More John O’Sullivan and Changing the Game Project

Starting Your Athletes the Right Way

(A child’s first contact and first impression of a sport goes a long way to determining whether or not he will fall in love with the game. As basketball great Steve Nash says, upon receiving his first ball and playing in his first organized league at age 13, “I felt like I had a new best friend.”

From Nash to Diego Costa to Wayne Rooney, many of today’s sports stars trace their roots in the game back to games in the street or local park with friends. Years ago, nearly every instance of first contact was in a pickup game, such as street soccer, pond hockey, stick ball, or pickup basketball. The environment allowed players the room to express themselves, to fail without repercussions, and come to terms with the game on their own time, in their own way. Sadly, as we all know, this rarely happens anymore. Everything is organized. Play has been replaced by practice. Adults make the rules and run the show. 

Our first contact environment is often failing our kids.

In this guest blog from UEFA A Licensed Coach Mark O’Sullivan (no relation), author of the FootBlogBall, he discusses ways coaches and parents can ensure our child’s first contact with sport is a great one. Enjoy!)


Once upon a time street soccer and free play was the norm. Then we became adults, we want to control it and make it organized. We forgot the child in all of us.

When it comes to designing and determining a child’s environment, the child’s own voice is the smallest. This is one of fundamental drawbacks of today’s organized grassroots training. All authority and decision-making now resides with the adult coach.

Research has shown that giving children a certain amount of autonomy can be a catalyst for developing essential characteristics and well-being. Even at this early stage team work and  positive self- image bloom as the coach involves the child  in the decision making process. A coach that possesses real understanding and skill will collaborate with the child in making the game appropriate, relevant and enjoyable. Once confident in her environment, the child will start to take the initiative, inventing games within games to come up with solutions to tasks that are both challenging and fun.

Mark OSullivan sketchA child’s first contact with a sport is the key to why children begin with sport and why they will continue. At this stage of development there is a need for a “there and then” experience. Children are there to play not practice. The first contact is a great window of opportunity. The focus should be on creating activities that are designed for fun, are intrinsically motivating and give immediate pleasure. Just like when children play. Essentially the sport/play must belong to them.

Parental support is mainly emotional and practical. You need to get them where they need to be, when they need to be there. And all the child needs to hear from you at this age is: “I love watching you play.”

For the coach first contact players, a deep knowledge of tactical situations and different playing systems is not very important. The ability to “see” each child, meet them as individuals and create fun opportunities to play and learn should be a priority (Click here to check out Mark’s fantastic interview with Dr. Martin Toms.)

Quite simply it has to be fun or it will not make sense


There was once a time when players developed through many hours of free play. Neighborhood street games were the order of the day. Skills were learned, tricks and turns performed. Games included different age groups, no referee and the only adult involvement was when you were called in for dinner. On the streets, to paraphrase Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, we learned to fail, and fail better. As Beckett said:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Yet playing an actual sport was not the starting point. Our first steps on to the street were part of our mission to play. The environment made it inevitable that the sport, be it soccer, or hockey, or basketball, would eventually happen. The street satisfied the child’s natural holistic learning desire. A variety of skills and knowledge were developed in the company of others. Qualities such as social integration and respect helped develop confidence and well-being as the child felt more secure in his environment, thus becoming more actively interested and engaged in his surroundings. This gave him independence and some form of control over his own learning.

Dutch soccer coach Rinus Michels the founding father of total football, refers to street soccer as a “natural education system.” It is a system offering a holistic learning experience where the child is “unaware of the technical, tactical, physical and cognitive skills that are developing.”

Now that the days of pickup sports are gone, replaced by organized training and teams, it is up to coaches and parents to create their own natural education system. We can do this by:

  • Encouraging children to shape and develop the play as they go. This is after all what they do naturally.
  • Asking kids what games do they like to play? Ask them how can you add a ball in to their games?
  • Look to provide a natural competitive environment that enhances rather than overwhelms, which in turn inspires intrinsic motivation.
  • See sport as a chance to develop social skills
  • See mistakes as part of the learning process. They need to be allowed to make mistakes in an environment where there is no fear of failure. The wrong environment damages confidence which in turn hinders learning. The right environment builds confidence and leads to better learning.
  • Ensure minimal adult interference, but maximum adult encouragement!

