Kids these days...
This generation has changed. Here's what we can do about it.
I recently saw a clip from ESPN’s College Gameday where Kirk Herbstreit and Des Howard responded to NFL prospects opting out of bowl games. They lamented that, and I’ll paraphrase, kids now have a greater sense of entitlement and they don’t love football anymore.
It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard coaches or analysts discuss the difference in this generation of athlete’s and it led me to think – what’s really going on here?
So in this week’s 3 points I decided to take a deeper look to see what the research says, and more importantly, what coaches and leaders can do about it.
1. Dr. Jean Twenge has been researching generational differences for over 25 years. She refers to Generation Z (born from 1997-2012) as iGen in reference to the massive impact the availability of iPhones has had on this group. Twenge explained that this is the first generation that has always had technology readily available and that is partially to blame for the highest ever generational reports of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Further, Twenge argues that the onset of the smart phones means this generation has changed, and quickly. She explains that, “the rapid onset of these changes may catch adults, like teachers and coaches, working with them by surprise”. Hence, the frustration we see so often.
2. Dr. Dan Gould and his team at Michigan State sought to expand this research into coaching, and so they specifically studied coaching Gen Z athletes. They interviewed 12 United States Tennis Association coaches with an average of over 18 years of coaching experience. So, while this research is very new and limited, the results parallel many of the attributes that have been identified in research on Gen Z youth in general, and offer valuable insights. Through the interviews, one of the predominant findings was that Gen Z athletes were unique and difficult to generalize, despite that they managed to find common trends:
Gen Z athletes have very high expectations. They set lofty goals that are often outcome based and short term. Coaches believed that the high expectations that Gen Z athletes had for themselves may be resulting in negative consequences.
The coaches felt when they begin working with Gen Z athletes, they lack the ability to handle adversity. Coaches felt that Gen Z athletes did not respond well to negative feedback. The athletes had difficulty separating themselves as a person and as a player, and when given negative feedback on their performance, they often took it as a measure of their self-worth.
Consistent across almost all coaches, Gen Z athletes were perceived to need structure and boundaries to guide them through their development. Coaches felt that athletes relied on and were dependent on the structure and boundaries provided to them by both parents and coaches.
In terms of motivation, coaches felt that Gen Z athletes were mostly extrinsically motivated by results, material things, and social comparison. Coaches discussed how pressure from parents and coaches served as extrinsic sources that drove players motivation. Coaches felt that for Gen Z athletes to be motivated, they need to know the “why.”
Overall, coaches felt that Gen Z athletes had poor communication skills. Coaches believed that players had difficulty expressing their emotions, were shy and hesitant to speak up, and lacked basic conversational skills (i.e., eye contact).
Coaches felt like Gen Z athletes also had unique strengths. They felt that they were more educated than athletes of the past, they were stronger visual learners and they were more open and curious to learning the “why” and connecting it to performance.
3. While that may have felt validating, or even therapeutic to some of you – the onus is now on you:
“As a leader, it’s up to you to adapt to the people you have the privilege of leading. Adapting is a word we hear all the time and usually it’s in the context of, ‘Let’s get all the stats up and analyze the numbers and [adapt to them]. But not many leaders adapt to the people who are going to something with the numbers. Who are they, what are they going through, and do you get their input for ideas? At the end of the day, we lead people, not bottom lines.” – Coach K
The group of sport psychology researchers and coaches worked together to identify insights and strategies to adjust to coaching Gen Z athletes. So here’s what we can do:
Set clear expectations for practice, behavior and engagement.
Create a task-oriented climate and a growth mindset. This can be done by reinforcing effort, teamwork, learning and improvement, and that every team member is valued. Set daily goals/objectives that shift attention from outcome (winning) to process (improving).
Expose athletes to manageable levels of adversity in practice and certain competitions and then support them in handling setbacks and losses.
Support their autonomy. Give athletes choices and responsibilities to take ownership of their team and hold them accountable.
Keep them engaged by explaining the “why” behind decisions and incorporate technology when possible.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, build meaningful relationships. As one coach in the study put it, “I think that once you start a great relationship with the athlete, then everything becomes easy from there. I mean they can open up, and they can approach you, and have conversations. I think that it’s all about building relationships.”
I know I say this every week, but this week especially, I would love to hear your thoughts!