Three Questions That Turn Losing into Learning

By John O’Sullivan

“Do you want to win every game you play for the rest of your life?”

That was a question that Olympic gold medalist and current USA Women’s Volleyball team head coach Karch Kiraly asked his team as they prepared for the 2014 World Championships.

“Because we can,” he told them. They could schedule easy opponents, play overmatched foes, and play in friendly instead of hostile environments. But then what? Would they be challenged? Would they be pushed? Would they be bored? Of course. Deep down no one wants to win all the rest of their games. You must lose sometimes, and they did as they prepared in 2014..

Kiraly’s team went on to claim the World Championship, and is a favorite for gold in Rio this summer, because they continually challenge themselves. They lose sometimes, but they learn from losing. His question to his team is one our Changing the Game Project speakers ask parents all the time: “Do you want your kids to win all their games for the rest of their life?”

Of course the answer is no. We understand that winning is great, but losing and being challenged and pushed is where young athletes learn the most. We don’t want our kids to play all their games against overmatched teams, or in easy tournaments, because they would eventually get bored and quit. They want to be challenged. Here is the clincher, though.

They are OK with losing, and most kids understand it’s part of the process.

Sadly, many adults struggle with losing far more than their kids. Angry moms and dads berate their kids and officials from the sidelines, and on the ride home after games. Coaches yell and scream at athletes, or worse yet, don’t even let some kids play in matches because they fear losing. They use physical punishment (running, pushups, etc) when kids make technical errors, instead of teaching them. They scream for more effort from players who have given their all, but haven’t developed the technique and tactical ability to succeed.

When I suggest to these coaches that there is a better way, the response is predictable: “Life is tough, I’m not going to coddle these kids, I’m getting them ready for the real world.”

“Life is tough,” I respond, “and sports is a great way to teach kids to deal with challenging situations. But don’t you think it would be better for those kids to tackle those future difficult situations with a strong sense of self-confidence and belief, instead of thinking ‘last time we messed up we got screamed at’ or ‘I messed up and got benched?’’”

The response to my question is also predictable from most coaches that come from the “I have always done it this way, that’s how I was coached” camp: crickets, or at most a shrug and shake of the head.

As parents and coaches, we too often frame losing as something to always be feared and avoided at all costs. When we do this, we don’t prepare kids for future success; we prepare them for future anxiety (we also encourage cheating but that is a whole different article).

There is a better way. Losing can be something positive if framed correctly, especially for young kids.

Trust me, I understand how frustrating losing feels, as both a parent and a coach. I want my kids to be successful, and I certainly want my teams to play hard and get some results for their efforts. I am disheartened when I see the goals pouring in our goal, and my athletes struggling. I want to fix it. I want to make it better. I want to feel better after the game, and usually venting my frustration makes me feel better. But what about the kids? Does it make them better?

There is a better way. It works incredibly well when I am coaching a team, and it works great with my own kids to help after a tough loss.

I ask three simple questions after a tough loss and/or a disappointing performance:

What went well out there?

What needs work?

Why are we better because we lost today?

I learned these three questions from my great friend Dr. Jerry Lynch, author of the outstanding new book Let Them Play: The Mindful Way to Parent Kids for Fun and Success in Sports. Dr. Lynch has been part of over 30 national and world champion teams on the collegiate and professional level, so when he makes a recommendation on how to help a team or athlete, I tend to listen. Here is why these questions work.

What went well out there?

After a loss, many athletes are expecting to get dressed down. They usually feel lousy about a loss, just as parents and coaches do. But they didn’t do everything wrong. Some good things happened, and this question lets players know that we saw some good things. They scored some goals, made some good tackles, and had some great combination plays. Instead of only focusing on what went wrong, this question helps kids understand that they are doing a lot right. This helps them feel like they are continually improving, and that the process has space for both success and disappointment. Better yet, research shows that the most effective leaders and teams give nearly six positive comments for every negative one. It is never all bad, so be sure that your kids never forget that by first asking “what went well?”

What needs work?

Obviously, we lost, so not everything went well. But this is sports, there is always something that needs work, right? We often underemphasize “what needs work” when we win, and overemphasize it when we lose, so asking this in both cases provides balance. We have acknowledged the good, now let’s acknowledge the things we have to put in some extra work on. Did we defend well as a team? How is our fitness? Are we working hard for each other offensively? As a parent, you can ask your son or daughter what things they can focus on in training that week, or better yet, what can they accomplish outside of practice to improve their play. Athletes must be prepared to receive critical feedback from their coaches regardless of the result, and asking them to identify what needs to be worked on is far more effective than simply lecturing them.

Why are we a better team/athlete because we lost today?

This question is the clincher. Development is a process. It is a marathon, not a sprint. There are going to be ups and downs, and the critical thing is we continually learn and improve. The outcome of the competition cannot be changed, but we can influence the outcome of our next event, and our preparation for it. This question helps athletes frame the loss, and take ownership of the training and preparation for the next match. For example, your team might say “We are better because we learned that when we don’t defend as a team, we get scored on a lot. We need to focus on team defending if we are going to be successful next match.” Your athlete might say “I am better because I learned that against a good team, I have to play a lot quicker, so I will be focused on that in practice this week.” This question opens the door to a path forward, helps them move on from the loss, and gives them ownership over their preparation for the upcoming contest.

Three simple, magical questions that turn losing moments into learning moments:

What went well?

What needs work?

Why are we a better team because we lost today?