In his autobiography, Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney references the importance of the spontaneous street football games he took part in, as they instilled skill, passion, and a love of the game. “There was always someone to play football with,” he says.

That statement, “There was always someone to play football with.” says so much.

This is where Wayne Rooney spent thousands of hours playing football. This was his learning environment.  This is where he learned to fail, to try again and to fail better. This is where his desire to succeed was born.

Children who are allowed to self-organize and learn through our own discoveries become motivated children. They will take risks, push the boundaries of their knowledge and will be eager to learn more. We should never underestimate a child’s ability to learn complex movements and patterns quickly, when provided with the correct environment.

Most importantly, we should never underestimate the importance of the first contact environment being one of the child’s own making, and not creating one that only suits the needs, values and priorities of the adults.

Mark O’Sullivan is a UEFA A Licensed Coach and the Sports Director of Espanyol Nordic, a branch of Spanish La Liga Club RCD Espanyol. He is also the author of the FootBlogBall , writing and teaching about modern developments in coaching and teaching sport. As Mark says, “It’s not about how I coach. It’s about how they learn.” Read more of Mark’s groundbreaking work at

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Purpose Driven Sports


Last night I sat down to watch a movie on ABC Family with my wife and two boys; Jordan is 13 and Jackson is 8. We decided to let our boys stay up a little later than normal as my wife and I thought it would be fun to watch “Goonies” with our boys. While there is some bad language in the movie, we thought since it’s on ABC Family the movie wouldn’t be too bad since it had been edited for television, and that turned out to be true. What we weren’t prepared for was the constant barrage of commercials that the boys would be exposed to. You ever have to explain to an 8 year old why the women are having to throw away their panties unless they use a certain pad to save the panties? Or, explain to your 13 year old why former “Hannah Montana” co-star Emily Osment is in the bed with some guy on her new ABC Family television series called “Young and Hungry”. If that’s not enough, you wonder when you might have to explain to your child what erectile dysfunction is.


If you haven’t noticed, there are very few places to go or things to do where our kids are not barraged with sexual content on television or graphic violence in video games. It isn’t even safe to watch a college or professional sporting event without seeing an advertisement by our over-sexualized and corrupt society. At one time, the worst you might see is a beer commercial with guys fighting over “tastes great” or “less filling”.


Think about the perversion that is taught to our kids, but it isn’t television and video games alone. We send our children to school where at one time children were taught things like math, English, science and history. Today they can get free condoms, and be taught evolution as if it is fact. Remember when it was called the theory of evolution? They are taught human sexuality at earlier and earlier ages, and there are very few schools that will simply tell our children that no sex before marriage is the one way to prevent all forms of STDs and has a 100% prevention of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.


There was a time when traditional teaching would focus on things such as honor, perseverance, honesty, hard work, humility, and love. Today, all you need to do is watch Nickelodeon or Disney to see the values taught by these shows. I-Carly seems like a harmless show, but I ask, where is mom or dad? Big Time Rush’s most important value is being famous, and the list could go on and on. Gone are the days of Opie and Andy Griffith where a lesson could be learned from every episode regarding thinks like honesty and love. What is my point with all of this? It’s not as if any of this is new news and our kids are the targets.


Where in society today can perseverance, honor, honesty, hard work, humility, or love be taught? Youth sports, but only if we are diligent enough to take youth sports back for our children. This isn’t going to be an easy task because there are now multi-million dollar corporations competing for our kids, and academies that will tell parents that their kids “must” specialize in a sport if they are ever want to be good enough to receive a scholarship. So many times these pressures cause well-intentioned parents to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, the “right” team, and travel that in the end doesn’t get the result the parents were expecting. Kids decide at 13 that they don’t like the sport any more, or worse they wind up injured because of overuse. Learn the truth about specialization from Changing the Game Project, and Proactive Coaching, . If your son or daughter is ever to play in college or beyond, they must first learn to love the sport, and decide on their own that playing in college is a goal of theirs. Without that love for the game, there is nothing that you as a parent can do to “make” them successful. It must come from within.


Most of the kids are not going to play sports in college or professionally, but they can learn honor, perseverance, honesty, hard work, humility, and other life lessons that will help them live successful lives. That is the power of youth sports and all of the lessons from the Bible verses below can be taught to our children through sport.


2 Peter 1:5-9

New International Version (NIV)

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins

Mickey Ellison