Judge as Coach: Positive Coaching in the Courtroom

Coach directing his player

As a trial judge since 1979, I have presided over many cases involving adults and youths who made serious mistakes, were charged with criminal offenses, and needed to improve their lives. At key moments in these cases, including detention, sentencing, and review hearings, the judge must listen carefully to testimony about—and try to understand—the choices a defendant has made.

After processing this information, the judge must provide some clear direction on what the defendant must do to remain in the community or upon release from incarceration. These are teachable or coachable moments in the lives of the defendants and their families. Outcomes can be quite restorative and therapeutic when these directions are positively stated and understood, and defendants are open to change.

People are sometimes surprised when I tell them I am a trainer with Positive Coaching Alliance, a Stanford University-based nonprofit organization dedicated to “transforming youth sports so sports can transform youth.” They wonder what in the world judging has to do with coaching.

The short answer is: “Judging has everything to do with coaching.” Let me explain.

I had the good fortune of having many effective coaches in my formative years. Two examples during college were boxing coach Ray Lunny and crew coach Phil Waters. Coach Lunny made sure we learned that “getting a bloody nose in the ring or in life was not the end of the world.” Coach Waters made sure we knew that “each stroke counted” in rowing and in life. Those life lessons still resonate today.

These two coaches took a personal interest in a skinny freshman who showed up eager to participate. Both of them rewarded effort and enthusiasm, not just results. These coaches were careful to set realistic goals in skills and conditioning and hold us accountable. They truly listened to each of us during a time in our lives when few others did. We wanted to do our very best for our coaches, the team, the school, and the sport. We had a great time, occasionally came out winners, and learned many valuable life lessons (with plenty of bloody noses and missed strokes). We learned early on that, believe it or not, mistakes and positive criticisms are gifts.

Ten years later as a law school graduate (and no longer skinny), I had an exemplary mentor who essentially coached me as his law clerk. The late and widely respected Associate Justice Bernard H. Levinson of the Hawaii Supreme Court was a major influence in my life. I still reflect on his positive, gentle, and thoughtful critiques of my written work and analysis. He emphasized common sense, academic rigor, integrity, and compassion. I try to do the same with my law clerks. Justice Levinson was a great role model, a positive “coach,” and avid student of the law. I continue to reflect on his wise counsel.

Do you still wonder about the connection between judges and coaches? Here are some reasons:

Honoring the game—Positive Coaching Alliance teaches that everyone—athletes, coaches, leaders and parents—must honor the game. We in the justice system must likewise promote respect for the rule of law, including respect for the duly appointed authorities and other members of society, including victims, family, and community.We must encourage defendants to assess what they really stand for. Coaches do the same thing when they expect their players and others to respect the rules, officials, opponents, team, and self. If someone feels like an integral part of society (the team or the community), he or she is more likely to buy into the rules. That is why a judge must listen carefully and be impeccably fair and courteous, and require the same of all staff and counsel, including probation officers and social workers. In short, we must walk the talk in no uncertain terms.

Filling the emotional tank—Positive Coaching Alliance teaches how important it is to keep everyone’s emotional tank filled, what PCA calls the E-tank. If an athlete, student, or defendant is not emotionally positive, learning seldom takes place. As a judge, I must look for strengths in each litigant and his or her family and encourage them to succeed consistent with the legal options available.

How can a judge do this? I often ask defendants what in life is most important to them and who guided them through their early years. Smiles and tears regularly surface as they tell of their pride in children, family, culture, faith, work, and community. Key people mentioned are often family members, teachers, and, of course, coaches. They will tell me when a particular probation officer or social worker has been influential. Praise and appreciation for successes, active listening, and nonverbal approval are far more effective than criticism, sarcasm, ignoring small successes, and nonverbal condemnation. Constructive criticism is an invaluable gift, especially when sandwiched between specific positive comments. This is hardly warm, fuzzy, touchy-feely stuff, rest assured. Consequences and accountability are promptly imposed, both pro and con.

Data contained in nationally recognized studies demonstrate that, over time, the magic ratio of positive feedback to critical feedback is ideally 5 to 1. Many of our defendants have low self-esteem, yet flourish when given positive guidance and specific areas to work on by the judge and probation officer. They absolutely beam when told candidly the judge believes in them and has hope for them. They pick up quickly whether a judge, prosecutor, public defender, or probation officer is strength- or deficit-driven. To regard them as other than teachable is to do them and society a real disservice. Just look at how much it costs to house someone in prison versus having them work and succeed on probation.

Redefining a winner—Positive Coaching Alliance teaches that we must help others redefine what it means to be a winner. Well-respected studies show emphasis on effort and the ability to learn from mistakes prevails regularly over emphasis on results, comparison with others, and lack of tolerance for mistakes.

This is a huge sea change and initially was a hard one for me to accept. I had forgotten the many bloody noses and missed strokes of my formative years and how we are all works in progress. Today I find transformational the concept of redefining a winner. Again, respected data show more Olympic winners and coaches accept and apply this mastery concept with increased success. Remember, the Olympic motto is “higher, faster, stronger,” not “highest, fastest, strongest.” For me, it is all about incremental success as we assist our defendants in addressing patterns of drug use, violent behavior, alienation from family, anger, and unemployment.

Being placed on probation is like being on a team in many ways. Judges and probation officers can certainly distinguish between a probationer who is showing effort, learning from mistakes and has a teachable spirit and one who is negative, defensive, and doesn’t learn. The latter will dissemble, minimize, or deny at the drop of a hat. We must redefine success and what a winner is for our client population, but never at the expense of community safety. Most people—athletes or defendants—expect and deserve accountability. This is a delicate balance we are faced with daily and a major task of the justice system.

As a judge, I find many defendants learn crucial life lessons based upon their experience in the justice system, including the courtroom and encounters with the judge. Just sit in court on any given day and hear or read the sometimes inspirational, other times heartbreaking stories they tell or letters they send. On balance, I find the parallels between judge and coach quite striking and believe that vigorous discussion will surface more similarities than dissimilarities. Meanwhile, I will continue to provide PCA training to leaders, coaches, parents and youth athletes and apply positive coaching in the courtroom so both athletes and defendants learn important life lessons to help them lead productive and successful lives.

About the author: Judge Michael A. Town is a Circuit Court judge in Honolulu, Hawai`i, a Positive Coaching Alliance certified trainer, and ocean sports coach. A former NCJFCJ trustee, Judge Town speaks to judicial audiences nationally and internationally on topics including preventive, therapeutic, and restorative justice; resiliency, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and stress in judges; effective domestic violence interventions; and the unified family court.

For more information on Positive Coaching Alliance, visit their website at www.positivecoach.org.

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