A Final Game of H-O-R-S-E

By John O'Sullivan

A few years back, my wife Lauren and I took our kids back for one final visit to her childhood home in Fairport, NY. Her parents were preparing to sell their house and move to a warmer climate, and we took the opportunity to fly across the country to say some final goodbyes to the home they had lived in for nearly 40 years.

On our last afternoon, as the kids played with Grandma in the backyard and I was enjoying some quiet time, I glanced out the front window. There, I saw Lauren and her father Bruce, deeply engaged in conversation, shooting at their old driveway basketball hoop. They were playing HORSE, a game familiar to most where you get a letter if your opponent sinks a shot and you miss it. Once you get H-O-R-S-E you are out, and you lose bragging rights until the rematch happens.

As I watched them shoot, and rebound, and talk, and laugh, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I was watching their final game of HORSE on that childhood basket, a basket that had seen thousands of those games over the previous decades.  

I was witnessing a moment that had been relived countless times over the years. Bruce and Lauren were not talking about keeping your elbow in, or the release point of the shot. They were just being present. Connecting. Laughing. Even talking a little smack as they fought for the final set of bragging rights, on that final evening, in the driveway of their lives.

A game of HORSE at the end of the day was the way a father and his daughter carved out time for each other in their busy lives. For 40 years, it was their medium of connection, their place to put everything aside and be present for each other. It was beautiful.

When it comes to youth sports, we need more of that.

I recently saw this incredible video of 51-year-old Steve Peters, and his 80-year-old father Dennis, who still get together three or four times a week for a game of catch. It is their game of HORSE, their way of cutting through the clutter of the world and making time for each other.

Watch it and try not to tear up. I know I did.

I teared up because it made me think of all those countless nights I had a catch with my dad. Just the two of us, out in the backyard, my dad tossing me grounders and pop flies, me imagining I was making that great catch in Yankee Stadium. I remember him inviting me into the outfield of his softball games between innings to throw a few, and always making time after the game to toss a few more.

I certainly do not remember every detail of those conversations we had, but one thing seems clear as day.

I never remember my Dad telling me “No, son, I don’t have time.”

My father was a business owner, a landlord, a coach, a husband, an avid gardener, and a guy who just loved to jump on his sailboat and head out into Long Island Sound. But he always found time to be a father first; to have a catch, to kick a ball, or play 9 holes at our local golf course.

As a father myself, living my own busy life now running a business, coaching teams, getting dinner on the table, and trying to be a good spouse, I really appreciate how tough it must have been for him to say “sure, grab our gloves and I will meet you out back” after a long day of work. How he probably had a dozen more pressing things to do, but he always chose me.

I only hope my kids feel the same about me, as I know I could do better.

I know there have been afternoons when my two kids wanted to go kick a ball, or shoot hoops, and I said no because I was too tired. Or I had to do something “important” like check the comments on our last Changing the Game Project Facebook post or see if that “important email” arrived.

WTF am I thinking? Has any dad, anywhere, ever said: “I regret all that time I spent tossing the baseball with my kid?”

I share this because in our fast-paced, outcome focused youth sports world these days, where we are led to believe that we must maximize every second of our young athletes lives to achieve that mythical “10,000 hours,” I wonder, are we finding enough time to play HORSE?

As we rush our kids from one private training session to their strength and conditioning coach, from one college showcase to the next on the opposite coast, are we making time to have a catch?

Do we ever take a break from the “Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports” to simply be present with our kids, to let them own the journey, and to simply connect? Do we switch off so they can too?

In a recent podcast I did with Jim Thompson, Founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, he said something about coaching that really stuck with me: “Connection precedes commitment.”

Isn’t this true with our own kids as well? Before they commit to their journey of excellence, in whatever sport or activity they choose, isn’t it vital that they know we love them unconditionally, that we are connected, and that every moment does not have to exist simply for the pursuit of some far off, intangible extrinsic motivator like a scholarship, or a medal, or even a shot at the big leagues?

These days, my 11-year-old daughter Maggie likes to go out in the backyard and have me shoot soccer balls on her, or play 1v1. My 10-year-old son TJ and I love to hop on our bikes and ride down to the local 9 hole golf course and have a chipping contest, or simply see who makes the longest putt. The odds are astronomically small that any of this is in preparation for Maggie making a save in a World Cup Final, or TJ sinking the winning putt on the 18th hole at Augusta to win the Masters.

But the odds are quite high that the more time I find to putt and chip and shoot soccer and basketballs with my kids – and while doing it forget about developing great athletes and simply invest in building great people – the better the odds that they will trust me and be connected to me for those moments in life that really matter. No sporting outcome would be worth losing that.

We are led to believe that sport is all about the pursuit of glory, but the more I think about it, the longer I coach, and the more I watch my own kids play, the more I am convinced that this notion is wrong. The world’s most famous athletes are revered for winning, but ask them what they remember, and it’s rarely about the podium. They talk about connection.

Sport is about connection.

It is the connection between teammates working together to achieve a common goal, forged on the practice field, on the bus, at team meals, and even in the hotel pool.

It is the connection between athletes and their coaches who respect and encourage them, and coach the person, not the sport.

It is the connection between sports clubs, schools and parents, working together to ensure that sport is an extension of the things we value, not the antithesis.

And, most importantly, it is the connection between a dad and his son forged over 50 years of tossing a baseball.

It is the connection between a father and daughter, built night after night in a quiet driveway in upstate New York, playing HORSE until it is too dark to see.

It is the connection available to all of us, whether it be with our own kids or those we are entrusted to coach, if we just put aside our devices, our expectations, and our future hopes and dreams for those kids, and simply be present.

I know that I need to find more time to do this.

I hope you will too.

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

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