Thursday, 18 August 2011

Coaching generation "Y"

As coaches, teachers and employers for that matter, we have all noted that each generation holds different attributes.  We can also note that every generation seems to blame the past and present for all of the world’s problems!  There are basically four living generations right now- The matures would be those born between 1925- 1945, the baby boomers between 1945- 1964, generation X between 1965-1979 and those born between 1980-1994 have been placed in the category of generation Y or the millennial.  You may have also heard the term “generation me” as coined by Jean M. Twenge, PhD (author of “generation me “and many published works on this matter).  For the sake of this article, I will focus on how it pertains to coaching athletes, but you will be able to see how it correlates to both the work force and education.  I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I have had thousands of contact hours with many different athletes across a wide variety of sports at all levels over the last 12 years. 
This is not meant to take pot shots at a generation Y’ers.  Every generation has faults including mine.  For us to be better coaches, we must gain a better understanding of them and learn to adapt to what we are dealing with.  We are at a time in sport where we have the biggest, fastest, fittest and freakiest athletes of all time, but many of us are struggling to find ways of dealing with the new culture that has come with this.  The way I see it, there are two options: Bitch and complain that this generation is useless, or learn from them and make yourself a better coach.  We need to embrace change, learn from our mistakes, leave our egos at the door and continue to get better at our craft every day. 

Characteristics and Possible Solutions:
  1. Sense of entitlement.  It seems this generation wants what they feel they deserve right away.  With most teams I work with, athletes are not willing to be a spare or second string.  If they can’t be labelled a starter right away, they pout or look to move teams or quit.  The idea of “everyone has a role” on the team has lost meaning.  I do not want my athletes to be content with not starting, but would like to see them to accept it as a challenge to earn the spot they believe they deserve and to gain an understanding that hard work and paying dues is a part of life.  We also see this when athletes are asked to pay fees, or take on menial roles within the team.  Something as simple as asking the athletes to have the wrestling mats laid down, bringing out cones or balls etc.  When asked to “help out”, it is almost as if we are victimizing the athlete because they are above such tasks. 
·         Give your athletes feedback and clearly defined roles.  Sell the concept of “TEAM” instead of individual.  In individual sports we explain that champions must train in pairs.  Regardless of their thought process, they must understand they cannot be successful without the help of their team mates, coaches and support staff.  If you are on tour, travelling or are in a sport that requires set up and take down, organize your team into small groups and assign daily or weekly duties to ensure that the task is done.  At the end of the day, we need to instil the value that they are not there to do us a favour.  We are here to work together to achieve a common goal and advancement comes from the process of learning.   I mentioned ‘paying dues’, we must be cautious how we approach this.  Although it is an important aspect of sport, they have to understand that there is a purpose to this type of participation.  To these athletes, paying dues is like telling a business man he has to clean the toilet!

  1. Dream big, whatever you want you can have mentality.  There are millions of self help seminars, crap books and advertisements that have given us a thought process that if you dream it you can achieve it.  Unfortunately they are written by people that don’t care about you so much as your money.  Couple this with parents, teachers and coaches filled with unrealistic expectations and we are setting ourselves up for failure.   Unfortunately, this thought process does not take into considerations many of life’s factors and has given people an unrealistic view of the world.  Dreaming is important for athletes and the general public alike, but it has given false hope to millions, and when success is not met, they do not have the coping skills to deal with it.  Disappointment is part of life, and we can’t just expect that our athletes will have the same mentality that we have to deal with this type of stress.   I realize the negativity in the statement, but these are just my observations over the years. 
·         Do not be afraid to set realistic process driven goals with your athletes and team vs. outcome goals.  Set daily and weekly goals, and as coaches ensure you have the correct coping strategies to deal with each goal.   I like to raise the standard as high as I think is attainable for my athletes to encourage a maximum effort at all times.  I find if you always set a goal that is easily attainable, they can get away with achieving it with a moderate effort.  If we set goals that are too high, the athlete’s ability to deal with adversity diminishes as they do not have the ability to cope with any type of loss.  If an athlete continues to struggle, I prefer NOT to adjust the level in which I’ve asked them to attain unless I feel they are physically incapable.  Instead, I talk them through it.  I challenge them with questions and work with them to ensure they are of the understanding that my goal is for them to be successful and that I am here to do what it takes to help them.  Athletes need repetition, process and progressions in coping strategies just as they would in any other aspect of sport (I know this may seem boring to the athlete, so we need to be inventive in our planning).   I know in my setting, not reaching a goal may not impact them in their sport, but disappointment is a fact of life and we need to help them understand this better and how to learn from it.  Having a short memory in terms of putting a loss or missing a goal is important, but unfortunately generation Y’ers forget it before they leave the field or weight room.  To me, this is an issue.  We do not want our athletes dwelling on something that cannot be changed, but they should have enough pride and self worth to "feel" some sort or dissapointment.  One of the greatest tools for dealing with disappointment is having good family and friend support.  Unfortunately, we cannot control what happens in the home, but as coaches and teams, we can have our own support groups of people that actually do care about the athletes well being. 
