Do You Know What Your Student-Athletes Need from You Now?

I spoke to a couple of NCAA Division One coaches by phone last week. Both were holding up OK but were inquiring about how to manage their current reality as both student-athletes and coaches are separated, routines are upset, and so many are anxious.

  • Recruiting looks different.
  • Strength and conditioning looks different.
  • Team discussions look different.

Today’s student-athletes are from Generation Z, a population of students that only remember the 21st century. They learn about September 11, 2001 as a piece of history. They’ve grown up with smartphones, regardless of their family income level. They struggle more with mental health issues than any generation in American history. And they are different than you and me.

Especially in this different time, we have to lead them differently.

The One Step That Will Help You Most

The most commonly asked question I hear from coaches is this: How do I stay connected with my team while we’re not together, and how do we get results when we can’t do our normal routines? I feel this is a huge disadvantage for us right now.

I recommend you take an apparent disadvantage and transform it into an advantage, but here is what you need to know:

Generation Z longs for relationships.

What if you pushed “pause” on the X’s and O’s and focused on the people you coach? Yes, people. They have fears, uncertainties, hopes, and struggles they’d love to express if they had the chance. I’ve spoken to student-athletes last season, and they told me so. Here are some quick axioms we do well to recognize in Generation Z athletes:

  1. We must focus on relationships, not results at this particular time. We must prioritize team members as people, not players. They long to make emotional connections with us
  2. We must think “context” not “control.” We must get comfortable with many things being out of our control. What our students need from us to put things in context.
  3. We must find a balance between refusing to surrender our goals, and acknowledging we are in a “new normal” for a season. Balance your craft, your family, your goals, and your team.

If coaches will make such connections, players usually reciprocate with commitment.

Now is your best opportunity to earn your right to challenge them through getting better acquainted with them as humans. Find ways to get on a Google Hangout, a Zoom Call or just a phone call, and talk about how they’re doing: their dreams, their worries, their struggles.

Begin investing in them without thinking about what they can do for you. I’ve found when I do this, I win them at the heart level and elicit ownership and commitment without asking.

What My Leader Did for Me…and What It Did to Me

Almost 20 years ago, I traveled to India with John C. Maxwell. I was his Vice President of Leadership Development and was accompanying him as he did several leadership conferences over the course of a week. While I did some speaking, Dr. Maxwell was the “main event,” and I was helping to coordinate the details.

Before we left, my wife Pam sent John a message, reminding him that I was a Type One Diabetic and that she’d appreciate him helping me keep an eye on my blood sugar in case it dropped. John acknowledged her note, and we promptly took off for India.

I will never forget what John did, following one especially crowded event. Attendees were swarming him for photographs and autographs. He could hardly walk forward, as hundreds stopped him for a picture or a conversation. John, however, had something on his mind. He pushed past the crowd and made his way over to me, as I gathered our belongings in the front row of the auditorium. When he reached me, sweating from the hot day, he asked, “How are your blood sugar levels? Do you need anything?”

My leader—my coach—was tending to me, with no thought of what I could do for him at that moment. In doing so, he elicited amazing loyalty from me. I would do almost anything for him. Why? Because the relationship was prioritized over results. When we lead this way, the results almost always take care of themselves.

Do You Know What Your Student-Athletes Need from You Now?