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June 26, 2014

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Her Space: Coaching the Millenial

How to Sidestep the Generation Gap

by Kate Hickman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

(John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Coaching has become a complex profession.

Not only must we know our players as individuals, but we also must understand the characteristics of their generation and the most effective way to reach them. Though most coaches have tried-and-true preferences, all athletes (and people) are to some extent products of their generation. We need to know where they're coming from first, and then craft our approach within that understanding.

Americans born between the 1980s and 2000s have been lumped together as the Millennial Generation. Depending on the conversation, it can be an affectionate or derisive term. Millennials have developed a reputation of being dependent, entitled and in need of affirmation — traits that require more than just the tried and true when it comes to coaching.

"Millennials grew up in organizational environments that place a strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, and as a result, they draw greater meaning from experiences where they feel like their ideas matter," Ben Goessling, an NFL writer for ESPN.com, wrote in January, when the Minnesota Vikings were searching for a new head coach. "Generally, they're less used to being screamed at, more used to being asked what they think and more likely to buy into an idea when they've been told the rationale behind it...Today's player probably requires a different kind of leader than players did in the 1980s or 1990s."

The way Kerstin Kimel and Ricky Fried see it, the Millennial Generation requires you to develop certain traits, while there are others inherent to it that need to be nurtured. Kimel, coach of the Duke women's lacrosse team that just reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the 10th straight year, and Fried, coach of the Georgetown and U.S. women's national teams, chimed in on this issue with some reputable recommendations.

Traits to Develop

Research suggests coaches are the most influential people in the lives of adolescent athletes. It's not enough to just play to their strengths and scribble X's and O's. We also must teach life lessons and develop areas of weakness.

While Kimel recruits players with great character, some lack what she called "organic leadership skills."

"They aren't developing these skills naturally because they are involved in adult-supervised sports starting at such a young age," she said.

Past generations, it seems, had more free time to play with their neighbors as kids. Leadership became the byproduct of socialization, disagreements and confrontations between children, without parental oversight.

This column originally appears in our July 2014 issue. Start your subscription to Lacrosse Magazine by joining US Lacrosse today!

For today's youth athletes, that time now is spent playing organized sports under adult leadership.

"The current generation of players struggle more with the challenging aspects of leadership that arise in the college athletic arena," Kimel said.

Developing leadership in Millennials means more intentionally defining it for them, identifying those who display leadership traits and formalizing the team's hierarchy. Coaches can do this by communicating the proper chain of command, defining leadership qualities during the captain selection process, identifying and praising proper leadership decisions and redirecting players who force leadership on others rather than earn it.

Nobody is entitled to lead by seniority, stats or politics. They must have the trust and respect of their teammates first. Having honest conversations with Millennials about earned success and respect is imperative to their development.

Traits to Nurture

Some coaches loathe the Millennials' yearning for affirmation. It's not in their job description. But the best coaches craft their style around the needs of their players. It's important to respect this innate need, Fried said, with extra emphasis on the player as an individual.

"Millennials definitely respond to positive reinforcement more than critical feedback," he said. "You have to be sure to recognize what they are doing well with the same enthusiasm/intensity as you correct them with. Everyone responds differently, so there is not one way to motivate the group. You have to be consistent with your expectations and treatment of players, but figure out the best way to get them to learn at the same time." Fried's comments reflect a broader educational concept called differentiation — tailoring your lessons to different learning styles for the best collective outcome.

The Millennials are products of their culture. While they possess certain characteristics that challenge conventional coaching strategies, they also have that some say will make them the most innovative and open-minded generation yet. Millennials can add not only complexity, but also creativity and excitement to lacrosse. Good coaches will find a way to meet them in the middle.

Kate Hickman is the girls’ lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s (Md.), director of Bay Area Lacrosse Club and founder of Balance Lacrosse. 


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