How the Internet Changed
the Modern Athlete

Written by
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC &
Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.

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.”

USTA Coach
“Coaching Gen Z Athletes”
Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, (2019)

They Have a Lot More Distractions

The modern athlete has more distractions threatening their athletic focus than ever before. Phone notifications go off at practice with messages from friends. They show up sleep deprived after all-night Fortnite sessions with teammates. Or their confidence is shaken by comments on social media. Never mind those focusing on social media to garner sponsorships. It’s a lot for a coach to contend with.

They’re Less Emotionally Resilient

Studies have found a decrease in psychological immunity among college students over the past decade.2 As well as generational differences in psychological capital.3 A 2019 mental health survey of 1500 US workers found that 75% of those aged 18 to 23 had left a job due to mental health reasons.4 This is compared with 20% of the general population. Many critics point to so-called helicopter parenting and over scheduling as reasons for this difference in emotional resilience, but we’d like to point to another culprit—the internet.
Research shows that people who are overexposed to news coverage of traumatic events—like bombings or mass shootings—are more likely to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress than the people who were actually at or near said traumatic events.5,6 In fact, people in studies who reported PTS after viewing too much news coverage of traumatic events were also more likely to worry about future negative events even six months later. This worry predicted that they would engage in increased media consumption of future traumatic events and that they would report acute stress from having viewed that coverage. Violent crime has always predominated news media, but the amount of exposure we have to that coverage has increased exponentially thanks to the internet. And with it, anxiety and the belief that violent crime is on the rise when, in reality, the opposite is true.

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.

Now imagine that you’ve grown up with this kind of 24-hour news cycle from the time you were born. With little real-world experience against which to measure sensationalist headlines and other viral content. It makes sense that children raised in this atmosphere would report more anxiety and depression. In fact, the American Psychological Association’s 2018 Stress in America™️ Survey found that Gen Z (born roughly between 1997 and 2012), are more stressed than adults overall about many issues that dominate the headlines.7

“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.

Video: American Psychological Association CEO Arthur C. Evans discusses findings that news headlines about traumatic events are causing significant stress for teens and young adults.

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

The modern athlete is accustomed to the co-authorship and customization inherent in digital technology. And that has bled into their relationship with sports. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the way they consume professional sports.

Generation Z—those born between 1997 and 2012—are much less enthusiastic about watching traditional professional sports than previous generations.13 Among male Gen Z’ers, 58% said they’re sports fans compared to 75% of all adult men. And they were twice as likely as Millennials to say they “never” watch live sports. Further, the only sports that Gen Z’ers consume more than the general population are esports (yes, video games), and the NBA.
Marketing experts say the reason that the NBA is far outpacing other traditional professional sports leagues with Gen Z fans is because they have excelled at using digital media to connect with and engage those fans. Take for example the NBA mobile app, which is one of the most robust and well-designed apps we’ve seen across any industry. Its secret is that it allows the user to consume the NBA product—games—on the user’s schedule, and only the parts they find interesting. It serves users exclusive, high-resolution video clips of the most exciting parts of the game in real-time. Along with write-ups by sports journalists who break down, into bite size chunks, why it matters. Users can also watch live, pre-game warm-ups and the last half of games. Plus, the app connects seamlessly to any smart TV on the user’s Wi-Fi system. All for free. For about $15 a month, users can buy the lowest tier season pass which gives them access to full, live games.

This kind of investment in their fans’ wants and needs has made the NBA the most followed pro sports league on the internet.
“NBA” was the #1 Google search term in the United States in 2021.14 And the #4 search term worldwide.15

And the NBA currently has the most followers of any pro-sports-league account on Instagram Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok.

On social media, Gen Z fans have proven their need for a one-on-one connection with the athletes before following that player’s team and sport, which flips the script on traditional sports marketing. This generation of fans has also weighed in on the NBA’s logo, organizing via online petition to have it changed to a black player.16

Now, historically, watching professional sports has been a way for young people to become interested in playing sports.

Imagine a young person today signs up for youth basketball after falling in love with the sport by watching the NBA in all the ways listed above. Considering the average youth basketball experience might still involve players running boring drills without any explanation about how those drills can impact their performance. Without the coach even knowing what the individual players’ goals are. And considering they are often made to sprint lines as punishment. Or that their coach or parent yells at them in front of their friends when they make a mistake, it’s easy to see why this experience might pale in comparison to the expectations they’ve developed from consuming content online.

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.

Learn How Persuasive Design Is Used to Create Habit Forming Digital Media

Online Addiction:
Everything You Need to Know

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

Now that you understand the modern athlete a little better, you can apply that understanding to your coaching style.

Coach According to Each Player’s Drivers and Motivations

The modern athlete expects customization. Learn what drives and motivates each player, as well as their individual goals for their time on your team, then coach each person accordingly.

Ensure Each Individual Knows They Matter to You as a Person

The modern athlete wants a genuine, one-on-one connection with you before they will invest in your team, organization, or institution. That means regularly checking in with them to assess how they’re doing both on and off the playing field. Once they connect with you as a person, they’ll feel more motivated to invest in the team and to give you their best.

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.

Read More About How to Work with the Modern Athlete in the Age of the Internet in our Coach’s Guide.

Athletic Focus in the Age of the Internet: A Coach’s Guide

Resources to Learn More About the Modern Athlete

Sources

1. Gould, D., Nalepa, J., & Mignano, M. (2019). Coaching Generation Z Athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 32(1), 104–120. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2019.1581856

2. Takács, R., Takács, S., t Kárász, J., Horváth, Z., & Oláh, A. (2021). Exploring Coping Strategies of Different Generations of Students Starting University. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.740569

3. Staples, H. (2014, December). The Generational Divide: Generational Differences in Psychological Capital. The Athenaeum. https://athenaeum.uiw.edu/uiw_etds/42/
4. Mind Share Partners. (2019, May 14). Mental Health at Work 2019 Report. Mindsharepartners. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.mindsharepartners.org/mentalhealthatworkreport

5. Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2013). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(1), 93–98. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1316265110

6. Thompson, R. R., Jones, N. M., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2019b). Media exposure to mass violence events can fuel a cycle of distress. Science Advances, 5(4). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aav3502
7. American Psychological Association (2018). Stress in America: Generation Z. Stress in America™ Survey.  https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/10/generation-z-stressed

8. Bethune, S. (2019, January). Gen Z more likely to report mental health concerns. APA.Org. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/gen-z

9. 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

10. State of Play 2021. (2021, October 11). The Aspen Institute Project Play. https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/state-of-play-2021/introduction

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 

13. Silverman, A. (2020, September 29). The Sports Industry’s Gen Z Problem. Morning Consult. https://morningconsult.com/2020/09/28/gen-z-poll-sports-fandom/

14. Google’s Year in Search. (2021, December 8). Google Trends. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://trends.google.com/trends/yis/2021/US/

15. Google’s Year in Search. (2021b, December 8). Google Trends. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://trends.google.com/trends/yis/2021/GLOBAL/

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

18. “Don’t Retire, Kid.” (2019, October 18). The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/longform/ideas-the-magazine-of-the-aspen-institute-special-issue-2019/dont-retire-kid/

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

20. O’Sullivan, J. (2015, April 5). The Adultification of Youth Sports. Changing the Game Project. https://changingthegameproject.com/the-adultification-of-youth-sports/

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/

Need Help? Reach out.

If you’re worried you might be struggling with digital media overuse or addiction, there’s help. dTEC specializes in online addiction
and digital media overuse treatment and education.
Our experienced and knowledgeable therapists can help.

We are not accepting clients who are seeking psychotherapy services until further notice.