Gen-Z: Characteristics and Considerations
Posted by: Katie Pagel | Director of Mental Performance
Earlier this month, I was lucky to attend the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia. While in Philly, I saw a number of sessions relating to athlete mental health, psychosocial development, and healthy team culture. One workshop, though, felt particularly relevant to bring back to our CRYSC community: Relating to Today’s Student Athletes, Effectively Coaching Gen-Z, delivered by communication specialist Betsy Butterick. Upon leaving the workshop, I had an immediate need to research this topic further and reflect on if/how my own engagements with our athletes and coaches aligned with the reported trends. What you’ll find below is exactly that: A combination of current research and my subjective field experiences that, together, shine a light on the unique nature of Generation Z and provide direction to those who engage with them.
Setting the Stage
Let’s clarify a couple of pieces off the top. For the purposes of this blog (as widespread consensus has yet to have been achieved, here), we’re classifying Gen-Z as anyone born between 1996 and 2013. Within the context of CRYSC, that encompasses all athletes 10 and up. Additionally, because generational hallmarks are dependent on the sociocultural context within which an individual was raised, know that I am specifically speaking on trends seen in Gen-Z in the United States. Finally, understand that this is an incredibly complex topic addressing trends of an entire generation. While backed by data, there are exceptions to every data set; please keep in mind that the takeaways below may not pertain to every Gen-Zer in your life. That said, I’d encourage you to lead with openness and curiosity as we consider this generation through a new lens. Alright, let’s crack on!
Thoughts on Gen-Z
Consider this statement: Kids these days are _________ . What comes to mind? If you are similar to the room of coaches in Philly, your response was more negative than positive. Having since posed this question to several individuals beyond the convention, I’ve heard themes of stress, distraction, sensitivity, failure avoidance, and the like. Every now and then, I get the rare accepting, clever, or tech-savvy. We’ll look deeper into some of these assumptions later on. For now, it’s important to recognize that we may hold attitudes toward Gen-Z that frame characteristics of this group as obstacles as opposed to opportunities. As you read, I’ll challenge you to see such characteristics as simply that: Inherent characteristics born from specific life circumstances. The moment we put a value-judgment on them is the moment the traits of this generation become limiting instead of expansive.
Why is Gen-Z Different?
One thing we can likely agree on about Gen-Z is that they are different. Considering the reason for these differences is crucial as we look toward the best practices for connecting with and coaching (or parenting) this generation. While the root of these differences is multifaceted and complex, let’s explore two main contributors that are often cited when it comes to better understanding the intricacies of Gen-Z.
Dubbed “digital natives”, Gen-Z is the first generation to have grown up with access to not only the internet, but the internet in their pocket. For Gen-Z, nearly whatever they need – entertainment, answers, friendship, food – is always but a few clicks away. This immediate access to endless amounts of information exempts them from a massively formative construct: Waiting. Whether it was waiting for mom to get off the phone so we could call a friend, waiting a full week for a new episode of our favorite show, or waiting for (enter your own example here), waiting has been a hallmark of every previous generation. Meanwhile, Gen-Z has been able to go from question to answer in eight seconds flat their entire life. While iPhones give Gen-Z a broad knowledge base, high access to information, and enhanced self-reliability, they lower their threshold for waiting, boredom, and true curiosity. Because Gen-Z always has the option of being on a screen, I often see them struggle to sit with themselves; to wonder, reflect, and quiet their minds. Place that against the backdrop of social media, which centers comparison and peer evaluation at the expense of meaningful connection. It is no wonder that Gen-Z demonstrates significant differences in attention, communication, motivation, and social-emotional skills.
In addition to the ubiquity of technology, Gen-Zers grew up in a country vastly different than even the generation immediately before. Gen-Z has been exposed early and often to large-scale turbulence pertaining to big-ticket socio-political topics such as gun control, climate change, police brutality, BIPOC rights, women’s rights, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Witnessing such widespread, polarizing human movements has had a massive impact. The higher stress levels and poor mental health reported by Gen-Z are likely partially attributable to these realities. At the same time, Gen-Z reports a greater appreciation for diversity and demonstrates higher levels of openness than previous generations. Appropriately, this unique group emphasizes authenticity and recognizes the value in each individual’s lived experience. Considering all of these factors, it follows that Gen-Z emphasizes collaboration and co-creation, showing an inclination for pragmatism and advocacy, placing a high value on trust and honesty from leadership.
Gen-Z Characteristics and Considerations
Now that we have a better understanding of the why behind Gen-Z’s differences, let’s drill down into the specific characteristics that set Gen-Z apart from their predecessors. While there are many such traits, for the sake of brevity I’ve picked the five that I have experienced as the most relevant within the context of youth sport.
Have Minimal Experience with Intrinsic Motivation: In large part due to the nature of social media, Gen-Z is disproportionately focused on obtaining peer validation. For better or worse, they care a lot about the opinions of others and have limited experience engaging in an activity for the pure sake of personal joy. On track to becoming the most well-educated generation, Gen-Z is often driven by achievement and relative success and struggles mightily in their relationship with failure (a reality I constantly see when working with Gen-Z athletes). Couple all of this with a shift from helicopter (high- or over-involved) to zamboni (obstacle-clearing) parenting, and the pursuit of perfection for the sake of external validation is high for this generation.