  1. The ability to deal with criticism and conflict is non-existent.  For as long as I can remember, psychologists have told us we must use positive reinforcement to reach our athletes.  I disagree with this to an extent.  Although we should always be upbeat and positive, this generation has been told how great they are and that the world is their oyster since birth (So when anything doesn’t go their way, they have an inability to deal with it in an efficient manner).  When we continually stroke egos, the athlete loses sight of the bigger picture.  This also ties into dreaming big.  Parents, athletic directors, the media and anyone removed from the act of training, competing and practicing are often the ones driving this problem.  Their misunderstanding of the standards to which we hold our athletes quite often trickles back down to the root of this problem. 
·         We learn from our mistakes so we can get better from them.  If athletes are only used to getting positive reinforcement, what did we think would happen when they hit a bump in the road? Explain in detail what was done wrong or poorly and give positive solutions to fix it.  This is not coddling, this is coaching.  Find ways to see how your athlete will respond to this; do they need to be talked to as an individual, or addressed as a group?  Unlike other generations that require feedback once in a while, this age group needs it constantly.  They need to be re-affirmed and receive constant recognition.  With this, it becomes our role to ensure that it may not all be positive, such as life.  When I sit down with an athlete and their parents, I explain to them that I will challenge them more than anyone else and that they will be held to the highest of standards (I explain to them what is expected before we start so they can make a decision to stay with me, or go with someone else to ensure they understand that feedback is a part of our process-both negative and positive and it should be accepted as a challenge so they can get better). 
  1. It wasn’t my fault?  This is one of my favourites.  I have never seen so many people blame external factors for any type of shortcoming.  We have all heard excuses that drive you crazy.  This has come from over nurturing.  If kids are not doing well in school, sport or at work, it must be a bad teacher, coach or employer.  If I were a parent, I would support my child in any way I can, but I have never seen so many parents help facilitate a behaviour that would have given me a wooden spoon across the back side 25 years ago.  We need parent involvement and support, but it is a fine line between not enough and too much.
·         For the most part, both parents are in the work force now.  Parents are not spending the same amount of time sharing meals, watching their child compete or having “family” nights as they have in the past.  They have also grown up in the most structured, programmed and nurtured time in history.  Each year I see more parental involvement, some of which is amazing, but when it’s bad, it is bad!  Parents confront coaches if their child is not getting enough playing time, but will call to tell you that their child can’t make practice or a game instead of allowing the athlete to do it.   If we allow for tardiness or unprofessional behaviour you are just reinforcing negative patterns.  Nip it in the bud and involve parents in what you deem accountability and hold both of them to it (parents should sign a code of conduct just as their kids and coaches should).  If you have the ability, try touring to different countries with your teams.  I’ve had the luxury of travelling to Cuba, Japan, Russia, Europe and all through the United States and have gained a greater understanding of how blessed we are.  By seeing  what the athlete’s peer group has comparatively (good or bad) gives the athletes a better understanding of both how lucky we really are and how hard we have to work if we want to compete with the best.
  1. IPod, IPad, Lap Top, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Youtube etc.... If someone told you 15 years ago that your yellow Sony walkman would be substituted with a device that holds thousands of songs and is half the size of a credit card would you have believed them?  We are in the most technological age in history yet we still teach and coach like we are preparing for the industrial revolution.  I have read studies that have suggested that by the time males reach 21 years of age they will have spent upward of 10 000 hours in front of a video game screen.  As coaches, we are all aware of the fact that it takes upward of that amount of time to perfect a skill.  Consequently, being an all-star in John Madden football on the X-Box does not correlate to your performance on the field. 
·         If you are new to the internet like my father and still send stupid chain mail, this may be hard for you to swallow, but you may need to get with the times!  Most kids don’t even check their emails now, if the message is not sent through facebook or twitter, it doesn’t get received.  There are social networking tools that allow for teams to send information back and forth that can be only accessed by the team and support staff.  I would recommend that you let your athletes set this up if you are not tech savvy so that they can take some ownership in the program.  The use of projectors, power point presentations, smart boards and similar devices should be used in meetings as much as possible.  Most athletes are already desensitized to staring at a black or white board, and require this type of stimulation to stay engaged.  Try learning some basic editing skills for your training and game tapes so that you can share clips on your media page in a hope that they may even take an extra 10 minutes a day to learn something of value. 
