Coaching the Generation ‘Y’ Athlete

By Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

Special thanks to Dr. Dan Czech and Dr. Trey Burdette for their input on this post

This week the Florida Gators Football team hit the practice field to continue with their preparation for the 2010 season.  Unfortunately, a few people were missing.  No, I don’t mean Tim Tebow; Urban Meyer didn’t take another “leave of absence” either.  They were missing freshman Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley: two five-star recruits (the highest rating a player can receive).  That they were missing wasn’t as interesting as why they were absent.  According to several reports, the two players were unhappy with how the coaches treated them in a meeting and were boycotting practice.  They were also threatening to transfer if things didn’t change.  Of course coach Urban Meyer is not too happy about this.  Welcome to coaching in 2010 – Coach!!!

That story reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a longtime college coach.  He said to me, “Noah, coaching the sport is the easy part.  What’s difficult is finding ways to understand and reach these kids.”  That is a common sentiment among many coaches these days.  In fact, when I get asked to speak to coaches the most common subject they are interested in is how to deal with today’s athlete.

Whether you are a coach, teacher, parent, counselor, mentor, or anyone else who deals with kids, you have no doubt experienced the uniqueness of the current generation.  Fortunately we know several things about them which can help us understand them and relate to them.

They Are Part of Generation “Y”

Most of us are familiar with Generation X: those born after the baby boomers who saw the inception of home computers, video games, and the internet.  Most of them (I should really say us since I am a Gen Xer) probably sported a mullet at some point and still might own a Bon Jovi CD.  Generation X is often given the stigma of being lazy and unmotivated.

If we follow the alphabet then it seems logical that the next generation would be termed Generation Y.  While numbers vary it is generally accepted that Generation Y encompasses people born anywhere from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.  While the term Generation Y fits alphabetically it also serves a very descriptive purpose.  They are Generation Y because that’s exactly the question they repeatedly ask: “Why?”

“Why are we doing this?”  “Why do I need to know this?”  “Why?”  “Why?”  “Why?”  If you have worked with kids in recent years you no doubt have heard “Why?” over and over.  More than ever, kids want to know the purpose of things.  They want to understand your rationale for the decisions you make.  This is in stark contrast to previous generations.  When I talk to coaches they always say, “When I was playing you just did what the coach said and didn’t ask questions.”  That statement highlights why many coaches have difficulty with Generation Y athletes.  They simply don’t understand why they ask so many questions.  They think, “Why can’t they just be like I was and do what I ask?”

Whether they like it or not, coaches (or anyone who deals with kids) have to become comfortable answering the “Why?”.  Be prepared to explain your decisions.  Keep in mind that, “Because I said so,” or “Because I’m the coach,” will probably not suffice.  So, take a little time to explain yourself and the decisions you make and remember, when they ask “Why?” they aren’t necessarily challenging your decision; they just want to know the rationale behind it.

This reminds me of the movie Coach Carter.  After taking over as coach of a high school basketball team, Coach Carter has his players run…a lot.  Suicides, stairs, runs outside, you name it and he had them do it.  Of course they hated every second of it.  Then prior to the first game, Coach Carter says to them, “I know we haven’t worked on offense in practice but what have we done in practice?”  A player answers, “Run.”  To which Coach Carter responds, “Exactly, so what do you think I want you to do on offense?  Run!!”  After explaining why he had them run so much in practice they all began to buy in and appreciate his decision.  Simply by explaining the why he gained his players’ trust and increased their motivation.

Their Lives are Full of Distractions

Anyone who has spent time with young adults knows that they are never far from their cell phones.  As a professor I am no longer surprised to see students looking at their phones while I lecture.  No matter what I say or do, they still bring out those phones.  It’s as if they are compelled to do it.  They almost HAVE to do it.

It gets even worse at home.  I had a graduate student recently tell me that when he goes home he’s usually on the phone with his girlfriend, surfing the internet, watching television, listening to music, and playing his Xbox…all at the same time!!!  Oh yeah, sometimes he’s doing schoolwork too.  Wow, the most I can do at one time is eat and watch football.

The point is that kids and young adults today have grown up in a world which is full of distractions.  If what they are currently doing isn’t interesting they can quite easily find something else.  So, when they are doing something and they lose focus they don’t refocus on the task at hand they simply find a different task.  This happens at practice and in the classroom.  If they are disinterested they just find something else to do (text, talk, daydream, etc.).  As a professor I take that as a challenge.  My job is to keep them interested.  To that end, I try to keep things moving and utilize the advice of Tim Elmore, who is one of the leading researchers on Generation Y and suggests keeping the pace of change high.  Some research suggests that students can only focus for 10-15 minutes at a time.  So, I try to do something different every 10 minutes to keep them interested.  An activity, new discussion, story, or movie clip can break up the monotony of class and keep them engaged.

