Most everyone, in one way or another, play at least one sport in their life, whether it’s in high school or college. They learn the valuable lessons of teamwork, good sportsmanship, how to be a leader, and that it’s okay to make mistakes, among other lessons. But for coaches, how do you know if you’re being a good coach? To address this issue, John O’Sullivan, author of the book Every Moment Matters: How the World’s Best Coaches Build Championship Teams, spoke with Hanna and Cari about what a good coach does for their teams.
John, please introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your educational and professional background.
I am currently residing in Bend, Oregon, but I grew up back in New York. I did my undergraduate degree at Fordham University and my master’s degree at the University of Vermont. My love of sport came as a child, then as a college and a professional athlete. I got into coaching. I coach university, and I’ve coached kid sports for a long time. As you mentioned, I founded Changing the Game Project in 2012, wherein I thought I could hopefully make a bigger difference for more people by bringing some of the latest research in education, psychology, youth development, and sociology and other things around the sporting experience. I really felt that sports had shifted away from being centered on the experience of the athlete or the child, and it was more about the business of sport or the people running sport. My goal was to give parents and coaches great information so that they could create a better environment for kids, and we’d have a far lower dropout rate and a far more successful sporting environment for all involved, whether you were an ultra competitive athlete pursuing the Olympics, or someone who just wants to run around and hang out with their friends, which is fantastic as well.
What brought you to write the book Every Moment Matters: How the World’s Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams?
I do a lot of coaching, education work, and I also have my own podcast called Way of Champions. On Way of Champions, I’ve been able to interview, I think we’re at 180 or so episodes, some of the best coaches in the world, the best sports scientists, skill acquisition experts, and psychologists, you name it. I wanted to share that information with the coaches that followed our work or the coaches of the clubs and organizations that we work with. My goal was how can I condense 180 interviews down into something that was a little bit more digestible? That’s how Every Moment Matters was born, based on this idea that when we are coaching, you never know when an athlete is going to listen, if today’s the day that your words are really going to have an impact. We never know what they’re going to remember, and what they’re going to forget; every moment matters, every day matters. Every day we have to be at our very best, because today might be the day we can really impact this child or adult in a positive or negative way. We have to be very, very intentional about our coaching, and we have to approach it from a point of being very professional about it, whether we’re a volunteer or whether we make our living at it.
You played sports yourself in high school and college, and then you became a coach. Why did you become a coach?
I think a lot of athletes become a coach, because they have unfulfilled ambitions in their sports, or they don’t want to leave the game. I think those who really spend a lot of time in sport, you love the locker room, love your teammates. When you can’t play anymore, how do you stay connected to that comradery and those friendships and all that fun stuff? I had a couple of injuries, and I couldn’t really play anymore at the level I wanted to play at. I was going to go to law school. I did my LSATs. I applied, and I was accepted in some great law schools, butI had no passion for law. When I started doing some coaching, I found I had a real passion for coaching kids, and it kept me close to the game. It kept me around something that I loved and outdoors and active. It becomes your living, and becomes what you really want to do. It’s a hard path, but I felt very strongly that this is what I was meant to do. Which was work with kids and help them become better people through sports. I certainly didn’t think when I was a university undergrad, or even a graduate student, that I would pursue coaching for my entire life.
How do you coach?
I think I’ve evolved as a coach. I use the scale that I talk about in the book of transactional to transformational coaching. A transactional coach is mostly about I’m in it for me. What do I get out of this? If I coach a certain way, will my athletes get me to my goals. Whereas on the opposite end of a scale, a transformational coach is all about the athletes first, then the team, and my needs come last. I think throughout our coaching, we’re all somewhere on that scale. I know for myself, I’ve moved from transactional to transformational. I try to be very focused on what the athletes need. For me, regardless of how competitive they are or where their goals are, I think the most important thing is that it’s enjoyable. I want you to be smiling, that you love to do it. That kids are like, “Oh, was practice over already?” versus the opposite of that. My goal every day is to make it fun and make it competitive. It’s hard, but it’s hard in a good way. If I can do that, the kids will keep coming back.
How do you feel about participation awards?
I’m not a big fan, because no one really asked the kids if this is what’s going to make you show up. Or we don’t want to excuse bad coaching, “Oh, but we gave you a $4 trophy at the end of the whole thing.” I always think that when people ask me, “Why wouldn’t you give these things out?” I’m like, “I’d much rather use that money on the kids.” If there’s 12 kids on a team, and we spend $4 per child for a trophy, that money adds up. That’s $50 that could have been a scholarship so another kid could actually play. That’s a far better use of $50 instead of giving everyone something that’s going to end up on in a box or get thrown out eventually. I think these are adults trying to make themselves feel better and kids don’t really need them.
Should kids that aren’t athletic still play sports?
