WYC 042 – Changing the Game – John O’Sullivan talks Sports Specialization vs Early Engagers

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What does it take to be a winning youth coach? Listen in as John O’Sullivan shares stories and discusses his journey to becoming a successful youth sports coach.

John is the founder of the Changing the Game Project – whose mission is to is to ensure that we return youth sports to our children, and put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’  They want to provide the most influential adults in our children’s lives – their parents and coaches – with the information and resources they need to make sports a healthy, positive, and rewarding experience for their children, and their whole family.

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.  He resides in beautiful Bend, OR, with his wife, Dr Lauren O’Sullivan, and two wonderful children and aspiring young athletes: Maggie Shea, age 9, and Tiernan, age 7.

Twitter: @coachjohnnyo

Facebook: /SportsParentingResourceCenter

Website/blog: changingthegameproject.com

Listen Now:

Listen in ITunes: Itunes link

Listen in Stitcher: Stitcher link


Coaching/Leadership Quote


‘When you are coaching sports – you don’t coach a sport, you coach a child’ – Dr. Martin Toms


Coaching Your Own Kids

  • Coaching your own kid is a tough challenge because you are discipling their friends and can off-the-field ramifications

My Cringe & ‘Ah-Ha’ Moments

  • There is so much to learn as a new coach – early on John didn’t realize how powerful his actions and words are as a coach – they will stick with these young people for their lifetime
  • A-ha moment: John coached a young man in high school – and after college he called John to thank him for the lessons he had taught.  This was eye-opening on the seriousness of the responsibility of coaching young people.
  • You’re going to make mistakes- and that’s OK – but use this as an opportunity to be humble and apologize – this is a great example to the kids.

Teaching Children & Keeping it Fun

  • Dr. Martin Toms’: ‘When you are coaching sports – you don’t coach a sport, you coach a child’
  • Don’t professionalize youth sports – focus on developing the kids, not for the win today.  Long-term goals instead of short-term.  What do kids need from a youth sports coach? – Enjoyment, ownership, and to be intrinsically motivated.


  • It very much depends on what/who you are coaching – if you are coaching a prospective olympic gymnast, who’s physical activity peaks at 14-15 – you have to start earlier
  • But for all of us coaching kids ages 6-12- the focus has to be development over winning – so don’t not play a kid just because it’s a close game


  • Study done by Amanda Visek from George Washington University – asked kids: ‘why do you play sports?’ – 9 out of 10 answered because it is fun.  Then she asked them to define what fun is: they came up with 81 different characteristics of what fun is – and ‘winning’ was down at #48 on the list.  Link to article: Fun not winning
  • Coaching high-level youth soccer – Coach O’Sullivan started every player 1/3 of the games – this gives you the opportunity later in the season/game you can go with who is ‘hot’ because they are all having opportunities to shine

Specialization in Youth Sports


  • Unless you are coaching female olympic gymnastics, figure-skating, diving – the rest of athletes don’t hit their peak until their 20’s
  • Kids who specialize early:
    • 70-90% more likely to get hurt
    • Far more likely to burn out
    • Far more likely to develop psychological issues
    • Don’t develop all-around sports athleticism
  • There is a huge difference between specialization and early-engagers:
    • Specialization is adult-driven, organized environment, focused on long-term goals
    • Engagement is child-driven, play-centered, focused on enjoyment of the game
      • There is tons of free-play
      • They fall in love with the game
      • They have the space to fail, the freedom to be creative without an adult looking over their shoulder telling them what they are doing wrong
    • What if your 7-year-old says he only wants to play 1 sport? – You are the adult and you need to guide them to branch out and try different things.

Mental Peak Performance

  • Every kid is different.
  • Preparing a kid doesn’t start the night before a tryout
  • The important thing is to encourage kids to work hard, and learn from situations, good and bad.  Don’t make excuses, don’t blame coaches – just learn teaching moments.


  • Great teams don’t have rules – great teams have standards.  Rules are meant to be broken – standards are expectations that the team agrees upon and holds each other accountable to.

The One that got away

  • John shares that the games he looks back upon with the most regret are ones where the opponents just produced such a toxic environment of negativity

Best Stolen idea

  • Jerry Yeagley from Indiana Univ – Jerry could make whoever he is talking to feel like the most important person in the room

Changing the Game Project

  • Teaching parents how to help kids become the most competitive athletes they can be
  • Teaching coaches to develop positive significance in your players’ lives
  • Online coaching and parent education, books, blog
  • Currently developing 7-week online course for coaches with world experts in each area

Parting Advice

  • You don’t coach a sport, you coach a child
  • Coaching is a calling – respect that.  ‘I am not going to be disloyal to a sport that has given me a life’

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