Changing The Game In Youth Sports

John O Sullivan

Here is my recent interview with John O’Sullivan, author of Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids. John is originally from New York and graduated in 1994 from Fordham University, where he was a soccer team captain as a senior and a member of the 1990 Patriot League Championship team. After playing professionally for the Wilmington (NC) Hammerheads of the USL, John began his coaching career as a Varsity Boys Soccer Coach at Cardinal Gibbons HS in Raleigh, NC. Then he became the Assistant Men’s and Women’s Soccer Coach at the University of Vermont, and from there moved on to youth soccer. Since then, John has worked as a Director of Coaching for Nordic Sprint SC, Ann Arbor Youth Soccer Association, and as Executive Director of Oregon Rush Soccer Club in Bend, OR. He is currently the Central Oregon Regional Training Center Director for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

Erin: I am delighted today to interview one of my favorite people in youth sports today, John O’Sullivan. John, you have been involved in sports as a player and coach for most of your life. What has changed since you played sports as a child?

John: I can tell you in one sentence: When I was growing up, youth sports were about children competing against one another, and today youth sports are about adults competing against adults through their children.

Erin: When did this change occur?

John: I have never heard a date given for when this change started happening, but one event that resonates with me was seeing a 3 year old Tiger Woods on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This was pivotal in that it showed an extremely talented child who would go on to become the greatest golfer in history, and his proud dad was standing right beside him. This gave parents the false hope that if they just push their kids a little bit harder, start them a little younger, and get the best coaching, they too would be able to raise the next Tiger Woods of any sport. But this hope was false because Tiger was a prodigy. He was the youngest person to ever excel in golf, and he loved the sport and was very intrinsically motivated to play it. His success is just as much a mixture of good genetics and luck as it is hard work. No matter how much effort a kid puts into a sport (whether by their own choice or their parent’s pushing, there is no guarantee, and actually a very small chance that s/he will raise to the level of a Tiger Woods.

There are three essential ingredients needed for high performance: First, the young athlete needs to be intrinsically motivated. The athlete needs this in order to have the drive, grit and mental fortitude to train and play hard enough. And unfortunately, many parents are the ones leading the charge when it comes to training, doing the extra work on the side, and finding opportunities for the athlete to challenge himself and get out of his comfort zone. The second ingredient is enjoyment: some misguided coaches believe that competitive sports and enjoyment are mutually exclusive but this is untrue. In fact, if an athlete does not love the sport, s/he is unlikely to play it long enough to be good. Every single moment does not have to be fun, but it has to keep them coming back and it must be something they look forward to doing. Scores aside, coaches of young players already have a huge victory if all of their players want to come back to play again next season. The final ingredient is ownership: the goals being pursued must belong to them. As coaches and parents, we can suggest some goals and encourage athletes to aim higher, but we must ultimately release them to their game and their goals. They have to drive the bus and we must be the passenger who helps them find their way. We can encourage, we can push them and hold them accountable for their ambitions and dreams, but ultimately, if it is the parent and not the child in the driver’s seat, the trip will be a short one.

Erin: I have read that overuse injuries are on the rise in young athletes. What can we do about this?

John: Dr. James Andrews wrote the book Any Given Monday because as the father of modern sports medicine and one of the most influential figures in the world of athletics, Dr. Andrews got tired of seeing 12 year olds in his office who had blown out their elbows from too much pitching. The stats are clear: athletes who specialize too young in only one sport increase their risk of injuries and burnout and the consequences can be lifelong. It is a poor gamble. So many parents ignore those stats, instead relying on the guidance of coaches, many of whom are making a living coaching. Parents are operating from a place of fear as well – trying to make sure their young athlete keeps up with everyone else’s young athlete and trying to make sure their child does not get “left behind.” These parents tend to ignore the stats until it’s too late.

The saddest stories I hear are the ones from parents who say “I did it all wrong. My child blew out her knee, she lost all of her self worth, all of her friends are gone and now I have no relationship with her outside of the sport she played.” We need to be raising children in a well-balanced way and sports should be the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. Parents should not go all in when their kids are young, giving them no rest and ignoring the kids’ feelings. This is a recipe for disaster.

Erin: You have been spreading your message since 2013. Do you feel that parents and coaches are starting to listen? Do you see anything shifting? I have read many articles this spring baseball season about this very topic so it seems to me that people are at least beginning the conversation.

John: The message is definitely gaining traction. The Positive Coaching Alliance and Proactive Coaching have also been spreading this message even longer than I have. When I started talking about this, people would tell me I was crazy, that this problem is too big and why should I bother? But we must! As a soccer director, I saw that much of this stems from a lack of parental education and I am trying to inspire others to begin the conversation – in their homes, in their towns and in their sports leagues. The more people are talking about it, the more change we will see for the benefit of our young athletes. This problem is a massive one with so many kids playing sports and so many parents and coaches who have not yet heard this message. It is actually an international problem. Obesity is on the rise, and we need to help people become active for life, but with so many elite teams of all sports at such young ages, we are creating barriers to participation. We must begin to shift this dynamic.

Erin: Here is a scenario someone told me about recently. How would you suggest that parents or other coaches who witnessed this respond?

I just witnessed the coach on the other team loading the pitching machine when his son was up. The boy was swinging the bat up at the end of his swing. His dad stopped putting balls in the machine to reprimand his son. He said “you’re swinging up! You’re never gonna hit the ball if you swing up!… I don’t want to embarrass you, but you’re not doing it right!” The boy’s shoulders slumped and he looked like he was going to cry. Then the boy watched the next three balls go by without swinging at all. No wonder! He swung well the next time but missed, and his dad (coach) said with notable satisfaction “now that’s right!” He swung “up” again on the last pitch to strike out. His dad looked so mad on the mound, he humphed and said “you did it again.” And just walked off shaking his head in disgust.

John: Well, in that scenario it would be difficult to intervene in the moment. But taking note of that type of behavior and trying to get adults to see through the young athletes’ eyes might help. Asking parents how they would feel if their boss yelled at them in front of everyone at work when they messed up is a powerful way to help parents see how this kind of behavior makes a child feel. I know this story was about how a coach treated his own son, but we also have to create a culture on the sidelines where parents will not tolerate that kind of treatment of young athletes by their coaches. Parents generally will not allow a teacher to treat their children that way, so why do they allow coaches to? We need to shift that mindset – coaches need to treat young athletes with dignity and respect. They can push young athletes and have high standards, but must do so with respect. That story likely embarrassed that little boy. How does that possibly make that little boy play better or even want to? So the people who witnessed it should not go to the coach who was at the machine. Instead, they should share this message with other people who agree and help them feel empowered to speak out, talk about it, write about it on blogs, etc. I see change coming – its overdue. It is what has to happen, but it is not a magic pill. In my book Changing the Game, I talk about a paradigm shift, that as parents and coaches we need to act differently, not because we were forced to sign a code of conduct but because we understand the importance and we want to act differently. Educating and inspiring coaches and parents to want to change is how we will shift this for our young athletes.

Erin: Thank you so much, John for taking the time to talk with me today. How can people get in touch with you or learn more about you and your message?

John: They can follow me on Facebook at Changing The Game Project. They can also visit me at www.changingthegameproject.com, they can purchase my book, or listen to my TED talk. Together, we can give the game back to our kids.

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