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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 SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

Happy Holidays from CoachDeck!

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The 4 Biggest Problems in Youth Sports Today

By John O’Sullivan

When you run an organization such as the Changing the Game Project, you hear many youth sports stories from parents, coaches, and players. Some stories are absolutely heartbreaking, others inspiring.

Recently I encountered the absurd.

Many of us have seen the news about a volleyball player from Washington DC who was taking her playing time issues off the court, and into the courts. The article, which originally appeared in the Washington Post and can be read here, detailed the story of Audrey Dimitrew, a 16 year-old from Virginia whose family sued the Chesapeake Region Volleyball Association (CHRVA) to force them to let her move to another team in the league. It seems she was not getting the “promised” playing time at her club and she wanted a change, but the league would not allow it.

The article has elicited all kinds of opinions on parenting, spoiled children, bad coaching, and ridiculous rules and regulations in youth sports leagues. It brought up talk of the Philadelphia dad who was suing for $40 million because his son got cut from the track team, and the Dallas father who brought a racketeering suit against a lacrosse camp. They are a reflection of so much of what is wrong in youth sports today.

But can all these wrongs finally make it right, and encourage the sensible people stand up and be heard?

This situation in Virginia brings to light four major problems that are destroying youth sports and must be dealt with. They are:

Problem #1: Parents who won’t let the game belong to kids

Why did mom and dad bring a lawsuit? Because they wanted to get their daughter noticed by college coaches. Well, mission accomplished, every college volleyball coach in the country now knows who your daughter is…and I bet the majority just crossed her name off their recruiting list.

You don’t sue and waste precious taxpayer time and money because your child is not getting playing time. Your daughter says she isn’t even sure she wants to play college volleyball! Mom also wrote to the coach, “It is important that she plays, and plays the position you offered her of setter as that is the position she plays in high school.” Really? You don’t get to tell a coach where your kid plays. Just be a parent, let the coach be the coach, and let the game belong to your child. The parents in this case have taken a teachable moment and ruined it. As Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching says, “Release your child to the game!”

Problem #2: Athletes need to OWN their decisions, both good and bad

We need to put an end to the helicopter and lawnmower parents, those who mow down all the obstacles for their kids, and give ownership to the athletes. This is a case where a player made a poor decision on team selection. Many athletes make bad decisions or face trying circumstances, but then choose to live with their decision and get better because of it. While I believe every athlete picked should have the opportunity to play, that does not mean an athlete cannot ask himself “what is good about this?”

When players quit a team solely over playing time or position issues, they lose an opportunity to learn. Even without getting playing time, a player working with a great coach should be improving every day in practice. She could be pushing herself to get better, and earn playing time instead of expecting it. She could find other ways to contribute. Don’t just walk away because the going got tough.

Great athletes love the game, work hard and improve everyday, and the rest takes care of itself. College coaches recruit players because they are good players, good people, good students and good teammates, not because they happened to see you in 10th grade.

Problem #3: Coaches who fail to respect the kids and the sport, and ignore the massive impact they have on athletes’ lives

Sadly there are many coaches who do not belong working with children. I am not saying that is the case here, but it is the case in many places. Winning does not make for a great coach. Being a great role model and leader for your young athletes, teaching character and life lessons, caring about your athletes, and coaching a child not a sport, those things make for a great coach.

sad basketball kid in locker room croppedOne of the most destructive forces in youth sports are coaches that take huge rosters of players for financial reasons, and then don’t give kids playing time. I firmly believe if you pick them, you play them! When we take people’s money and then sit them on the bench, it destroys love of a sport, and drives out the late bloomers. I don’t care that this is competitive volleyball; if the coach cannot find playing time then she should not have been picked. Far too many teams fill their rosters NOT for the benefit of the players (who get less playing time or none at all) but for the bottom line of the club.

To be fair to this coach, it seems he did try to make amends. I know firsthand that honest mistakes can be made in tryouts. You have limited tryout time, tons of players to choose from, and multiple teams offering a kid a spot. You are forced to offer spots with no opportunity for additional evaluation or to get to know a kid. I have been in that situation as a coach, and I have made mistakes in player selection. Clearly in this case, the coach made a mistake in selecting the player, and was willing to fix it and let her transfer to another team, so kudos is due for that. But this was not allowed to happen because of our final issue…

Problem #4: Youth Sports Organizations that Serve Adults, Not Kids

There are far too many clubs and sports leagues that are putting their own needs, values and priorities above those of the kids. Youth sports has become a business that serves them, and thus creates barriers to play for too many children.

