Great Information for Soccer Parents and Youth Soccer Coaches – PART III
What really needs to change in youth soccer? John O’Sullivan has transformed the youth soccer political landscape across the country and continues to raise the bar — Changing the Game for the good of the sport and those kids playing the beautiful game.
Here is Part III of our 3-Part Series with John Sullivan.
If you are involved in the youth soccer game in any way or thinking about having your children play the beautiful game — you should read the series. Part I is JOHN O’SULLIVAN ON WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE IN YOUTH SOCCER and is Part II: JOHN O’SULLIVAN ON HOW COACHES CAN KEEP KIDS IN THE GAME.
John O’Sullivan started coaching in 1994 and his book CHANGING THE GAME is a parent’s guide to raising happy, high performing athletes and giving youth sports back to our kids. Founder of the Changing the Game Project, O’Sullivan believes youth soccer should be fun and that players should want to go to practice, loving the careful guidance they receive from their coaches.
Coaches and parents often forget we are raising the future fans of the beautiful game of soccer — In our search for the top 1% of the 1% who can maybe win our country the World Cup, and groom ‘homegrown’ talent, we must remember the big picture and stop kids from quitting the game.
Advice to soccer parents:
- Know the Youth Soccer Club Policy on Playing Time
- Place your player on the appropriate-level team
- Be your kid’s advocate but realize you are not the coach
Looking at this movement to keep players in the game, GoalNation asked the following questions:
Diane Scavuzzo: What would you do if you were a parent and your child was sitting on the bench? If they are not playing 50% of the game, and you are paying $2,000? What do you recommend that parent do?
John O’Sullivan: First of all, hopefully, you would know what the youth soccer club’s policy is before you signed up.
Do you know your club’s policy on Playing Time?
Most youth soccer clubs have some sort of policy that says, “When you sign your kid up, this is what playing time expectations are.”
Diane Scavuzzo: Some youth soccer clubs state that players should have no expectations when it comes to playing time, it is all earned at the discretion of the coach.
John O’Sullivan: So, there’s an expectation right there.
That’s the definition right there — we don’t promise you a single minute, so you should know that when you signed your kid up.
Whether I agree with it or not, you wrote that check. You should know that that’s the policy.
So, if your kid’s sitting on the bench, you made that decision.
Now I don’t think it’s right, but you need to know this before you sign them up.
So, this is where it starts. If you know that the club policy provides for every player to play half a game, and all of a sudden your kid’s time becomes diminished, then you should say something like “Hey, is there a reason why my kid isn’t getting meaningful playing time?”
Of course, your kid has to be coming to practice and doing his best, you can’t just show up and expect to play on game day without being a responsible teammate.
Diane Scavuzzo: What about when players are sidelined for important ‘must-win’ games?
John O’Sullivan: When a coach says, “These are important games, and so that kids not going to play,” I say to that coach, “What if your team made the state cup semi-finals, and then your club’s Director of Coaching said, ‘These are important games now so you are no longer going to coach, we’re taking over….’ How would you feel?”
This is what we say to kids all the time.
Diane Scavuzzo: What do the coaches say?
John O’Sullivan: They nod their head at that, but I don’t know that it necessarily always changes behavior. Sometimes it does.
I just want to get across the following, I’m a coach. I totally love and respect coaches, and how hard the job that we have is. But also, that it is important that we do it really well. There are tons of great coaches I would be honored if they would coach my kids.
I think it’s time for the great coaches — if we’re going to make coaching a true profession — to hold others accountable.
Diane Scavuzzo: What is one of the biggest mistakes parents make?
John O’Sullivan: One of the biggest mistakes people make is they want their kid to play on the highest team possible. But a young player who is the 14th best player on the team might be better served being the best player on the B team.
Parents should not be in such a hurry to say, “Oh, we’re on the A team.”
Clubs at young ages should really be providing equivalent levels of coaching and training to multiple levels of teams at that age, based on what the science says about how you develop players, and how players develop. Very often a 10-year-old, who the best 10-year-old, is not the best 18-year-old.
Diane Scavuzzo: Why do you believe parents push kids to be the 14th player on the “A” team as opposed to the sixth on the “B” team?
John O’Sullivan: The US Tennis Association said it best, “Kids like to compete, and parents like to compare.” Parents enjoy saying, “My kid’s on the A team.”
I also think a lot of parents are stressed — they don’t want their kid to miss out. Parents often feel that if “we’re not on the “A” team, my kid is missing out.”
It’s really up to the clubs to provide parents with a comfort level that all their players are getting access to great coaching, facilities, the same curriculum.
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you think youth soccer clubs do a good enough job of explaining this to parents?
John O’Sullivan: I think some do a great job, and some don’t at all.
Some clubs recognize it’s important to develop all their U9 teams while other clubs put all of their resources into their A team.
And, the evidence shows that many of the players on the “A” team won’t be around a little bit later because the reason they’re on the “A” team is that they were born in January, February, or March.
Diane Scavuzzo: If you could tell parents one important message, what would it be?
John O’Sullivan: I would tell coaches to engage parents. Give them good information, teach them how they can help. And communicate with them so they know how their son or their daughter is doing along the way.
