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Coaching Generation Z

They are a tricky bunch. Creative in countless ways, especially on the basketball court. Consumed with social media, quick fixes and impatience. Generation Z aka The Millennials, is a group that needs to be understood in order to lead. A task many coaches fail to do because they do not take the time. The time to hear them out, step into their shoes and identify with their struggle.

The coaches I played for at a high level were at least 45 or older.

Let me put into perspective what a 25 year age difference looks like. In the past 25 years, we have invented the Digital Camera, Web Browser, Tivo and Iphone. We have had the Gulf War, 9/11, War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. We have had 4 presidents, 3 stock market crashes, 2 major floods in New Orleans alone and 1 Donald Trump. Our coaches have no idea what it was like growing up in our era and vice versa.

Our childhood was synonymous with video games, computers and the digital age. My coaches were raised in the 60’s, 70’s 80’s; I’m not going to even try to explain what that time period was like.

I do know when it comes to basketball, you guys had quite a list of players to watch. You had the 11-time NBA Champion, The Logo, Dr. J, Pistol Pete, Magic and Bird. We grew up on the 2nd half of MJ, The Diesel, King James, AI and the Black Mamba. Terrific in their own right, but different. A new brand of basketball where everyone is a guard, and the game turned into an offensive showcase rather than the physical war it once was.

Not saying any era was better than the other, but each comes with a it’s own set of values and principles. Generation Z is being written off for theirs, but let us analyze them before jumping to a conclusion.

The Knock on The Millennials

Lack a strong work ethic. Impatient. Don’t listen to authority. Disregard tradition. Want to know why before taking action. Selfish. Terrible listeners. Stubborn. The list goes on and on, but these are some of the negative characteristics of Generation Z.

Tell me if this dialogue sounds familiar:

Coach: I need you to fade to the corner as the guard drives. Player: I shoot better from the wing. Coach: I don’t care where you shoot better from, go to the corner. Player: Why would I go to the corner if I am more of a threat from here? Coach: Dammit! Because I said so!

I get it, they are frustrating.

Especially when coaches grew up much more obedient than the players they are instructing now. Youth basketball players question nearly everything, and quite frankly I don’t blame the coaches for losing their temper every now and then. Maybe there is an alternative.

As a Point Guard, it was my job to understand my teammates psychologically so I knew how to reach them in the game. I needed to know what made them play harder, what would make them withdrawal, how to speak to them after a mistake and how to keep them engaged. I learned all of this by observing in practice, the dorms, eating and celebrating together. I knew my teammates like they were my family... because they were.

*Coaches do not go to parties with your players. I repeat, do not go to parties with your players. It is a recipe for disaster, ask Larry Eustachy from Iowa State if you don’t believe me.*

That shouldn’t stop you from knowing them. Each of your players has a unique personality, a different shame coping mechanism and a contrasting response to your coaching philosophy. The more time you invest into building a relationship away from the court, the less “why” responses you will hear.

This generation doesn’t just trust the coach because you are the authoritative figure. They trust the person who shows they care about them. Be the coach, mentor and leader that cares about them as much you want them to care about you.

Product of Environment

I will never forget having a conversation with a teammate of mine after leaving practice. He said to me, “Coach has no idea about where I come from. There were times where I went to bed hungry. Days without hot water to take a shower. He doesn’t care about any of that, as long as I stay quiet and say yes sir or no sir.”

My coach and that player (along with a few others) never had a relationship. Constantly bumping heads, and you know what the saddest part was? He was the most talented player on the team and one of the smartest I had ever played with. He didn’t reach his potential as a player and we didn’t reach our potential as a team because of a lack of communication.

That is unacceptable.

Listen coach, many players need guidance and in the game of basketball that need is magnified. Many of us come from dysfunctional homes, single-parent households or without any leadership at all. We have been put on a pedestal because of our talent in a sport, but nobody took the time to develop our character. This generation is full of creative and innovative minds that can transform industries. Can you imagine what it could do on a basketball court?

Both the players and the coaches need to find a common ground, but the coach has to make that initial step. Environment plays a huge role in the development of people and these players character. Only one out of my three Division 1 coaches cared about the lives of his players outside of basketball. George Nessman at San Jose State University. One of those coaches who you can have a lifelong relationship with, that made you a better man not just a better basketball player.

A Common Thread

Every Hall of Famer steps up to the podium and thanks his coach. With tears in his eyes he says something along the lines of, “Thank you coach for being a father figure”, or “Thank you coach for saving my life.” They don’t talk about how much they appreciate their coach for for showing them how to properly run a zone offense. The impact coaches have on their players occurs far away from the gym.

It starts with the conversations you have about life. Wanting to know about their families, hobbies, passions, school work and aspirations outside of basketball. The knowledge you spew onto them that have nothing to do with the defense you plan to run that season. The stories you share with them to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes you did. The discipline you give them for off the court issues that shapes their character. The guidance you give when they run into a tough situations.

We have watched players embrace coaches like John Thompson, Tom Izzo and Bob Huggins. That hug is not because he corrected his players shooting form. It is because he took that player under his wing, demanded the world from him and changed his life not his game.

Closing Thoughts

A recent article on Buzzfeed listed the 28 things millennials have killed, including Golf, Football, Soap, Relationships, Napkins and everything inbetween. Sounds like a pessimistic view to me. Glass half full mindsets might describe them as innovators, trailblazers or trendsetters. The same can go for the game of basketball.

Generation Z is not easy to coach. As a youth basketball coach now, I have the perspective of both sides. Players want to be cared about, understood and lead. Coaches want to be respected and trusted. Both desires are met away from the game, nowhere near the court.