Next Generation

Returning youth sports to the youths

By From page A7 | March 11, 2014

0311 book coverW

Are you too invested in your child’s youth sports accomplishments?

John O’Sullivan has a few simple questions to help you decide:

* Do you share credit for your child’s successes, saying things like, “We won” instead of “She won”?

* Do you try to solve your child’s sports-related problems for him, perhaps by calling the coach when there’s an issue rather than teaching your child how to communicate with coaches?

* Do you feel nervous and anxious before games or depressed after defeats?

* Do you make mental coaching notes during the game to provide advice afterwards?

* Does your child avoid you after games or show signs of being embarrassed by your presence and involvement?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, O’Sullivan has some advice for you: “One of the most important things you will ever do as the parent of a young athlete is to let them go and let their sports experience belong to them.”


Because in an era when 70 percent of youth athletes drop out of sports before high school, and when stories of over-the-top parents, angry coaches and assaults on officials have become commonplace, O’Sullivan says it’s time for parents to step back, and return youth sports to their rightful owners: the youth.

He speaks from some experience.

O’Sullivan lived the dream of many a young athlete: his passion and talent for soccer took him to some of the highest levels of his sport, including playing both NCAA Division I soccer at Fordham University and professional soccer with the Wilmington Hammerheads of the United Soccer Leagues.

Now living with his wife and two children in Bend, Ore., O’Sullivan is a longtime youth, college and professional soccer coach.

And as a coach, O’Sullivan has seen firsthand how much has changed in youth sports since he was coming up.

“When I was playing,” he said recently, “I would have described it as children competing against other children. Now it’s adults competing against other adults through their children, and that’s driving kids out of sports.”

In his book published last year, “Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids,” O’Sullivan doesn’t just lay out the problems he sees in youth sports, he offers concrete suggestions for change, and will do so during a visit to Davis on Friday, March 21.

O’Sullivan is the featured speaker for Davis Parent University, where he will discuss how to raise happy, high-performing athletes beginning at 7 p.m. in the Brunelle Performance Hall at Davis High, 315 W 14th St.

O’Sullivan’s talk will be followed by a panel discussion featuring four local coaches: swim coach Koren Motekaitis; former DHS soccer coach Ashley Yudin; martial arts instructor Richard Baciarini; and former DHS football coach Steve Smyte.

The topic of this installment of Davis Parent University was planned well in advance of the current imbroglio involving the DHS volleyball program. But given the ongoing conversation about youth sports and the behavior of parents and coaches engendered by the volleyball controversy, it perhaps couldn’t come at a better time.

In his book, O’Sullivan lays out some damning statistics about how coaches and parents negatively impact youth sports in America, citing a 2005 study by the University of Notre Dame that found the following:

* 36 percent of youths reported that coaches yelled at them during a game;
* 26 percent of youths reported that coaches urged them to retaliate;
* 48 percent of youths reported that coaches yelled at a referee;
* 68 percent of youths reported seeing spectators yell at referees; and
* 43 percent of youths reported being teased by spectators.

“The innocence and joy of American youth sports has been corrupted,” O’Sullivan writes. “Rarely do kids just get to ‘play’ sports anymore. Instead, they get to ‘work’ sports, a movement caused by the misguided notion that our kids need to specialize early and win at all costs to get that college scholarship and justify the investment made in youth athletics.

“The romance is gone, the fun is gone and sports are no longer play,” O’Sullivan writes.

The result, he said, is that 70 percent of athletes drop out of sports by age 13. Some drop out due to financial constraints, others due to time constraints, O’Sullivan writes, but most stop playing because it just isn’t fun anymore. Particularly discouraging, he says, is that studies have shown that many of those who do drop out, particularly those who had concentrated on a single sport through childhood, drop all sports for good.

“The people responsible for this, and the only ones who can change it, are the adults,” he said.

It hasn’t always been this way.

O’Sullivan grew up on Long Island, which he called a “hotbed for soccer” even then. There were travel teams, “but it wasn’t all-encompassing as it is now.”

He still played basketball, golf and baseball and was a wrestler in middle school. By high school, though his focus had become soccer, he also ran track. That intense, early, year-round specialization in a single sport just wasn’t the norm.

Now, many parents believe children need to specialize early if they want to play competitively, play in high school, and perhaps college and beyond, O’Sullivan said. That often means year-round devotion to one sport, traveling to cities far and wide to compete and hiring private coaches to provide that extra something.

“It’s hard to venture out to any youth sports field these days and not think, ‘There is something wrong with this picture,’ ” O’Sullivan said. “Youth sports don’t look like they did 20 or 30 years ago.”

