The modern athlete is more likely to fact check their coach. They have notoriously short attention spans. They struggle with in-person communication. And their athletic focus is challenged at every turn. All of which can be directly attributed to the internet. Coaches, sports psychologists, and all others who work with the modern athlete, read on to learn.
In This Article
Why Take the Time to Understand the Modern Athlete?
As mental health professionals who specialize in digital media overuse and addiction, we work with a lot of adolescents and young adults. And we’ve observed a cultural shift between this cohort and everyone who came before them. One that goes well beyond a simple generational gap. We call these young people true digital natives. The first generation born into an established online social structure. Many of them had their births announced on social media. They’ve grown up watching their parents and grandparents socialize online. And, of course, they conduct their own social lives there.
The rest of us, as digital immigrants, must learn to understand true digital natives if we are to provide young people with the guidance they need to grow into happy, healthy adults. Not to mention if we want to stay relevant in our respective fields. Athletic coaches are no exception. In fact, you might say coaches are on the front lines of this cultural exchange.
While healthcare providers can implore young people to spend less time online and more time being physically active, it’s a coach’s job to actually get them to do it. And across every sport, even at the elite and professional levels, coaches report that athletes are more distracted, sleep deprived, and anxious because of too much social media or video games.
It’s not all bad, though. The information age has also created young people who are more informed and empowered than earlier generations. Which is translating into a different kind of athlete. One who could lead us all into a healthier society. Let’s look at some of the most common differences in the modern athlete, as reported by coaches.
“Although it has always been essential that coaches adapt their coaching to athlete characteristics, this may be more important today than ever before as coaches adjust to a new generation of athletes who have grown up in a total digital age, which has had major effects on their characteristics and ways of behaving.”
Gould, D., Nalepa, J., & Mignano, M. (2019). Coaching Generation Z Athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 32(1), 104–120.
How Has the Internet Changed the Modern Athlete?
They Want to Know Why
In previous generations, when coaches wanted their players to do something, they simply ordered them to do it. But one of the most common characteristics cited about today’s athletes is that they won’t do something without verifying that it’s the best course of action first. In a study examining elite tennis coaches’ perceptions of Generation Z athletes, one coach summed it up like this, “I think if the work that is not directed, if the work that they are asked to do is positioned as being kind of homework or drudgery, I think they really push back against that.”1
While it might be tempting to view this behavior as a sign that this younger generation is entitled or unable to delay gratification, this is a trend we see across all age groups. The internet has allowed everyone to become more informed consumers and we’ve all become greater self-advocates because of it. (Case in point: This article was written for the self-advocating coach who wants to learn how to work more effectively with the modern athlete.) Today’s young athletes are simply a product of the culture around them. And the days are gone when a coach was the only sports authority in a player’s life. Now they’re just as likely to do a Google search for training tips as follow the word of one person.
They Communicate Differently
Good communication is key to athletic success. Whether it’s successful communication between teammates or between coach and player. Getting athletes to be more vocal on the court and field is a challenging and ongoing problem and many coaches report that the current generation of athletes doesn’t have the same level of comfort with in-person communication as previous generations.
The brain develops according to how it’s used and this generation of athletes has grown up using technology to socialize and communicate. Coaches have the daunting task of getting athletes off their screens and into the present moment to connect with them and each other.
And while their in-person communication may not be as ready, they are more willing to express themselves vulnerably online, whether on social media like Simone Biles, or through text as many coaches in the USTA study observed.
“I’ll text the players and sometimes, they’re actually more open via text then they are face-to-face. It’s unbelievable.”
“Coaching Gen Z Athletes”
Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, (2019)
They Have a Lot More Distractions
They’re Less Emotionally Resilient
Image: Sports gossip on the celebrity gossip site TMZ is so popular that it spawned a TMZ Sports brand with a corresponding TV show on Fox Sports 1. In addition to covering professional athletes, TMZ Sports regularly reports on the personal lives of college athletes.
“Headline issues, from immigration to sexual assault, are causing significant stress among members of Generation Z—those between ages 15 and 21—with mass shootings topping the list of stressful current events,” the APA says in a 2019 article about the survey on their website.8 “Specifically, 75 percent of Gen Z members said that mass shootings are a significant source of stress,” the article says.
There Are Less of Them
Research shows that youth participation in organized sports is in decline. Before the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, nearly half of US kids ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis.9 By 2018, that number declined to 38%. The pandemic, which caused the closure of most youth sports around the country, led many children to trade sports for screen time. In the summer of 2020, as summer sports programs began to open up again, Project Play and Utah State University conducted a survey of youth sports parents in which 19% said their child was no longer interested in playing sports.10 By September 2021, that figure was at 28%. The survey also found that the more money a family has, the less interest a child has in sports these days.
“They’ve been home on their computers, they’ve been gaming. It’s hard to get out of that pattern,” Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University told the Los Angeles Times in a January 2022 article.11
And Dr. Travis E. Dorsch, associate professor and founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State told the New York Times, “There is a lot more stuff competing for the attention of young people — e-sports is a big one.” 12 Adding that he and his colleagues are seeing a lot of dropouts that “creates a reckoning for youth sports.”
