In a recent game with his travel team, Will had an uncharacteristic bobble at third base. “Well, that was sloppy,” I grumbled to Bill in the bleachers. “We let him stay up too late after the dance last night; he’s obviously down sleep.” Bill, almost always the kinder, gentler parent, came through this time as well and defended him.

“Everybody makes an occasional mistake,” he reminded me. “That was okay and it didn’t cost them anything.” Sure enough, the next minute, his team had retired the side and they were running in from the field. I saw his coach give him not exactly a high-five as he joined the huddle, but maybe more of a “medium-five” — just a quick, non-verbal affirmation along the lines of “hey, buddy, I know you feel bad that you missed that shot and I know you’ll get the next one.” Another coach gave him a pat on the head that said the same thing.

And I, sitting in the stands, felt guilty that I had been so quick to judge and to criticize my own son. I was also moved because I recognized how lucky Will was to have a dad and coaches who believe in the power of positive coaching to motivate him to do his best.

We’ve all known or at least seen and heard the nightmare coaches and parents who scream at their kids when they make a mistake, as if that’s going to motivate anyone to run faster or try harder. We cringe and feel sorry for the players at the receiving end of such verbal abuse. We feel embarrassed for the adults who are behaving outrageously and we would like to believe that neither we nor anyone close to us would ever do the same.

There have been national stories about parents scuffling on the sidelines and violence erupting off the field. Youth sports have become so competitive, the pressure to win so great, that victory becomes everything, accompanied by a tunnel vision that is intolerant of mistakes, even when it is your own kid and maybe especially when it is your own kid. And yet, “mistakes are an inevitable and important part of the learning process. A key to success is being able to rebound from mistakes with renewed determination. This way, players gain a sense of control over their own development and confidence in their ability to succeed, in life as well as in sports.”

This wisdom comes straight from the Positive Coaching Alliance, a non-profit created at Stanford University in 1998 to “transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.” The PCA National Advisory Board includes such luminaries as Bill Bradley, former U.S. senator and two-time NBA champion and Princeton basketball great; Nadia Comaneci, Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics; Ronnie Lott, a member of the National Football League Hall of Fame; Steven Smith, NASA astronaut and All-American water polo player; and Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

The PCA’s goal is to create a culture of positive coaching that starts at the very top and permeates every level of youth sports to include not just the coaches but players, parents, officials and fans. The ultimate prize is creating a culture where kids learn to play the game and love it. They look forward to practices and games as a time to be with friends and have fun. While winning is great, they understand that there are other important goals such as effort and personal improvement.

Coaches play a powerful role in the lives of our children, from the moment they start playing T-ball and flag football all the way through high school and college. What they teach their players reaches into real life. The ethics of hard work, teamwork and good sportsmanship carry over into the classroom. The ideas of going for the goal, doing your best, and tasting sweet victory form the foundation for a lifetime of achievement and success.

After parents, coaches may often be the most influential people in our children’s lives. How they choose to guide and motivate can be life-transforming. The Positive Coaching Alliance, recognizing this, has trainers who are dispatched all over the country to work with local organizations to inculcate this positive vision of youth sports. The Cranbury Plainsboro Little League firmly believes in the mission of the PCA and for the last three years has invited a trainer to work with board members who themselves are coaches and parents. They pass along what they learn to other coaches, parents, and kids to improve the level of the experience for everyone.

As the parents of three kids who have been involved in all kinds of sports — crew, golf, soccer, basketball, tennis, hockey, baseball, football, lacrosse — you name it, they’ve done it (and we have the equipment in the garage to prove it) — I have to say we’ve been very lucky in the coach department. Will’s travel soccer and baseball coaches — Brian Dudeck and Greg Beyer — coach at the high school level — and soccer coach Paul Franzoni was an All-State player and is a member of the Hun School of Princeton’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

In Will’s words, they’re all pretty “legit” — high praise from an 11-year-old.

Robert Fulghum wrote a wise and lovely poem called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” I would follow Fulghum with a corollary of my own, called All I Really Need to Know I Learned By Playing Sports:

Show up on time

Wear the right uniform and make sure it’s clean

Drink lots of water

Breathe deep

Sweat is good

Don’t hog the ball (Pass!)

Sometimes you have to move backwards to move forward

Guard your man

Take a timeout

Run fast

Go to the goal

Take your best shot

There is no shame in losing, only in not trying your best

Be a gracious loser

Be a gracious winner

Share the glory

Thank your coaches.