There were no national online databases cataloging statistics for virtually every athlete in every sport, not only in high school, but even in local youth soccer organizations. And there was no multibillion-dollar industry surrounding youth sports, from high-priced private coaches to corporations, hotels, small businesses and even entire cities dependent upon the youth sports industry, he said.

But that’s changed, and now parents — often against their better judgment — feel compelled to keep up, O’Sullivan notes.

They are told their kids need to be on travel teams by age 7, have a private coach by 8 and be committed to a single sport by age 10, even as all the evidence points to the contrary, he said.

“With the exception of a few early specialization sports — figure skating and gymnastics are examples — most athletes benefit from a multisport background,” O’Sullivan said. “Kids that do specialize early have much higher injury rates, don’t become good all-around athletes and have a much higher burn-out rate.”

And when they are playing that same sport year-round, there are costs.

“They never rest, they never peak, they never recover and they try to maintain a high level week after week, month after month,” O’Sullivan said. “It is not physiologically possible to do this. Professionals cannot and will not do it, but we expect growing kids to.”

The reason so many do, he said, is due in part to the myth that the prize in the end — college scholarships in particular — will make it all worthwhile.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” O’Sullivan writes, “but chances are small that your child is going to play a college sport, even smaller that he will receive a scholarship, and minuscule that he will be turning pro.”

O’Sullivan said just 3 to 5 percent of high school athletes even play in college and far fewer receive athletic financial aid.

“Unfortunately, even in the face of these numbers,” he said, “between 30 and 50 percent of youth sports parents believe their child is good enough to get a scholarship.”

So why does the myth persist? Well, sometimes because youth sports programs and businesses promise they turn out scholarship athletes even when they don’t, he said, and sometimes because parents lie.

“We live in this culture of … people living vicariously through their kids,” O’Sullivan said. “In my many years in soccer, I came across many parents who lied about their kids’ scholarships, who said, ‘We got this amount,’ when I knew they had not.”

To those parents who still see youth sports as a pathway to college scholarships, he offers this advice instead: If you want a guaranteed way to pay for college, take your youth sports money and put it in a 529 college savings plan because chances are that is the only way your current sports investment is going to pay for school.

That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t much to love about youth sports.

“Sports are the perfect venue to develop character and core values based upon universally accepted social and ethical principles,” O’Sullivan writes. “I am speaking about things such as grit, commitment, integrity, humility, fairness, excellence and self-control.”

Plus, when done right, it’s just plain fun.

And even those “bad” coaches encountered along the way provide a learning experience, O’Sullivan notes.

“We are going to have bad teachers, bad coaches and bad bosses in our lives,” he writes. “Before you leap to the defense of your child when she is struggling to adapt to a new coach, assess the situation. Note the difference between an environment that is unsafe for your child and one that is uncomfortable. If it’s the former, remove them. If it’s the latter, then it is a teachable moment. Your child will thank you and the coach a little later in life.”

Those inevitable disappointments are learning experiences as well.

“Many parents take the disappointment of getting cut from a team as an opportunity to ridicule the coach, the program and even the players on the team. They let their emotions get the best of them and try to make their child feel better by criticizing everyone else involved,” O’Sullivan writes.

But none of that produces happy, high-performing athletes, he says. What does? O’Sullivan’s book offer numerous tips for that, with most focusing on how parents can change their own thinking and behavior.

“It starts family by family, team by team,” he said.

Since his book was published, O’Sullivan has been traveling the country speaking to parents and coaches, schools and youth sports organizations, “and the feedback has been great,” he said.

Especially gratifying has been the number of high-level coaches and pro athletes who have reached out to him and thanked him for his book.

“People who are involved in sports on a daily basis … are saying, ‘This brought me great value,’ ” O’Sullivan said. “That was not necessarily something I was expecting.

“I’d like to think a movement is growing,” he added. “You change one family at a time, one team at a time. When people see it works, they tell other people about it.”

And don’t worry about that “crazy mom or crazy dad” who really needs to hear this message, O’Sullivan said. “Find like-minded people. Eventually you get this critical mass and then the crazy folks either come aboard or go away.”

“People can hold each other accountable too,” he noted.

O’Sullivan’s Davis appearance is free of charge, thanks to sponsors including Suzanne Kimmel of First Street Real Estate; Hyatt Place UC Davis; The Avid Reader; and Baciarini’s Martial Arts. Seating is limited, though, and available on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information and to view past Davis Parent University lectures, visit http://dctv.davismedia.org/dpu.

Learn more about O’Sullivan and his movement to change youth sports at http://www.changingthegameproject.com.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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