When a coach asks his or her team these three questions, losing is no longer a scary moment; it becomes a teachable moment. You build a stronger connection with your athletes, you put the loss in the past, and you get your athletes refocused on the process of getting better. Most importantly, you demonstrate that you are in this together. Your athletes will love you for it.

Parents, when you ask your kids these three questions, you remind them that it’s the process, not just the outcome, that matters. You help them take ownership of their improvement, and focus on both their strengths and weaknesses. You also let them know that you are in it with them, whether its good, its bad, or it’s ugly. It lets them know that you don’t simply love watching them win, but that you love watching them play!

Next time your team is loses, take a deep breath, and ask the three magic questions. You will be glad you did.

And so will your kids.

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.”

Open Letter to My Dad, Who Makes Me Want to Quit Sports

By John O’Sullivan

Dear Dad,

I was afraid to say this to your face after the game today, but I was thinking that maybe you could stop coming to my games for a while. It doesn’t seem that fun for you anyway, and I know it’s not fun for me when you are there. I used to love when you watched my play when I was younger, but now, I wish you weren’t there. I think I am starting to hate playing soccer. I might quit. I bet you are wondering why.

I heard you in the stands today during my soccer game. I was going to say I heard you cheering, but that wasn’t really what you were doing. You were coaching. You were yelling about the other team, the other coaches, and at the officials. I also heard you yelling at me every time I got the ball.

I believe you think you are helping, but you are not. You are confusing me.

It’s confusing when you coach me from the sideline. When I play soccer, I feel like I have to make so many decisions at a time. Should I dribble or pass? Should I cross or shoot? Should I step up or stay back? Where are my teammates? Where are the defenders? I am trying to figure all these things out while out of breath, and fighting off defenders. With all this going on, you want me to listen to you, too? It seems no matter what I do, whether good or bad, you continue to yell at me. It is impossible to listen to you and play the game at the same time.

It is confusing when you and the coach shout instructions at the same time. I can’t listen to both of you. Many times the things you say contradict what the coach teaches me at practice. My coach is trying to get me to pass it out of the back, but you keep yelling at me to kick it long. My coach encourages me to dribble past players, but you tell me to get rid of it when I try to dribble. My coach tells me to pass the ball to feet, but you tell me to kick it over the top and our forwards will chase it down. I either get yelled at by my coach, or by you. To make matters worse, sometimes the other parents join in and yell, too! I am so stressed out there. It’s not a very good feeling.

It’s confusing to me when you yell at the officials, especially since you teach me to respect teachers, coaches and my elders. Dad, some of these referees are kids that go to my school. I see them at lunch and in the halls and I am so embarrassed. Would you yell at me like that if I was a new referee? Even when the officials are right, and you are standing 50 yards away, you yell at them. I wish you would just let the game play out and let me and my coach handle what is going on.

It’s confusing when you are still upset about the loss hours after a game. How long is it appropriate to be sad and angry? I mean, I am the one who played, right? We are supposed to win some and lose some if we play good teams, right? We got beat, but now we have to move on and get ready for the next game. I am not sure how staying angry will help me get better for the next game. I certainly don’t feel like learning much immediately after a loss. The best thing you can do after a game is tell me you are proud of me for competing, and showing good sportsmanship, and that you love to watch me play. What are we going to eat is helpful too. But that’s all. I can get better next practice.

It’s confusing when you talk badly about my coach in front of me. You tell me to respect my coach and listen to what he says, but then I hear you and other parents say he doesn’t know what he is doing. My friends say that their dads tell them not to listen to the coach, and they don’t know who to listen to anymore. No wonder our coach gets so frustrated with us.

It’s confusing when you talk badly about my teammates in front of me. I know some of my teammates aren’t as fast, or as strong, or don’t kick as well, but they are my friends, Dad. In school, they teach me that I should treat everyone with respect, but then you disrespect my teammates right in front of me. I wish you would try to see the good in my friends instead of pointing out their faults.

It’s confusing when you yell and scream at mistakes and act like playing soccer is an easy thing to do. I am not sure if you remember what it was like to be a player. Do you remember what it was like to be going through a growth spurt, and feeling awkward when you try to run and jump (never mind the sore knees)? Do you remember how hard it was to learn to trap or pass a soccer ball, or for that matter hit a baseball, or catch a fly ball? Sometimes you try your very best, and still get it wrong. It doesn’t help or make me feel any better about my mistake when you yell at me for it, or tell me to “get my head in the game.” What does that mean, anyway? You yell things and most of the time I have no idea what you are talking about.

Dad, I don’t want to tell you how to parent or anything, but sometimes I feel like your love is conditional upon how the game goes.

When we win, everything is great, but whenever we lose, or I have a bad game, it seems like you hate me. I wish I was riding home with someone else, and not you. I think it’s because you keep talking about the game when I don’t want to. You go over every mistake. Even when we win, all I hear about is what went wrong. If you talked about the game at dinner, or the next morning, it would be fine, but please, not on the car ride home.

I certainly appreciate all the time and money you spend to let me play. But sometimes it feels like we are out there playing just to entertain the adults. We just want to play. And we want you to watch if you can do so without yelling at the refs, screaming at other parents, and coaching from the stands.

Could you do that for me dad? Could you just come, watch the game quietly, and then not talk about it on the ride home? If you can, I would love for you to come.

But if you can’t, I would prefer if you just dropped me off and let me play.

