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  • Al Behrman / The Associated Press

    Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker, right, is a board member of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which helps train thousands of adults, mostly coaches and youth sports leaders.

Bruce Maiman: Positive Coaching Alliance endeavors to change a win-at-all-cost ethos in youth sports

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 - 12:27 am

If there’s an institution in society where “Pay It Forward” manifests itself, it’s youth sports. So when a national organization embodying that philosophy recognizes you, particularly when you’re only one of 20 youth coaches selected out of 2.5 million nationwide, that’s impressive.

Yet when Valeri Garcia stood at the podium of last week’s awards banquet in Sacramento for the Positive Coaching Alliance to accept the organization’s Double-Goal Coach award, she didn’t talk about herself or even the 9-year-olds she coaches in the North Natomas Little League. Instead, she thanked all the coaches she’d played for, who mentored her and inspired her to give back, including her father, who wept for joy at our banquet table as his daughter spoke.

“I wanted to be a coach since I was eight,” she told me later. “Coaching allows me to give back to the kids, not just for the sport itself, but for what sports can do.”

The University of California, Davis, college adviser was nominated anonymously, learning later that an assistant coach had submitted her name. Garcia humbly insists he deserved the award more than she did.

“I’m kind of uncomfortable with compliments,” she said.

Coaches can play a huge part in a child’s life. Many of us recall a sports memory from childhood, or from our child’s playing, that years later still elicits emotion. The positive influence they have on their lives, as players, as people, is a very different definition of “legacy” than the kind we speak of in the entertainment business of professional sports. Youth sports are about education and human development.

But for any number of reasons over the last two decades, youth sports have become plagued by a win-at-all-costs ethos. We’re all familiar with stories of poor sportsmanship, and worse, acts of aggression – the recent death of a Utah soccer coach felled by a blow from a player objecting to a call disturbs and repulses us.

Some 70 to 80 percent of youths drop out of sports shortly after middle school, research shows. It’s not just sports becoming too competitive and selective; it stops being fun, and that should sadden us.

The Positive Coaching Alliance endeavors to change that. Since its 1998 founding at Stanford University, PCA has trained nearly 500,000 adults, mostly coaches and youth sports leaders, who reach about 4million kids. Through workshops and conferences both real time and digital, involving board members that are a who’s who of pro sports, including Dusty Baker, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, Bruce Bochy, Phil Jackson and Brandi Chastain (the keynote speaker at last week’s banquet), PCA spreads its message that youth sports is about giving young athletes a positive, character-building experience – not to become major-league athletes, but to become major-league people.

“We’re all about helping kids excel on the field and off,” Bill Herenda, the executive director for PCA-Sacramento and an ESPN college basketball analyst, tells me. “Not only for the here and now, but for the rest of their lives.”

It’s not always so. When Rocklin youth coach Pete Salvato entered his daughter in 12-and-under travel softball with a West Sacramento organization, initial impressions of the head coach were promising. But, says Salvato, “Once the season started, this guy turned into an animal.”

In a bases-loaded situation, his daughter struck out. Salvato describes what followed: “The coach grabs her in front of the dugout and yells, ‘You didn’t do your job. I’ve got you batting cleanup for a reason. You’re benched!’”

Two innings later, when an infielder bobbled a ball, the coach berated her on the field and benched her, too.

“That was his modus operandi,” Salvato told me. “He would pull girls out in the middle of an inning for a minor error.”

Now you have players playing in fear. What’s that coach’s legacy? What’s the life lesson? And this coach also coaches softball at a Sacramento area high school.

When Salvato questioned the coach, he responded, “You just got your daughter thrown off the team. I’ll put an ad out tomorrow and get five replacements. I don’t need her.”

“The easy thing to do is explode and take the kid out,” Herenda says. “The tough thing is to maintain your composure and treat mistakes as an opportunity to focus on the learning process.”

In other words, the life lesson for kids isn’t the mistake, but your response to it.

Salvato and six other dads pulled their daughters from that coach’s team and started their own. The two teams played each other twice this past weekend. With his daughter pitching, Salvato’s team won both games.

Perhaps the other coach will see a life lesson in that. Of perhaps he’d be better off in Congress.

Many of those lawmakers could use a healthy dose of character development. Maybe PCA could have Valeri Garcia hold a seminar.


Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

Read more articles by Bruce Maiman



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