Yes they should. And when we say, “Should they play sports,” it doesn’t mean they have to play travel sports, it doesn’t mean they have to play team sports, but they should move. One of the things that’s really important to recognize is that we were designed to move. We weren’t all designed to be Olympians, but we were all designed to be able to run, jump, skip, hop, throw, catch, track, unless we have some underlying medical condition that that might prevent one of those things. We were designed as human beings to do those things, and those are learned skills. What happens far too often is that we look at a five-year-old who is struggling with those things, and we say, “She’s just not an athlete.” But we would never look at a five-year-old, who’s struggling with learning to read, and say, “She’s just not a reader.” We’re not just going to forget reading, because we know that it’s such an important life skill.
We know from the research that people who are active, children who are active, they have a hugely lower obesity rate. They do better in school. They’re less likely to do drugs. They get better grades. They’re more likely to go to college. They get better jobs. They have better healthcare outcomes for their entire life. And they’re far more likely to raise active kids. It doesn’t mean that someone who trends toward music should be forced to trend towards sports, but we should understand that everyone is designed to move, and everyone can be taught to move. If they do move, it’ll probably enhance the other stuff that they love to do. We have to stop using the excuse of: he’s not an athlete, she’s not an athlete. That’s just not true.
How do you help kids become self-motivating, high performing, and resilient on and off the field?
I think, number one, they have to own the experience. Oftentimes in sports or music, the parent owns the experiences, the parents’ goals, the parent’s dreams, and they no longer belong to the kids. Well, if they don’t belong to the kids, guess what? They’re not going to be that determined or that high-performing. Number two, there’s got to be some enjoyment in it. As adults, we all understand that if we’re not compelled to do something, we don’t really do it unless we gain some enjoyment out of it. We want ownership, and we want enjoyment, because those things breed intrinsic motivation, and people who are intrinsically motivated, they go out and practice on their own. They do more of it. They gain more enjoyment, they gain more ownership, and those things kind of feed upon each other. That is really what leads to mastery of anything, whether it’s sports, or whether it’s music, art, or anything they do.
What is the difference between telling and teaching sports: widen your stance, elbow up, step into the ball, you didn’t listen, you did it wrong?
My friend, Trevor Reagan, has a great podcast called Learner Lab. What he calls this is stealing the reps from our athletes. He gives this great example of the weight room. Now, if you went to the weight room, and you were doing squats. You are on your 7th rep out of 10, and you were struggling. If your trainer stepped in and took the bar and said, “I’ll do eight, nine and 10”. You’re done, but you didn’t do them. So all those different examples you gave of keep your elbow up, or swing harder, or shoot. or all that, that’s stealing the reps from our kids. That’s stealing the reps from our players. We can’t do that. If we want them to learn, they’ve got a struggle in the weight room. Your greatest gains come from those couple of reps where you’re really struggling, you’re close to making it, and you’re pushing through. That’s where growth happens – on the edge of our comfort zone. In sports too often we see coaches or parents stepping in and stealing the reps at those exact moments when the struggle is going to promote growth and learning. So our job is to step back, be patient, and let the athletes figure it out and not solve the problems for them.
In your book you say, in order to be your best coach self, you have to be your best self. How do you be your best self?
I think that all starts with knowing yourself, right? You have to know yourself. Self awareness is maybe the greatest tool that any athlete or any coach can possess. It gives you this honest look into what’s working, what needs work, and what has to get better. I don’t think there’s any way you can be your best self as a coach. You need to be constantly looking at and examining: “How did I coach today? did I communicate well with those kids? did I miss anything? did I mess anything up? what came out that didn’t come out the right way? did I catch kids being good?” This awareness of what my triggers are; what the things I need to work on are, whether they’re technical, tactical, or communication or psychological, that’s going to make me a better coach.
How would a coach build a team culture when the athletes come from so many different backgrounds?
The coach is sort of the torch bearer who walks with the team and shines a light on what we could be. Great cultures are really about the team as well. I’m not talking six year olds, but certainly middle school on up, the team has to buy into the culture. The team has to have a say in it, and the team has to have some ownership of it. It can’t just be about what the coach wants, right? If the coach wants to win the league, and the players are just happy to hang out, it’s not going to be a great culture. It’s a collaboration between coaches and their athletes to create a culture that works well.
Being a part of a team brings together a lot of athletes with competing interests, likes, or coming from different family situations. That’s the beauty of teams. If we can all start rowing in the same direction, if we can agree as a group, we look like this; when we are at our best, this is what we do. You work towards that every single day. We agree that when we’re at our best, we do these things, and we want to be at our best. Every day the coach is holding us accountable for doing these things, and we’re holding our coach accountable for doing these things. Then we can put aside the things that make us different, because realistically, we’re 99% the same. We’re the same, and we’ve agreed that we all love these things. I think great coaches facilitates in drawing out the things that make us good and the things that we all agree upon. The best coaches are also the ones who relentlessly hold themselves and everyone else, including parents sometimes, accountable for upholding those standards. If you do those things, it can be a beautiful, beautiful thing.
In your book you say, “Every moment matters.” It’s quoted. Why is that so important?