Dad, I love sports, I love my team, and I love my teammates. I want to play with these guys forever, but not if it makes you hate me and angry at me all the time. Not if it makes me feel worse about myself.

Please let me know what you decide. I love you.

Your son,

Bobby, #10
(Every once in a while, we get an email or a post from a young athlete who has struggled with parental behavior in sports. These letters are heartbreaking, and very personal, so we do not republish them. This letter from “Bobby” is a compilation of the various stories we have heard from kids, not an actual letter we received. It is, however, an accurate reflection of the things we hear and see everyday on our sidelines. We ask all parents to please read this with your son or daughter, and share it with other parents you know. Ask your kids how they want you to act, how you can cheer in a helpful way, and when is a good time to talk about the game. When you ask, please listen to and respect their answer.)

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.”


The One Quality Great Teammates Have in Common

By John O’Sullivan

“Coach, can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s on your mind today Michael?”

“Well, I just want to know what I can do so I get to start more games and get more playing time as a center midfielder. I don’t think I am showing my best as a winger, and my parents tell me I am not going to get noticed by the college scouts unless something changes.”

Well Michael,” I said, “there is something that all coaches are looking for from the players they recruit. In fact, it is exactly what I am looking for from you as well. If you approach every practice, every fitness session, and every match with this one thing, I think you will see a huge improvement in your play, regardless of where you play. Interested?”

“Of course, coach. What is it?”

I waited a moment before I answered to make sure he was listening.

“You have to stop asking what you can get, and start asking what you can give. You must serve.”

Michael furrowed his brow as he tried to process what I told him.

“You want me to serve the team, like with food?”

I smiled, “No Michael, serving others is the one thing that unites successful people, from friends to employees to athletes to business owners. The great ones know that to be more they must become more, and to become more they must serve others.”

“So, you are saying that instead of asking what I can get from the team, I should be asking what I can give to the team?”

I wanted to leap out of my chair and hug him.

Michael got it. It’s not about him. It’s not about me. It’s about service. The tool that would eventually earn him more playing time and increase his chances of playing in college serving others by focusing upon what he could give, instead of what he could get.

My great friend and coaching mentor Dr. Jerry Lynch is the founder of Way of Champions is the winner of 34 NCAA titles and one NBA World Championship as a sport psychologist and consultant. He calls this paradigm-shifting question the most effective question an athlete can ask, and an attitude that every coach must try and instill in his or her team.

We live in a world these days where self-centeredness and a ‘what’s in it for me” attitude of entitlement is far too prevalent. In the age of the selfie, Instagram, Facebook and a million other ways to say “look at me,” the concept of teamwork and the importance of service to others has gotten lost in the shuffle.

This is very sad, because service to others is the exact thing that athletes need to not only become elite performers, but the type of athlete that coaches look for, celebrate, and fight over at the next level. Do you want to stand out from the crowd?

Start by serving everyone in that crowd.

Far too many athletes bring the attitude of “what do I get” to practice and games. They want to know how they can:

  • Get to start
  • Get more playing time
  • Get to play my favorite position
  • Get to score all the points/goals
  • Get to work hard when I want to
  • Get to show up (physically and mentally) when I feel like it
  • Get to give less than my best because I am an upperclassman
  • Get attention as the star player

Sadly, this is the path to short-term satisfaction, at the expense of long-term development and high-level performance. This attitude does not promote success; it inhibits growth on and off the field, the court, and the ice.

If you want your athletes to perform at their very best, whether you are a parent or coach, then you must get them the right question.

What can I give?

Athletes who ask themselves what they can give bring “I can give/I can do” attitudes and actions to the table for their teams. The can actually “get” everything they are looking for simply by starting with the following service oriented ideas:

  • I can give my best effort in practice and games
  • I can give my team a positive attitude no matter what the circumstances
  • I can give my team a boost no matter how many minutes I play
  • I can give my team a better chance to win no matter what position I play
  • I can do the dirty work so my teammate can score the goal and get the glory
  • I can sacrifice my personal ambitions for the better of the group
  • I can lead by example
  • I can be an example of our core values in action

As a coach, I used to think that the most important thing was to have my best players be my hardest workers. But now I realize that isn’t enough. Being a hard worker can still be a selfish pursuit.

No, the most important thing as a coach is to have a team that all ask “what can I give,” especially when it come to your captains, your upperclassmen, and your most talented athletes. You must teach them that the selfish attitude may once in a while lead to success, but the selfless attitude leads to excellence, celebrates the success of others, and makes you the type of athlete that EVERY COACH wants on his or her team.

The most successful sports team in the professional era is not the NY Yankees, or the Boston Celtics, or Real Madrid, but a team from a far less known sport. It is the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby, who have an astonishing 86% winning percentage and numerous championships to their name. In the outstanding book about the All Blacks called Legacy, author James Kerr discusses one of their core values that epitomizes the selfless attitude.

all blacksIt’s called “Sweep the Shed.”

You see the goal of every All Blacks player is to leave the national team shirt in a better place than when he got it. His goal is to contribute to the legacy by doing his part to grow the game and keep the team progressing every single day.

In order to do so, the players realize that you must remain humble, and that no one is too big or too famous to do the little things required each and every day to get better. You must eat right. You must sleep well. You must take care of yourself on and off the field. You must train hard. You must sacrifice your own goals for the greater good and a higher purpose.

You must sweep the shed.

