By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Amid the thuds and slaps of a dozen soccer balls and the happy shrieks of 100 running, kicking, laughing children, one sound was absent at a recent soccer practice of the Burke Athletic Club in southwest Fairfax County: grown-ups.
It's not that the children were unsupervised. But this was Soccer Festival Wednesday, a weekly gathering when coaches put down their whistles, parents rest their vocal cords and children play not for points, not for victory -- but purely for fun.
It's a novel concept in an era when coaches and parents have been banned from the sidelines for berating referees. The Burke Athletic Club, with more than 80 youth soccer teams and 1,500 players, is so intent on preventing such antics that it has a conduct committee and hosts seminars to improve parent and coach behavior. And with the help of a California-based nonprofit organization called the Positive Coaching Alliance, which is expanding rapidly across the nation, the club is part of a growing movement to teach the grown-ups what it's all supposed to be about.
"Mostly what you have are well-intentioned parents," said Joey Fuller, who coaches both his daughters' soccer teams with the Burke Athletic Club. "But you've never had anybody explain their role and the importance that it plays in their kids' lives."
Fuller, who is the Burke Athletic Club's conduct director, is trying to change that through its partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance, which trains coaches and parents on how best to serve children through sports. On this particular Wednesday, while the kids played on a lush field behind the Burke School, motivational speaker Mark Wiggins stood in the shade of an oak tree.
"In its purest form, it's about what?" Wiggins asked about 30 parents sitting in camp chairs, the sound of the game drifting over from the field.
"Fun," one or two parents halfheartedly replied.
"It's about WHAT?" Wiggins repeated.
"FUN!" more parents joined in.
"Yes. It's about FUN. Right now, they're having fun. But come Saturday, we kind of mess things up with the scoreboard, because we want our child to do well."
The Positive Coaching Alliance preaches this message to 1,000 youth sports groups in eight cities across the country. It has become so popular that the organization plans to expand to 15 more cities over the next five years. (One of the group's trainers in Hawaii, Chris McLachlin, has been inspiring youngsters for so many years that a former Punahou High School basketball player by the name of Barack Obama spoke of him on the campaign trail last year.)
Founder Jim Thompson, a former business lecturer at Stanford University, got the idea for the Positive Coaching Alliance when his son, now 31, began playing sports 25 years ago.
"I actually saw parents coming close to physically fighting over a T-ball game because the umpire made a call that one side didn't like and the other side defended it," Thompson recalled.
The Positive Coaching Alliance's message is couched in catchy marketing terms such as the "elm tree" of mastery, which stands for effort, learning and mistakes. But the philosophy is pretty simple: Children flourish with positive encouragement. Mistakes are okay. Doing one's best is more important than winning or losing.
And for those who scoff at the idea that winning isn't everything, Thompson offers this: Most athletes perform better when they focus on their effort, when their coaches and parents praise them and when they all stop looking at the scoreboard.
"Kids' anxiety goes up when they focus on things they can't control, and self-confidence goes down," he said. "Focus on what you can improve. Ignore what you can't. You can't control calls. You can't control the scoreboard. But you can control effort."
Darlene Rouin, 46, a Springfield soccer mom of four, had particular reason to appreciate Wiggins's lecture last Wednesday. Her daughter, Kaileen, 13, was playing against the Bethesda Legacy travel soccer team last fall when that team's parents were banned from two games after allegedly berating the referee.
According to the minutes of a Washington Area Girls Soccer Leagues disciplinary hearing, the Legacy parents became so angry that one of them allegedly told the referee's daughter, "Your father should be fired!"
The Burke Athletic Club requires all travel team coaches to attend a seminar. The Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League, another local partner, requires all parents to do so as well.
Participation was not mandatory at Burke last week, but parents were there anyway. There was also some harmony in pairing the talk with Soccer Festival Wednesday. As they enjoyed "free play" without the pressure of instruction from coaches and parents, the children were loose and having fun. And they played hard, which is why club president Mike Thompson insisted that the happy, sweaty players pause for water breaks before eagerly heading back out.
"I like it because there's no coaches telling me what to do," said Zachary Pearson, 8, who loves Soccer Festival Wednesday more than regular practice and game days. "If the ball goes out you just, um, there's usually no out of bounds. And we usually never play with the same people. It's just a mix-up."
It's also a great way to learn, giving players an opportunity to experiment without fear of failure, Fuller and Thompson said. "Are you familiar with the Cruyff move?" Fuller asked an observer, referring to a dribbling dodge mastered by Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff. "Well, there's a reason it was named after the player -- because he invented it. I doubt that a coach showed him how to do it."
"And out there," Thompson added, pointing to the coach-free zone of Soccer Festival Wednesday, "there's an Abby move, and a Katie move, just waiting to be discovered."