Coaches can do the same thing.  Try moving quickly through your practices.  The old philosophy of, “We’ll do this all day if we have to,” might not work with today’s athlete.  Explain to your team that you are going to go 100% for 10-15 minutes on a given drill and then move on.  Those 10 good minutes might have more benefit than one bad hour.  In his Coaching Basketball Successfully book, legendary high school basketball coach Morgan Wootten suggests moving quickly through drills even if one is unsuccessful.  He believes that moving on and coming back to the drill later is more beneficial than sticking with the same drill.  By keeping the pace of change high you are more likely to keep your players’ attention.

They Respond to Positive Reinforcement

As an Indiana University graduate I am a Bob Knight fan.  I think he was a great basketball coach with an unmatched knowledge of the game.  He also knew how to motivate players…until about 1995.  Towards the end of his career at Indiana and then at Texas Tech, Knight’s biggest problem wasn’t his temper or his coaching ability, it was his unwillingness to change.  He remained more or less the same coach he had been for decades.  Unfortunately his players were very different.

Early in his career Knight was a great motivator.  Players would do just about anything for him.  When he would point out their mistakes or belittle them, they would try to prove him wrong.  When he yelled, they cowered and then tried harder.  They didn’t expect positive feedback, they expected to be coached and that meant pointing out their shortcomings, yelling, and punishment.  It might not have been fun but it worked.

As time went on Knight’s effectiveness waned.  Instead of working harder after one of his tongue-lashings players began to pout or, in some cases, fight back (Indiana fans will remember Michael Lewis yelling at Knight on the bench).  Suddenly his teams looked scared and completely void of confidence.  Knight hadn’t changed, his players had.  They had grown up with parents, coaches, and teachers who supported them, encouraged them, and unfortunately in some cases, enabled them.  For these players being coached meant positive feedback and supportive behaviors.  They wanted (and needed) to be told they were good.  They wanted a confidence building coach.  That was not Knight…and that’s why he now works for ESPN.

So, what does this mean for current coaches?  Contrary to what some people think, it does not mean you need to be Miss Positive who tells people they are great when they clearly aren’t.  What it does mean is that you should give people positive feedback and catch them doing something right.  If you have a dog you know that the best way to train them is by catching them doing something right and then reinforcing it; not punishing them for mistakes.  Just like humans, dogs will respond to fear but they ultimately learn better through positive reinforcement.  So, when you see your students or players doing something right tell them.

What if they are doing something wrong?  Well, you can certainly point that out but rather than belittling them, try coaching them.  Tell them how they can improve and, most importantly, tell them that you know they CAN improve.  Yes, it might take a lot of hard work on their part but you KNOW they can do it.  They need to know that you believe in them.  They don’t expect you to tell them they are perfect but they do want your support.

As you do this it’s important to note that being positive and building confidence does not mean you can’t point out mistakes.  It simply means you point out their positive behaviors, teach them how to improve their negative ones, and above all let them know that you believe in them.  Give it a try, I bet you will find your players and students to be much happier and more motivated.


Within Sport Psychology we have a theory on leadership called the Interactional Theory.  Quite simply it states that the most successful leaders are those whose style fits best with their followers.  There is no one style of leadership which works in all settings.  This is why Bill Belichick was deemed a failure in Cleveland and is now a Hall of Famer in New England.  Of course he probably became a better coach with experience, but it’s also very likely that his style just fits better in New England.  So, the question we must all ask ourselves is, “Am I willing to change some things about my style to become more successful?”  You don’t have to compromise your core values and beliefs but if you want to be successful working with today’s athletes you might find a few small changes can go a long way.

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004.  Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.  During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology.  In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.  Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques.  He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels.  For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at [email protected] or 912-478-7900.

2 thoughts on “Coaching the Generation ‘Y’ Athlete

  • September 8, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Great blog, found it though Coach Starkey “Hoops Thoughts” blog

  • July 16, 2014 at 6:30 am

    Hi Dr. Gentler, have a website, and am a professional hockey coach. Would like your permission to post your article on coaching y generation athlete on our website. Please advise if this is possible. Would be very informative for our coaches to read and learn! Enio Sacilotto. Cell # 778 882 9491, email: [email protected].


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