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Leading The Gen Z Student Athlete

By Scott Garson - Santa Clara

What would your reaction be if one of your student athletes approached you after practice, handed you their iPhone and said, “Hey coach, I looked up that pivot move you showed us earlier on YouTube, and all the videos I found are showing that I should be doing it in a totally different way”?


If it was my college coach, he would have escorted me back into the gym and had me running suicides until I was too busy throwing up to remember why I would ever question his instructions. But for Generation Z, who were born into a world where the internet was just another part of life, fact-checking their coaches, professors and parents is totally within the norm. While the title next to our name might make us believe otherwise, there has been a clear shift in what being an “authority” really means to the student-athletes we are now tasked to lead.


Gen Z student-athletes are wired in such a way that instantaneous information and feedback is not merely expected, it is demanded. And when we as coaches assume that we can stubbornly impose traditional methods of instruction and motivation, it will simply make them grow impatient and look for what they seek elsewhere. The only question is whether they’ll find that answer on YouTube or the Transfer Portal.


So how then do we lead the this newly empowered generation of student-athletes?


Turn Individual Competition Into Team Success


Believe it or not, the desire for instant gratification can actually be leveraged to create an advantage if the correct approach is taken. When everyone’s greatest achievements can be posted online for millions to see instantaneously, Gen Zers have been competing with one another for attention from the moment they stepped onto the court or field. This in-turn has created a drive to succeed (especially in ways that can be measured) in today’s student-athlete that has rarely been seen among past generations.


Coaches should channel this competitive sprit in ways that promote individual development while always moving the “me” towards the “we”. The simplest examples of this include the gamification of team competition, in which individual student-athlete accomplishments are tracked and recognized. In the same way college football teams reward their players with “helmet stickers” for making big play, almost every aspect of game and program performance can be tokenized to drive competition among student-athletes in a positive way.


Whether it be rebounds, sacks, grades, or time spent volunteering, the options are seemingly endless when it comes to ranking student-athletes against one another. What’s most important is that each individual on the team should have an equal opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for their outstanding performance. The red-shirting freshman can’t accumulate the same in-game stats as the senior, but they can outwork them off the court and be recognized for their outstanding contributions in doing so.


It is worth noting, as my colleague Damon Stoudamire has previous discussed, that creating too much competition within a team or organizational environment may lead to toxic behaviors. Indeed, because of the constant attention generated by social media, Gen Z student-athletes are particularly predisposed to falling into the classic traps of attention seeking behavior. Coaches should always use clear guidelines and rules to ensure that the competition they promote is done in a transparent and friendly way.


Rewarded Behavior Turns Into Repeated Behavior


While some may loathe the participation trophy culture that Gen Zers have been raised in, arguing they are “softer” and “less coachable” than past generations, the fact remains that today’s student athletes want to be rewarded and recognized for their efforts. This is especially true in competitive environments like the court, classroom or workplace.


Implementing a reward system for good behaviors and in/off season performance-based accomplishments, no matter how small, allow student-athletes to feel motivated consistently. It also allows them to know they are progressing towards something greater, even though the results aren’t always tangible in that moment. Gen Zers crave feedback, and the more you can give, the better.


These types of modern reward-based systems are becoming common place in the corporate world. Instead of giving a traditional end-of-year financial bonus for strong performance, many organizations now instead offer their employees a menu of reward options that include additional vacation time or the ability to work from home during a given day of the week. Not only do both of these rewards not cost the organization anything – someone who works from home is still expected to deliver their intended work-product at the end of the week – they in fact save money because they are given in substitute to actual hard dollars. What’s surprising is that most younger generations show a substantial preference towards these “autonomy-based” bonuses over monetary ones.


Coaches should reward student-athletes through similar systems; consistent performance in the weight-room or during in-season practice can be rewarded with extra time off or fun team activities. What’s key is to not tie these rewards to wins-and-loses. If you promise your players a reward for being focused and working hard in practice, then you can’t later renege because the eventual end-of-game result that week was not to your liking. Gen Z student-athletes want consistency above all else, and can easily tell when coaches use rewards as a means-to-an-end rather than a genuine tool to help them grow and develop.


Connect Them To A Cause


The most connected group of humans to ever walk the earth, Generation Z not only grew up with the capacity to communicate with one another instantaneously and on a global scale, but they have leveraged those abilities to help make a tremendous impact on the world. From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, Gen Zers want to be part of something bigger themselves, and teams that fail to harness this desire are far less likely to bring the type of fulfillment today’s student-athletes desire.


Of course, connecting your student-athletes to causes beyond their immediate program and sport also offers a tremendous opportunity to build a culture of togetherness, especially when they can be vulnerable around their teammates. During my time as head coach at The College of Idaho, we would take the team to visit the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise. The memorial is filled with quotes from the likes of Anne Frank, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and many others who stood up to injustice during their lives. We’d have each coach and player choose a quote to recite back to the group, sharing why it resonated with them and their own lives. There wasn’t a season where by the end of the exercise, several members of our team weren’t in tears. It was the single most important activity we did as a team, and one of the reasons why we were able to be so successful and connected on the court.


The most successful organizations in the world are almost always ones with the strongest cultures, and uniting student-athletes to use their very visible platform on campus for good can be an immensely valuable tool in building a unified tribe. And because today’s student-athletes are unshackled by the norms of the past, fiercely independent as compared to generations of the past, their attention is far more likely to wander if they are not constantly refocused on a cause greater than themselves. While in the past coaches may have found it a luxury to invest their limited time in activities outside those fundamental to impacting actual in-game performance, today they simply have no choice but to make such an investment or risk sabotaging their efforts towards creating a cohesive unit.


In the end, while some in my profession believe today’s student-athlete is the most difficult generation to coach, it is my firm belief that quite the opposite is true. Never before has there been a more intelligent, engaged, and harder working group of young men and women who are craving to make an impact beyond the game. Coaches that understand this can harness that creative energy and enthusiasm to build robust cultures of compassion and cooperation within their own programs, and in turn help their student-athletes accomplish truly meaningful things both on and off the court. To do so, they must adopt the same open-minded thinking as the student-athletes they are leading, and work hand-in-hand with them to help shatter the status-quo.


Scott Garson is currently an assistant coach at Santa Clara University. He previously served as head coach at the College of Idaho leading the Yotes to 129 wins in 5 seasons. He also helped lead the UCLA Bruins to three-straight Final 4 appearances as an assistant.