Changing the Game: An Interview with John O’Sullivan

I recently had the opportunity to speak with John O’Sullivan, a former college and professional soccer player, current youth club soccer coach, and author of Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes.

If you are a sports parent and you haven’t read this book yet, I encourage you to order your copy now at If you are like me, and often feel like the lone voice in the stands about early specialization, year-round sports, and the rarity of college athletic scholarships, you will feel like you’ve finally found your cohort. You can follow him on Twitter at @coachjohnnyo.

Here is an excerpt from my interview with John.

E          John, I talk to a lot of youth sports parents who look at their child’s participation in a sport, especially early specialization, as an investment in a future college scholarship. What’s your take on that?

J           There’s this whole idea now because kids specialize early, they get on a winning team and so on, that parents begin to look at it as an investment in a scholarship. We’re spending so much money and time on sports these days, parents want the return on investment. Number one, the idea is we’re going to get a scholarship out of this thing. And number two, it’s a bit of an ego thing.

footballE          What do you mean by ‘an ego thing’?

J           When I coached college, it was amazing how many parents would say “Could you give him something so we can say he got a scholarship?” It was $30,000 a year for school but they wanted even a $500 scholarship so they could say their kid got a scholarship. In reality, investing in a scholarship is a total crap-shoot; what if you looked from the beginning and used sports as an investment to overcoming obstacles, learning commitment, learning effort and sportsmanship? What would that be worth it to you? I don’t think you can put a price on your child having all those things. When she goes to the real world as an adult, she can take all those lessons that sports taught them and apply them to the rest of her life. That investment is worth thousands of dollars. And if you have a child that is genetically gifted and well coached and motivated to be an elite athlete, that’s like icing on the cake.

E          But a lot of these kids are already “All Stars” and on “Elite” teams. Clearly they must be good, right?

J           In youth sports, we are very good at something I call ‘talent selection’: that’s picking the kids that will help the coach win NOW. But we are lousy at what I call ‘talent identification’, which is extrapolating the kids who will truly excel and succeed at a sport long term.

E          That’s actually the topic that most intrigued me in your book, how in sports we filter out the kids who don’t seem to ‘get it’ right away and focus on the stars, but we would never do that in, say, math. We wouldn’t say, ‘You’re bad at math’ to a 9-year-old and then stop teaching him math. But that is exactly what happens in sports.

J           I think your analogy to education is perfect; when we’re educating people, we understand that not everyone gets it at the same time. There are a lot of factors that go into that and so, when someone struggles with reading, we don’t then no longer allow them to read, rather, we give them extra help. When they struggle with math, we give them extra help. But when they’re struggling in a sport, we cut them and we move on.

The message that I’m trying to preach is that because across so many sports we’re so concerned with winning at young ages, instead of developing large pools of players, we cut players and pick players who are going to help us win right now.

Yet, the factor that affects that the most is usually their relative age – how old are they compared to that arbitrary calendar date? There have been lots of studies done on this, how youth national teams are composed of mostly kids born within three months of that cutoff date. We’re basically eliminating 75 percent of the talent pool at these young ages, when basically the only differences are that these kids are a couple months older which, at 8 or 9 or 10 years old, makes a really big difference. So, by selecting talent that helps us win now, we ignore the things that may lead to a player 5, 8, 10 years from now who might be an elite athlete. Those are things like coachability, sensitivity to training, and what kind of athlete they’re eventually going to be instead of what kind they are now.

girlsE          And another factor is their desire, right?

J           That’s right. That’s why I think that the really top people are the ones who weren’t the child stars. They’ve had to learn what we’re now calling in academics ‘grit’. They had to struggle and fight and persevere to achieve long-term goals and the kid who’s the young star doesn’t do that.  What happens in my sport of soccer in Europe, where if you’re the biggest, fastest, strongest 12-year-old, they play you against kids who are physically equivalent – that might be the 14-year-olds. Now you can’t succeed because you’re the biggest, fastest, or strongest; you actually have to play. In our country, look at the kid who’s the best 10- or 11-year-old: it’s usually the biggest, strongest, fastest kid.

And so many kids who are bigger, faster, stronger earlier on, they’re so celebrated. Go to look at the Little League World Series. I think that is the worst example of it. Who’s the star player? He’s the kid where all the other kids are up to his chest.

E          One of the things you see a lot in youth sports is that those big kids get to play all the time; they are the starters. And then you have all these kids on the bench who don’t get to play much.

J           Yeah. I was just involved in this discussion with some people about running up the score in youth football and how these coaches wait so long to put the second team in and then their argument is, “Well, those kids never get to play.” And I ask, “Why did you wait until you were 44 points up?”

It’s like “Okay, we play our top kids for a half and then play the others.” One of the best pieces of coaching advice I ever got was, “How do you know a kid can play until you let them play?” In meaningful time – when you’re up a goal, when you’re down a goal, or the game’s tied. How do you know if that kid can perform if they never get a chance to do so? Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of, “Oh, that kid’s not good enough; he’ll never be good enough.”

E          I see this happen all the time and I think the best example of how wrong it all is the story of the Danish soccer player. Can you tell the readers about that?

