For juggling the constant kids’ activities conundrum and wondering if we’re picking the right things for our kids, I needed to pull in an expert—queue John O’Sullivan. I interviewed him in episode 103 on the pod and wanted to capture the goodness of this interview here as well. 

John has been around sports his whole life. He grew up in New York as the typical multi-sport kid and, as a child, played anything and everything that was in season. He decided to lock into soccer as his primary sport in high school and played Division One in college. He played professionally and coached for four years at the University of Vermont. For the last 20 years, he’s been involved in youth soccer — first in Michigan and then for the previous 17 in Central Oregon. 

As you can tell, his passions and credentials in sports proceed him. Ten years ago, he launched a few best-selling books, online courses, and the Changing the Game project — where he wanted to give back beyond just his team. The goal is to give kids the best youth sports experience possible. Here are my top learnings from our interview to bring the fun back to the crazy juggle of kids and their never-ending activities.

1- What makes some athletes and coaches thrive more than others?

John hosted his annual Way of Champions summit, where they discussed kids’ inner game and that meditation can be essential to practice, even in our youth. Teaching kids how to center themselves, stay calm under pressure, and be present at each game are excellent skills that help them when they’re young. As a coach, it’s really about being a servant leader, assessing each kid’s needs, and seeing what the team needs to succeed.

2- What can the US learn from Norway, which surpassed any other country with gold medals at the last Olympics?

In Norway, they removed economic barriers, and 93% of children grow up playing organized sports, which is phenomenal because the cost is low. Travel teams are not formed until the teenage years — imagine that! The country found its way onto the radar at the Winter Olympics Games in Pyongyang, South Korea, where Norway, a nation of just 5.3 million, won more than 39 medals. 

John feels you can break down the takeaway here into three small phrases: as many kids as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible. That’s the secret to a great sports system right there. He recognizes that in many countries worldwide, especially in Europe, the government funds youth sports, not individual families. So they pay a small fee, but the government supports the clubs to provide these types of programs. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case here in the U.S.. Still, instead of paying expensive club fees at young ages, the key takeaway from this model is letting kids experience as many sports as possible and holding off on higher-level sports events (i.e., championships) until later, so it’s more about sports sampling and development and less about winning. 

3 – How do you prevent your child from burning out on kids’ activities?

John’s most extensive advice for parents of young kids is that the younger your child is, the more able they are to sample sports. Don’t get sucked into one or two too young because it only gets harder to test later on. So, helping your child find something that they’re passionate about instead of trying to determine it for them immediately is enormous. 

Playing multiple sports early on is about learning physical literacy — the ABCs of running, jumping, catching, throwing, skipping, hopping, running backward, and tracking balls through the air. These are learned skills. More sports develop a better all-around athlete who can jump into multiple sports later on and be comfortable. But if you don’t develop the athlete first and then the technical soccer or lacrosse player second, they don’t produce the athleticism to compete at higher levels later.

My favorite analogy from John is that parents should consider themselves their kids’ general contractors. You have to oversee all your child’s activities in their life and make all those decisions, especially in cases where kids show an early ability. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just say, “That sounds great. But no, we’re going to play basketball.” Or “That sounds great. But no, it’s grandma’s 80th birthday, and we’re going to that.” This is important because the soccer and basketball coaches may be phenomenal, but they aren’t aware of what your kid does outside those four to eight hours a week. It’s up to the parent to ensure you are building a well-rounded athlete at the end of the day who loves sports but doesn’t let it control their lives.

4 – What life lessons get missed when sports get too competitive too soon?

Sports should be about learning to be selfless, give and not just get, work with others, etc. Learning to be humble and work hard are great gifts that sports can teach kids. When the focus turns away from that and is on winning, for instance — those lessons can get compromised, and that’s when the problems start. It’s all about matching kids in suitable sporting environments that align with the values they want for their kids.

One of John’s proudest moments was during a recent loss, watching his son console a teammate and pick up trash after the game. It’s easy to act in a certain way when everything’s falling your way, but your true character emerges when adversity hits. Sports can either be used to develop that type of character or not. These blocks are critical to helping kids handle anything that comes their way later in life.

5 – How does pop culture affect the winning mentality in many kids’ activities?

Pop culture and its values have changed. For instance, popular shows while we were growing up were Growing Pains, Full House, Family Ties, and more. Nowadays, kids are watching more competitive shows like Is it Cake?, Floor is Lava and Sugar Rush. Then, add in the culture of social media, where likes and engagement play into kids’ self-esteem, and we have a current culture built more around achievement than growth. Teaching kids that each player plays a different role can help keep them grounded. 

6 – What is a reasonable amount of activities a kid should participate in each season?

Every child is an individual; some can handle more, and some need more time off. If you have a daughter who always wanted to be involved in something 24/7 and a son who just needs to unwind and have time to himself — recognize that. The number John heard years ago is an excellent benchmark to try to work around, and it is to have no more hours of organized activity per week than their age. So, a six-year-old would have six hours of sports per week, and an eight-year-old would have eight hours per week, including game times. 

7 – At what age should they be playing to win, and what learnings should they gain at each age?

There are seven stages referenced in the Changing the Game book that are helpful for parents. The LTAD Model comes from Canada and is a training, competition, and recovery framework for athletes at all stages of life. Some basics I learned about by age and sequence are covered below.

Stage Ages What should they be learning?
Stage 1 Active Start 0-6 yrs The ABCs (Agility, Balance, Coordination) of movement.
Stage 2 FUNdamentals Girls 6-8 

Boys 6-9

They learn to have fun, work on their skills, and participate in multiple sports simultaneously.
Stage 3 Learn to Train Girls 8-11  Boys 9-12 Juggling 2 to 3 sports simultaneously and converting fundamental movement into basic sports skills.
Stage 4 Train to Train  Girls 11-15 Boys 12-16 Developing good habits to promote sports skills.
Stage 5 Train to Compete Girls 15-21 Boys 16-23 Picking a sport to train to excel in.
Stage 6 Train to Win Girls >18  Boys >19 How to become a full-time athlete.
Stage 7 Active for Life  Any age How to be active in life.

One fascinating study looked at the percentage of elite-level junior performers who were still elite-level performers as seniors across various sports. The results were analyzed from 110 prospective studies with 38,000 elite junior athletes to determine how many achieved success when they became seniors. The biggest category is in Olympic sports like track and field, cycling, and swimming. The results showed that the most successful juniors don’t always become successful senior athletes. Only 7% did. Instead, the article says to focus on training to maximize intermediate performance to sustain long-term improvement in young athletes.

Final Thoughts: Time Management as it Relates to Kids’ Activities

Focusing on the stages of development instead of just winning at young ages can help. Also, varying positions and teaching versatility can make a significant impact. The key for most sports is for kids to read the field and understand positioning. That can serve them across many sports and is another excellent skill to learn early on.

Last but not least, a fantastic app called MOJO can help. You put in your age, the number of kids, and how many hours of practice a week, and boom — it spits out your sessions for you. I also recently learned about a program in the South Bay called Instacoach, which was founded by local athletes who wanted to create more opportunities for young athletes to connect with college and professional athletes. These men and women are amazing mentors who can help your kids build skills and develop a passion for their sport in a fun, encouraging environment. Our MomShine community gets a special discount using the link to get $25 at checkout, and I can’t say enough wonderful things about this program.

Change it up and have fun as you build an athlete who loves sports for life. Listen to the interview, including how more moms can get involved in coaching and gain more inspiration to bring the fun back to the endless juggle of kids and sports.