BALTIMORE – The winds of change blowing through our nation’s capital about 30 miles south of here on this Presidential Inauguration Day likewise made their way to the Baltimore Convention Center as the US Lacrosse Convention (LaxCon) got underway today.

Youth sports reform advocate and former college and pro soccer coach John O’Sullivan ended the evening with a rousing keynote speech about “changes worth making” to improve the youth lacrosse experience, following an on-stage interview between pro lacrosse star Paul Rabil and US Lacrosse CEO Steve Stenersen that highlighted the national governing body’s efforts to lead same.

And fortunately, unlike a year ago at this time, only a mostly tame breeze amidst a light, off-and-on rain enveloped convention goers outside; a far cry from this city’s worst blizzard ever that effectively limited last year’s LaxCon to an out-of-towners-only party.

O’Sullivan, himself a native Long Islander that opted for soccer only at St. Anthony’s, departed to a standing ovation, not an uncommon reaction to his message since he left coaching temporarily in 2012 to establish the Changing the Game Project. He told the crowd his initiative to put more “play” back in playing sports was borne following his observations of a 10-year-old “competitive league” game of soccer, in which the adults’ competitiveness stole the show and relegated one youngster to dejected status following an errant pass kids that age make routinely.

“People ask me if I’m making a difference,” O’Sullivan said before taking the stage. “I gave a talk in LA last week to US Soccer, and when it was done there was this one dad who stood in the back and kept waiting for everyone to clear out. When they did, he came up to me and started crying. And he said, ‘I read your book, and it saved my relationship with my son.’”

O’Sullivan, author of two books on youth sports reform, elicited his share of emotion tonight, from laughter following a video of a “cheerleader on crack” soccer mom at a little girls’ game to heartfelt gratitude from West Broward (Fla.) High School girls’ coach Cary Ragbeer.

“I thought he was excellent,” Ragbeer, at his third LaxCon and in his fifth year as a coach, said. “A lot of what he said, I’ve been feeling intrinsically. The game as to be fun, and we have to blend performance and participation as long as we can.”

Perhaps ironic, but while O’Sullivan’s message of change towards a player-centered developmental experience contrasts much of the ultra-competitive environment in youth sports today, his recommendation for implementation rests on investing in three topics likely to remain the same 10 or more years down the road: Why do kids play? What do kids want from coaches? And, kids have parents.

“If we can remember they play for enjoyment, if we can be the best coach we had when we were younger, and if we can build trust with parents, we can make a difference,” O’Sullivan said.

“The best coaches make you feel something. The problem with most coach education programs across all sports is that they focus on X’s and O’s. We need to make it more about connecting with kids,” he said.

O’Sullivan, last fall pressed into coaching his daughter’s team when her previous coach resigned, outlined a seemingly quick drill he employed to help his players build a culture of values and teammate accountability that withstood with ease an 0-18-1 campaign. At their first practice he asked the players what values they think a good teammate has. When the list was complete, he had each player sign the document with a statement pledging to be the kinds of teammate that exemplifies the values listed above.

“I would then ask the parents not to ask how practice was, but to ask what the value of the day was and how it could be transferred to real life,” O’Sullivan said. “I got more calls and emails at the end of the season saying the girls had the most fun they’d ever had and couldn’t wait until the next season.”

He concluded with an extension of Stenersen’s notes on the organization’s new Lacrosse Athlete Development model, which aims to “refocus the experience on the child and right size it based on the development of the child.”

After showing a video of a topless concert dancer ultimately being joined by the crowd to form a movement, O’Sullivan challenged the attendees to be the first followers that “make the lone nut great.”

“US Lacrosse can only recommend changes. It’s up to you to be the change agents,” he said. “These are changes worth making.”

Notes: The general session opened with award distributions. Don Aiello, president of the Northern California Chapter of US Lacrosse, received the US Lacrosse Homer R. Schwartz Award for his service to lacrosse in that area. Mike Jolly, a high school coach and former US Lacrosse National Man of the Year, received the Peter Kohn Award from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. LaxCon continues Saturday with educational sessions beginning at 8 a.m. Fan Fest, for which tickets are on sale online and at the gate, begins at 11 a.m.

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More educational sessions, Fan Fest highlight Saturday slate.

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