“Should CHRVA allow players the ability to move teams when they are unhappy with the amount of playtime they are receiving, we would be overwhelmed with requests to change teams,” a CHRVA official wrote to the Dimitrew family.

This could be said another way: “We don’t want to put in the time or energy to make rules or run a league that serves the needs of the players, even in situations where all parties agree that a change in team is in the best interests of the child.” They had a coach willing to let a player leave, a player who wanted to try another team, a team willing and able to take her, and a policy that would have allowed it to happen. What they didn’t have was a dose of common sense.

If they think this will open a floodgate of player transfers due to playing time issues, why not make a rule that allows a player to transfer midseason only once in her career? Do not allow teams who release players to add new ones, to prevent continuous roster shuffling. Why not have guidelines over playing time so there are no playing time issues? There are so many solutions here.

What are we to do?

These are four of the biggest issues I see in youth sports. In this particular situation, I think every party involved can shoulder some blame. The athlete should have toughed it out, the parents should have found a better venue to deal with this, the coach should have known better, and the league could have done more. I am sure there are many sides to this story, and I have only read the one article. I am also sure there are many good people involved here who are getting dragged through the mud, which is sad.

But that is not why I wrote this article.

There is something much bigger at play here.

We all are to blame for this mess, including me, and every one of us who is reading this. Why?

Because we have stood by and allowed youth sports to become professionalized, adultified, and stolen from our kids. This is not a sin of commission; it is a sin of omission, a failure to act.

Too many of us coach from the sidelines and make the car ride home the most miserable part of the youth sports experience.

Too many of us treat youth sports as an investment in a future scholarship, and thus push for more and more at younger and younger ages.

Too many of us have our children specialize early in spite of the preponderance of evidence that it is physically and psychologically harmful, and has a detrimental effect upon their long-term chances of athletic success.

Too many of us allow our kids to participate in sports clubs that make cuts and form “elite” teams at 7 years old.

Too many of us ask our kids after a game “Did you win?” instead of “Did you have fun and learn a lot today?”

Too many of us have deemphasized free play and replaced it with organized activities governed by adult values, needs and priorities.

The list could go on and on.

We are to blame because as a collective we have done nothing about this, even though the great parents and coaches are the majority.

There is a huge majority of parents and coaches whom do not like the current situation, the toxic sidelines, the over the top parents, the bully coaches, the politics, the specialization, and the fact that college coaches are recruiting middle school athletes these days. We don’t like the costs, the travel requirements, or crazy commitments that make us choose between the 7th tournament of the summer or grandma’s 90th birthday celebration. If you are reading this, you are likely one of the great parents and coaches.

Yet we do nothing. We say nothing. We do not demand change. We simply complain. And then we watch our kids burnout, dropout, and quit.

It is high time that the sensible people, the silent majority, take over this conversation. We must stand up to the parents, coaches, clubs and leagues that are failing our children. If 70% of kids quit school in 7th grade, we would make radical changes, yet when they quit sports, we just shrug. No more!

If your sideline has an over the top mom or dad who yells at referees, coaches players, and creates a toxic environment, don’t just complain about it. Please get together with the coach or club directors and fellow parents and confront the behavior.

If your school or sports club does not have core values, or a proper ongoing parent and coach education program, demand that they be implemented.

If you can get great competition for your team within a 1 hour drive, sure, go to an out of town tournament once in a while, but not every weekend!

If your child is trying out for a team, look beyond the wins and losses and look for coaches of positive significance, and organizations that value human beings, not simply athletes.

Maybe the absurdity of this lawsuit is what will wake enough of us up. Maybe all these wrongs will be the spring board for making sports right again.

We don’t need the judicial system to fix our youth sports problems. We need every one of you who has read this far to share this article, to join our project to reform youth sports, and to read about reform initiatives promoted by Project Play and others that are trying to change youth sports.

We need you to stand up and be heard, so that the next time there is a youth sports dispute, it can be settled by the athletes on the court, instead of the adults in one.

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 SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

If you missed them, here they are

We’re talking about this month’s OnDeck Newsletters for soccer and for baseball/softball. You’ll love the articles on “Daddy Ball”, what to look for in players relative to their desire, and much more. Don’t forget to sign up so you get all future issues delivered to your inbox!

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 SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

 

June OnDeck Newsletter has arrived

Want to know 12 signs of good baserunning? Or have  you given much thought to how we teach young soccer players to be more creative and less automatic? This and much more can be found in this month’s OnDeck Newsletter which you can download for free here!