Needy Kids and Millennials

The original title of this post was, "When do you make it special?", but I've been accused of being esoteric before so I thought I'd put a bit more 'oomph' in the title. The premise of the post remains the same though - in what ways do we actually create the 'neediness' of athletes in our charge and at what point to we remove obstacles rather than use them as learning opportunities?

There have been a couple of high profile posts lately which really challenged the idea of 'millennials' being needy and demanding. Frank Martin's being one of the more high profile. John Rosemond wrote about the importance of parenting earlier in the year, which hit some similar themes. The ideas of 'helicopter parenting' seem to be related to the predispositions of the young generation today. What impact does that have in sport?

My question comes back to the idea - when do we make things special for developing athletes? I'll give you an example: At the Olympics there are millions of distractions. There is unique pressure to perform. There are no second chances. In a situation like this, the coach will do what he/she can to lighten the load on the athlete, to make them feel special, and inspired and confident. They will remove obstacles, help them warmup, do their laundry. Anything that might aid performance even a fraction. This makes sense.

But what about before the athlete makes it to the Olympics? What about at the World Cup which is required to qualify for the Olympics? Should this be as special? What about the National Championships which qualifies the athlete for the World Cup spot? How much extra do we do for the athlete at this event in order to help them get over the line? Do we help them warmup for this event or let them do it themselves, just as they do in every training session? What about at a National Junior competition, where a good performance will mean the athlete gets selected to a national squad? How special is this? What about State Champs which qualifies the athlete for that National competition? What about in daily training, where the athlete might not improve enough if they don't have the right snack at the right time, but, you know, they never remember themselves.....?

Part of 'early specialisation' is the professionalisation of junior sport. Because we know what resources are provided to senior athletes, this seeps downwards to juniors. We do more and more things for juniors so that they feel special - just like the big boys. But what is the consequence? If something is done for you from the age of 8, it no longer feels special at 10, it becomes an expectation.

Personally I've probably gone to the extremes at either end of this on different occasions. I had one situation where an adult athlete didn't eat dinner (because there was nothing there she liked) after a big NCAA playoff win, when we had another game the next day. Do I find a way to make sure she eats, or just let her deplete her energy stores? Another situation was at a junior World Championships where the team was so excited to play their first game they wanted to the competition venue 60 minutes earlier than panned, even though the previous night we had talked about nervous energy and the negatives of getting to the venue early and then being flat by the time competition came around. Do I just go with it or use it as a learning opportunity about the impact stress was having on good decision making?

What I would suggest, urge, cajole, and encourage you to do is to wait a bit before making things special. Athletes need to learn. They need to learn that if they don't do recovery they won't feel as good the next day. That if they don't do their strengthening exercises their knees will hurt. They need to learn that if they don't put their uniform in their bag when they leave, then they might end up missing the next game because they don't have a uniform. They need to learn that recovery snacks are for performance, not for enjoyment, and that if there is nothing there that they like then maybe they need to have something they don't like. They need to learn that if they forget to set their alarm then they will miss the bus. They need to learn what good habits are, and what the consequences of not adopting these habits are. They need to have success, but also disappointment. They need to learn how to compete, and also how to have fun. And sometimes (more often than we are comfortable with) it is the role of the coach to let them.

(Photo Credit)


  1. For me this is highlighted to the extreme at junior (u19, u/21) international beach volleyball events. With the no coaching during matches in every other competition (not counting national beach juniors) that this level of athlete, junior nation team, competes in its very easy to stuff it up at these bigger events on the sideline when the coach has their chance to 'influence/value add' to the competition/learning process. We train this level of athlete to enact game plans autonomously and make decisions on the runoff their own future development . I have genuinely influenced games at this level in the positive and I am sure in the negative for teams I have coached. I have also had the best of intentions not to do this during events as well!! I agree you have to let them go and make the mistakes to learn and find solutions for the bigger picture. Gets more difficult the higher up you go.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Andrew. At the recent junior nationals I tried to coach with the big picture and long term in mind. I found that the hardest thing about this was to say and do nothing. At times I even felt that I was being judged because I would choose to do nothing (Mark has written about the fact that the main reason for a coach to call a timeout is to not get fired, because everyone is expecting you to, including the manager and owner). The other interesting thing is that by the end of the competition the athletes stopped coming to me whenever they were in trouble, they tried to sort it out themselves first.

    I don't pretend that it is easy to do this, its really hard. But what we are trying to achieve is really hard, so we shouldn't expect to only do things we are comfortable with along the way.

  3. Fantastic post. It's complicated by the fact that along the way the coach at any level might find that level "special" or under pressure to win. EVen if the end is not in mind.

  4. Thanks Hugh.

    Generally I think that, if a coach is doing something because THEY want to win TODAY, then they should consider the long term impact.

  5. You can replace 'coach' for 'parent' and the same is true. Cool article.

  6. I can't speak for parents Paul, but thanks!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts