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Nice Guys Finish First 

The Positive Coaching Alliance asks hard-bitten coaches to fill out workbooks and recite management jargon. It also has them saying things like, "I want to go back and relive my childhood and be coached like this."

Wednesday, Oct 15 2003
Listen, Lupus, you didn't come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.

-- Walter Matthau as Coach Morris Buttermaker in The Bad News Bears

On a cloudless Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park's Polo Field, the final matches of the Golden Gate Invitational youth soccer tournament are under way, showcasing the most competitive club teams from around the Bay Area. And on Field 6, the Santa Cruz County Bobcats, playing in the boys-under-15 division, are in trouble. The Bobcats don't have five of their best starters -- they either were injured or couldn't make the trip -- and SF Inter, the team Santa Cruz defeated for the state championship last year, relentlessly attacks deep into Bobcat territory. For the third time in as many minutes, SF Inter's best striker leaks behind his defender, receiving a beautiful pass in perfect position for a goal, but just as he's about to kick, the referee blows his whistle: The striker is called offside.

The kid throws his arms wide in frustration and screams at the referee, the game grinding to a halt. On the sideline, parents and coaches, draped in the all-black colors of SF Inter, match their player, yell for yell. When the game resumes, the SF Inter forward quickly finds another golden opportunity: The ball bounces high in front of Santa Cruz's net, and the striker lightly punts it over the goalie's head for an easy score. The SF Inter parent section erupts again, this time with joyous blasts of air horns and thunderous applause, while the striker pounds the chest of his No. 10 jersey, basking in the adulation of his teammates and strutting, just like the pros, before the stands.

Bob Poser, the Bobcats coach, has missed the whole thing. For the past five minutes, during the tumult on the field and the scoring of the game's first goal, Poser has been huddling quietly on the sideline with his only unused player, his back turned to the pitch. Even as his players retreat to midfield, their heads bowed, Poser never looks up from the doubt-ridden face of his reserve. "I miss a lot of goals because I'm trying to teach the game," Poser says later. "I want the players to know, even in those moments, that they're the most important thing."

Poser, who just turned 50, lives and breathes soccer, and he insists he's no softie. "Let me be clear on that," he says. "I hate to lose." After 25 years of playing competitive soccer in the United States and Europe, Poser -- a veterinary surgeon by day -- now dedicates himself to coaching the Bobcats and serving as president of their league. (He's also an assistant coach on the men's soccer team at UC Santa Cruz.) "Our players are good, hardworking, talented, but it's the summation of them as people that's made the difference," says Poser.

But the waning moments of the match sorely test the Bobcats' character. With his team losing 2-0, the Bobcats goalie makes a nice save of an SF Inter shot. But as the players are heading downfield, one of the San Francisco forwards appears to knock the ball out of the goalie's hands; when the ball hits the ground, SF Inter knocks home the shot from point-blank range. The referees confer, but apparently didn't see the play well enough to wipe the goal off the board. SF Inter, naturally, celebrates right in front of the Bobcat bench. And although every bone in his body must be quivering with the urge to scream, Poser does not so much as whisper at the refs about the obvious injustice.

A few minutes later, when a Bobcat shot sails high over the goal and the charming SF Inter parent section begins a mocking chant of "Olé, Olé, Olé," Poser calmly approaches one of the opponents' coaches and asks him to subdue the crowd. The damage, however, is done: When the final whistle blows, the Bobcats trudge to the sideline, disheartened, beaten. Poser tells them they gave a great effort, congratulates them on fighting hard and restraining their tempers, and resists noting the obvious contrast between the tone of the two teams, their coaches, and their cheering sections. But as he's packing gear into duffel bags, watching his players depart across the field, Poser sags wearily against a chain-link fence. "This could be the worst weekend of soccer we've ever had," he says.

And he smiles.

When he's talking about athletic coaching, Jim Thompson, the founder of and creative force behind the Positive Coaching Alliance, can't help but slip into the role of business professor. Sitting in a bare conference room, the soft-spoken Thompson pauses less than 10 minutes into describing the evolution of his organization to say, "Let me draw on the board for you."

At the whiteboard, wearing khakis and a polo shirt emblazoned with the golden whistle logo of his organization, the bespectacled, 54-year-old Thompson scrawls the keywords of his lecture. "We work on three levels: The first we call the mind of the coach," he says, underlining the last word. "We want to get coaches to be thinking, 'My job isn't just to win. It's maybe 49 percent of my job, but most of my job is using sports to teach life lessons.'" The second level, Thompson continues, is organizational culture, which he defines, on the whiteboard, as the way we do things here. "We started out training coaches, but we realized very quickly that there was too much turnover, and we needed to start working with the organizations -- that means the leaders, the coaches, and the parents. If you can get all the adults on the same page, using the same vocabulary, keeping each other honest, reinforcing positive behavior, then the kids have a great experience."

And the third level, Thompson concludes, is society as a whole. "We want to be more than just a successful, modest organization," he says, putting the cap back on his pen. "We want to transform a culture."

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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