The idea that a coach shouldn’t have any contact with the parents — it’s silly, and it doesn’t make any sense. You’re cutting out the most influential voice in their life, instead of making them an ally in the development of that kid.
And so then, as a parent, know your role. Understand that it is not really your place to disagree on the Xs and Os but be the advocate for your child. If your kid is coming home in tears because of things that players on the team are saying, or the way a coach is talking to them, then you need to advocate for your child.
And, understand that there are boundaries, and each club and coach should have appropriate boundaries. You shouldn’t meet someone in the parking lot after the game on an emotional time.
Diane Scavuzzo: If a parent is unsure or feels they are endangering their status on the team by complaining, what would you tell them?
John O’Sullivan: That’s a tough one. It’s a tough one because you have to think about what are you complaining about? Because I get emails from people who say, “I think it’s totally unfair my kid joined a new team and doesn’t get to keep the same number he’s had his whole life.”
If you complain about that, then yes, some people have the right to think you’re an idiot.
But I always tell parents, “You are the advocate for the human being, not just the athlete.”
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you believe that the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) is doing a good job developing players?
John O’Sullivan: I think U.S. Soccer, in general, is doing a far better job than in the past.
U.S. Soccer has made a huge investment in coaching education and today our kids have better coaching.
There are certainly more good players coming out now, and the DA is still in its infancy even though it’s 10-years-old now.
In some Developmental Academy environments, it’s very, very clear that they are producing excellent players.
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you believe that parents are smarter than they were 10 years ago, maybe more knowledgeable?
John O’Sullivan: I think there’s more information out there, but whether information becomes knowledge, which is taking action on that information — that I am not sure of.
I think clubs that really do a great job are ones that engage their parents and say, “Here’s how you can help.” And, the ones that turn parents into ‘enemies’ don’t really do themselves any favors.
I see high-level teams win a national titles talking about player development and my first question usually is, “How many of those kids have been with you since they were 8-years-old?”
If the answer is only two players, then is that club really good at player development, or are they just good at recruiting?
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you know very many teams that stay together for a long time?
John O’Sullivan: Well, it depends on where you live.
If you live where I do, in Bend, Oregon, and you’re three hours from the other nearest population area, there’s not a lot of other choices. If you live where there are 25 youth soccer clubs within an hour’s drive, it’s easier to jump from one to the other.
Diane Scavuzzo: In the last eight years since I’ve been covering youth soccer, I have seen a dramatic change and shift in youth soccer. Are we on the right track to develop homegrown players for our country?
John O’Sullivan: Is the DA better serving the small percentage of really high-level players than they’ve been served in the past? And I would say, yes it is. The players are on one program — they’re not running from their youth soccer club to ODP, to regional teams, all with different coaches and styles of play.
There’s actually a periodization and a 10 month training season with only one game a day — so there have been a lot of really good, positive changes. But there is more that needs to be done.
We treat sport in this country as a pyramid — and if you fall out of the high-end performance pathway, you can easily fall out of the sport.
This is where I think we can be very clever, especially with a game like soccer. Who says that soccer has to be 11v11? Why can’t it stay 7v7? Why can’t players play 5v5?
I see recreational soccer programs cutting their middle school program because they only have 35 kids, and they say, “We don’t have enough players to form the required number of teams.”
Why don’t you play five a side, because now you got six teams.
We just need to be clever in the sport and ask ourselves how can we keep kids in some form of this game.
We want players to play this game for the rest of their life.
I would say the biggest challenge that the game of soccer faces in this country — and I know U.S. Soccer is trying to tackle this — is that millions of kids quit the sport before they ever get to play for a well-trained coach.
This is not an attack on volunteers, this is just a statement of fact. Too many kids come and go from this sport before they get to see a well-trained coach.
A well-trained coach is not someone who got handed a PDF of drills after getting off of work.
So oftentimes our most challenging coaching is when we have really young kids of massive different levels of interest, and ability, and focus. We have our least trained coaches with them, when in fact that might be the most challenging situation.
This is what we have to conquer in this country.
Diane Scavuzzo: Are we’re keeping more kids in the game now than we were five years ago?
John O’Sullivan: I don’t think the numbers would support that. We need to start thinking our competition is not just basketball, football, and baseball but video games, social media, and just screen time in general.
Diane Scavuzzo: When you speak at a symposium, a convention or to a group, what do you usually focus on?
John O’Sullivan: When we speak to coaches, we focus on what kids want from coaches, what does good leadership look like, how to build dynamic team cultures, and how to run effective practices using the latest research into how kids learn best.
When we speak to parents, we look at their role in helping their children have an enjoyable youth sports experience, as well as how to work closer with coaches and provide the right conditions for their children to perform their best. We touch on sideline behavior, the car ride home, and so much more.
Diane Scavuzzo: You do a lot of seminars and speaking engagements if someone wanted to hear you speak or ask you to come talk to their organization, what should they do?
John O’Sullivan: They can reach out to me by email and I will get right back to them.
We offer both year-long partner relationships. We just signed one with Nebraska Youth Soccer Association as well as keynotes and day-long workshops for coaches, parents, athletes, and administrators.
Diane Scavuzzo: If readers want to buy your book, what is the best way?