Enjoy Watching Them Play

Posted by Rebecca Moore - 07 August, 2017

003By the age of 13, seven out of 10 children will quit organized sports. If we want our children to be physically fit and active, and to accrue the benefits of exercise and team sports, that is a worrying statistic. With the fall sports season getting underway, this may be your first time watching your child from the sidelines or the stand. How can you help your child to have fun and stay in the game?

According to John O'Sullivan, five words you say, and the attitude it conveys, can make a big difference. For our K-6 Athletic Director, Ellen Smalley, O'Sullivan's message has stayed with her as a parent, educator, and coach of young children. "Parents of young athletes need to focus on supporting their children's efforts and enjoying these moments, rather than putting pressure on them to win."

This stance is also endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. An article that expresses their position on organized sports for children and preadolescents states, “…in organized sports, inappropriate or overzealous parental or adult influences can have negative effects." Furthermore, “for children and preadolescents, factors such as fun, success, variety, freedom, family participation, peer support, and enthusiastic leadership encourage and maintain participation, whereas others such as failure, embarrassment, competition, boredom, regimentation, and injuries discourage subsequent participation.” 

In collaboration with then-Huntsville City Council President Mark Russell and the Huntsville Sports Commission, Randolph had the opportunity in 2015 to host two presentations by best-selling author John O’Sullivan. Mr. O'Sullivan shared his advice on creating positive, player-first environments.

O’Sullivan is the founder of the Changing the Game Project, an organization he started in 2012 with the mission of ensuring that we return youth sports to our children, and put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’  The organization’s goal is to provide parents and coaches information and resources needed to make youth sports a healthy, positive, and rewarding experiences for children.

O’Sullivan highlighted a great deal of research that counters the current trends of early specialization, extensive practice times, expensive travel teams, and highly competitive environments at a young age. Sharing information from his own research and that of others, including Carol Dweck’s Mindset (a popular read in the Randolph community), O’Sullivan reminded us of the importance of letting children be children. A few points from his parent presentation included:

  •  7 of 10 players quit organized sports by age 13.
  •  Today's 10-year-olds have a five-year shorter lifespan than their parents due to inactivity.


  • We should push for early specialization  (Gladwell's 10,000-hour study was on violinists, NOT athletes).
  • Winning is more important than development.
  • Sports are an investment (only 2% of high school athletes play college athletics.  Fewer than 1% receive financial scholarships).

Important points to consider

    • "Performance = potential - interference":  What if we acted at a piano recital like we do at soccer games? Constant interference steals ownership from the players.
    • Players make two conscious decisions per second. They can't take more input and will either ignore the input or quit paying attention to the game.
    • Mindset is closely related to how we praise children (ability=fixed; effort=growth).
    • When asked why they play sports, children's responses included:  have fun, be with friends, learn new things, exciting. Winning is far down the list.
    • When asked why they quit, responses from children included: criticism and yelling, lack of playing time, emphasis on winning, fear of making mistakes, boredom, not learning.
    • What if kids came to our activities and treated us like we treat them?

Things to try:

  • Give kids control/ownership of the experience (set goals, help them achieve their goals, accept their goals for playing).
  • Allow your children to fail (most successful people are those willing to fail the most).  One of the most powerful things you can do is praise effort after failure. The ride home can be the worst part of youth sports. Let the time belong to the kids; it is the least teachable time.
  • The five most important words you say (and words that changed O’Sullivan’s views of youth sports) are "I love watching you play."

Thanks to Councilman Russell and Ralph Stone of the Huntsville Sports Commission for allowing us to collaborate in the offering of this important event to the Huntsville community.

You can follow O'Sullivan on Twitter @CTGProjectHQ

Photo of K-2 RAP soccer by Debbie Tomlinson. Original version of this post in 2015 by Jane Daniel.

Topics: Athletics, community, mindset, parents, speakers, sports, training

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