How did this happen?
  1. Our education system is not keeping up with the times.  We have students spending the greater part of their day in front of computers, TV’s, phones and other technologically advanced devices and we still expect them to be stimulated by reading a black and white text book written in the 1970’s.  There is so much information and stimulation in our daily lives, that sitting in front of a traditional lecture becomes punishing.  Why should we sit through this class when all of this information is at my fingertips?  Do you remember when research was done by reading books and encyclopaedias or going to the library?  If we have the ability to receive information this freely and quickly, we will continue to see patience and work ethic diminish.  I’m 37 and have high anxiety and little patience, but compared to this generation I am dead calm.  If they are complaining that it takes a minute for their lap tops to reboot, how can we expect them to have the patience to listen what we are saying?   Another concern I have is that our student athletes believe that their education will be enough to prepare them for the real world.  There is a bit of disconnect between having the ability to convert theory to practice.

·         With attention spans diminishing, I find that I need to do breakdown a process into 4-5 stages.  (We cannot assume that using lecture type of training and coaching will get our message across). Teach the first stage, let the athlete do it, then the second, let the athlete do it and so on.  Once the full movement is taught, let them do it.  Give small coaching points throughout and reiterate them as much as possible.  Give constant feedback and do not let technique slide.  If you are having trouble getting your message through to your athletes, you may consider having them fill out the VARK survey.  It is a learning tool to give us an idea of what type of learner we are-Visual, Aural, Read-Write or Kinesthetic.  It can be found online at   In terms of teaching or coaching, “what works for one, works for one”!  We cannot assume that everyone will respond and learn the same way as what may have worked in the past.  We should also consider having our athletes watch and learn from others (in their sport or similar) at the highest level so they understand how the speed and execution of movement differs between levels. 
  1. The media influence is higher than ever.  Advertisements are everywhere from where you go to the bathroom to where you eat (hopefully not both at the same time).  Traditionally the only advertisements were on commercials, billboards, radios, newspapers and magazines.  Now we find product placement in movies, TV shows, on our emails, social media and even in our schools.  This repeated over stimulus of products is shaping young minds to feel that they need to purchase whatever is being endorsed by their favourite celebrities or athletes in order to perform better.  Given the need for a quick fix and the lack of understanding that hard work pays off, we tend to believe everything we hear and see.  Believe it or not, there are some unscrupulous people out there just trying to make a buck and unfortunately it does not lead to a competitive market, but an undermining of the fundamentals we are trying to create.  Hero worshipping is one of the worst attributes that becomes coupled with this.   Parents and kids see their favourite stars doing something and assume that if they are doing it, so should we.  The process of doing the basics, then progressing and doing them well becomes lost. 
·         Explain to them the role distractions play on performance.  It’s ok to tell them that just because Michael Jordan wears those shoes and shorts, doesn’t mean that you will become Michael Jordan if you wear them.  They need to understand their role and need realistic goals.  I research and read what the latest “decent” sport role models have done to get where they are and I share it with my athletes.  As a proud Canadian, I talk about Steve Nash’s work ethic, or I’ll schedule their workouts at a time when we have Olympic Gold Medallist Maelle Ricker in working out the week after she won gold.  I use the following analogy-just because an expert carpenter uses a particular hammer and builds a beautiful home, it doesn’t mean I can do the same if I have that hammer!
  1. Creativity is diminishing.  The need to think and formulate ideas on one’s own is no longer necessary.  If the answer to a question is as easy as clicking a few buttons, there is no thought process involved and we are taught that there is only one answer.  Creativity in sport is a fundamental skill that is lacking.  If the athletes are told to follow set plays A, B, C and D, with D being the end result, they lose the capability to think outside the box when C presents before B.  As we know, in most sports, very little is actually predictable.  We all have set strategies and plays, but for the athlete to gain a better understanding of what to do in circumstances that do not fit into those plays, they must possess some sort of flare and creativity to be competitive. 
·         Incorporate drills that force the athlete to think while still giving the capability to figure some aspects out on their own.   Once the athlete has the skill to perform given tasks, advance them by throwing in different scenarios that require them to think outside the box.   I would also suggest including non-sport games and scenarios that require some sort of creative thinking.  Having team challenges or games that are completely non-sport related and require the athletes to work collaboratively can show benefits to on field growth as well.