After each match, played in front of 60,000 plus fans, in front of millions on TV, after the camera crews have left, and the coaches are done speaking, when the eyes of the world have turned elsewhere, there is still a locker room to be cleaned.

By the players!

That’s right, after each and every game the All Blacks leading players take turns sweeping the locker room of every last piece of grass, tape, and mud. In the words of Kerr: “Sweeping the sheds. Doing it properly. So no one else has to. Because no one looks after the All Blacks. The All Blacks look after themselves.”

They leave the locker room in a better place than they got it. They leave the shirt in a better place than they got it. They are not there to get. They are there to give.

If you are a coach, recognize that by intentionally creating a culture where players seek to give instead if get, you will have a team that not only develops excellence on and off the field but is a team that is much more enjoyable to coach. Create a culture that rewards the 95% who are willing to give, and weeds out the 5% who are trying to get. When you do, the “getters” will stick out like a player who is vomiting: he feels better and everyone else feels sick. Eventually, he will get on board, or be thrown off the ship.

Parents, teach your children to be teammates who give. It will not only serve them well in athletics; it will serve them well in life.

For as former NY Yankee great Don Mattingly so eloquently stated:

“Then at one point in my career, something wonderful happened. I don’t know why or how . . . but I came to understand what “team” meant. It meant that although I didn’t get a hit or make a great defensive play, I could impact the team in an incredible and consistent way. I learned I could impact the team in an incredible and consistent way. I learned I could impact my team by caring first and foremost about the team’s success and not my own. I don’t mean by rooting for us like a typical fan. Fans are fickle. I mean CARE, really care about the team . . . about “US.”

Mattingly continued: “I became less selfish, less lazy, less sensitive to negative comments. When I gave up me, I became more. I became a captain, a leader, a better person and I came to understand that life is a team game. And you know what? I’ve found most people aren’t team players. They don’t realize that life is the only game in town. Someone should tell them. It has made all the difference in the world to me.”

Please share this article with an athlete or a team that matters to you. Encourage, no implore them to take Don Mattingly’s advice, to take the All Blacks advice. Come to prepared to compete, and to be a “giver” and not a “getter.”

You will stand out.

You will be a difference maker.

And you will get everything you want by giving full of yourself, and helping everyone else get what they want.

It changes everything.

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.”

Is Losing Stressing You Out? Try This Mindset to Fix It!

By John O’Sullivan

As a young coach, I was convinced that there were only two possible outcomes to a game, winning or losing. Of course, losing was to be avoided at all costs, even if that meant not playing weaker players, benching under-performers, criticizing referees, you name it. Then I started to study people whom I would call master coaches, people like John Wooden, Mike Krzyzweski, and others, and realized that their entire philosophy was built not around winning and losing, but winning and LEARNING!

Armed with two positive outcomes every time we had a game, throughout the season the question I asked my teams changed from “Why did we lose?” to “What did we learn?” Players performed better in the second approach, because they knew they were either going to win and learn, or lose and learn from it. At practice the next week, we discussed what we learned, and got on with the journey of getting better. It turned the focus on the process, and not the outcome of games. As we have discussed before regarding the work of Dr Carol Dweck and Mindset, focusing on effort and process instills a growth oriented state of mind in your athletes, which has been proven to increase performance.

Now do not get me wrong, this did not mean we did not try to win, or compete to the best of our ability. One of the biggest misconceptions in youth sports today is one held by misinformed coaches and parents who think that if you do not win all your games the sky is falling. They think that if you do not focus on things like wins, trophies, and rankings, you are not being competitive. They think that if they forgo a win in the name of developing players they are teaching kids to be non competitive. They could not be more wrong. They confuse success and excellence, and those two things are quite different.

Success is about the outcome, excellence is about the process of becoming proficient. The former gives you a short term buzz, yet instills fear of losing. A quest for excellence, however, turns an athlete’s focus upon the journey of athletic development, which is filled with struggle, disappointment, and success. Athletes on a quest for excellence inevitably have much more success then those who focus solely upon winning and positive outcomes. They accept more challenging situations, so they will learn from them. They go out of their comfort zone in the quest to improve. They also celebrate the achievements of others.

Success oriented individuals fear all achievement other than their own. They do not seek out challenges, for their validation comes only through outcomes, and not the journey. They seek praise through wins instead of effort. And when the going gets to tough, success seekers get going.

My advice to you is to follow the path of our most SUCCESSFUL COACHES, and that is a path of EXCELLENCE! That is the path of winning and learning! Don’t take my word for it. The results speak for themselves.

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.”

How to Raise a Lion Chaser!

By John O’Sullivan

“Coach, I don’t want to take a penalty shot,” said a very nervous 13 year-old player of mine a few years back. We were in the Oregon Soccer State Cup semifinals, and this talented but not quite confident young girl looked in no mood to take a shot in the penalty shootout to determine whether or not our team advanced to the state finals.

“I’ll take it,” said her teammate Rachel, with a look of determination on her face. I smiled. The player who backed out of shooting was a great player, but not always for the big occasion. Her teammate who volunteered was also very good, but I smiled because she had actually MISSED the deciding penalty kick a year earlier at the same stage of the competition. Yet here she was, unfazed. Of course I let her take the kick (and if you want to know what happened, read on).

Why is it that some players see obstacles and problems as opportunities, while others focus on the negative consequences of failure?

What if our greatest opportunities in life lie right beneath our nose, masked as our biggest problems, our worst failures, and our greatest fears?

