Coaching the 21st Century Athlete

Dr. Bhrett McCabe
Sports & Performance Psychologist

This week’s episode of The Secrets to Winning is a talk I did a few weeks ago to a group of coaches at the PGA Show in Orlando, FL. The topic is one that many coaches struggle with, and that is how to effectively coach the 21st century athlete. While there are many positives to this generation of athlete, there are many challenges as well. Let’s dive into them in a little more detail.


While they may be the best-educated generation in history, the 21st century athlete also has shorter attention spans, a need for frequent (and most of the time, positive) feedback, lack of independence, and increased screen time. They are also the most protected and safest generation, meaning they spend less time in direct contact with friends and loved ones, leading to the highest generational marks of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. In the young athletes I deal with in my practice, I would estimate that more than 50% of those I see deal with some sort of anxiety or depression.


They are also highly motivated and educated and possess a strong ability to understand and be proficient in all things technology. They also have a strong desire to know the ‘why’ before doing something.


So, how can you as a coach inspire, motivate, develop trust with, and get the most out of the 21st century athlete? Here are a few suggestions I have found to be very helpful based on working with this age group on a regular basis:


  • Explain the ‘Why’ – This is the first generation in history that does not need adults to get their information. With the ability to gain access to anyone in the world through their phone, 21st century athletes expect adults to have done their homework. Providing a quick rationale for training methods and practice plans can improve motivation and effort of young people. It also reduces the inevitable ‘why’ questions from both athletes and parents.


  • Speak Their Language – Find ways you can incorporate the language they speak – icons and symbols, competition, speed, screens, and live streaming – into your system. Be open to combining current realitites in coaching with their world of Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok


  • Gain Their Trust – Every time you stand in front of your team to speak or stand in front of a particular athlete during a conversation, they are asking themselves two questions – “Why should I listen to you?” and “What do you have to offer that is different than the other options out there?” By gaining their trust, you will answer question number one before it is asked and, therefore, they won’t (for the most part) venture into number two.


  • Timely Coaching – Correct mistakes on the spot! Teach them how to receive feedback as constructive and not destructive. Failure is an option and the best positive feedback that they can receive. It us up to you to help them not waste a failure!


  • Promote Resiliency – While each generation is considered “softer” than the previous one, this generation is known to have heightened difficulties dealing with adversity. Create opportunities for athletes to deal with adversity and learn perseverance and resilience. Creating pressure and challenging situations in training, along with teaching appropriate coping strategies, may assist them in better handling competitive and personal setbacks.


Once you understand the CONTEXT in how the 21st century athlete views the world, then you will understand their CONDUCT.

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