Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A positive spin on sports

Hi gang,

A busy day today with deadlines, so I'm pulling this quick-hit profile on PCA founder Jim Thompson out of the archives. My older brother Sean tipped me off to the Positive Coaching Alliance a few years back, after I had a good tantrum about kids behaving badly and how little sportsmanship I saw in youth hockey. The PCA does impressive, and important, work. I've got to believe that if Hobey Baker were alive today, he'd be on the PCA Board of Directors. This Q&A was originally done for Continental Airlines in-flight magazine, back in 2009. Check it out ...

A positive spin on sports
Jim Thompson's Positive Coaching Alliance looks to redefine youth sports

Sixty-year-old Jim Thompson may not look the part, but he is a sports revolutionary. His Positive Coaching Alliance, launched in 1998, aims to transform the youth sports landscape, emphasizing the life lessons that wholesome competition can provide. Today, the Positive Coaching Alliance model has been adopted by many major youth sports organizations, including American Youth Soccer, Little League Baseball, and US Lacrosse. The PAC, in addition to its headquarters near Palo Alto, California, also has a dozen offices throughout the United States, including a number of major metropolitan areas such as New York, Houston, Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco

What was the genesis of the Positive Coaching Alliance? Was it inspired by a personal experience?
It was a combination of working with emotionally disturbed kids and seeing what could come from a relentlessly positive approach, combined with seeing very high-powered parents driving their kids to distraction in sports.

What are the three major elements of the PAC model?
First is the double-goal coach model, which involves preparing teams to win on the scoreboard with the second, more important goal of using sports to teach life lessons. Next is the triple-impact competitor, who makes himself better, makes his teammates better, and makes the game better by the way he or she competes. Third is the second-goal parent, who lets coaches and athletes worry about winning, and focuses on helping their child take away the lessons that will help them be successful in life.

Ultimately, what are your goals for PAC?
We hope to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth. We want every youth athlete, regardless of their talent level, to have a positive, character-building experience with sports.

What are your biggest obstacles?
The confusion that many people have between professional sports, which is an entertainment business, and youth sports, which is, or should be, about developing youth. Professional sports tends to engender a win-at-all-costs philosophy that pollutes youth sports, and causes the endless procession of teachable moments in youth sports to be too often lost.

PAC boasts an impressive board, including the head coaches of the last two NBA champions, Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics and Phil Jackson of the LA Lakers. Still, professional athletes are often poster children for bad behavior. How do you reconcile that juxtaposition?
The reason so many high-profile athletes, coaches, business and academic leaders have become part of PAC is because they embrace our mission. They see that youth sports have so much potential to benefit youth and society, and they want to see that potential realized. We're very careful about who we affiliate with, because we recognize the pressures that professional sports that cause people to not live up to their own ideals. We're very grateful that so many positive role model athletes and coaches have affiliated themselves with Positive Coaching Alliance.

Given its current scope, are you surprised by the program's success?
I'm reminded of the actor who became an overnight sensation. When people asked him what that's like, he says: "It took me 10 years of hard work to become an overnight sensation." I'm gratified with the success we've had, and I think it's because people recognize the potential for youth sports and we have an answer to achieve that potential. But we have so much more to do.

For more information on the Positive Coaching Alliance, visit positivecoach.org.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A puck, and a gesture, worth their weight in gold

Hi gang,

It only seemed fitting that our first true installment of "What Would Hobey Do?" would highlight a hockey player. In my work covering college hockey for ESPNBoston.com, I'm fortunate to witness acts of bravery and sportsmanship on an almost nightly basis. But few can compare to a heartfelt deed that Colin Blackwell, a senior captain of the hockey team at St. John's Prep in Danvers, pulled off last spring.

In a simple selfless moment, following what must have been a heartbreaking loss, Blackwell (captured above by old newspaper colleague Kirk Williamson) reminded us that true sportsmanship is alive and well at least in certain pockets of the game. Here's the Reader's Digest version: Blackwell's St. John's Eagles and Malden Catholic went toe-to-toe for state hockey supremacy last March at the TD Garden, home of the Boston Bruins. After regulation, the two squads were deadlocked, 3-3.