J           Sure. In a nutshell, this new Scandinavian pro club started its first youth academy in 2004. The club had had eight coaches and picked its first team of 15-year-old boys. It needed one more kid; no one wanted any of the other kids, so the coaches decided to take the kid whose dad happened to be facilities manager for the club. They really liked the dad and didn’t want him to quit so they just took his son and added him to their team, with the caveat that he had to pay his own way because they were just doing him a favor.

The, after they had trained all these kids for six months, each of these coaches – all highly licensed, former pro players – put the five names of the players they thought would make it to the next level and would be the most accomplished players in the next five years in an envelope.

Five years later, the last kid picked was starting in the World Cup for Denmark against Holland and South Africa and playing for one of the biggest clubs in Italy. Not one of those eight coaches had his name on the list.

E          Unbelievable.

J           And it’s not like they’re bad people. There’s no perfect way to identify future talent, so if we can’t predict it at 15, how could we possibly predict it at 9 or 10 and why are we cutting kids? Why are we cutting 9- and 10-year-olds, usually being coached by a dad, not a professional, and we’re cutting them and pushing them out of the system?

E          And then they lose interest because ‘I’m not very good at it.’

J           Exactly. If the best professional identifiers are not perfect, why are we even trying to identify it at such a young age? Why don’t we say “You want to play? Great. Join this program with 60 other kids where we’re going to train you and then after puberty we’ll see what gets spit out the back end.”

And while we’re teaching, we have to teach things that they can control. Are you working hard enough? Are you focused? Are you training outside of practice? Kids have complete control over those things. If a coach says you’re not tall enough, what are you going to do about that? Nothing. It’s out of your control.

How many kids get cut because they were 4’11” in 7th or 8th grade and then  they have a late growth spurt? I just got off the phone right before you with Bob Bigelow, an old NBA guy. He started playing basketball when he was 14 and he was a first round NBA draft pick. He said, “If I grew up today, I would have been cut because I didn’t start when I was 6.”  It’s such a hard thing. I’ve found a lot of people are very receptive to this message but they don’t know what to do and say, “How do I combat the system?”

E          Right. A lot of college coaches will tell you if you want your kids to play in college, they’ve got to start playing early, they’ve got to specialize or they’re going to get left behind. Then in the next sentence they’ll say they don’t agree with that but that’s the way it is. How do we change the culture?

J           And what do they mean by ‘specialize’? Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong for a kid who’s 14 or 15 who says, “I want to make a go at this college soccer thing.” I do have a problem when people say that when the kid is nine.

E          I do too. But don’t you think that really goes back to the money piece of it? Is it the kid’s best interest they have in mind? I don’t think so. They’ve paid the coaches, the clubs are hosting tournaments, and they need that income.

J           Just because you pay your accountant doesn’t mean they’re in it for the money. Do you know the big myth of the 10,000 hours? It’s the idea that if you put in 10,000 hours you’re going to be elite. Even the guy who coined that whole thing, Anders Erickson, says he was misquoted. He happened to be studying elite musicians and found that the ones who’d done these 10,000 hours were of a higher level but they were all already elite. What it takes away from is the whole concept that talent and genetics plays any role.

So we have this whole movement of ‘If you just do the right amount of training, you’ll be great’. It was bought into by a lot of coaches – some because they didn’t really research it further and some because it became a great way to get people to commit to all their programs and do all the extra training and private training and this and that; what got lost in the shuffle is that genetics plays a huge role.

Some people are going to be genetically predisposed to be successful in certain sports. Some people are trainable, some are sensitive to training, some people are going to be faster no matter how much you train someone else, and that’s okay. It’s a problem for me when we are asking young baseball players to play more games than major leaguers – young pitchers are being asked to throw more games than the majors when they’re growing and developing; it bothers me when we don’t think a kid should have a couple months off from soccer, that somehow they’re going to lose their development. But if you do the other nine months right and break up their time off – they need time off. They should get time off. Even pros get time off.

E          But everyone is so singularly focused on winning.

J           Again, the coaching profession is funny because the whole culture is about winning. So many coaches say, ‘This is going to help me win’ and they stop learning. If you ask me what the biggest difference is between top, elite coaches and average coaches, I’ll tell you that it’s that the top coaches keep learning. They take notes, they’re always are trying to get something. The vast majority of coaches either think they know it all and aren’t open to any new ideas or they’re afraid to admit that they don’t know it all so they stick to their own thing and try to prove how much they know by winning. They never really become coaches of positive significance in kids’ lives. They don’t understand that the way to win is to create a culture of love and respect and that when you develop people first, the winning comes naturally.

For more from John O’Sullivan, be sure to check out his podcast interview for the TeamSnap Youth Sports podcast, “Talent Identification vs. Talent Development.” 

Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. An avid tennis player, Emily has a son who plays varsity high school baseball and a daughter who plays varsity high school tennis as well as club and high school soccer. She has been a team manager for a number of her children’s sports teams. You can find Emily’s blog about team management and youth sports parenting here at Follow her on Twitter at @emilygcohen or email her at [email protected]m. 

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