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Understanding Today’s Athlete

For more insight on understanding each of your players, check out The Softball Coaching Bible, Volume II.


Understanding Today’s Athlete
Carol Bruggeman

As a coach, especially an experienced coach, at some point you’ve heard yourself mumble, “I just don’t understand players today!” Whether the comment originated from a communication issue, a perceived work ethic issue, or a leadership issue, the feeling is the same. As the bestseller Who Moved My Cheese reminds us, one constant you can count on is change! Players evolve and change over time, as does everything else in the world. Change is part of life and part of athletics. Therefore, coaches need to continue to find ways to understand, motivate, and teach current players. At its core, coaching is a profession of servanthood. Coaching is not about you; it’s about someone else. To reach ultimate goals, coaches must be able to understand and relate to current players. If coaches and players can get on the same page, everyone involved can have a positive experience and earn success together.

The overall goal in understanding today’s players is to evaluate, educate, and embrace in many areas. Evaluate the situation, educate yourself on current trends and ideas, and embrace new challenges. In an ever-changing world, coaches must keep standards of excellence high and continue to challenge players to raise expectations. Today’s players are smart, driven, and motivated, and they will jump on board if they feel understood. Most important, if you can build trust with today’s player, you will have a high probability for success.

Here Come the Millennials

Before we can truly understand and therefore coach our current players, we need to interpret the demographics and details surrounding this particular generation. Although the exact dates may vary slightly, Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation, refers to anyone born between 1984 and 2002. The following statements will help you gain an initial understanding of this generation.

They cannot imagine a time without personal computers, digital cameras, e-mail, cell phones, ATMs, and video games.

They have always had access to cable.

Google is where they have always found information. Roller skating has always meant in-line skating.

Popcorn has always been prepared in the microwave.

They never owned a record player.

They have only known a world with AIDS.

They think that the Vietnam War is as ancient as World Wars I and II.

They can understand “c u b4 2nite”

Their biggest health issue is obesity.



Generation Yers’ overall attitude is “Let’s make the world a better place.” They are tolerant and caring, and they accept family structures that are both traditional and nontraditional. Fewer than half of their meals are consumed at home, and smartphones constantly interrupt those meals. They spend a great deal of leisure time on computer games and surfing the Internet. They want to know what you think right now because Generation Y has had instant feedback from birth.

They aspire for new experiences and challenges, yet they are anxious and not trusting. They are eager to stand out but still want to fit in. They want more freedom and fewer restrictions, yet they value discipline. They are heavy consumers of media and embrace technology and music. They think more globally than any other generation.

Tim Elmore, a leading expert on the topic, refers to Generation Yers born after 1990 as Generation iY because of their constant exposure to technology. Because of technology, members of Generation iY do not think that they need adults for information. The result, Elmore believes, is a generation who knows too much, too soon, but has no context to process the information. They aren’t bad kids; they simply know too much. They have content without context.

Generation Yers crave independence. Why is independence so important to Generation Y? To answer that question, we have to understand that Generation Y could really be called Generation Why.

Why are my parents not together?

Why are there metal detectors at my friend’s school?

Why am I not allowed to stay with Pastor Dave?

Why am I not safe on an airplane in America?

Why are polar bears going to be extinct?

Why are my grandparents working when I thought they were supposed to retire last year?

Why do shootings occur at colleges and high schools?

Why is my best friend still in Afghanistan?

The world can be an incredibly unsettling, radically changing, unsafe place for Generation Y. Because of this perception, they value independence. Generation Yers struggle to trust people in their lives or the world in general. Understanding this sociological data is important, because one of the primary traits that coaches want to develop within their teams is trust. Developing trust must be given high priority for today’s player. If trust can be developed, the foundation for a successful program will be in place.

Talk to Me

Because of the ambiguity and uncertainty of the world for Generation Y, they ask lots of questions. They truly do want to know why your bunt defense is set a certain way or why your hitting drills develop power. Coaches can answer these questions by using numerous forms of communication. Communication methods have evolved at a rapid pace over the past decade as the world of technology has exploded. Coaches must embrace these new forms of communication and educate themselves on the benefits of varying methods. Coaches can communicate in more ways than ever with today’s players.

When communicating with today’s player, we must quickly grab their attention. Within the first four minutes, we must grab their heads or their hearts if we want to sustain interest. Being an effective communicator is nonnegotiable for coaches. To be a successful coach, you must be able to communicate! Excellent communication systems need to be in place with players, parents, support staff, media, boosters, administrators, and others. In the sport of softball, if you cannot catch and throw, you cannot play (and win!) the game. In coaching, if you cannot communicate, you won’t be able to develop a successful career and sustain a championship culture.

When talking about the importance of communicating with players, one of my favorite lines is this: “Have you ever heard of one problem because of overcommunication?” In trying to get the point across that it’s usually the lack of communication that causes problems, the question makes players realize an important fact. We cannot have too much information or overcommunicate. In today’s world, many forms of communication are available to ensure that our messages are sent and received. With all the methods available, coaches need to set guidelines. For example, is it acceptable to text a coach about being absent from practice? Or do you expect a phone call? Be clear about what forms of communication players should use in various situations so that everyone is on the same page.

So How Do I Reach You?

The team meeting before and after practice used to be the only way to reach all players at once. Everyone had to be in the same place, at the same time. Today, we can mass text, mass e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, put information on our websites, or make a phone call. The ease and convenience of these communication methods has certainly helped us keep in touch with players and get information out quickly. One positive for coaches is that we should never hear “I didn’t get the message” because most players have smartphones and have access to all the previously mentioned forms of communication on one device.

Today’s players want to upload their thoughts. They want to express themselves, learn through dialogue, participate fully in the process, and work toward the achievement of outcomes. They are constantly connected.

Because they are constantly connected and available through technology, face-to-face communication is used less and less. Interpersonal communication can be a challenge for today’s players. Simply sending a teacher or professor an e-mail or sending a coach a text may not be appropriate for a serious situation. Body language, eye contact, and engaging in conversation are becoming unused communication skills. If today’s player can master face-to-face communication skills, they will separate themselves from the masses when competing for a job and when competing for wins on the softball diamond. After all, technology isn’t found on the field! Players must use nontechnological forms of communication to be successful on game day.

One way that we attempt to enhance face-to-face communication with our team is by putting all cell phones in the front of the bus on road trips. If our players want to communicate, they must communicate with team members or coaches without using a cell phone. If we didn’t do this, the majority of our team would live on their phones the entire trip and miss an opportunity to converse or share ideas and stories with their teammates.

So how do coaches communicate and relate to today’s player in this ever-changing world? Coaches need to teach and mentor constantly (they want immediate feedback) and consistently (we need to build trust). Remember that “telling and yelling are not selling anymore.” If you are always a drill sergeant, they will tune you out. For today’s player to listen, you must motivate and direct, remembering that how you say something is as important as what you say. Bottom line, you must be a teacher, not a teller.

In terms of communicating with today’s player, research shows that leadership models are moving away from an autocratic model and toward a team or whole model. This model represents teamwork and group decision making while still having someone (a coach) in charge.

Because players are excellent collaborators today, effective communication models should include team input while still having a leader take charge. At Louisville, we have found success with a team leadership model called the leadership team. Each year, our team has a few seniors, juniors, and possibly a sophomore who meet once per week for leadership training and provide a leadership avenue for our program.


Read more from The Softball Coaching Bible, Volume II  edited by National Fastpitch Coaches Association.



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