Two Magic Words

By John O'Sullivan

“What were you doing out there?” screamed an angry dad.

“I told you to shoot!” yelled the coach to the shell shocked young boy who just passed to his teammate instead of fulfilling the coaches wishes.

“He doesn’t know what he is doing” says a third parent, shaking his head as the attack falters and possession is turned over.

Three adults, three familiar phrases we hear nearly every weekend from the sideline of our hockey, soccer or basketball game. If its baseball or softball you can replace shoot with “swing,” or “run” or you name it. Far too many coaches and parents on our sidelines are micromanaging performance and stealing our players reps, and they all have one very critical thing in common:


That is right. They did not see the pitch through the eyes of the batter, or the pass through the eyes of the soccer player. They saw it from a completely different angle, from a considerable distance further away, and did not have an opponent pressuring them or chasing them in the moment. They all were TELLING the athlete the correct decision even though the athlete, the learner, was far better positioned to make the decision.  They stole the reps, they made the athlete cringe, they were confrontational, and they may have even embarrassed him. And in many cases, they were all wrong.

Many of us have the opportunity to watch our kids play again after a few months off. Along with that, we will have the chance to talk about the sports they play, often around how they performed, or what happened in their game. All too often – I know this from personal experience – we use this time to instruct and tell our kids what they should have done. A coaching colleague, Nick Levett of UK Coaching, recently challenged me as a coach and parent this Fall to do something slightly different (click here if you want to listen to the whole podcast where we discuss this or this blog Nick wrote on the topic).

Instead of saying “why did you play that pass?” or “why didn’t you shoot?”  Nick challenges us to begin our questions with two magic words:


“I’m curious what you saw on that play as it looked at me like you had an open shot.”

“I’m curious why you didn’t take that player on, it looked like you were 1v1?”

“I’m curious when you took the shot if you saw any other options?”

By beginning our sentences with “I’m curious” the following happens

  1. We invite our players to explain what they saw, and take ownership of their decisions.
  2. It shows we are interested in them.
  3. We create a conversation instead of a lecture.
  4. We open the door to understand what our players are seeing from a very different perspective than we are, often a different angle, and certainly under pressure. 

I have been amazed when I started doing this how players actually saw what I thought they should do but were able to explain that a defender was in the way of a pass, or that they thought a teammate was making a run that I did not see. It allows me to coach, but also allows them to own their decisions and consider others. It allows me to see what they have learned, and what they are seeing. It has made me realize that many of my players (and my own two kids) are seeing the big picture, but also a different solution to the problem the game presents.

So this Fall, if you decide to watch your kids play and discuss the game with them afterwards, why not challenge yourself as a coach and as a parent to start your sentences with “I’m curious” and see what happens. As Levett writes, “Start with curiosity, without judgement, and see what you can learn too.” See you on the field.

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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