Californians have failed to contain the autocratic excesses of our technology executives. But we have made progress in curbing another group of would-be dictators: Little League coaches.

For two decades, Silicon Valley has been the headquarters for a national nonprofit—the Positive Coaching Alliance—that is changing how youth sports are coached. Based in Mountain View, Positive Coaching Alliance has synthesized research—much of it with Stanford roots—in everything from marriage counseling to organizational psychology into a uniquely Californian philosophy of “relentless positivity.”

As a longtime coach in Little League, one of hundreds of youth sports organizations that partner with the Positive Coaching Alliance, I’ve incorporated much wisdom from the organization’s workshops. And I’ve wondered how its lessons might be applied to human enterprises more important than your kid’s baseball team.

At the center of Positive Coaching  Alliance is founder Jim Thompson, man distinguished not only by his accomplishments (he led Stanford’s program for non-profit management), but also by his unusual embrace of the benefits of error. Thompson advises youth coaches to encourage their players to make mistakes, so that they can learn more from sports experiences.

In his books, Thompson recalls working at a Minnesota school for emotionally disturbed children. There he learned that the kids did better when he ignored their negative behavior, and instead relentlessly reinforced positive behavior. Eventually, the positive crowded out the negative.

He later switched from teaching to business, ending up at Stanford’s business school. When he coached his son in Palo Alto youth basketball, he was stunned at how negative the atmosphere was. In 1998 he started Positive Coaching Alliance to develop a different way.

Thompson wanted Positive Coaching’s methods to be grounded in research, and he was drawn to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, known for identifying the concept of the “growth mindset.” Dweck found that students who understood that their effort could make them stronger were more resilient after setbacks. That finding is one reason why Positive Coaching emphasizes praising players for effort, rather than talent. 

Thompson fused Dweck’s insights with research from other Stanford faculty members, from  psychologist Albert Bandura’s work on self-control to Stanford Center on Adolescence director William Damon’s emphasis on helping kids find purpose. 

 “We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure,” wrote John Gardner, a late U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare who supported Positive Coaching. “It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation…. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.” 

Thompson is great at distilling complex ideas into coaching rules—the most useful of which is the 5-to-1 ratio: make five positive comments for every constructive criticism you offer. The 5-to-1 ratio is rooted in studies that showed how a similar mix of positive and negative interactions was associated with the most stable marriages. 

Positive Coaching is not as touchy-feely as it may sound. Thompson plays to win, and doesn’t object to coaches’ yelling—as long as it’s done as part of a positive relationship with players. He quotes former USC football coach John Robinson: “I never criticize a player until I’m convinced he knows that I believe in him.”

Positive Coaching took off over the past decade, as pro sports leagues and coaches—among them Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr—embraced it. The organization created local chapters around the country, but it remains very Californian, in its devotion to new ideas and its encouragement of risk-taking.

As a coach,  I’ve become more positive. But, in speaking with Thompson recently, I confessed a failing: I still criticize kids loudly when they jog around the bases, instead of running their hardest. I find that lack of effort infuriating.

In response, Thompson suggested I experiment with “positive charting.” Keep a chart who runs hard, and who doesn’t, and then offer rewards to those who hustle.  I will try his idea when the Little League season starts in March. 

Thompson himself is still growing. He recently gave up leadership of Positive Coaching, and was succeeded by US Youth Soccer’s head. Thompson wants to write about climate change, and how children might be better prepared for it. 

“The world that these kids are going to grow up into is going to be much harsher than the world we grew up in,” he says. “We need to use sports to develop people of character who can be leaders in that world.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.