Dana Safa Bernardino
On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, as well as the author of Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids and Every Moment Matters: How the World’s Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams. He’s even worked with some of the world’s best coaches like Steve Kerr, Brad Stevens, Tara VanDerveer, and many more!
On this episode of Bring It In season three, John sat down with Sam and discussed the importance of coaching with love, why failure is a good thing, and coaching the younger generations.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights O’Sullivan shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: To kick us off, John, can you open us up by telling us a little bit more about yourself?
John: Sure. My name is John O’Sullivan. I’m the founder of the Change in the Game project, and our organization works with coaches and leadership teams around the world across almost every sport in the world from Aussie rules, football, to swimming, to rugby soccer, you name it. And what we do is we teach people about the latest and greatest leadership practices and how to build strong team cultures, and also how to win the inner game.
Sam: When you say team cultures, I think that’s like a hot topic today where companies are thinking about how do you focus on culture and how do you design a culture? I guess when you, when you hear culture, how do you define it for people?
John: I mean, for me, culture is how we do things here, right? Like, I think that’s how we do things within our group. And so every group of people has a culture and every leader has influence over that culture and you all influence it either positively or negatively, but your influence is never neutral.
And so, how we do things here can be how we show up, when we show up, how we support each other, how we communicate, how we accept communication, how hard we work, how much focus and effort we bring, all that sort of stuff. And what we do with our sports teams is, we really try to consolidate around, what are the non-negotiables? Like as a leader, I talk about these things, but what are the things that I’m willing to hold everyone accountable for, they’re willing to hold me accountable for and everyone on this team is willing to hold each other accountable for, because only when you get to that point, does culture truly become real.
Sam: There’s a lot of sports that often get used in corporate settings to try to talk about leadership. You know, I think of John Wooden‘s books, you know, I think of Bill Walsh, I think of so many famous coaches, Johan Cruyff, like these coaches that have written or had leadership principles. For you, I kind of saw this, especially in your book, that every moment matters as you talked about what makes the world’s best coaches different. I guess, from your seat do you see why those principles are so important and valuable, for people today?
John: Well, I think number one, the sports world and the business world are intertwined because leading people, whether you’re chasing a ball or chasing a sales goal, it’s the same people. It’s the same thing, right? They’re still people. And so what I think is really about is that people resonate with sports. It’s sort of this central thing that we all have in common. And so, yeah, you’ve got like Alex Ferguson for Man United was teaching a course at Harvard after he retired and stuff like that.
So I really think that there are certain qualities and characteristics that leaders possess. And it’s often not what we think. Some of the greatest leaders are not this super charismatic individual, but I think one of the most important things that leaders do is they make everyone in their team feel valued. And if you can make someone feel invaluable without being the most valuable on your team, you’re going to start really reaching and getting everyone working towards a common goal. And so great leaders are not just possessing the technical ability to do their job. They are great connectors. They build trust. They communicate well. They make it safe to speak up. They understand and embrace the diversity of their teams. These are the qualities of great leaders.
And I think sometimes the mistake we make when we try to learn from sport and translate it to business is we learn from sport by watching ESPN Top 10 Sports Center, and we see the coach yelling and screaming on the sidelines. But that’s just a glimpse. That’s 1/10th of 1% of that coach’s interaction and investment in the people on his or her team. And when you peel away the layers, what you find is, the truly successful coaches, when they’re there and they’re vocal and they’re getting in an athlete’s face, there’s usually 99 deposits into this bank of trust that allows for that moment, because all of a sudden that extremely demanding voice and demanding moment, that’s done out of love because the athlete knows, coach is in it for me, coach is in it for my best interest.
And so we have to be very careful if we try to model that behavior without understanding and modeling all the love and all the investment that great coaches put into their athletes before that one heat of the battle, 30 seconds left, get in a players face moment. And I think that’s something that gets missed a lot.
Sam: What do people say to you when you bring up love and coaching?
John: Well, I think first of all, a lot of people push back against it, and I think that’s just in the era of safe sport. But when we’re talking about love, it’s not creepy. It’s this investment in caring and caring for another human being, the way that you might love a sibling or a spouse, which means that you would do anything for them. And I think all the time about love when we talk about my own children, right? If some 6”9, 300 pound martial artist black belt went after my kid, I’d still step in on behalf of my kid and take my beating because it’s my son or my daughter, and I love them and I would do anything for them.
