University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Coaching Generation Z

Coaches discover that today’s student athletes respond better to nurturing than negativity.

Photo Credit: James Olstein

Last January, in Lindsay Whalen’s (B.S. ’06) rookie season as the Gopher women’s basketball coach, the team was in the midst of a four-game losing streak, and Whalen was looking for answers.

Then assistant coach Carly ThibaultDuDonis emailed Whalen an article about the book Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials. The 2016 management book, by author Bruce Tulgan, focuses on how understanding the personal needs of a relatively new generation in the workforce can help managers get the most out of them.

According to the Pew Research Center, Whalen’s players are part of what’s commonly known as Generation Z, children born after 1996. Whalen, 37, is herself considered a millennial (born between 1981 and 1996). But even though the Tulgan book addresses millennials in the workforce, Whalen found the advice both compelling and useful in helping her connect with the students of Generation Z.

As the season went on, Whalen made time for one-on-one talks with her players and made more effort to get to know them as individuals, advice touted by the book.

A month after the losing streak started (on December 31), the Gophers began a six-game winning streak. Whalen isn’t sure how much credit the book should receive, but feels it definitely helped. “There were a lot of things happening during that time, but I was better able to lead and be a lot more direct, and I give a lot of credit to that book. It was eye-opening and I’m thankful I read it,” she says.

Whalen’s experience is one example of what seems to be a global phenomenon: a gradual shift away from the more authoritarian approach to coaching that once prevailed in favor of a more empathetic, collaborative style that focuses on the needs of individual players. Coaches say this transition seems to parallel a similar evolution in parenting styles that has taken place in recent decades—at least in the United States.

Thinking back on her own experiences as a Gopher, Whalen doesn’t recall having had any one-to-one meetings with her University coaches, except for one with her final college coach, Pam Borton. (Whalen had three different head coaches in four years). “The ‘older’ coaches were really caring, too; there just wasn’t as much dialogue as there is now,” Whalen notes.

Whalen says since she’s begun devoting more time to getting to know her players as individuals, “I feel I have gotten much more out of my players and they have gotten much more out of their experience.

“Today, everything is about the [coach-player] relationship, even more so with this generation,” she adds. “Coaching needs to be a little more hands-on, a little more one-on-one. But if you really do it right, you can probably get more out of this generation than any one before it. Because they are really eager to learn…but, it’s going to take more than just saying, ‘Go do this.’ If you explain to them, ‘These are the steps you need to take, and these are the reasons why,’ not only as a team but with each individual, they will be that much more invested in you as a person and the team goals.”

Whalen isn’t the only high-profile U of M coach whose methods and style have evolved.

It’s been four decades since John Anderson played for the iconic Gopher baseball coach Dick Siebert, but the current Gopher baseball coach still has indelible memories of the namesake of Siebert Field. Siebert was the craggy-faced Hall of Fame coach who led the Gophers from 1948 to 1978, winning three NCAA titles, 12 Big Ten titles, and making five college World Series appearances.

Beginning in 1974, Anderson played four years at the U, then became one of Siebert’s assistants. After the 1981 season, Anderson became the youngest head baseball coach in Big Ten history.

Anderson recalls that he was a graduate assistant in 1978 when he observed one of Siebert’s trips to the mound to make a pitching change. He vividly recalls Siebert’s words to the pitcher. “He told him, ‘Things were going OK until you got out here and screwed it up. You’ll never pitch again.’”

“At the time I didn’t think it was unusual,” Anderson says now. “That’s just the way we were coached. The coach expected you to listen and do what you were told in a direct, straightforward way. There wasn’t a lot of negotiation. We weren’t coddled if we didn’t perform. I also remember being chewed out by my high school football coach in a pretty strong way. If I didn’t perform well, none of my coaches cared if my feelings got hurt.”

Siebert was certainly both a winner and well respected. But coaching has changed, Anderson says. “I’m not saying that the ‘old’ way was right or wrong. But we have evolved as a society; we no longer think it’s necessary to intimidate or scream or threaten to get people to perform.”

A few years into his head coaching career with the Gophers, Anderson started to notice a change in how players reacted to his coaching. “I noticed that they didn’t handle it very well when I criticized them—to motivate them and help them get better. They seemed to take that as ‘he doesn’t like me,’ ‘he’s mad at me,’ or ‘he thinks I’m a bad person.’ They seemed to be tuning me out and listening less.”

Anderson consulted Rick Aberman to help him sort through his dilemma. A sports psychologist for more than 30 years, Aberman has a Ph.D. in family therapy and developmental psychology and has worked with high school, college, and pro athletes. He currently has a staff position at the U helping the baseball and men’s tennis teams.

“I had to look at changes I needed to make as a person and a leader to be more effective,” Anderson says about working with Aberman, who co-authored a book with him in 2005 called Why Good Coaches Quit.

“If I had not taken a look at myself, I would have crashed and burned, and would not be relevant to this generation,” Anderson adds. “If I had continued to coach the way I was coaching, I don’t think I would have gotten the best out of our student-athletes.”

With Aberman’s help, Anderson changed his coaching style to better meet the needs and expectations of modern players. “I had to look more closely at the relationship piece,” Anderson notes. “It became evident [student-athletes] want to know, number one, that ‘He’s interested in me as more than just a player.’ They want me to help them grow and learn and give them direction in life. Before you teach them how to hit a curve ball, players want to know that you care about them as a person. In my generation, that relationship was just about sports.”

Anderson says that today’s coach’s job also extends well beyond the playing field. “I’m here to prepare them for the next 50 years of their life. I have to get to know them and their families, find out what their values and goals are...why they’re here...and spend a lot more time in personal interaction. Then they start to trust you and you have a better chance of getting closer. If you don’t have that relationship, players won’t let you coach them.”

“A lot of people think the kids have changed,” Aberman says about Generation Z. “But I think it’s more that we have realized that the way we used to coach just doesn’t work very well anymore. I think the burden is on the coach to be flexible, grow and learn and learn to be self-aware. That’s been the biggest change.”

In Siebert’s era, leading by fear and intimidation may have been common practice. But subsequent research has demonstrated that is not the best approach, says Aberman.

“Physiologically, we know that when somebody yells at us, berates and humiliates us, that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome, which interferes with our cognitive ability, and we stop learning. Kids want to feel understood, versus feeling controlled. In the short-term, yelling can get you somewhere, but it’s not sustainable. It triggers someone’s defenses, so that they are just trying to protect themselves; they’re not listening, not learning, just waiting for you to stop yelling.”

And for coaches, yelling also leads to burnout, Aberman adds. “The old school approach was no good. We know so much more now about how we can be effective. I find most successful coaches tend to have good parenting skills. They understand that what they are doing is for the benefit of their child, not about their own needs.

“The good coaches, the ones who survive, are the ones who have learned to be flexible, take time to get to know their people and stay connected.”

Sometimes coaches ask Aberman for advice on getting their players to listen and to better motivate them. His standard response is, “We have to start with you. You have to have to be willing to take look at yourself as the leader and how you may be contributing to the very problems you are complaining about.’” Anderson was able to make the necessary adjustments fairly quickly, Aberman notes. “And he is probably having more fun than he ever has.”

Anderson confirms that. “There’s no question I am in a much better place now. I have a better understanding of why I coach, and I’m a much better leader. Before, I was too focused only on getting my players to play better and win more games. Now I’m focused more on preparing people for the next 50 years of their lives and mentoring them so they can lead.”

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