Tips For Coaches: Talk to athletes about their soccer “Why” and explore its root. Discuss the function of failure and the unattainability of perfection. Refrain from comparing athletes to each other when possible. Encourage and provide opportunities for failure. Model failure, yourself. Praise ideas and effort over outcomes and results.
Are More Collaborators than Followers: Gen-Zers take a unique approach to leadership. While previous generations are comfortable deferring to a single, higher-status leader, Gen-Z’s value on diversity, flexibility, authenticity, and individual contribution make them highly collaborative. Gen-Z prefers non-hierarchical leadership and wants to co-create with others to build team culture and vision. I see this desire for co-creation in my clients daily, and tap into it whenever possible. While Gen-Z is more likely to question rules and authority, it is rarely born of disrespect; rather, they are simply used to self-reliance. Indeed, one of the main traits that Gen-Zers often cite when considering a “great coach” is that they involve the team in decision-making.* If leveraged well, this trait can be a massive strength for teams!
Tips For Coaches: Give athletes agency (this non-negotiable is often uncomfortable for coaches). Provide choices for a drill, and let athletes pick. Allow athletes to shape their team values. Let athletes hold the pen when crafting their season goals. Ask for feedback from athletes on your coaching. Know that the invitation for collaboration is often more important than the collaboration itself.
Are Programmed for Immediacy & Relevance: Remember – Gen-Z has rarely had to wait…for anything (especially without distraction). They have been exposed again and again to a world of instant gratification. This can often make it seem like Gen-Zers are unwilling to put in the time to work for something long-term. In my experience, it is less that they are unwilling to do so and more that they have rarely been asked to; this skill is unpracticed. Unfortunately, this can be a bit challenging in sports, which often calls for repeated, present-moment effort in the name of future gain.
Tips For Coaches: Always start with the “Why” behind a drill or activity. Consistently address how an athlete’s actions will benefit them today and tomorrow. Track progress on goals. Connect present-moment actions to goals or values you know to be important to the athlete.
Are Particular Communicators: Gen-Z shows a proclivity for quick, short-form communication. While it can be challenging to get and hold the focus of Gen-Z given their shorter attention spans (roughly eight seconds), Gen-Z can process bite-sized chunks of information at a high-speed rate and are fantastic visual communicators. Gen-Z also holds high standards for subcategories of communication like feedback or argument. Given their access to nearly boundless information, Gen-Z grew a skillset of efficiently sifting through and locating the most valuable data for their needs. Couple that with their pragmatic nature, and it is no surprise that Gen-Z can meet offerings of feedback with challenge or resistance. It isn’t that they don’t want constructive feedback; in fact, half of Gen-Z cites honesty as the most important leadership quality (a statistic I see reflected in my clients). More so, Gen-Zers have high standards for the information they take in, especially concerning themselves. Again, these hallmarks are huge positives when managed well!
Tips For Coaches: Communicate in short bursts, sticking to key points. Switch speakers often. Provide visual learning opportunities (use a whiteboard or walk athletes through an activity instead of talking through it). Demonstrate care before delivering feedback, and invite athletes into the feedback process. When delivering feedback, call on as much objective data as possible. Connect feedback back to the athlete’s stated goals and values.
Exhibit Limited Social-Emotional Skills: As you’ve read this blog, you may have noticed that Gen-Z has been exposed to a near-perfect storm regarding poor mental health. Indeed, mental health trends reveal higher levels of anxiety and depression in high schoolers and college students than ever before. In many ways, Gen-Z is the least socially and emotionally equipped generation yet. Again, it is not that this generation is inherently “soft” or choosing to struggle. Big picture, this generation has proved to be quite resilient! In every day, though, they simply have not been presented with the experiences necessary to build the crucial coping, emotional management, and relationship-building skills necessary to thrive. With this in mind, it’s no wonder why Gen-Z cites calmness, care, and encouragement as top traits of a great coach.*
Tips For Coaches: Get to know your athletes (the foundation for all the above tips!). Demonstrate care and encouragement before all else. Plan activities that promote in-person connection and communication, as Gen-Zers are hungry for both. Normalize discussing mental health. Model and teach healthy coping and emotional management skills.
That’s All to Say…
If there is one takeaway from this blog, let it be that Gen-Z is indeed different, and for good reason. As adults with the privilege to engage with this incredibly powerful and distinctive generation, it is our job to accept these differences and adapt accordingly. I certainly don’t mean to say that we should pander to Gen-Z’s every whim. Rather, we need to get to know our kids, hold an awareness of their generational realities, and adjust our coaching practices to better connect with and impact them. After demonstrating that care and consideration, we can then provide them with opportunities to grow; to practice those crucial skills that they have less (or no) experience with. Because, while it is our first responsibility to meet them where they’re at, it is our next responsibility to stretch them into where we know they are capable of going.