With 4:50 gone in sudden death overtime, Malden Catholic junior Brendan Collier snapped a backhander into the top corner, giving the Lancers a hard-fought 4-3 victory and the state championship.

Blackwell, who led all scorers during the Super 8 tournament with 16 points in five games (including a goal and an assist in the final), was undoubtedly crestfallen. The 5-foot-8, 164-pound forward, ESPNBoston's inaugural Mr. Hockey Award winner, finished the season with 33 goals and 33 assists for 66 points, and was a +42 during the regular season, garnering him Most Valuable Player accolades in the Catholic Conference.

But it was Collier who had the Midas touch that Sunday afternoon in March. Until Blackwell proved that champions aren't always measured in terms of wins and losses.

Moments after Collier's strike, Blackwell, stung by the abrupt, decisive end to his high school career, still had the presence of mind to notice the game-winning puck in the back of the St. John's net. Despite the wild celebration of the Malden Catholic players, Blackwell quietly collected the hard rubber biscuit, and handed it to the parents of Malden Catholic senior captain Mike Vecchione, a childhood friend of Blackwell, asking them to make sure Collier got it. Honestly, I still get goose bumps just writing that sentence. There was no fanfare, no television cameras, no Hollywood script. It was just a young man who knew, intuitively, that Collier deserved to have that memento.

I first learned of Blackwell's magnificent gesture when a friend tipped me off to a column by Danny Ventura in the Boston Herald. But since the Herald charges an "archive fee" for any article more than two weeks old, I can instead refer you to a fine article by Josh Zywien for the North Andover Citizen, entitled "An Eagle Stands Tall." Zywien writes how Collier got a hold of Blackwell's cell number, and texted him a simple but poignant message: "Thank you."

"He didn't have my number, so he had to go out of his way to find it," Blackwell told Zywien. "He just said thank you, and mentioned how much it meant to him. I think that said a lot about him, too. He didn't need to do that."

Blackwell also gave Zywien a glimpse into the soul of a true sportsman. "I just knew that if I had scored that goal, I would have loved to have that puck," he said. "You can be enemies on the ice, but once the game is over I've always been taught to respect your opponents.

"Honestly, I don't know Brendan that well, but I know he's a great guy, and it was a great shot, so he definitely deserved to have that as a reminder," Blackwell said. "After you play a game like the one we played, you just feel privileged to be a part of it. I thought it was the right thing to do."

Whoever taught Blackwell, whether parents or coaches or both, should be proud. That Blackwell would think so little of his own gesture, and yet be so grateful for Collier's text message, speaks volumes about this young man from Andover. Hobey Baker surely, somewhere, was smiling.

"It would have been icing on the cake to win the Super 8," Blackwell told Zywien. "But I don't regret anything about that game. It was two great teams, with a lot of great players, and somebody had to win. The atmosphere was unbelievable, and it's something I'll always keep with me."

Harvard hockey coach Ted Donato must be thrilled to have Blackwell joining the Crimson this fall. Even if he only proves to be half the player that pro scouts think he might be – Blackwell was drafted in the seventh round by the San Jose Sharks (194th overall) – Harvard will have a natural leader stepping onto the ice for the next four years.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hobey, simply, would do the right thing

Hi gang,

Welcome to "What Would Hobey Do?" I'm hoping to encourage an active and ongoing dialogue about competition, and the role of sports in today's society.

The idea for this blog has been percolating for quite some time – during my 45-plus years of playing competitive sports, and more recently during my 10-plus years of coaching. But the concept really came to a boil this past spring, as I watched far too many shenanigans during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and again this past summer, when the ludicrous labor squabbles between player and owners in the NBA and the NFL dominated the sports headlines.