They Like Co-Authorship & Customization
And why most kids drop out of sports by age 11.17
To keep the modern athlete inspired and interested, coaches need to step up their plans to include more novel approaches that take their player’s wants and needs into account. This means understanding what motivates each individual and what their goals are and incorporating those things into practices and competitions.
Their Sport has Been Adulterated
Video: In 2019, Aspen Institute Project Play launched the #DontRetireKid campaign to raise awareness about fewer kids playing organized sports today than a decade ago.18 In this PSA,an 8-year-old holds a press conference to announce he’s retiring from all sports because adults have ruined the fun.
Michigan-based sports psychologist Blaise Fayolle theorizes that the reason kids are turning to video gaming over playing sports is because video games are a domain of play adults haven’t taken over.19
Changing the Game Project founder John O’Sullivan writes that youth sports have become “less a tool to educate children about sport and life, and more often a place where parents go to be entertained by their kids.”20
This results in many kids feeling overwhelmed by adults who put too much stock in their athletic performance. Adults act so inappropriately at games that there’s a referee shortage crisis.21 Parents hire private coaches, pay for expensive leagues, equipment, and travel, and even move homes for the sake of their child’s athletic career.22 All of which puts pressure on kids and their coaches to win at all costs. Video games, in contrast, are a mysterious black box to a lot of adults. Kids are left to build their own worlds and run around free and unsupervised in these virtual worlds, unlike in real life where they are overscheduled and sometimes helicopter parented.
Understanding the Modern Athlete is Key to Coaching Success
Coach According to Each Player’s Drivers and Motivations
Ensure Each Individual Knows They Matter to You as a Person
Leave Room in Your Plan for Co-Authorship
The modern athlete wants a say in the way they spend their free time. Be open to co-authoring rules, performance goals, and workout routines.
Resources to Learn More About the Modern Athlete
- A Coach’s Responsibility: Learning How to Prepare Athletes for Peak Performance [The Sport Journal]
- Coaches Insider – A content library started in 2011 of over 4,000 videos featuring hundreds of different high level coaches in 9 different sports.
- Team Dynamics: Insights from the Incline [Betsy Butterick, LinkedIn] —Betsy Butterick utilizes her unique background as a former coach with experience in DI, DII, DIII and the WNBA to help individuals and teams of all kinds who are ready to improve — from the locker room to the boardroom.
- 10 tips from clinical and sports psychologist Bhrett McCabe on how coaches can support student athletes [Twitter]
- The emotional and social health needs of Gen Z [Counseling Today]
- An inside look at how the NBA became a social-media juggernaut [Basketball News]
- The Adultification of Youth Sports [Changing the Game Project]
- Kids are losing interest in organized sports. Why that matters [LA Times]
- Step Aside, LeBron and Dak, and Make Room for Banjo and Kazooie [New York Times] – The rise of e-sports has big implications for traditional sports
- What Youth Sports can Learn from Video Games [Changing the Game Project]
- Institute for the Study of Youth Sports [Michigan State University]
- National Alliance for Youth Sports – A nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that partners with more than 3,000 community-based organizations and has trained more than four million coaches, parents, officials, and administrators since its inception in 1981.
- [New York Times] Bad Behavior Drove a Referee Shortage. Covid Made It Worse [Reddit] – Discussion on Reddit about the issue raised in a New York Times article of a national referee shortage caused by parents behaving badly.
11. Newberry, L. (2022, January 19). Kids are losing interest in organized sports. Why that matters. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/california/newsletter/2021-12-06/kids-are-losing-interest-in-team-sports-community-athletics-have-shrunk-why-that-matters-8-to-3
12. Drape, J. (2021, December 22). The Rise of E-Sports Has Big Implications for Traditional Sports. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/19/sports/esports-fans-leagues-games.html
16. Ad Age. (2021, July 21). NBA fans call for logo update with Black player—but league still winning with Gen Z: new poll. https://adage.com/article/marketing-news-strategy/nba-fans-call-logo-update-black-player-league-still-winning-gen-z-new-poll/2352201
17.Aspen Institute. (2020, July 13). Survey: Kids Quit Most Sports By Age 11. The Aspen Institute Project Play. https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/national-youth-sport-survey/kids-quit-most-sports-by-age-11
19. Blaise, C. E. (2022, March 30). Why Kids are Choosing Video Games over Sports – Coach Blaise, EdD. Medium. https://medium.com/@coachblaise/why-kids-are-choosing-video-games-over-sports-a71aef5ae44
21. Leaders at NFHS Officials Consortium Suggest Changes in Attitudes, Behavior. (2022, April 22). National Federation of State High School Associations. https://www.nfhs.org/articles/leaders-at-nfhs-officials-consortium-suggest-changes-in-attitudes-behavior/
22. Ramsammy, A. (2020, June 23). American parents spending on youth sports at the expense of retirement. Global Sport Matters. https://globalsportmatters.com/youth/2019/05/21/american-parents-spending-on-youth-sports-at-the-expense-of-retirement/
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