And so I think one of the best things, John Wooden, when they asked him, ‘what was your secret’ when he retired, he said, ‘I had a lot of love in my coaching, and it’s very easy to look at the X’s and O’s, it’s very easy to look at the strategy and the tactics and the things we see, but I think any great coach will tell you, they have a lot of love in their coaching, and those are the people who succeed over the long-term.’
Sam: In your book, I think, if I remember correctly, you had talked about how you interviewed a heck of a lot of coaches in your discovery.
John: Yeah, for sure. I mean, in Every Moment Matters, we have a podcast called Way of Champions, we’re well over 200 episodes now. And in that we’ve interviewed everyone from, you know, Quin Snyder, and Steve Kerr in the NBA to Tara Vanderveer who just won another NCAA title with Stanford women’s basketball. Anson Dorrance is one, we have two world cup winning coaches, when we got to about 150 NCA titles at this point, plus sports scientists and leadership experts and psychologists and things like that. So yeah, that book became this compilation of all of the common themes that I had learned from some of the best coaches around the world across a variety of sports, and then trying to synthesize it into something that people could read and digest.
Sam: It just made me think. I think a lot of my notes, I like to shred books, no one can read it after I’ve read it, but as I was going through your book, I was going deep, and the thing that comes to mind is I think about some of the principles you’re talking about, and you’re talking to coaches, you’re talking to parents and it just makes me think about how valuable some of those insights would be to a talent leader today. We’re coming out of a global pandemic, people are coming back to work. There are managers that have had to coach and develop over to zoom that now have to do it in person again. I mean, there’s so many principles in there that I think carry over either just to teach strategies, but also to teach insights into the psyche of maybe some young people who are entering the workforce.
How do you think about where your athletes, or how do you think about where the young people with a lot of your writing is about, are going to go after they leave the structure and guidance of a practice with a youth coach?
John: I mean, going on the short or going long-term?
Sam: I guess, what do you think about, or what are your fears, or what are your advice to people who are, again, going to maybe be picking up an athlete who is coming out of high school, maybe they don’t go to the next level, at some point they enter the workforce and they’re going to have to be coached and managed and led by a manager inside of a company or an organization. I guess my question is like, what type of advice do you have for that talent leader out there that’s trying to think about how they get the most out of their people?
John: Yeah, I got you. Well, I think what we’re looking for in any person, whether it’s in sports or a business environment is intrinsic motivation, right? That if they’re intrinsically motivated to improve themselves, to do their work, those are the people we love. And certainly those of us who have owned businesses, when you have people who treat your business like it’s theirs, those are the best people to have because they stay late, they get there early, and they don’t sign out at 5:00 PM just because the clock says so. They do their work and they finish their work.
And so I think if I’m a leader and I’m looking at kids coming out of sport today, what I would hope that their coaches teach them is number one, that they’re given some ownership over the experience. So they’re taught to be creative problem solvers. There is this interesting thing I wrote about in the book when England rugby wanted to sort of future-proof the game, they said, if we’re working with 15 year old national team players, we’re preparing them for a game that’s going to be played 10 years from now. What’s not going to change? Physical elements will change. The tactics will change. Techniques might change, but what will we still value? And so they came up with this approach called CARDS, which stood for creativity, awareness, resilience, decision-making, and self-organization.
And I think those things, if I am looking for someone who’s going to do well in my business, I probably shouldn’t hire them based on the technical skills. I should be looking for their resilience and their ability to organize and their decision-making and their thoughtfulness and all these things, because those are future-proof. Even as my industry changes, those things will be valuable commodities.
In my world, I work with a lot of schools and I work with a lot of sports directors, and when I ask them, when’s the last time you fired a coach for not knowing enough about football or baseball, they say never. I’m like, so why did you fire them? Well, because they can’t communicate, they can’t inspire. They can’t get a group of people working together. They can’t engage parents and other stakeholders. I’m like, so what are you hiring them on then? So I really think if I am a talent leader and a talent developer in the business world, I think athletes are a great place to look, but then I’m looking beyond what’s their athletic resume and into how did you solve this problem, and what was your greatest disappointment, and how did you overcome that disappointment and things like that. To me, those are the things that are great indicators of whether someone’s going to do well in the future.
Sam: How do you think that the last year has impacted young people with so many practices canceled or so many athletes that have been maybe on the sidelines, missed a senior year? With that impact, what have you seen?
