If you’d like to read the first installment of this series, you can find that here.
I am incredibly grateful that forward-thinking, best-selling author and professional speaker John O’Sullivan has agreed to participate in the second installment of my Sharing Wisdom: A Series of Coaching Perspectives. John is the Founder and CEO of the Changing the Game Project and works tirelessly on helping coaches, parents, and administrators develop high-performing athletes through positive, child centered sporting environments.
I’ve been studying John’s work for over a year now and one of the first things that he mentioned early on that made my ears perk up was this…
When we were all growing up and playing sports, sports were mostly about children competing against other children. And now, unfortunately, when you look around, a lot of times sports is adults competing against other adults through their children.
Boy does that statement hit the nail on the head.
As I’ve been watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament over the last several weeks and I see TV crews periodically cut to the players’ parents in the stands, I wonder if this is the end goal for so many disillusioned people who I’ve read about or ran across on the sidelines watching my own children compete?
I don’t offer up that question as a jab on parents of collegiate athletes. Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. March Madness is unequivocally one of my favorite times of the year and the players who are talented enough to provide entertainment and life lessons to the rest of us watching from the comfort of our coaches are to be commended. How amazing of an experience it must be for their moms and dads to come along for the ride.
I’m just raising it as a way to address a larger question: How many parents will actually get to see their son or daughter compete on a stage that grand?
(In case you’re interested in knowing, the chances of a young man transitioning from a high school standout to competing as an NCAA college basketball player are small: 3.4%. If you narrow that down to Division 1, that percentage is even smaller: 1%.)
See a breakdown for each NCAA sport here –> Source: NCAA Estimated probability of competing in college athletics
So, for the vast majority of youth sports parents, the window of time that we are able to watch our children play the games they (hopefully) love is very brief.
What I respect about John is that he is helping guide the youth sports cultural conversation between parents and coaches. We all seem to want our children to play as long as possible (and to succeed). It therefore makes sense to talk about how to do that in a way that prevents player burnout, reduces injuries, maximizes individual development, and builds character through challenging and rewarding experiences.
Below are the three questions I asked John as well as his responses…Enjoy!
Q1: What’s been the hardest part for you in adjusting from playing collegiate soccer, then professional soccer, to being a parent and coach of children competing in sports?
John’s Response: I sure loved to play. When I lost the love, I stopped playing. The most difficult part about becoming a coach and a dad for me was coaching players, and even my own kids, who were not like me as a player. I was so competitive, I hated to lose a sprint, a pickup game, everything and anything I took it personally. Things never came easy to me, so I was used to fighting hard, working hard, and competing all the time. When I coached kids that things came easy for, kids that I did not feel put in sufficient effort, kids who did not seem to care when we lost, it was very hard for me.
Q2: You’ve presented a TEDx Talk, have garnered over 36,000 followers on your Changing the Game Project Facebook fan page, and have written a best-selling book all centered around helping parents, coaches, and young athletes view sports as positive and rewarding – evidence that this is a very hot topic in our society today. How did we get so far down a path that values short-term defined results over long-term improved process for our kids?
John’s Response: I don’t think you can point to any one thing and say that is why sports have gone down this path. Certainly the money in professional sports creates an allure that is hard to ignore. Youth sports has become a billion dollar business, so the competition for customers has driven year round commitments younger and younger, forcing kids to specialize. The social media culture, and pop culture in general, value things like fame, fortune, self-centeredness, and the like, and so we see these things in sport. We see a 12-year old on YouTube doing amazing things on the soccer field and we think Why can’t my kid do that? Am I a bad parent?
All these factors have worked together to create a place where we value games instead of practice, winning instead of developing, and value the short term results over the long term character development and other things sport can provide. But I do believe we can change that.
Q3: What’s the single greatest life lesson that a coach of youth athletes can bestow upon their team?
John’s Response: I think the best thing a coach can do is coach a person, not a sport. Every athlete needs something different. Some need structure, some need freedom. Some need a quiet word, others need more discipline. One size fits all coaching is never as successful as coaching each and every individual in the team setting. Coach a child, not a sport, and you will not only develop better people, you will win more games too.
John started the Changing the Game Project in 2012 after two decades as a soccer player and coach on the youth, high school, college and professional level. He is the author of the #1 bestselling books Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids and Is it Wise to Specialize? John is also a regular contributor for SoccerWire.com, and his writing has been featured in many publications including The Huffington Post and Soccer America. John is an internationally known speaker for coaches, parents and youth sports organizations, and has spoken for TEDx, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, IMG Academy, and at numerous other events throughout the US, Canada and Europe. Read more about John here.
The Sharing Wisdom: A Series of Coaching Perspectives is written by Heidi Woodard.