These are the questions that are asked in Mark Batterson’s fantastic book In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars, which was recommended to me by my friend Joshua Medcalf at Train to be CLUTCH (thanks Joshua, what a book!) The book is written by a Christian pastor, and thus has many references to God and the bible, but regardless if you are a Christian or not this is well worth the read!

In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day tells the story of the Old Testament hero Benaiah, a famous warrior who gained notoriety by literally chasing a lion into an icy, snow filled pit and emerging victorious. Batterson uses that story as a metaphor to explain how life often positions us in the right place at the right time, only in Batterson’s words “the right place seems like the wrong place, and the right time often seems like the wrong time.”

As a coach, we want a team full of lion chasers. We want fearless, confident competitors, risk takers, and athletes who are unfazed by pressure.

As a parent, there is perhaps nothing more frustrating then seeing your child presented with a great opportunity, yet paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. When we look back at our own lives, most of our regrets are often the things we didn’t do (inaction), and not the ones we did (action).

Of course we don’t want our children to make some of the same mistakes we did. Yet far more importantly, we don’t want them to miss the opportunities we missed out on. With the perspective of adulthood, we can see what lies before them, and we have the opportunity to create a world for them where they see opportunity instead of problems, and they take the plunge instead of fearing failure. This is especially true when it comes to sports. We don’t want fearful athletes who lack confidence.


Sadly, the path I see many parents heading down is not the path of raising a lion chaser. I see three big ways that well-intentioned parents and coaches destroy an athlete’s ability to become a lion chaser.

  1. When we see an opportunity and decide to determine our kids goals for them, instead of accepting their goals, we prevent them from becoming lion chasers. They will never develop the autonomy and intrinsic motivation to chase something great if they are chasing after the things we want for them, instead of the things they want for themselves.
  2. When we push our kids toward our goals instead of toward their goals, not only do they push back, but they become acutely aware of the fact that they are letting us down over and over. Instead of becoming the passenger on the quest for whatever dreams our children possess, while providing love and support, we become the driver. Pretty soon we may notice they are no longer in the car.
  3. Perhaps most damaging, when we protect our kids from failure, when we swoop down and pluck them from every challenge (the helicopter parent) or when we remove all obstacles in their path for them (the lawnmower parent), we prevent them from developing the grit and determination to chase that proverbial lion into the snowy pit.

If we want our athletes to make the most of every opportunity, then we can help them see the opportunities, but they must plunge head first into the challenges through their own volition, and not ours. Our athletes must be the ones who choose to face their fears, and thus achieve success in Batterson’s words by doing “the best with what you have where you are.”

So how can we do this?

Here are five ways you can raise a lion chaser of your own:

  1. Lion chasers realize that impossible odds can become improbably victories. While many athletes fear failure, and thus flee from any task or dream that seems too big, a lion chaser will embrace the challenge. She knows that there are few consequences for failure, since, well, you were supposed to fail. But if you win, well then you have really achieved something. Teach your athletes that the bigger the chances of failure, the greater and more fulfilling the achievement is when successful.
  2. Lion chasers cure the fear of failure through failure. The cure for the fear of failure is not success; it’s failure. You must be exposed to small quantities of whatever it is you are afraid of in order to build up immunity to it. Often times, the thought of failure is far more powerful than the actual event. Give your athlete an environment of love and respect, so they know that your love for them does not depend upon the result or performance. Then, if your child is a dominant player in his age group, then give him the opportunity to play up an age or two, so he does not experience only success. If he is always on a winning team, then find him a weaker one to guest play for, and experience disappointment. If he is dominant at one sport, try another sport where he may have to be a role player for a while. These opportunities to fail and learn from it are invaluable! As Batterson says, “lion chasers choose fear.” I would add that they also choose uncertainty.
  3. Lion chasers redefine success and failure. When we look back upon our lives, we are not only grateful for the good things, but for the bad things that taught us, toughened us, and prepared us for the good things to come. Instead of being the parent who is always there to “get your child out of” difficult circumstances, instead become the person who advises your child to “see what you can GET OUT of this situation.” We can help our athletes change their perspective from “winning and losing” to “winning and learning.”  We can help our kids play to a higher purpose than winning. The importance of their journey is no longer reaching a destination, but what they become on the path. And on that path, lion chasers never let what they can’t do prevent them from doing what they can do.
  4. Lion chasers focus on effort and not ability. It is important that as parents and coaches, we do the same. Praise our children for the effort, which they control each and every day. They do not control wins and losses in most sporting events, as opponents, referees, weather conditions and the like all have an effect upon the outcome. But a lion chaser controls her effort and focus each and every day. She knows that everybody wants to win on game day, but true champions are the athletes who want to win six weeks out, six months out, and six years out. She prepares with great effort and focus, and her coaches and parents praise her for that which she controls. As George Bernard Shaw says, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, they make them.
  5. Lion chasers know that playing it safe is risky. Small changes, small choices and small investments can pay off handsomely and have major consequences. So many athletes never go after a lofty goal because it is so far off that they forget to invest in the commitments it takes to get there. Other athletes are afraid to have a big dream, and to give their very best, for it can be quite humbling to give your all and fail. It is easier to say “I really didn’t care about today” then it is to say “I gave everything and I am not there yet.” But the lion chaser always cares. He adds an extra hour or two a week of practice. He works on eating and sleeping better. These are small things, one percent improvements over time that add up and make a huge difference. It all starts with taking the first risk to dream big, and making the initial commitments to follow that dream. It all starts with NOT HAVING regrets over inaction!