John: I mean, I think it’s massive Sam. Like, it’s huge. I don’t think anyone knows what the true impact and fallout of this is going to be. The early research talks about increased levels of stress and anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts and all that sort of stuff, because no one’s gone through a disruption like this. Although people have been able to stay connected electronically, we also know that that is not the same as being connected physically with people.
And so, I think there’s going to be some really, really long-term ramifications. I have two teenagers in my own house here and my wife and I spend a lot of time paying attention to their state of mind and how they’re doing. And just checking in and checking in and checking in. So we have a loss of physical activity and that has its own fallout.
And we have this loss of social connection and loss of sport. And I think what a lot of the statistics show is that when we have a full return to sports, the percentage of children playing sports will be much lower than it was in March of 2020. And, to me, there’s a lot of negative repercussions from that in terms of just the overall health and wellbeing of our country.
So to me, it’s really scary. And it’s this opportunity for coaches, for sports organizations to really dig in and say, when they come back, we have to make this such an amazing, enjoyable, engaging environment that kids want to be a part of again, because right now they’ve lived without it for a while. We have to make it something that they seek out, not something that they’re forced to do anymore.
Sam: I want to talk to you about practice, cause when I think when I think when a lot of people think about sports and they think about coaching.I had a conversation on this podcast with coach Muffet McGraw. She was the two time national champion from Notre Dame, the women’s basketball team. I asked her, do you prefer practice or games? And she’s like, I love practice. She was just over the top. I think she talked for two minutes about practice, practice, practice, and it’s her favorite part of coaching.
And as I think about the tenants of practice, I want to ask you about what makes a good practice, because I think that not just for sports, but even if you’re a manager trying to build a training program to coach and develop a sales person or coach and develop a new bartender, the tenants of practice, I think, crossover well. So when you think about practice, what do you think are the key elements for it to be effective?
John: Well, when you were saying that the thing that immediately pops in my head is I have a friend named Mark Bennett who’s a former British Commandos trainer, and he has the saying that performance is a behavior, not an outcome.
And so when I think of practice and when I coach kids’ teams, and I still do to this day, I always tell my new teams, the first six months we’re going to spend learning how to practice correctly because this group doesn’t practice well right now. They show up, but half of you are here mentally and half of you are here physically. It takes us 20 minutes to get going. And so I really think practice is about taking your culture and those non-negotiable behaviors and teaching them every day and knowing that if we behave a certain way and we accumulate enough hours and enough days of this type of behavior, over time, we’re going to get better and we’re going to get better. And that’s going to give us the best chance of winning.
And so I would be like Muffet in that I love practice as well, because sometimes when we go to the game, we become very outcome-focused and we also have this outcome bias. So if we win, we’re like, oh yeah, that was great, and we tend to ignore the things that didn’t go well, whereas in practice, you rarely ignore the things that don’t go well.
And so for me, great practices are the repetition of game-like actions and game-like behaviors done over time, adding up upon each other, aggregating those small gains. That to me is what great practice environments are. And I think people who love to compete love to be around environments like that because it’s worth their time.
I see lots of bad practice environments and great athletes don’t want to be a part of them because there’s too much downtime. There’s too much wasted time. There’s too much lack of discipline and focus. And so I think enjoyment for athletes, especially high-level ones is really well-organized, disciplined, great team environment, great positive leadership, those things added together over time are what really people seek out.
Sam: What do you think about the concept of failure in practice? Is it required? How do you manage it? For so many people, I think, it’s easy to shy away from making stuff hard because it’s tough to manage what may look like a negative outcome. How do you think about failure?
John: I mean, it should be a part of every single practice. It should be a part of everything you do. I think sometimes the word failure has this sort of finality to it, that maybe mistakes or something don’t. So we want to create an environment where mistakes are encouraged.
If you have a practice that doesn’t have mistakes, that everything goes perfectly, that’s not a good practice. That’s a bad practice because the game doesn’t go that way. So, you need an environment that’s challenging enough that mistakes are happening, and then the role of the leader is to basically say, okay, what did we learn from this? What’s good about this?
What you can’t do is make your athletes afraid to make mistakes because if they’re afraid to make mistakes in practice, they’re never going to get better, and they’re definitely going to play tight and tense and tense and tentative in the games. And so if you create an environment where, this is what we do here, Coach Curay, though, a women’s national team volleyball coach, their whole practice environment is about how many mistakes did you make today, and what’d you learn from them? And I think that’s a great message for anyone working with any team.