  1. Social skills are diminished by the use of social networking.  Kids are reaching out to their “facebook friends” when a problem arises where no social interaction is apparent.  “I’m havin a ruff dayL” is posted on their wall instead of their parents asking what is troubling them.  Can you imagine what people did before we had emoticonsJ?  I find that kids that are currently in high school or younger even struggle to make eye contact when they talk to me but have no problem sending me a text message at 11pm telling me that they are sore from yesterday’s workout.  In my industry, we spend a lot of time one on one with our clients and we are really finding it tough to find applicants that have a personality that is needed to carry on a series of one on one conversation’s with our clients.  They are far more educated then I will ever be, but they don’t possess the ability to carry on a conversation, make eye contact or present in front of a group. 
·         I understand that the world is going in a different direction with regards to technology.  But when we set a time to meet or train, the athlete’s phone or other electronic devices should be in the locker room.  Technology is a useful tool in coaching and it is now a part of sport, but there must be a well defined time and place for its use.  I try to encourage face to face meetings with my clients that are of this generation to help them come out of their shell and actually see what type of personality I am going to be dealing with. 
  1. Independent thinking is killing the “team” mentality.  Because they reach out to friends on social networks instead of actually physically talking to people, they have developed their own individual thought process.  This is not necessarily a bad trait, but you may have noticed they don’t handle being told what to do very well or handle any type of criticism.  If they are not treated as individuals, it is treated as a personal attack, feelings get hurt L and they move on to the next thing with no thought process of trying to figure it out on their own or actually work to a better situation that is mutually agreeable.   
·         Embrace the concept of individuals within a team.  A strong team is made up of completely unique mentalities and thought processes and it should be made clear that what drives the team concept is all of the individuals working  together to achieve a common goal.  Those that cannot fit within this model need to be dealt with as quickly as possible or the negativity will grow.  We are all familiar with the impact one bad seed can have within a group. 
  1. Leadership roles are proving to be tougher and tougher to fill.  In the past, we have had the luxury of relying on athletes and employees to step up as leaders of teams and peer groups.  I have found now, that many of the athletes that I would think of as great leaders don’t want to handle the responsibility.  I am not sure if it is a fear of potentially having a conflict with a friend, or just the inability to actually confront someone face to face.  I am sure this ties into the fact that most communication is now done via text messaging or other forms that do not require any face to face contact or conflict.  Consequently, older athletes have become dismissive of younger athletes and younger athletes are dismissive of older ones.
·         Form small leadership groups with your athletes that you deem worthy of such a role in an attempt to build on its size and weed out the potential cancers.  I have found that this group does not necessarily need to be your star players, include a mix of all athletes.  Younger, older and even injured athletes should all have a voice.  Leadership roles do not just have to include on field duties.  Help with organizing your social networking pages, setting up film sessions, sorting out field set up and take down are all important aspects of this.  Capitalize on the athletes abilities-If you have one that is tech savvy, have them help set up film sessions or upload game films, if they are great speakers, include their input on field and in meetings etc.  If you have a team that has a large age gap, have the older athletes mentor the younger ones with things like technique, skill work, personal experiences and have the younger ones mentor the older ones in the same manner. 
  1. We’re number 2!  Yay!  The acceptance of mediocrity coupled with hero worshipping is killing sport in Canada.  I am not saying that we need to win everything at all levels, but there has to be a desire created that raises the standards of these athletes.  If we want to further sport in Canada, we need to hold athletes to a much higher standard.  This does not mean they should feel terrible after a loss, but it does mean as coaches we need to ensure they don’t dismiss the feeling of disappointment.  The ability to learn from a loss or mistake is equally as important as learning how to win!
·         I have always been taught that once the film session is over, so is thinking about the loss or mistakes (If you do not have the luxury of using film as a tool, I would suggest you tell your athletes to take the next day to think things over and write a log) .  You may go back to the errors that lead to a negative only if you are using it as a teaching tool to get better.  We should be looking at taking the blaming of external factors (weather, officials etc) and excuse making out of the equation and try to instil ownership into your program.  At the rep level or higher, we need to instil the value that we are here to be successful, not just to be on a team.  Success does not always have to be linked with winning, but when we neglect the concept of competing to win, we are just left with accepting mediocrity.  Athletes at the highest levels are generally accepting of this mind set and ultimately want success, so demanding more of them should not be a difficult task for us. 