One of the people I interviewed for the book was a guy named Terry Steiner, and he’s the US Women’s Wrestling National Team head coach. He said, “Every day has to be a gold medal day, because you don’t know if today’s the day, or you don’t know if you’re the last person who has a chance to reach this athlete, to reach this human being.” Like I said before, that’s why every moment matters, because we don’t know what kids are going to remember and what they’re going to forget. Our influence is never neutral. It’s always positive or negative. We have to be so intentional about every moment, because the next thing that comes out of our life could raise a kid up for his or her life or could bring them down and make them feel less than human. We don’t know which one they’re going to remember. When we mess up, we have to tidy up. Sometimes just telling an athlete, “I see you having a tough time, and we all go through those times,” is just as important as telling them something great.
What would you say to a child who thinks that winning is the most important thing when it comes to playing sports?
It’s up to each kid what they think is the most important thing. Children act in a certain way because of the adult influences in their life. An eight year old who thinks that winning is the only thing, or the only thing that matters, is probably only getting praise or only getting love at home when they win. And when they don’t win something else is happening, or their competitiveness is just a struggle to deal with their own emotions among other things. I think it’s a mistake to tamp down competitiveness, but we have to help shape athletes on the journey. What we talk about at Changing the Game Project all the time is: we don’t teach winning, we teach competing. When you step on the field, you should compete. You should give your very best effort every time you step out there, that’s an important thing.
Showing up to compete you control your preparation, you control your focus, you control your emotions. So many things about winning are out of your control: you don’t control the weather or the field, your opponent, the referee, all those sorts of things. We talk about showing up to compete and giving your best effort, and then recognize that win or lose – it’s all part of the journey. I think we have a perfect example from children. If you go to any elementary school at recess, when they set up teams to play football, soccer, basketball, or whatever they’re playing, they work hard to make the teams as even as possible. If one team starts winning by a lot, they change the teams up because kids would rather win 3-2 this week and lose 3-2 next week than win every week 10-0, because that’s not fun. We have to understand that competitiveness is not stacking your team and winning all your games. Competitiveness is creating an environment where we win games and we lose games, but we should always be learning and striving to get better by always being pushed. We should always be challenged, because that’s how learning and growth happens.
How do you deal with bullying and bad sportsmanship on a team between players?
I think as a parent looking at it from the outsider and seeing your kid get bullied, I think one of the things that you have to do is just make sure that the coach is aware that it’s happening. If I’m coaching a soccer team, I have 16 kids, I have 18 kids. I don’t necessarily see everything, and oftentimes the bullying is very small, subtle things. The word that only he can hear that says, “Oh God, he’s on our team; oh God, look at him coming up to bat.” As a coach, I might not ever hear that. Making the coach aware that it’s happening, that’s number one.
Number two, what we know from bullying research is that bullying doesn’t often stop. The parents, the coaches, they need to create an environment and say, “This is not acceptable; this is not allowed. We don’t treat anyone on our team like this way.” Bullying stops when kids intervene. In all our research in schools, we know that when the teachers say something, a lot of times it makes bullying worse, but when other students step in and they sit with that bullied kid at lunch, or they stand up for the bullied, then all of a sudden the bullying stops. I think as a parent or as a coach, when I’ve seen kids engage in bullying behavior, one of the immediate things I think about is what is happening in that poor bully’s life that he or she is acting out. There’s probably a lot of baggage that they’re dealing with. They’ve turned their anger, they’ve turned their rage, their own humiliation on someone else. It’s not a one layered thing, either. I think coaches and sports organization should have zero tolerance for it. When they’re made aware of it, they need to deal with it. We also have to try to create environments where teammates would never let one of their teammates get bullied, no matter how much he or she struggles at the sport, because they have every right to be there.
What do you say to a parent who is competing against other adults through their child?
We’ve all met that parent. I have a friend and she said to me, “Parents are vampires.” And I said, “What does that mean?” She said, “What happens when a vampire looks in a mirror? They don’t see their own reflection.” It’s very easy to compete against other adults based upon the so-called performances or achievements your children, especially in sports. It can be very public. Now we have social media where we can do it even more and say, “Look at my kid at this event; look at my kid with another championship trophy.” What we have to recognize is we’re sending this subtle message to our own kids of mom is only proud of me when I win, because when I don’t win, she doesn’t post any pictures. That’s a very slippery slope we have to be aware of.
What changes would you make to youth sports today?
Number one, I put an end to youth national championships. There’s an AAU seven and under national championship for basketball. That’s ridiculous. That’s not about the kids, right? So we have huge costs, huge commitments, a force forcing young children to specialize in sports far too young, all because of the business of sports that says, we got to go to these tournaments, we got to win these national championships. And that’s a super sad thing. I mean, I think really one thing that would have a massive, massive effect on sports is if all of a sudden there was no scholarships anymore to go to college, because so many people chase after this elusive scholarship, when only a small percentage of people get them. Because of that, they spend tens of thousands of dollars. If chasing after this small piece of the pie that wasn’t there, I think people would look at sports a lot more holistically. I certainly understand that for some kids, the only way to go to college is to get that scholarship. I’m not advocating that they go away, but thinking about being a college athlete, when a kid is in elementary school is crazy, and it misaligns a lot of priorities.
Please support the author John O’Sullivan by purchasing his book Every Moment Matters: How the World’s Best Coaches Build Championship Teams.
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