So what happened to Rachel, the thirteen year old girl I mentioned above, the one who volunteered to take the deciding penalty kick in a state semifinal?

She missed. Again. Just like she had the year before. And just like the year before, the team was eliminated and heart broken, as was Rachel. But she was different than most. She didn’t want to quit. She became more determined to get better.

A few years later I had the opportunity to coach Rachel again, only now she was a sixteen year old elite level goalkeeper. We were playing in a high level college showcase event against some of the top teams in the US, and you guessed it, we were in a penalty kick shootout. Yet here is the catch. Rachel, and some other team members, had gotten food poisoning a few hours earlier. Rachel was terribly sick, and I told her she did not have to participate in the shootout as she could not stop vomiting.

Her response: ‘Coach, I am playing.”

With that, she picked up the garbage can that was at midfield and carried it over to the goal we were shooting on. She proceeded to save three out of five penalties our opponent shot. In between each and every one, she walked over to the garbage can and vomited. Can you imagine the look on our opponents’ faces?

I cannot think of a prouder moment in all the years I have coached.

Today Rachel is playing college soccer at one of the top programs in the country. I know she will be successful, not because of some special athletic gift she has, or any great coaching she got from me. That is the bare minimum that it takes to succeed at a high level.

Rachel will be a huge success in sport and life because she sees opportunity instead of risk. She takes failure and success in stride. She marches to her own beat instead of trying to please everyone else. And whenever others take a step back because they see problems, failure and fear, she steps forward and says “I’ll take it.”

Rachel is a LION CHASER!

Will your kids be next?

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.”

Youth Sports Coaching – Not a Job, But a Calling

By John O’Sullivan

So they call you Coach, huh? Have you ever stopped to consider what that means?

You have taken on one of the most beautiful, powerful, and influential positions a person can ever have. Some people may call it a job, and others a profession, but in reality, being a great coach is not that at all. It is so much more than that.

By becoming a coach, you have chosen to work with young athletes. You have chosen to guide them through the trials and tribulations of learning two beautiful games: sport and life. You are in a position to change their lives forever, not only by making them better athletes, but better people. You are a leader, you are a role model, you are a person who serves your athletes, and you are a person to whom they entrust their physical and emotional well-being.

Never take this responsibility lightly.

Coaching can be one of the most difficult jobs in the world. We work with young athletes in highly emotional and public situations. We keep score, and because of that our work is often judged week to week, even day to day, based upon the performance of a bunch of kids, how well they play, how much they play, and where they play.

Every time we coach, our words and actions can have a huge impact in the lives of our players, both positively and negatively. We are faced with moments of success and failure, and with calls from officials both good and bad. Our words and actions in these situations can stick with our players forever.

The thing is, we don’t get to choose which things stick, and which ones they forget, so in everything we say and do, we have to choose wisely.

Coaching also means you will be dealing with parents. Many of them are wonderful, and will support you and be grateful that you have taken the time and energy to teach and mentor their child. Celebrate them, and be thankful they are on your team.

Others are not so wonderful. They have unrealistic expectations for their children and the team. They will be a friend to your face, and an enemy behind your back. They will make life miserable for their own child, and often for you and the rest of the team as well. Do your best to educate them and minimize their negativity, and empower others to do the same. Most importantly, be a trusted mentor for their child. Those kids need a positive role model more than most, and it’s not their fault that mom or dad has lost the plot.

The science of coaching and teaching has evolved tremendously in the last few decades. We now know that many coaching and teaching methods used when we were kids are not as effective as once thought. Fear and intimidation does not work as well as an environment of love and respect. Lines and lectures are a thing of the past. Rote repetition is effective only to a point. Just because you taught something does not mean your players learned it. Just because you went over it does not mean they retained it and can replicate it in a game. Far too many coaches are focused on running exercises in practice that are successful 90% of the time, when in reality messy practices that replicate game situations are far more powerful learning tools. Do you have these type of practices on your clipboard?

Every player we coach, we leave a lasting impact. There is no way around this; you will influence every player you come in contact with. What will your influence be? Will it be something positive and affirming that bolsters your athletes and serves them throughout life? Will it be a more fulfilling experience for you and your players, more enjoyable, and more successful?

Or will it be something that tears them down, that diminishes their self worth, that makes them fearful of failure, or ties their self-worth with sports success? We all mean well, but sometimes when we are pushing to win a game, or talking to our teams after a tough loss, we say and do things that we later regret. I know in the past I have, and I never considered for a moment that my harsh, personal and often over the top criticism of a kid might follow him or her off the field. But it did.

I believe that being a coach is so much more than running a bunch of practices and organizing kids for games. It is about connecting with your players as people first, and athletes second.

It is about being passionate, and loving the game you teach, so your players will play with passion and love.

It is about empathy, making every player feel important, and giving him or her a role on the team.

It is about integrity and consistency for kids during good times and bad.

It is about being a model of the behavior you expect from your athletes, both on and off field of battle.

It is about being a teacher, not only of the X’s an O’s of a sport, but about life, about optimism, about persistence,  and about character.

No, coaching cannot simply be a job. It must be a vocation, a calling to a place that best suits your skills, your passion and your ability.

You can change lives with a single word, a single pat on the back, and a single conversation that says “I believe in you.”

The world needs great coaches more than ever before. The world needs you!

Are you ready?

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.”

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.”

Coaches, A Little Common Sense Please!

