Leading Student Athletes Who Don’t Think They Need a Coach

Two years ago, UConn women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, did an interview just before the Final Four. It was re-posted on Facebook a couple of months ago and has gained traction again with so many coaches across our nation.

Ole’ Geno didn’t pull any punches in the interview.

After more than 30 years as a head coach, Coach Geno Auriemma said that recruiting “enthusiastic kids is harder than it’s ever been.” One reason I listen to him is because of what he’s accomplished. Geno once went two years without a defeat and played for five consecutive national titles in a row.

He remarked how different connecting with prospective athletes is today. Here is an excerpt of his comments:

They haven’t even figured out which foot to use as a pivot foot, and they’re going to act like they’re really good players…Forget about playing for the love of the game or to support teammates; too many players focus on themselves…They’re allowed to get away with just whatever, and they’re always thinking about themselves…Me, me, me, me, me. ‘I didn’t score, so why should I be happy?’ ‘I’m not getting enough minutes; why should I be happy?’ That’s the world we live in today, unfortunately. Kids check the scoreboard sometimes because they’re going to get yelled at by their parents if they don’t score enough points. Don’t get me started.”

While this sounds harsh, I think there’s a kernel of truth in his words.

Why Do Athletes Feel So Entitled?

It’s a good question. If Geno is right, why does an 18-year-old feel so self-centered today? Certainly not all of them are, but a growing number act this way, according to an informal poll I took among Division 1 coaches. Why are so many young athletes so selfish?

  • Their parents often push club coaches to increase their child’s playing time.
  • They’ve often been the best player who got to “write their own ticket.”
  • Their world today promotes individual achievement—at any cost.
  • They grew up in a culture that fosters a “free agent” mindset.
  • They continue to live in a society of “selfies.”

Today, however, there is a new twist to this perception.

They Feel Self-Sufficient Without Their Coach

Young athletes today feel very empowered. It goes beyond mere selfishness or performance. Some feel they don’t even need you to reach their goals. Why? Our culture today makes us feel we can do anything. Consider the world today’s kids have grown up in.  The average student athlete:

  • Has access to free video coaching on-line, thanks to YouTube.
  • Has likely had personal trainers who guided them as individuals.
  • Can ask any question and get an instant answer from Google or Alexa.
  • Often arrives in college with a personal plan for getting ahead on their own.

Generation Z athletes bring a paradox with them to college. On the one hand, they may be extremely naïve about how adult-life really works. On the other, however, they arrive in college with a “hacker” mindset, believing they’ll figure out the system and be self-sufficient, not needing someone else to guide them. Naïve and savvy.

I spoke to a coach recently who smiled as he told me that the most common phrase he hears from young players as he offers direction to them is:

  • “I know.”
  • “I know.”
  • “I know.”

So How Do We Lead These Athletes?

Let me offer three big ideas today’s coach must consider in order to lead this kind of athlete:

1. Unique Differentiation

Because they have so many other voices in their life offering advice, consider how you can differentiate your voice from all the noise around them. What do you offer that distinguishes you from the others? Your stories, your insight, your connections, your unique angle on the game—may enable you to stand out in their minds.

2. Added Value

Because free “content” is everywhere, consider what value you can add to their life that they can’t get anywhere else. Here’s the principle: “the greater the value you add to their life, the more likely you’ll win them over and gain their allegiance.” What do you offer that YouTube doesn’t offer? Adding value is king.

3. Insider Connections

Finally, because you are face-to-face with them now, take advantage of that relationship. Help them to feel they have an “insider” connection with you and the other professionals on campus that gives them an edge on their peers back home. Build an individual relationship with as many as you can and earn their trust.

Practice these three items above, and you may be able to transform that selfish and independent player into a mature, interdependent adult.

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Leading Student Athletes Who Don’t Think They Need a Coach