About 75 percent of children will walk away from organized sports before they are 13 years old, according to John O’Sullivan, creator of the “Changing the Game Project,” which focuses on how parents and coaches can give kids a better experience on the field.
O’Sullivan founded the movement in 2012 with a mission to get parents and coaches thinking about how they might actually be ruining sports for their children without even realizing it.
“We ask them why they quit, and they say, ‘Well, it wasn’t fun anymore. I felt to much pressure; it wasn’t serving my needs,’” said O’Sullivan, who gave a presentation to parents and coaches April 11 at Highland Middle School.
O’Sullivan’s goal is to help parents and coaches give kids a better sports experience through access to a trusted resource with information on subjects including talent development, performance and encouragement.
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“We are incredibly passionate about just helping coaches and parents really realize: What do kids want out of this experience and what path is your son or you daughter going down? Where you can best serve them?” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan’s program breaks down the world of recreational sports today and how it has changed from when he was young. The program is about taking “winning” out as a top priority and giving positive feedback to help kids create a “growth mindset” at a young age.
The program encourages the elimination of “toxic practices,” such as cutting children from sports too soon, early specialization, reinforcement of negative mindsets, pressuring and casting out late bloomers.
O’Sullivan said parents and coaches are often not even aware the negative impact they are having on kids when they do things such as criticizing performance on the drive home after a game or yelling too much from the sidelines.
“I don’t think that their parents get into sports with their kids thinking that, ‘Oh, I want to mess this up for them,’” O’Sullivan said. “But sometimes they do things with great intentions that are actually harmful and not helpful to their child’s sports development.”
He encourages parents to think less about what sports as a capital investment and more as a safety deposit for child’s wholesome development. By changing their outlooks and responses to their child’s performance, O’Sullivan explained that children will hopefully stay in sports longer, and will begin to have more fun while striving to succeed at the same time.
Highland not immune from “toxicity”
While reading about O’Sullivan’s movement, one thing stood out to the Highland Parks and Recreation Director Mark Rosen — the simple phrase, “I love watching you play.”
Rosen learned that O’Sullivan’s philosophy stemmed from those five words, which he considered to be the most meaningful and effective thing a parent can say to support their children in sports.
After realizing the benefits of the message, Rosen started working with the Youth Sports Advisory Commission to get O’Sullivan to Highland.
The Youth Sports Advisory Commission President Joe Gould and Rosen agreed that they had both seen “toxic” aspects in the local sports environment, including screaming parents and coaches throwing equipment.
“We thought, ‘What could we do to get rid of some of this toxic attitude?’” Rosen said.
Rosen and Gould also said that Highland has been experiencing some trouble retaining children in sports, especially throughout their whole high school careers.
Gould also attended a “Changing the Game” conference in Colorado. His experience with O’Sullivan’s program left him wanting to bring the same practices to Highland.
“We need to be proactive,” Gould said. “As parents and coaches, anything you say can affect the future of a child.”
Coach and parent reactions
After the presentation, there was a feeling of positivity in the room amongst both coaches and parents.
“I think its a very positive message,” said Joe Stock, a parent who also coaches youth sports. He said he was willing to adopt the teachings for his future experiences.
“I think it’s definitely a message that rang true for me and a philosophy that I am going to try to learn more about,” Stock said.
Pete Fields, Rob Sigman and Jeff Diesen all had similar takeaways from the talk and said O’Sullivan’s presentation was “excellent.”
“It’s the issue we all talk about,” Diesen said.
All three are parents who have coached recreational softball. They said that, while they were coaching, they used a strategy similar to O’Sullivan’s movement. Diesen, Sigman and Fields agreed that their strategy led them to have great success as both coaches and with team retention. Their personal coaching philosophy is that every kid gets to bat and have playing time.
“Kids need to have the opportunity to succeed. If they are sitting on the bench, they don’t have that opportunity,” Sigman said. “If kids have improved, and they still love the game, it has been a successful season.”
To learn more about “Changing the Game,” parents and coaches can visit the project website, or read O’Sullivan’s novel titled “Changing the Game.”