By John O’Sullivan

“My 8 year old had 6 days of soccer last week!”

“My 11 year old’s coach said he could not play on any other soccer teams except his. No futsal with his friends, no indoor, nothing but this team.”

“My 13 year old was told that if he did not commit to play Fall baseball, on top of spring and summer ball, the high school coaches would hold it against him come tryouts next year.

These are all actual emails and notes I have received from parents regarding the pressure to commit to a single sport, and a single team. This pressure was placed on them by coaches who should know better! That’s right coaches, we should know better than to think that we can force kids to love our sport, demand that they give up everything else to pursue a single activity, and threaten them with future exclusion for, gasp, having more than one activity they are interested in. It’s time for us to grow up!

I say us because I used to think this way. I am a coach. I face the same issues with over-committed, over-scheduled, and exhausted kids as you do. I look around when half my team is missing from practice because they are running cross country, and fight back the urge to take out my frustration on the players that are actually present! I know how it feels. But our kids need us to act like adults. They need us to keep some perspective. They need us to provide wise counsel, but then let them be kids.

How can we do this? Well first, how about what NOT to do.

Adding more to their schedule, and demanding unrealistic and harmful commitments from young athletes is NOT the way to do it. You don’t create love of the game through fear; you create it through enjoyment. You don’t ask 8-12 year olds to play one sport exclusively. You encourage them to try multiple activities, and you become such an amazing coach that they love your sport the best, and they want to be there. Then you give them some time away, so they are begging to come back, and can’t wait for your team to start up again. You create an environment that promotes love of the game, enjoyment of sport, and an embrace of struggle and failure as part of the learning process. You educate your athletes and their parents.

The best science shows us that single sport commitment at a young age leads to double the risk of injury, a much higher rate of burnout, and a large number of athletes who quit before you ever know whether they will be any good or not. There is a five fold increase in shoulder and elbow injuries in young baseball and softball players. Orthopedics are seeing massive increases in overuse injuries because of year round, single sport competition. We have organizations that cut kids at age 8 and 9, as if somehow you can predict whether a kid will make it at that age. You cannot.

You cannot force a child to love a sport. And love of a sport, in my opinion, is equally important as talent, coaching, and deliberate practice in determining whether an athlete will compete at the next level. Unless their desire to play matches the effort needed to succeed, they will never make the commitment necessary to get to the next level.

Coaches, I am not throwing you under the bus here. You should not have to run practices with half your players absent. I think it is highly appropriate to let parents know at the outset of a season what your realistic, expected commitment is. Those expectations should align with developmentally, age appropriate guidelines issued by your sport’s governing body. For instance, US Soccer recommends an 8 year old have two 75 minutes practices a week, plus a 40 minute game. Certainly not three practices, a makeup game, and 4 tournament games in a week, as one dad told me his daughter had.

I also think it is imperative that children who are balancing multiple activities in the same season are monitored closely for overuse and exhaustion. Parents and coaches need to be on the same page in terms of balancing commitments, and enforcing mandatory rest on players. I remember once I had a team of 13 year old elite soccer girls, who were training 3x a week for soccer, and playing 1-2 games on the weekend. Then I found out that 12 of them were also running cross country five days a week before soccer. Some of them had not had a day off in 4 weeks. No wonder they all were limping through training, and icing their knees afterwards.  This was not healthy commitment to multiple sports; it was over-commitment and harmful.

Should a kid be thrown off the team in elementary school for not making every practice or game, or not get to play in games because they missed a session? Of course not. Is it fair to let them know that the team has standards, and that the players who are making the commitment might play more, and might improve faster. Sure, that makes sense to me. This puts the ball in the kids court, so to speak. As long as your standards are applied equally and fairly (you cannot let your best player miss and then not apply them, while applying them to all the other kids) than you are teaching kids a valuable lesson: you get out what you put in.

Here is my final appeal to my colleagues in the coaching business. Whether we are volunteers or professionals, we are the gatekeepers for youth sports. We are the mom or dad that so many kids are lacking these days. We are supposed to know the latest in science, best practices, and long term athletic development. Are you following them?

Our words and actions have a tremendous impact on kids, as we are in a position of great trust. Those words and actions can stick with them forever, and it can be your words that helps a young man grow up, or a young woman deal with tough times. Your words will be passed on to their kids some day. Are you choosing them wisely?

Have you ever thought about what your athletes will say about you?

Will they consider you a person of positive significance in their lives?

Or will they consider you the one who made them quit by forcing them to act like adults, to over commit and over train? Are you the one taking the “play” out of “playing” sports?

I hope you will join all of us at the Changing the Game Project and give sports back to our kids. Choose the hard right, rather than the easy wrong, and don’t force kids to choose a single sport at too young an age. Stand up to parents who are harming their kids by stealing choice from kids, and stealing their sports education by focusing on winning over development.

Yes, they are your customer, but the customer is not always right. Sometimes he does not know what is right. But you should. You must. You are a coach. Make sure you act like one, for your kids’ sake!

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.”

The Incredibly Massive Importance of Play (Part 2)

By John O’Sullivan

One of the greatest differences between adults and children is that adults are goal oriented, and children are focused on immediate pleasure. Adults see everything as leading toward something in the future – the big picture if you will – and thus tend to look at everything we do not simply for “how does this serve me now” but “how will this serve me in the future.” As a result, we tend to look at play, with its focus on immediate gratification instead of long term goals, as a waste of time, and an obstacle to long term growth. It might be getting in the way of things we want for our children in the future, so we tolerate it only to a point.