  1. The need for constant feedback and appreciation.  They want to know why they are doing something and how fast it will positively reflect upon them.  Again, I don’t have a problem with this.  I believe we should give constant feedback, but we must ensure they understand it will not always be what they want to hear.  When I work with an athlete I try to explain every detail.  We are going to do this because we want it to help you do this.  I break it down as much as possible while leaving out small details so they have to figure parts of it out on their own.  It’s a fine line between not enough information where an injury may occur or negative patterning and giving too much information where all creativity may be lost. 
·         In university we received grades after every training session and game.  Considering most coaches are unpaid in Canada, this may be an unattainable goal.  Use your travel time, warm ups and cools downs etc to individually talk to players and positional units to give necessary feedback.
  1. What happened to showing appreciation and being thankful?  I have noticed more and more, that getting a simple thank you from people for trying to help them is diminishing.  I have never done work for praise or thanks, but when you go out on a limb or spend valuable time to help someone, the least you should be able to expect is a simple thanks.
·         I am guessing this ties in with the sense of entitlement issue.  I have always been happy to help my athletes as much as I possibly can.  Lately, I have been asking more of them in terms of accountability and commitment if they would like something from me.  Generally, I donate programs to a fair share of our athletes.   Instead of just saying here it is and send them on their way, I will give them one week of a program, ask for follow ups and feedback and then update them based on how quickly they get back to me.  We can’t force people to be thankful, but by making them accountable we can hope that they realize that you are giving them your valuable time.
  1. Sport governing bodies are often holding us back as a nation.  The bureaucracy of sport in Canada (at all levels) needs to be changed.  I believe we have some tremendous coaches and athletes in our systems, but they are becoming hindered by “the people in the office”.  I feel we would benefit greatly by meeting with or viewing other nations and teams set ups and learning from their mistakes instead of trying to adapt their model because it works for them.  Teams and associations have developed such a distain within their ranks, that it is a hard fix.  As both a coach and athlete that have worked in the U.S. collegiate system and travelled the world, I can tell you we can make some simple changes to our systems based off what I have seen.  I completely understand that our system is unique given our land mass, but there are alternatives that can be considered if we want to advance. 
·         We need more ex-athletes that have been both through the system and have international experience at higher levels in our sporting organizations (people that have an invested interest in the sport) coupled with academics and businessmen alike.  If you look at the most successful sporting franchise in the world (the NFL and no I am not comparing us to them), their coaches, office staff, therapists, strength coaches, media relations are made up of different races, ages and experience so that everyone on the team has people they can relate to.  Most importantly, they all have an invested interest in the team and the team’s success.  They are not just there to get a fancy blazer and say they are a part of something great. 
  1. Education and certifications are so abundant that they have become redundant.  I understand the need for certifications in term of safety and ensuring that all coaches are following some set guidelines.  But when I go to a course and half the instructors are hung over, late or have less experience coaching than I do, is this money well spent?  I have a client that played in the NHL and grew up playing hockey his entire life and he has been told if he doesn’t get his level 1 certification, he is unable to coach.  His team is successful, the kids love their time with him and are doing what we as coaches want-playing!  As I mentioned, I understand the need for certifications, but I also understand that this parent has 4 kids and works full time.  If we have coaches that are talented, governing bodies need to work with them so that we are not losing any good coaches.  If kids are lacking motivation, work ethic etc. We need to keep coaches that are doing a good job.  I even know of coaches that have been hired at the national level just because they live in the area where the training center is! 
·         Athletes are not stupid.  If they respond well to a coach and his/her styles and are proving success, is a certification so important?  If we think that the coach has the ability to be great, like the athlete, we need to work with them.  Asking them to take weekends away or spend money on certifications, we need to take into account experience and ability and have the ability to potentially work outside the set parameters by the governing sport body.  If we start taking away these coaches or do not give them a chance, the athletes recognize this and may under perform.  If we select athletes and teams based off performance, should we not do the same with our coaches? 
As always, these are just a collection of my opinions and I am by no means a behavioural expert.  It is not my intention to take anything away from this generation.  We have all heard the slogan “those who can, can and those who can’t coach”.   I still look at my coaching and training as an athlete, just with a little different perspective.  It is my goal for my athletes to attain the highest level that they can possibly attain.  Writing this article was a means to look outside the box and attempt to come up with some different strategies to become better coaches. We need to look back on what helped us be successful and what has made us fail and learn from both.  We can’t assume that what worked for us ten years ago, will work for us today.   As always, I welcome any feedback or comments.  I can be reached at
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. –Albert Einstein

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