Better Coaching With John O’Sullivan

"What do you remember about the best coach you ever had?" John O’Sullivan asked. He had passed out yellow sticky pads to all tables in the room and asked us to write down our top five characteristics- one per sticky. He stood in front of a room full of coaches, team managers, and a few other invited guests as he spoke. What he would reveal to us in the next five minutes would become an “ah ha” moment for many in the room and a lesson for you to think about the next time you're on the field of play. 

List Five Qualities of the Best Coach You Ever Had 

On March 6th, 2019, I received a generous offer from the Potomac Soccer Association in Potomac Maryland to attend their annual coaches dinner as a guest. Laurie Lane, the Executive Director for the Club reached out to me - honoring a practice of connecting with her community that I have come to admire. She and her leadership team spent some money to bring John O'Sullivan, the Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project, out from Oregon and she knew how much I've been inspired by his work.
The evening didn't disappoint. The food was good. The company was invigorating, and the Keynote speaker, John O’Sullivan, was inspiring as always.
He gave us a few minutes to write down the top five qualities we each remember from our favorite coach or coaches. “What things really stand out for you?” He asked. "What do you most remember that made them great?"
When he was done, he pointed to two walls on either side of the dinner hall. The room was well lit so the light tan walls stood on either side of us like towering empty white boards.
This should be interesting, I thought. Brainstorming, maybe. I wonder how he's going to sort these answers.
There were easily 60 people in the room. That's at least 300 stickies by my count. I looked around as the last of my fellow dinner guests - most of them coaches and team managers - put down their pens. Lists complete. 

John O'Sullivan (right) and I (left)

"If your sticky has to do with your coach's knowledge of the sport, the techniques, the tactics,” he said “place your sticky (on the wall to my right).”
"If your sticky has to do with your coach's ability to connect," he continued, “this is the stuff like emotional intelligence, the connection, caring..."  listening, inspiring, and other soft skills that don't have to do with knowledge of the game, tactics, or game strategy. "stick it on the wall to my left." 

Within seconds, the throng of people moving to the soft skills wall made the point loud and clear. The "connection" wall that had nothing to do with knowledge of the game, with tactics, or strategies was soon covered with yellow stickies. The "knowledge" wall that had to do with the stuff that traditionally gets taught in coaching courses had some stickies, but there was no comparison. If I had to guess, the ratio looked like 4:1 in favors of coaching soft skills. 

"Do we notice a pattern emerging? he asked. The message he was sharing with us became clear in a very physical and visible way. 

Coaching Skills Beyond the Credentials

Skills centered around caring, listening, and passion seemed to top our list that evening, but it was clear that most items on the "Connection" wall, the stuff that this room full of adults remembers most about those who influenced them in life, had to do with making deep personal connection, supporting and inspiring people vs the technical elements of the game. 

If this little impromptu exercise is repeatable (the fact that John has done this all over the world suggests that it is) and if there is something to be learned here, it is that good coaching is about a lot more than teaching X’s and O’s. It's about love, caring, trust, connecting, communication, etc. 

Dual Meaning for Parents

As a parent, I'm looking at these two walls and drawing two big conclusions:


I might be meant to coach even if I don't know the technical details of the game yet. If I have the things found on the yellow sticky "Connecting" wall: passion, caring, the ability to listen, gain trust, to love, etc… maybe I should be more confident about raising my hand and volunteering to help out as a coach or assistant coach. Maybe the skills and motivations I have to see my kids and their friends be successful is a big part of being a good coach. If I can get a starter pack of age-appropriate activities to help me facilitate practice sessions and I am willing to provide the necessary safety environment, maybe I can do this coaching thing for a grassroots or other program? 

If these soft skills are so important to coaching, maybe I need to measure the coaches who work with my kids by a different standard. Maybe it's not how well a coach can kick a soccer ball that's I should be paying attention to, but how much the coach cares, how well they are connecting with my child, and what kind of inspirational leadership they are providing beyond the game. Maybe I should be listening to how my player’s coach is communicating, to what kind of message they are delivering, and how my child is receiving these messages. Are they willing to get to know my child or do they run off the field to the next assignment as soon as practice is done? Are they saying hello and welcoming my child to the field? Do they make sure the environment is healthy and supportive?  

Meaning for Coaches

What we do for our youth players beyond the scope of our soccer credentials is important - maybe even more important than the stuff that we learned in school. I still spend a portion of my time moving from field to field, observing coach after coach and paying attention to their mannerisms, what they say, how they say it, and the responses that they get from players. I remember instinctively recognizing that "kwon" that some coaches have. It's not evident in what they said, but in the relationship they had with players and how they moved together in response to coaching provided. 

When I see positive connections with players, when I see my own players tackle me at the end of each season, I know that it has nothing to do with licenses or certifications. It has to do with a the connection that exists between coach and players.

In my case, genuine connections allow me to talk with players about their favorite players or their superheroes - the ideas and alter egos that truly inspire them to come out of their shell and be the best version of themselves on the field. Genuine connections are forged one "hello" at a time, one "how's your day?" at a time, and one "how can we solve this problem?" at a time. 

"As coaches, we have to realize that these are skills to. We have to work hard. We have to relentlessly connect in an authentic way." Says John O'Sullivan "And when we do that, then we can impart our knowledge." 

What are the Top Five Things Kids Want From Coaches? 

  • Respect and Encouragement
  • Positive Role Model
  • Clear Communication
  • Knowledge of the game
  • Someone who listens

In light of this list, what we are as parents looking for in a coach for our child? Are we relegating the coach to a role where they have our kids for an hour or to per session and teach them the game of <fill in the blank>? Or do we recognize what is truly important to kids and seek our coaches who can coach the whole person instead of just the game?

How are we engaging as parents with the coaching community to discover how well our coaches can apply the soft skills necessary to make them memorable? 

For more information or to hear John talking more in depth about coaching the whole child, not just the sport, listen to his podcast episode with Dr. Martin Toms titled "You coach a child, not a sport!" It'll run you about 70 minutes, but it's a good listen for anyone interested in this subject. 


  • O'Sullivan, John. “John O'Sullivan.” Changing the Game Project,
  • O'Sullivan, John. “‘You Coach a Child, Not a Sport!" with Dr. Martin Toms.” Changing the Game Project, 4 Mar. 2019,
Invite others to Join our Community!

The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.