As a result, we look down upon coaches who roll a ball out and say “go play.” We get angry when our soccer coach sits quietly on the bench, letting the kids work through their own problems, all bunched up in a giant blob, making mistakes without fear of repercussions and public correction, and playing a game that looks nothing like the adult version we see on TV.

We get upset that our coach does not teach kids positions, when in reality they do not possess the ability to understand a position until they understand positioning (do I need to provide, depth, width, close support, etc.). In other words, we have a long term goal in mind, and we want to get our kids to that goal as quickly and efficiently as possible. Clearly by sitting there and not fixing the problem, our coach is delaying their development, right?

Wrong. The coach is doing it right. He is fostering development by helping them learn, and guiding their discovery of the answers rather than providing the answers. He gives them ideas in practice, but then lets them develop skill, creativity and critical thinking during the game. Everything that intuitively feels like inhibiting development is actually promoting it.

Yet many parents and coaches do not realize this.

As a result, we want them to practice, and not play.

We feel compelled to tell them where to be and what to do, instead of guide them to find the answers on their own.

We believe that if we help them acquire enough skill first, then they will fall in love with the game and be intrinsically motivated to pursue it to a higher level.

We measure development through the outcome of games, because outcomes are how we measure success in the adult world.

In the end, we take away play, and substitute work, believing that is the path to performance.

We are wrong!

Show me a list of the best players in any team sport where creativity is valued, such as soccer, hockey or basketball, and the vast majority of them, if not all of them, will have a background filled with a lot more play than practice prior to the age of 12. For some it is play in one sport, and others it is multi-sport participation. The common denominator is an early focus on enjoyment and fearless competition, rather than results and advancement. Top athletes played sports, and have a higher level of intrinsic motivation and autonomy than their fellow competitors who go down the early practice route.

Hopefully, we all want our athletes to develop the ownership, motivation and enjoyment to pursue a sport long term, not only as an participant, but as a fan, a coach, and a lifelong passionate supporter of the game. It is very hard to put aside our adult values, to ignore the great futures we see for our athletes and/or our kids, and instead allow them to focus on the present. It is difficult to put aside the perspective we have gained over the years, which tells us that the only things we regret are the things we did not do, that talent we did not develop, the sport we chose not to pursue.

We do not want our kids to make the same mistakes. That is a great thing.

An even better thing you can do is to realize that the way to help them avoid those mistakes is not to force them onto the path that in hindsight we wish we had taken, but to give them the tools to find that path themselves.

And the best way to do that is to let them PLAY!

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.”

The Incredibly Massive Importance of Play (Part 1)

By John O’Sullivan

Let me be blunt and scream this from the rooftop: the best athletes PLAY sports. They don’t work them, they play them. When sport becomes more work than play, athletes struggle, they grind, and if they cannot get back to playing instead of working, they eventually drop out. From youth to pros, when the fun goes, soon to follow is performance.

But what about developing future athletes? What is the role of play in the training and advancement of aspiring young players to the next level? Should they be practicing or playing sports? If they do both, is one more important than the other?

For kids under 12, I believe wholeheartedly the answer is yes. And that answer is PLAY!

The role of deliberate practice in skill acquisition is a hot topic. Without rehashing everything I have written on the subject in the past, simply defined deliberate practice is the focused improvement through repetitive activity, continual feedback and correction, and the delay of immediate gratification in pursuit of long term goals. There is no question that expert performers accumulate many hours of deliberate practice, and there is a strong correlation between hours of deliberate practice and performance level in elite performers.

What gets lost in the focus on practice is the massive importance of deliberate play. Researcher Jean Cote defines deliberate play as “activities such as backyard soccer or street basketball that are regulated by age-adapted rules and are set up and monitored by the children or adults engaged in the activity. These activities are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.”

In our increasingly structured world of youth sports, coupled with the decline of recess and playground pick up games, deliberate practice is increasingly emphasized, and play is deemphasized. Yet is this helping us develop better athletes? I say no.


First, at the very core of great athletes is a burning passion and love of the game. That love and enjoyment provides them with the intrinsic motivation to pursue sport excellence. While coaching can foster this love, and provide an athlete with the feedback needed to develop skill, the flame must be fed primarily by the athlete and not the coach. Kids play sports because they are fun. Sports must belong to them.  Play instills this type of love and makes it fun, while practice often does not. Instilling love of the game early on sets up a player mentally to engage in deliberate practice later on.

Second, an early focus on deliberate practice and pursuit of long term success, instead of playing for the love of the game, can cause motivation to become extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. Athletes motivated extrinsically by championships, fame and social identity tied to athletic success have been shown to burnout at a much higher rate than athletes who participate for enjoyment. They are also more likely to protect that identity through cheating and other maladaptive behaviors designed to continue successful outcomes.

Third, free play and multi-sport play promotes the development of better all around athleticism. As children play less and practice more (often in a single sport) using sport specific muscles and movements, experts in many sports have noticed a decline in the agility, balance and coordination skills of young athletes as compared to decades ago.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, play stimulates brain development. It hastens the growth of the brain centers that regulate emotion and control both attention and behavior. Play inspires thinking and adaptation, promoting creative problem solving and conflict resolution. It allows children to build their own games, define their own rules, and develop the cognitive skills that are needed not only for athletics, but in every aspect of life.

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.”