The Power of Positive Coaching

From the Vice President of Programs

Sylvia Yee, Vice President of Programs

Gilda Gonzales is chief executive officer of the Unity Council, a Haas, Jr. Fund grantee committed to enriching the quality of life in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. With support from the Haas, Jr. Fund, she recently worked with a leadership coach to resolve an urgent issue confronting her organization. “My coach was instrumental in my having a sense of clarity and executing the outcome in a whole different way than I ever expected was possible,” she says of the coaching experience.

Haas, Jr. Fund grantee Coaching Corps started its signature program in 2005 to bring high-quality sports opportunities and good coaching to young people in disadvantaged communities throughout the Bay Area.  Ask the student-athletes how the program has helped them, and they often credit their coaches with teaching lessons that apply on and off the field.  Here’s fifth grader Dakota K.: “My coaches taught me how to pick up after myself and be responsible.” Fourth grader Michelle F. said: “My coaches taught me how to be respectful and work with other kids.”

Most of us have an idea of what a good coach is and does.  Whether in sports or in our personal or professional lives, we value coaches who inspire as well as teach, who help us see our potential, and who work with us to develop the skills and capacities we need to succeed.

Over the last few years, the Haas, Jr. Fund has made major investments in two very different forms of coaching. Through our Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) program, we support leadership coaching for nonprofit board members and staff.  And, as a founder and major funder of Coaching Corps, we support coaching for young people like Dakota and Michelle.

Despite the differences in audience and approach, I have been struck recently by how the Fund’s coaching work across these two program areas shares similar goals and results.  Among the most important things they have in common is that both forms of coaching reflect the Fund’s values about investing in people so they can be their best.

Connecting Kids with Trained Coaches

I recently attended a Coaching Corps meeting where Stanford men’s basketball coach Johnny Dawkins commented about the life lessons that players can gain from good coaching. “Coaches help you see things in your life,” he said. “And sometimes they tell you things you don’t want to hear.”

Coach Dawkins’s observations are backed up by research showing that young people benefit in a variety of ways from participating in quality sports programs. It’s not just about physical fitness; student-athletes also learn about everything from teamwork to perseverance, and they tend to be healthier and do better in school. A good portion of the positive effect of youth sports on children derives from working with a great coach.

At the same time, research also shows that children living in low-income communities or communities of color do not have the same chances as their peers to experience the learning that comes from playing organized sports with a trained and supportive coach.  

The Haas, Jr. Fund established Coaching Corps in an effort to fill this gap. From the beginning, we understood that in order to bring the benefits of youth sports to underserved communities, we would have to do more than create access to fields and equipment and the opportunity to play. We also would have to connect children with capable and caring coaches—adult volunteers who could help their players develop the skills and the self-confidence they need to succeed.  

As part of its signature program, Coaching Corps has trained and placed more than 1,500 volunteer coaches in youth sports programs targeting children in underserved communities of color—with plans to recruit and train many more.  In gyms and on playing fields throughout California, these coaches are mentoring and helping thousands of young people learn the important life lessons that sports can offer. 

Providing Coaches for Nonprofit Leaders

Compared to the role of coaching in Coaching Corps’ programming, the Fund’s embrace of coaching in our nonprofit leadership work was less intentional but no less important to the ultimate success of this work.  When we first launched our Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) program, we intended to provide Haas, Jr. Fund grantees with resources to invest in developing their leaders. We never told anyone how they should spend these funds; rather, we supported them to work with consultants to identify the smartest leadership investments their organizations could make to increase their effectiveness.

An interesting thing happened as these organizations reviewed their options: most of them turned to leadership coaching as an essential step forward.  This happened even though many of these organizations and their leaders had never hired a coach before—often because they had considered it a luxury.  By 2009, the participating organizations had spent a total of $495,000 on coaching, or 20 percent of the program’s total outlay at that time of $2.5 million. This makes coaching the single largest expenditure category in the FLA program.

Girls Inc. of Alameda County, for example, used its Flexible Leadership Award to prepare for the exit of longtime executive director Pat Loomes and the transition to new leadership under Linda Boessenecker, a longtime executive with the Girl Scouts. Changes in leadership are always stressful, but the staff and board of Girls Inc. reported that the transition was an unqualified success—and many pointed to FLA-funded coaching for key staff and board leaders as a major factor in easing the transition.

Boessenecker, for example, worked with coach Gail Ginder to help plot a successful transition and stay focused on critical goals during her first six months on the job.  Ginder “never told me to how to do something,” Boessenecker said, but rather offered useful frameworks, tools and readings relevant to the challenges she faced.

Connecting the Dots

Nonprofit organizations like Girls Inc. of Alameda County have turned to coaching for many of the same reasons we have supported Coaching Corps to make good coaching a cornerstone of its work with young people.  Working individually and collectively with a good coach helps people at any age identify strengths and weaknesses and skills they need to work on as they strive to reach their full potential. The good coach helps put things in context, encouraging and guiding you to develop the right skills and strategies appropriate to the challenges and opportunities you face right now.

Whether in the workplace or on the sports field, people need to learn to play and work as effective teams. They need to develop self-awareness, self-confidence and discipline.  And, they need to identify and refine the strategies and the skills that will help them and their teammates succeed.

Good coaching can make these things happen for people of all ages and in all manner of situations.  At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we continue to learn how to tap the power of positive coaching to help people and organizations be their best. We hope you will join us on this journey and share your experiences and lessons along the way.

Sylvia M. Yee, Ph.D.
Vice President of Programs