Really, is there anything more infuriating than listening to millionaire athletes and billionaire owners whine and complain about how to divvy up the gazillions of dollars generated by professional sports? It's almost as bad as listening to pro basketball and football players constantly woofing at each other, or watching them preen and prance and celebrate after ... every … single … play (which, by the way, they're paid millions to make, but that's a topic for another day).

What really got to me, though, were the Stanley Cup playoffs, the single best sporting event on the planet. The games were fiercely competitive, which I'd expect, but there was more. The games also repeatedly featured hockey players engaging in juvenile behavior – sometimes comical, sometimes despicable – that convinced me that one of my favorite pastimes was going to hell in a handbag. What was the point of all the pushing and grabbing and face washing after … every … single … whistle? It was goofy, macho male BS. Worse were the hits -- ugly, undisciplined shots aimed more at breaking a player's back rather than the breaking up the play. It was not the hockey I was taught, or the game I fell in love with as a youngster.

As a result, I often found myself thinking of Hobey Baker, the fantastically gifted athlete who burst onto the American sports landscape like a super nova in the early 1900s, before World War I. The young Pennsylvania native cut his teeth playing hockey and football at the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., impressing anyone who laid eyes on him with not only his preternatural talents, but also a deep humility borne of an innate shyness.

Baker later moved on Princeton, where his fame reached stratospheric proportions. He was a man, by all accounts (and we will delve into as many as we can find), who never thought of himself first, or considered himself as being more important than anybody else on the team (are you listening, Lebron?). Baker never made excuses, and never retaliated for the cheap shots he endured at the hands of lesser players who were either jealous of his jaw-dropping ability or absolutely frustrated by their failure to contain him. He was gracious to a fault, known to visit the opposing team's locker room after games to personally thank each player.

Baker was, in reality, an almost impossible ideal. Which, of course, made him the perfect candidate, decades after his tragic death as an Air Force pilot at the end of WWI, to be the model for college's "Hockey Heisman." Today, the award given annually to college hockey's best player bears Baker's name, even if the man himself would likely be a bit uncomfortable with the act of singling out one player in a team sport, and undoubtedly embarrassed by the self-serving promotional campaigns that so many schools engage in to get their own players nominated. But that's sports today. Marketing, hype, TV dollars, and a generation of spoiled athletes.

The sad reality is that these attitudes have trickle down to almost every segment of sports. It is a sign of the times. This summer, I was coaching elite level hockey goaltenders, from Pee Wees to professionals, for Stop It Goaltending camps. It was a tremendous group of kids, by and large, boys and girls (or young men and young women) who really got after it. In short, they "got it." But not everyone fell into that category.

The older staff and I regularly compared notes. We couldn't help but be drawn to the youngsters who really worked their butts off, who looked at every moment on the ice as an opportunity to improve. Not surprisingly, these were some of the best-natured campers I worked with as well. Conversely, the coaches would oftentimes lament not only how self-centered other kids could be, but how different they were from many of us. Many wore an unmistakable mantle of entitlement, even borderline arrogance, despite the fact that they hadn't come close to reaching their potential. It's an attitude I can't begin to fathom.

Growing up, I would have gladly sacrificed a pinky finger to be able to attend a camp like this. But, even without that opportunity, I couldn't think of anyone who loved playing sports more. I guess I was one of the lucky ones, a kid whose parents instilled the bedrock attributes that make playing sports important and worthwhile: Hard work, joy, passion, dedication, selflessness, teamwork, and above all else, sportsmanship. Mom and Dad reminded me, without fail, that there were no short cuts. And there were no excuses.

Was I perfect? Not even close. I was no Hobey Baker. But just because you can't maintain a high standard doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Baker set an example that we ought to strive for, no matter how difficult it might be to achieve. And I believe it's my responsibility, as a coach and parent, to make sure that Baker's legacy remains intact. Could there be any more important goal for our young athletes? I don't think so. That's the goal of this blog, to create a vocal community that makes certain that Baker's ideals aren't lost. Ever.

Join me in the discussion!