John O'Sullivan's Advice for Athletic Success
The founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project shares five strategies for success in youth sports.
When it comes to guiding coaches, parents and players on achieving success in youth sports, few are better qualified than John O’Sullivan.
A former soccer player and coach at the high school, college and professional level, O’Sullivan is the founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project. He’s also an internationally known speaker, author and youth sports advocate. He established the organization in 2012 to educate coaches and parents on promoting a positive, player-first environment in youth sports.
O’Sullivan’s mission is to change the way we think about how kids should play sports. He’s the author of several best-selling books on the subject, including Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.
“Parenting and coaching young athletes is an art, not a science,” the organization states on its website. “The mission of the Changing the Game Project is to ensure that we return youth sports to our children, and put the “play” back in “play ball”.
I caught up with O’Sullivan back in 2016 for a story on how athletes can be successful beyond the obvious qualities of physical talent, hard work and team-building. I presented the scenario of preparing to climb a mountain. Numerous challenges lay ahead, so you’ll want to prepare an action plan before starting out, and make sure to gather the necessary gear: backpack, helmet, boots, etc.
Getting to the top in sports is like climbing a mountain. You need to plot the course, and acquire the necessary training to have a chance of reaching the top.
Skills alone don’t guarantee a college scholarship or win a championship. Your mind must also play a major role in reaching the summit, so to speak.
Since we’re referencing the mountain-climbing theme, it’s safe to say O’Sullivan is on the Mt. Rushmore of leaders in the youth sports landscape. He shared five simple but impactful strategies with me that will help young athletes reach the peak of their athletic mountain.
Set a Realistic Goal and Own It
It isn’t enough to just want success, whether it’s to play in college or be the best in your sport. You have to be willing to ride the ups and downs and do whatever it takes to get there.
Tom Brady didn’t become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time by simply walking onto a field and throwing a few balls around in practice. LeBron James didn’t become an NBA superstar overnight. In the instant society we live in, many players want success and gratification handed to them without working to achieve it.
“I meet lots of athletes who want lots of things, but they don’t “own it”,” O’Sullivan told me. “They don’t want to do extra work outside of practice. They don’t want to do extra fitness, training, or get more sleep. They don’t own the things necessary to actually achieve.”
Enjoy Your Sport
I’ve talked with many coaches who emphasize the need to have fun when playing a sport. But O’Sullivan points out there’s a difference between enjoyment and pleasure. People who enjoy running, for example, don’t always feel pleasure near the end of a marathon, but they want to keep coming back and train for the next race. It’s about keeping the end goal in mind.
“Every moment doesn’t have to be all peaches and cream,” O’Sullivan explained. “But deep down, you’ve still got to love it and want to play.”
Make Sure Your Motivation Is in the Right Place
Desiring a scholarship or pro contract shouldn’t be your primary motivator. Instead, focus on the love of your sport and the thrill of the grind and competition. Your ultimate satisfaction isn’t the destination, but the journey. The scholarship or pro contract is the icing on the cake once you make it to the top.
Be Willing to Embrace Failure
This is a big one, and not always easy. But O’Sullivan referenced Michael Jordan, who once said he missed more winning shots than he made. Baseball players fail a lot more than they succeed, but major leaguers are considered good hitters if they bat .300.
Keep in mind you’ll have to miss a lot of shots before you sink the big one. You’ll strike out a number of times before hitting a home run.
“When you lose, as long as you ask yourself how can I be better because I lost today, that’s not a loss,” O’Sullivan said. “You shouldn’t win all the games for the rest of your life. The (athletes) who embrace failure the best are the ones who eventually become the best.”
Build Good Moral Character
Athletes sometimes become so focused on winning, they cheat or cut corners to bring about their desired outcome. (I wrote about this in an earlier issue of Better Young Athletes). Instead of experiencing long-term pleasure, they end up feeling hollow and empty.
Personal glory is brief, especially in sports. O’Sullivan advises focusing on how each step of your journey can enhance the rest of your life.
Success doesn’t come with a guarantee. But when you reach the top, whether it’s Mount Everest or a national championship, you’ll be able to look back on the path you took to get there, and see how each challenge was used as an experience to make you a better person. It may not seem that way in the heat of the moment, but you’ll know it was worth it when you reach your desired goal.
Hot Takes and Great Reads
The month of February is Black History Month. Kids should be aware of the many Black Americans who endured racism and prejudice to pave the way for integration in sports and society. Jackie Robinson in baseball, Bill Russell in pro basketball, Willie O’Ree in professional hockey, Jesse Owens in track, Charlie Sifford in golf, and many others deserve our admiration and respect for the indignities they suffered.
Unfortunately, racism and discrimination still exist today, decades after these trailblazers opened doors in their sport. Here’s hoping that conversations and open discussions will continue to take place, and that we keep fighting for inclusion in sports and all walks of life.
February 2 is also the annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day, in conjunction with the Women’s Sports Foundation.
It’s particularly fitting since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was designed to protect against discrimination based on sex in education programs and other activities.
The WSF will hold various seminars and virtual meetings with legislators this week to discuss issues and legislation that affect girls and women in sports. Plus, there will be the first-ever NGWSD 5K and 50 Mile Challenge, presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods.
“As the ally, advocate and catalyst for girls and women in sports, the Women’s Sports Foundation is driven and determined to continue leading girls and women forward – in both sport and in life,” WSF CEO Deborah Antoine said in a press release. “We are optimistic about the future, yet our fight for equality must continue. We are proud of our legacy of protecting Title IX while also illuminating the gaps where more work is needed to fulfill its promise.”
You can learn more about the 5K and 50 Mile Challenge events here.
On a similar note: next week’s issue of Better Young Athletes will feature a story on Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball for All, which is dedicated to advocating for the inclusion of girls at all levels of baseball. Justine has quite a story to tell and was very generous in sharing her time with us, so don’t miss the next issue of the newsletter.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram has been a fan favorite with every NFL team he’s been with. His recent gesture emphasizes why he is a great ambassador for his community.
Ingram partnered with Microban 24 to donate $10,000 to the 18th Ward Sports Club, a local nonprofit providing high-quality and low-cost youth sports programs. Everyone is welcome regardless of race, gender, income or the neighborhood they live in.
“I'm all about giving back to the community and all about protection," Ingram told CBS Sports. “I'm just thankful we have similar interests and they're considering me as a partner. The Saints picked a great nonprofit organization that's in the community.”
Additionally, Ingram and Microban 24 are donating a year’s supply of the company’s product to the 18th Ward to keep kids protected during the pandemic. It will assist in spraying surfaces and killing bacteria to help prevent the spread of COVID in the club. Check out the full story here.
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