As a coach, you know that full buy in and adherence to the structured program in place is crucial to the overall development of your players. You also know that coaching is relational at its core. In order to build stronger relationships and improve communications with your athletes you need to understand their generational tendencies. These tendencies affect their personality, work ethic and communication habits. Now, my hope is that you don’t read this article and picture me as an old man sitting on a porch swing resentfully complaining about this lazy, millennial generation. Instead, picture me as someone who is part of the “problem,” and is determined to find the “solution.” When I say I’m part of the problem, I’m referring to the fact that I am a 25-year-old strength and conditioning coach. I am a part of the millennial generation. Therefore, I have to deal with these generational tendencies in both my personal and professional life.
So, what is the problem? The problem is you are dealing with athletes who believe that they are more entitled than ever. Many young athletes lack humility. They don’t respond well to failure and they struggle to accept criticism, no matter how constructive or positive it may be. The current generation of athletes is a product of a microwave society that has been and is still being cultivated. They often fail to appreciate patience and accept the fact that success is a long and a very difficult process. I realize that these are general statements and not every young athlete falls into these categories. However, there are specific reasons why many of the professional baseball players you coach display these attributes.
First, there is the money. Some of these young players were either high school or broke college students one day and millionaires the next. Shoot, if I was given that much money for being a good teenage athlete, I would probably also feel! As signing bonus numbers continue to increase, it’s unlikely that this trend will spiral downwards anytime soon, so this is something that we will have to learn to deal with. Closely related to entitlement is pride. This sense of pride comes from their age and maturity levels more than anything, but it doesn’t help that many of these athletes are constantly bombarded with praise. We are dealing with elite athletes who have been constantly told how good they are from their parents, coaches, girlfriends, perfect game rankings and the oversaturation of trophies they’ve received.
Today’s young athletes tend to receive more accolades at younger ages than ever before. They’ve been taught to expect praise, so when they experience criticism, or their accomplishments are not applauded, they don’t know how to respond. And when the do respond it’s usually in a negative manner. Social media doesn’t help. Many of the athletes that you coach want instant gratification and to be glorified for their performances. With the rise of Twitter and Instagram, the general population now has more access to the successes of high school and youth athletes. The fact that there are websites solely dedicated to providing recruiting information for college sports fans is ridiculous, but that’s the world we live in. As a coach, you need to accept this, and, instead of complaining that the times have changed, you need to adapt your coaching style in order to effectively develop your young athletes.
So how do you do this? I’ve developed a few ideas on this from both working with athletes and having to grow and mature personally. First, it’s extremely important to find a balance of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. Every coach has a different personality and a unique coaching style. I’m not suggesting that you change who you are, but you must be flexible. You must be able to discern what type of reinforcement and punishment an athlete responds best to. There is a balance between reinforcement and punishment, which is why coaching is just as much of an art as it is a science. Can you coach your athletes in a way that promotes discipline and intrinsic motivation but at the same time encourages flexibility and open communication? Can you give them enough freedom to make mistakes but also enough support to help them learn from their mistakes?
Second, if you want your athletes to reject pride and demonstrate humility then you must lead them in humility. You must be honest with yourself. Is your coaching career about you, or is it about the group athletes you can been given? To make the biggest impact possible you must put aside your personal pride and sell out for your athletes (preaching to myself here). If an athlete goes on your social media profile what kind of impression are they going to get? Are they going to see a coach who only boasts about himself? Are they going to find a coach whose feed is littered with negative thoughts? Or are they going to find a coach who posts about others, clearly loves others, and who is positive and encouraging? Maybe I’m reaching here with the personal social media thing, but you can’t be a hypocrite and complain about the junk players post on social media, and then turn around and post the same selfish, prideful junk. You must lead your athletes by example and with humility.
Finally, you need to explain and then constantly reinforce the concept of delayed gratification. Coaching this can be easy in some ways, and challenging in others. It’s easy because delayed gratification is built into the foundation of professional baseball. A player gets drafted, signed and then spends years in the minors with bad travel, bad food, and bad pay before he can get his shot at the big-league level. It’s challenging because there are still so many players that struggle with this concept. They don’t see the long-term benefit of lifting weights on a consistent schedule, paying attention to their nutritional habits, developing positive sleep habits, and other aspects of their personal and professional life that impact their performance. For some it doesn’t matter. Some guys have terrible habits but are so naturally gifted that they experience on-field success despite how they prepare. Most players, however, must grasp delayed gratification if they want any chance of making it the next level. These are the athletes that you can impact the most. As a strength and conditioning coach, you have the unique opportunity to help these athletes develop an understanding of how success works, what the process looks like, and how to respond to failure during the process.
It’s important to keep the big picture in mind when working with these athletes. When you help them grow and mature in their habits, help them learn how to handle failure, and when you lead them in humility you are preparing them for life outside of baseball. You are helping them develop character traits that will enable them to be successful husbands and fathers, and overall, better men. Also, considering that some of the players you are currently coaching will enter the coaching profession after they retire, you play a part in building the foundation for a stronger coaching community in the future.
In review, by making an effort to better understand the tendencies of this millennial generation you can better organize and implement your coaching strategies to make a meaningful and lasting impact on your athletes. This impact will help your athletes mature as men, both on and off the field.
Austin Womack, MS, CSCS is the minor league strength and conditioning coach for the Appalachian League Burlington Royals an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.