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Chester County Press

How to keep sports fun for kids

10/01/2019 10:45AM ● By J. Chambless

Author John O'Sullivan gave practical advice on how to put the fun back into sports at a recent talk. (Photo by JP Phillips)

By JP Phillips

Seven out of ten kids quit playing organized sports by the time they are 13. Author, podcast host, coach and father John O’Sullivan wants to change that.

His best-selling book, Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids, was a community read and the topic of much discussion in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District this summer.  The district sponsored O’Sullivan to spend the morning with students and coaches and then lead a community talk attended by nearly 200 people at Unionville High School on Sept. 23.

His presentation was packed with studies and science that backed up his premise that playing sports as a child results in a more active lifestyle as an adult. He gave advice to both coaches and parents on how to keep kids involved with sports into their teenage years.

According to O’Sullivan, tryouts and team cuts at an early age are problems. He showed a photo of boys all the same age -- some varying as much as 18 inches in height -- yet they were all on the 12-year-old team. When cuts are made, it is usually the smaller kids that are left behind, many of whom have not even hit their growth spurt.

He said that early specialization in just one sport is another problem. Except for female ice skating and gymnastics, it’s not necessary to start so young, he said. Using lacrosse as an example, O’Sullivan said that players do not peak in sports until their mid-20s, which gives kids plenty of time to try other things. Specialization causes more injuries from overused muscles. If a child identifies with the sport, major self-esteem issues can occur if he or she is sidelined. Most Olympians play three sports until they reach the age of 13. 

These common practices conflict with why kids play sports in the first place -- because it’s fun.  O’Sullivan showed the results of a survey defining the word “fun” as it relates to sports, through the eyes of kids ranging in age from 8 to 18. “Exercise,” “being with friends,” and “doing their best” made the top part of the list, while “winning” was number 48 and “medals/trophies” was 67.

O’Sullivan said that it’s important for parents to match their goals to their children’s goals for why they play. If a child doesn’t pick up a ball outside of organized practices, it is unlikely that they are self-motivated, and parents shouldn’t force an interest that may not exist.

Parental sideline coaching was another killjoy for kids. Since sports is a highly mental activity, parents yelling directions and encouragement is just one more distraction that doesn’t add any value, O’Sullivan said. High schoolers have told him, “I don’t even care if they come [to my games].”

O’Sullivan said that athletes cite the car ride home from the game as probably the worst thing about playing sports. The car is like a prison, and some parents use the time as a “teachable moment” to discuss performance and tend to dwell on what went wrong. As a coach and as a parent, O’Sullivan does not discuss performance right after the game unless the child asks for feedback. Then he asks three questions for the child to think about: “What went well, what needs work, and what did you learn today that’s going to make it better?”

What’s the best feedback parents can provide to their kids after a game? According to O’Sullivan, say, “I love watching you play.” This clearly states to the child that this love is not dependent on game performance.

“Kids want to make us happy,” O’Sullivan said. “The child is left with the feeling that, ‘If I’m not having a good game, it’s OK, my dad or my mom loves me.’” 

Sports is an important part of the Unionville experience. In a phone interview, Supervisor of Athletics Pat Crater said that more than 60 percent of the seventh through twelfth graders participate in the 20 different sports offered. Most sports are offered to all, and many times additional sections are added if there is enough interest and logistics permit. 

When cuts do have to be made, students are counseled by coaches, who offer alternative sports or activities that may appeal to the student. All told, Unionville plays 930 games per year.  The department recently adopted five values that complement O’Sullivan’s teachings:  Integrity, accountability, respect (for both people and things), teamwork, perseverance, and competitiveness (with oneself both athletically and academically).

O’Sullivan’s Sept 23 talk at UHS and his TedX presentation are available on the website, through the “Wellness," and then “Changing the Game” link.

Besides Changing the Game, O’Sullivan has written the book Coaching Mastery, and hosts a podcast called “Way of Champions.”