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Improving Parent & Coach Behavior - Q & A with John O'Sullivan, Founder, Changing the Game Project

By Paul Langhorst on 11/5/2015

John O’ Sullivan is on a mission to improve parent, coach, and player behavior at youth sporting events with a goal of putting the “play” back in “play ball.”  Today’s headlines are filled with stories of parents, coaches and players doing unthinkable things on the sidelines, in the stands and on the field making John’s mission, now mission critical. John's story, and resulting life's focus, is now one of the best sports parenting resources to be found.


Stemming from a stark sideline observation that showed the dramatic difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, John O’ Sullivan became intrigued with how parent and coach behavior, their choice of words,  body language, tone, affected the physical and emotional outcome on players and the game being played.  The result, John founded the Changing the Game Project in 2013 and has now spoken at hundreds of youth sports events, wrote Changing the Game, and connected with many other organizations to help spread the word.  


Engage Sports caught up with John O’ Sullivan to learn more about the program, its history and impact.


How did you come to start the Changing the Game Project?Book on improving parent behavior in sprorts


The idea for the Changing the Game Project has its roots back in 2011.  I was at a soccer tournament where I could watch the progress of two simultaneous games.  One was being played where the coach and parents clearly were focused on providing positive reinforcement and the other, negative. The impact on the players was visible and dramatic. The negative side was not having fun, the positive side was having loads of fun and playing competitive ball. Following this I began looking for a good parent education program for my soccer club, and could not find one.  I decided to research and write a book, and then realized that people wanted more information, so I started a blog in 2013. It muddled around for a few months, then exploded that fall and we have never looked back. 


What is your personal experience in youth sports?  Were you a coach, board member, just a parent, etc.?


I am a former college and pro soccer player, and coached soccer on the youth, high school and NCAA Division 1 level. After coaching for many years, recently the Changing the Game Project has become a full time job. We give well over 100 presentations a year to schools, sports clubs, coaching conventions, even businesses. 


What techniques have you found that really change and improve the parent-sport-child relationship?


Communication is key. So many parents have never asked their kids why they play, what they want from sports, etc. Once you know what kids want, and accept it, then you can give them ownership of the experience. Those two are key. 


What techniques have you found that help improve relationships between parents and coaches?


sports parenting adviceWhat works best? Again, communication is key. Coaches who refuse to educate parents, and then refuse to speak to them, give progress reports, etc., are not being realistic. There must be healthy boundaries, but a parent has the right to know how their child is doing, what can be done to improve, and that their child is being treated with respect. Should parents talk to college coaches; NO! But they certainly should have open dialogue with youth coaches. Parents, on the other hand, must understand that coaches have a really hard job, and they are not perfect. Also, a coach is responsible for 10, 15, 20 plus athletes. Your kid might be the most important to you, but he or she gets 1/15 of the coach’s attention. The coach will not notice every little thing that you might. In the end, understand that the two of you working together is what best serves your child. 


Is there a “group think” effect in parents? Do they start to behave a certain way because others or the coach behaves a certain way?


Yes. Keeping up with the Joneses plays a big part.  The techniques offered in our blog, website and book can help prevent this from happening.


If you could give parents one tip to improve their sports parenting, what would that be?


Help your child find their passion, instead of trying to determine it for them. 


If you could give players one tip to help improve their parent relationship when playing sports, what would it be?


Tell your parents what you want, what your dreams are, and how they can best help you pursue them.


You write and share a lot of insightful articles and tips…how do you develop these? Do you collaborate with others?


Until recently all the writing has been mine. I have added some amazing bloggers, coaches and athletes to our speaking team, and we are just starting to feature some of their work as well. We get a lot of heartfelt letters, and try to keep track of the pulse of parents and coaches, and the things they are struggling with. That is where we get our ideas. 


What has been the youth sports industry reception to your program?   


It’s been great!  The Changing the Game Project receives invitations to speak at events all across the country and have been interviewed for many news programs.  We have also been able to develop some amazing partnerships with like-minded organizations and companies.  By working together we accomplish even more! They share our Facebook posts and blogs in their newsletter, and they are working hard to change the culture. 


What can others do to help your program or get involved?


Join our email list at http://ChangingTheGameProject.com, connect via Facebook or Twitter (@CTGProjectHQ) and be a movement maker. Even if we cannot do a talk in your community, we have tons of online resources, parent and coach education, and more to help parents and coaches who want to make a difference. And, I am sure my publisher would love if you bought my book Changing the Game!  Also, listen to my Changing the Game Ted Talk for more insights into how to improve parenting and coaching in youth sports.


Wow!  Keep up the great work John!  A “tip of the hat” from the entire team here at EngageSports.com. 

Paul Langhorst

Co-Founder and Chief Technologist for Engage Sports, providing sports league websites, online registration and league management. Over the years, Rich has coached football, basketball, baseball and fastpitch softball. He has also severed as a board member for football and lacrosse organizations in the St. Louis area.


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