what they could do to help make organized sports more fun for their kids. But then a few giggles bubbled up and they gave it their best and loudest shots. “You blew it!” appeared to be the top vote getter, followed by “What were you thinking?”
Okay, Booker said. “Now try to fill the child’s emotional tank.”
The volume, she would later point out, immediately dropped. Booker had to listen hard to hear one mother offer these encouraging words: “You did a great job of getting in position in the sun, and the ball just went off the tip of your glove.”
As manager of trainer development for the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), based in the Stanford athletics department, Booker crisscrosses the United States to present two-hour workshops to parents and coaches involved in youth sports. The 30-year-old former basketball player at the University of Illinois draws on coaching experience at Lawrence University, Clemson and Stanford, plus years of sandlot pickup games in Ohio. “We used to play all afternoon,” she says in the middle of a presentation about how parents can interact with referees. “We decided who would bat first and we called our own games, and sometimes I think we’ve lost some of that spirit today.”
The evidence—including media stories about parents of 10-year-old girls coming to blows at New Jersey soccer games and Florida T-ball games ending in brawls, not to mention the recent conviction of a “hockey dad” in Massachusetts for killing another parent—suggests that Booker is right. But she maintains that parents can be educated. “It’s not about ‘happy talk,’” she says, “but about giving people some language to talk about these things.”
The target of the PCA message is the “win-at-all-cost attitude” that can dominate organized youth sports, says the alliance’s director, Jim Thompson, former director of public management programs at the Graduate School of Business. “We want to drive a stake through that notion and create a culture where coaches can say, ‘That’s not how we do things here.’”
Thompson, MBA ’86, and his staff have presented workshops to more than 10,000 coaches in the United States in the past three years, and they’re conducting research with the Center for Sports Character and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. The PCA also has superstar backing from Olympians Donna de Varona, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner and Summer Sanders, ’94, who serve on its advisory committee.
But Booker and her fellow trainers are the foot soldiers. As she negotiated her way around music stands and folding chairs in a Pleasanton, Calif., high school theater, she encouraged parents to reward efforts, not just results. Instead of asking, “Did you win?” she suggested they try, “What was the best play of the day?” or “Did you have fun?” Your child was tagged out at first? How about “Look how you sprinted all the way to the base.” And that drive home in the car after a losing game? “Probably not the best moment to have a talk about how to hold the bat.”
The 25 Little League parents paired off to share experiences they’d had in the bleachers, and they penciled in worksheets that asked them to redefine concepts like “winner.” As they gathered up their umbrellas and headed off, they were still chatting with representatives from rival teams. Said Rammi Luther, team mom for the Major B Angels, “I’m only sorry that the parents who need this most weren’t here.”