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Coaching the Millennial: How to Sidestep the Generation Gap

August 18, 2014    7064 Views

By Kate Hickman

Girl's Lacrosse Coaching Millennials

TD Paulius

Coaching has become a complex profession.

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, 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.”

Kerstin Kimel, coach of the Duke women’s lacrosse team that just reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the 10th straight year, and Ricky Fried, coach of the Georgetown and U.S. women’s national teams, chimed in on the issue.

Millennial 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 perhaps 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. For today’s youth athletes, organized sports consume that time.

“The current generation of players struggle more with the 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 should communicate the chain of command, define leadership qualities during the captain selection process, identify and praise proper leadership decisions and redirect players who force leadership on others without merit.

Nobody is entitled to lead by seniority, stats or politics. Captains need to earn the trust of their teammates first. Have honest conversations with Millennials about earned success and respect.

Millennial Traits to Nurture

Some coaches loathe Millennials’ yearning for affirmation. But the best coaches craft their style around the needs of their players. It’s important to respect this innate need, with extra emphasis on the player as an individual.

“Millennials respond to positive reinforcement more than critical feedback,” Fried said. “You have to be sure to recognize what they are doing well with the same enthusiasm and 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.

Millennials are products of their culture. While they possess certain characteristics that challenge conventional coaching strategies, they also have what 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.

How have you adapted your coaching style to fit the millennial generation of youth lacrosse players? Let us know in the comments section.

Kate Hickman is the girls’ lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s (Md.), director of Bay Area Lacrosse Club and founder of Balance Lacrosse. This column was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Start your subscription with a US Lacrosse membership today.

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