FUN is NOT a 4-Letter Word!

By John O’Sullivan

When I was a kid, my parents taught me to avoid those bad four letter words we all have heard. You know the ones I mean, the ones that you would first hear in school and then think it was OK to use them at home, until you saw that look on dad’s face! My siblings and I learned pretty quickly that some four letter words were bad, and to be avoided at all times.

In youth sports these days, there is a new four letter word in the mind’s of some competitive sports folks. It is F-U-N. The mere thought that sports can be competitive AND fun makes some people shudder, but it should not.

One of our readers recently shared a story with me about attending a 10 year old AYSO youth soccer game in New York City. After watching the players struggle for a while, he asked a parent of one of the participants “how often do you practice?”

The response: “We don’t practice. Here we don’t play for competition; we just want the kids to have fun.”

I find this very sad. Not the fun part, because of course we want our kids to have fun. What is sad is the idea that competition, learning and fun cannot coexist.

Somehow the negative aspects of hyper-competitive sports – the over the top parents and coaches, excessive costs and commitments, and the often stressful environment – have created a counter culture in sports that has gone so far in the opposite direction that it is not serving the kids either. This is the trophies for everyone crowd, the people who give everyone awards for simply showing up and doing the bare minimum, or do not think kids should keep score (even though they do, but then forget about it as soon as they find out what the post game snack is). Grrr.

As our reader asked me when sharing this story: “Why do we think that it has to be one or the other? Why do we only associate excellence or competence with the negative aspects of competition? How do we communicate to parents who correctly identify the negative aspects of early competitive play: yelling coaches and parents, short term goals over long-term development, anxiety and pressure of tournaments, etc, that an environment that does not promote competence ultimately undermines the joy of learning and playing well?”

In other words, why is “fun” a four letter word in competitive sports? Why is the concept of competition an anathema in recreational sports. Can’t competitive sports also be fun, and recreational sports provide a great learning environment?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Unfortunately, this answer is in direct contradiction to what some people might call “conventional youth sports wisdom.”  Such conventional wisdom states that a “competitive” youth sports experience is supposed to happen at the expense of an “enjoyable” one.

The problem is that such wisdom, especially when combined with the push to specialize early, the emphasis on winning over development, the mythology surrounding 10,000 Hours of deliberate practice, and the unrealistic pursuit of scholarships, is very hard to combat. It has become the status quo, not to be argued nor questioned, regardless of any science showing otherwise.

We face the same problem trying to convince parents and coaches that competition, learning and enjoyment actually belong together!

As I have written before, top sports scientists tell us that children need three things to become high-performers: autonomy, intrinsic motivation and enjoyment. The enjoyment part is so often lost in the shuffle of private coaching, year round commitments, and early specialization. Yet enjoyment is absolutely crucial.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless your child’s desire to play and enjoyment of play matches the effort needed to succeed, he or she will never make the commitment necessary to get to the next level.

The problem is that we now equate enjoyment with not trying our best, and this is wrong. Athletes who are enjoying themselves naturally try harder. Elite athletes love to play. This enjoyment and passion did not start when they went to college or the pros; it has been there since day one.  As Lionel Messi states, “I didn’t compare myself to anyone. I just enjoyed playing.”

The problem is conventional wisdom tells us that having fun in training will not develop competence. Yet science tells us that when children have fun doing something, they will do it longer. They will do it more often, outside of practice as well as during practice. By default, they will develop more competence and confidence!

The best coaches know this. Unfortunately, many of them feel pressured to make the “best” use of valuable ice time or field rental time. They say “sorry, no scrimmages, no friendly games, we need more drills and repetitive exercises to get ready for our next competition” This makes the parents happy. This makes coaches the center of attention of training. Yet it does not fully serve the needs of the most important participants, the kids!

You see, game like conditions recreated in training are actually far better in preparing players for actual games, as are small sided games and scrimmages. They replicate the situations, decisions, patterns and speed of actual matches, which rarely happens in unopposed, repetitive drilling activities. Sure, a kid can pass to this line and run to that one, but can he play the right pass to the right side of his teammate at the right speed to tell his teammates where to turn, where the pressure is, and where the next pass should go? Can he do that with pressure coming from behind him, from in front, against multiple defenders? Can he show up in the right space at the right time, or just run to a cone because that is what his coach taught him to do? Only the game teaches the subtleties of the actual game.

We have far too many training environments that are too coach centric. Convention wisdom tells parents to look for these environments, with the domineering coach, constantly shouting instructions and solving problems, laying out dozens of cones, and clearly in charge. These coaches make all the decisions, and tell players where to go, when to go, and why to go. The game no longer belongs to kids. Kids do not get to make game like decisions in practice, and play fearful of making mistakes and incurring the coach’s wrath. Then game time comes along, and we wonder why the kids cannot figure it out for themselves! Couple this with the pressure to get a result, or advance in a tournament, and pretty soon kids are not improving during competition, they are getting worse, They are getting scared. And they are no longer enjoying themselves.

Learning can definitely happen without fun.

Enjoyment can definitely take place in the absence of learning.

And competition can both promote or stifle both enjoyment and education.

To truly take an athlete’s game to the next level, though, you need the coexistence of learning, enjoyment and competition, not an absence of them.

First and foremost you need fun, to keep the athlete motivated and coming back. You need learning – the development of competence – to promote improvement, confidence, and control of the experience. And you need competition to test these skills from time to time in an environment that makes mistakes likely, and thus promotes the opportunity to learn.

FUN is NOT a 4-Letter word. It can and should become the foundation of every athletic experience for kids. And when combined with learning and the right type of competitive environment, you have the ideal place to develop athletes who perform up to their potential.

Pass this along and help us change the conventional wisdom. Leave your thoughts and comments below so we can figure out together how we can accomplish this. Lets put the “PLAY” back in playing youth sports!

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

Mound Management (Part 2)

By Alan Jaeger

Defining A Typical Pitcher’s Process

From my experience of working with pitchers over the years I have found that the characteristics of their Process tends to be very similar.  For example, in the previous section, where we defined the Process with four checkpoints — 1) Deep Breath, 2) Look for Focal Point, 3) Mechanical Cue, and 4) Commitment to Focal Point — I have found that most pitchers eventually identify with a similar approach.  And it makes sense because all four of these checkpoints are reliable, tactical and chronological with regard to a pitchers bottom line.

Let’s briefly go over each one of these checkpoints and see if any of these components resonate with you.

Checkpoint #1 — Taking a Deep Breath is a good reminder to slow down and relax — most people in this day and age have a better understanding of the beneficial role breathing plays in our physical and mental health (especially if you have a daily mental practice that may involve breath work, tuning into your breath may be a natural fit and starting point to your Process).

Checkpoint #2 — Having a Focal Point is great because pitchers ultimately want to know where they are going (Intent/End Point), and this gives the mind somewhere tangible to go (“energy follows attention”).  In the natural course of events, once you have given the mind a specific place to go, you have positioned it to “complete” this intention.

Checkpoint #3 — A Mechanical Cue can be a great “physical” reminder as part of your process.  I personally liked the feeling of hitting my balance point or “checking in” before I went to the plate.  For others, it may be something about your front side, direction, and so on.  This physical cue can be a great link between your Focal Point/Intention, and your last step, your Finish.

Checkpoint #4 — Your Commitment/Conviction to “finish” the job is very important because the mind not only wants to know where it’s starting point or Intention is, but equally important, the completion of this Intention.  This sense of Intent (where do I want to go) and Finish (Commitment/Conviction) are fundamental to most, if not all pitchers, consciously or unconsciously.

(Note regarding Mechanics): If you feel a mechanical checkpoint is helpful to your Process, that’s great.  Ultimately, just know that your Process may be as simple as having a Focal Point (Intention), and Attacking your Focal Point (Commitment/Conviction).  Therefore, don’t feel a need to have a mechanical checkpoint in place.  I’ve been told by a number of pitchers that one of the reasons they love this approach is because the feeling of seeing and attacking their focal point actually eliminates their need to focus on their mechanics in game situations.  Again, try a few different checkpoints and see what works for you.

The point is, whatever feels right for you is YOUR Process.  It could be one element, like, “take a deep breath and go”, or it could be “see my focal point and attack”.  Regardless, your Process is simply about controlling the 1, 2, 3 or 4 keys to executing your best pitch possible.  Once you know this, it is very empowering because you realize that pitching now comes down to being GREAT at what you can control, your Process, as opposed to trying to control countless, changing variables that may arise simply because you are in a game situation.

Alan Jaeger has consulted with several high school/college programs including UCLA, Arizona and Cal State Fullerton, and MLB Organizations including the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians.  For more information about Jaeger Sports and their products (“Thrive On Throwing 2” DVD or Digital Download, J-Bands and Mental Training Book, “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”), please visit their website at or call 310-665-0746.  You may also download additional articles/videos at, and Youtube, keyword jaeger sports.  Twitter: @jaegersports

Ways to “winterize” your workout

Our partners at PHIT want to make sure that the cold weather most of the country will be in for the next few months doesn’t curtail fitness activity. For a terrific article chock full of suggestions and tips to stay in shape even while the treetops are glistening, click here.

Central Michigan going to the Bahamas

Check out the way the school let Central Michigan’s football team know they were going to leave frigid Michigan in December and head to the Bahamas for their bowl game. This is tremendous.

Protex Sports Foundation

A good friend and frequent OnDeck newsletter contributor, John Ellsworth of Protex Sports is paying it forward through his Protex Sports Foundation. The foundation assists athletes who are disadvantaged financially stay active in sports. Leagues and individuals are encouraged to make charitable donations to this extremely worthy cause.

Answers to yesterday’s puzzler

Below are the answers to yesterday’s You Are the Ref, courtesy of The Guardian UK.

1) At the risk of making yourself look daft, you really have to intervene here. At the next stoppage, ask the bear to remove his head so you can see who is inside. If it is the banned manager, order him to leave the stadium and report what has happened to the authorities. If not, instruct the mascot to cool down, and stay away from the pitch perimeter.
2) It depends how he has dropped on the ball. If he has used his hands, penalise him for handling the back-pass by awarding an indirect free-kick – it doesn’t matter that he went on a dribble first. But if he has just used his body to drop on the ball and shield it from an opponent, you need to see what happens next. If he gets up and clears the ball without handling it, and without the opponent challenging him, play on. But if an opponent tries kicking the ball from under him, you have to stop the game. In that situation, the keeper has created a dangerous situation (a danger to himself), so penalise him for dangerous play – again with an indirect free-kick.
3) Reader John Thornhill says this happened in a game he was refereeing, and he responded by stopping play and ordering a retaken corner. He says the defending side were furious – but he was right. The flag post needs to be in the correct position when the ball is kicked. This is one of those unusual situations which show how you need a good knowledge of the laws, and the ability to think on your feet.

Friday fun: You Are the Ref

We love to bring you these occasionally and today’s is a good one. Take a look at the cult classic cartoon which was started in 1957 by Paul Trevillion and is now published in the UK’s Guardian under the supervision of Keith Hackett. We’ll have Keith’s answers for  you tomorrow.

You are the Ref Steph Houghton


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