And I would almost guarantee Sam, I would think every business that you’ve worked with, every business leader that you’ve worked with there at some point, some sort of failure has been the fuel for where they are today. No one coasts through life without ever screwing anything up. And it’s usually in those low times that we reflect and we reset and we re-energize ourselves. I’ve never met a single successful person who couldn’t point to dozens of times that they failed in order to get where they are.
Sam: Yeah. That’s a great point, John. I have a good question for you. Ready?
John: I thought they were all good, but go ahead.
Sam: So I had a phone call a few weeks ago with a CEO of a pretty big brand. They were thinking about return to work and restarting and all the challenges that comes with it and kind of in the middle of the conversation, this person kind of went down a path of sort of a mini tirade on the fact that young people are, I’m going to paraphrase, but lazy, entitled, participation trophy culture, don’t want to work hard. When you hear that, I guess, if I put you in the room with this person and I stepped aside, what would be your response? I’d love for you to share what are the opportunities with young people today versus maybe just complaining about or stereotyping certain behaviors?
John: It is a good question. I always say, because I’ll stand in front of a room of coaches and I’ll get the, let’s just call that whole sentiment the ‘kids these days’ thing, and I’ll say, well, see that coach there who just won a state championship and that coach who just won? Someone’s figuring it out. So at some point, to say ‘kids these days’ sort of shifts the blame or the responsibility for anything from us to them.
Now that being said, I’m 50 years old. Is it, are kids different? Are my own kids different from me? Yeah. They have the whole world in the palm of their hand, the answer to any question, they have shorter attention spans, they want to know why, and they want to know what’s behind things. Whereas when I was growing up, I didn’t want to know what’s behind this because I would have had to go to the library and look up an encyclopedia. But now they can just figure it out.
And so kids are different and they need resilience and they need certain things, and one of the most important things that I think an adult mentor and leader can give to our young workforce or kids coming out of college now, and I say this all the time to the college coaches that I work with, and I have a bunch that I work with just one-on-one, is teach them to have an adult in-person communication.
Because they have gotten away their whole lives with being able to have difficult conversations electronically. Text, Snapchat, email, whatever. And one of the most important things that I think our generation can give to kids is how to sit down and look someone in the face and have a difficult conversation.
And that’s a gift, and that’s an important life skill that I think your CEO friend would tell you in a heartbeat, like, yeah, I wish I had people who could take those things. And so we can teach that we can do that. And we can understand that if we create an environment that acknowledges how they might be different from us and engages those things, we can have a pretty successful business because some companies are pulling it off and doing pretty well with it. And so if we’re willing to change a little bit without sacrificing our principles, we don’t have to sacrifice the principle of hard work. We don’t have to sacrifice the principle of respect or integrity or anything like that to engage these workers.
I feel it sometimes when I work with coaches, my friends who own businesses come to me and they’re like, oh my goodness, just trying to hire someone right now is a nightmare. If you know the things that you don’t like and why you end up having to fire people, then really make sure that’s part of the hiring process and get to the bottom of well, can we work through these skills or develop these skills they might not have right now? Because I think resilience is a skill. I think communication is a skill and if it’s a skill, it can be developed.
Sam: Totally. I’ve learned and taken away more from coaches that I had growing up, playing youth sports then, maybe anybody I learned after I graduated from high school. I wanted to give you the last question, John. What is your hope for the future of sports, the future of coaching? What hope do you have?
John: What I truly hope is that sport can stop being looked at as something apart from education or looked at as extracurricular, and that sport will become co-curricular, an extension of the things that we teach and we value within the school environment or within our community. And so oftentimes sports at the high school level or the college level or youth sport is the antithesis of what we say that we value and we want our children to learn. And so my hope for the future is that there can be this reconnection between what is the goal of sport, the goal of playing a game. We want to win, but the purpose of sport, it needs to be something much bigger and much deeper. I think the organizations that realize that and focus upon that are the ones that are going to thrive and the ones that keep the status quo and just think ‘win, baby,’ those are the ones that will eventually fall by the wayside because I think people want and expect more.
Sam: John. Thanks for talking with me.
John: Thank you. This was fun.
Topics Discussed: Coaching, Motivation, Leadership, Endurance, Failure, Future of Work, Pratice
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