How can you coach Gen Z athletes?

October 17, 2019

Every generation of student-athletes brings changes that coaches must consider and adapt to in stride. Sport-specific factors, like new regulations, come into play, but so too do external and social dynamics such as communication skills and preferences.

In one of the first studies of its kind regarding Generation Z athletes, Michigan State University scholars considered how today’s junior athletes characteristics are shaping coaches’ perceptions and strategies—and presenting unique challenges.

Coach talks with high school athletes in a huddle.

“Coaching has not changed much across generations at the individual level—everyone wants to feel confident, competent and enjoy the camaraderie of their teammates. What’s different with this generation is their attention to technology, to social media and the effects of extensive use of these technologies on them,” said lead author Professor Dan Gould. “The changes we’re seeing with this generation have come quicker than other generations. How do you, as a coach, adapt to that, and quickly?”

Generation Z (or Gen Z) athletes were born after 1996, and have grown up in a more or less digital world—and that, the scholars theorized, could have major impacts in how coaches interact with student athletes.

Gould, Assistant Professor Jennifer Nalepa and doctoral student Michael Mignano studied how coaches and sport science providers to get their insight in this understudied area. Their research was published in March 2019 in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.

Dan Gould speaks at a recent event at MSU.
Dan Gould speaking at a conference in 2018.

“Our participants shared how current athletes are more compassionate, accepting of diversity, strong visual learners and very well educated,” Gould said.

“However, they also noted they had short attention spans, lacked independence, struggled when faced with adversity and were heavily preoccupied with social media and cell phone usage.”

Together, the scholars and participants identified some insights and strategies to adjust to Gen Z in coaching, including:

  • Set clear expectations for practice, behavior and engagement
  • Ask open-ended questions to facilitate feedback and give athletes a voice
  • Teach the skills needed to deal with adversity, like losses and setbacks
  • Explain why drills and activities are being done, while keeping instructional strategies as brief as possible
  • Provide choices and responsibilities for athletes (such as being on time, practicing alone), and as coaches, hold athletes accountable
  • Use technology to provide visual aids and use texting primarily for logistical communication

This initial, exploratory study is a step toward outlining strategies for Gen Z athletes—and sets up additional research inquiries for Gould, who was named the inaugural Gwendolyn Norrell Professor in Youth Sport and Student-Athlete Well-Being in July 2019.

He will use funding from the professorship to ask questions about differences among high school and college student-athletes representing different sports and how the athletes themselves perceive changes (or if they perceive them at all). Overall, he aims to see how research can contribute to meeting athletes where they are—and using coaching to take them where they need to go.

“Our main goal as researchers and coaches is to enable and improve a positive sport experience for athletes and coaches,” Gould added.


Read & watch more

Gould is the director for the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. The institute regularly creates and shares information for coaches, parents and more.

In 2019, Gould created videos to expand his research outreach. The videos were created by C&R Marketing:

Youth Sports Health – Physical Literacy
Youth Sports Health – Specialized Athlete Guidance
Youth Sports Health – Parental Advice