Sports Psychology Commentary – Orlando Sentinel – June 27, 2009 – Andrew Carter – Bobby Bowden has been coaching football for more than a half century, the past 33 years at Florida State, and he said recently that he’s often asked one question in particular more than most: How have the athletes changed from generation to generation?
And his answer, he said, is usually the same: They haven’t, really.
“These kids come into my office, players, whether it’s 55 years ago or last week, [a] player walks into my office, I look at him . . . [it’s the] same sweet kid,” Bowden said recently during one of his spring booster tour stops. “Same sweet, innocent boy. You know it? Only his hair his longer. Or he’s got earrings . . . and he wears his underwear outside instead of inside.
“But he’s still the same sweet kid [as] that kid I had 50 years ago.”
Bowden’s opinion notwithstanding, the philosophy and psychology of coaching the athletes of today has become a business — the subject matter of instructional videos, coaching seminars and books. At the 2009 Nike football coaching clinic, held in Orlando in late February, Alabama’s Nick Saban gave two speeches.
One was titled, “3-Deep Matching Zone.” The other: “Coaching Today’s Athlete.”
The idea was to help football coaches better inspire and lead a changing generation. The athletes might be the same at heart, as Bowden believes, but the pressures and expectations surrounding them have changed, experts say.
“The generational profile of today’s kids, they’re so goal-driven they know exactly what they want and what it’s going to take to get there,” said Mike Voight, a Connecticut-based sports-psychology consultant who has worked with teams at USC, Texas and UCF. “But they unfortunately don’t have some of those key coping resources. So once they’re hit with some adversity, some tend to crack.
“And you hear that continuously from the coaches, especially, [that] kids just break down.”
Voight and others who specialize in sports psychology say the athletes of today are more specialized than those in previous generations. They grow up spending Saturday mornings not in a sandlot or in a neighborhood playground, as kids decades ago might have, but instead at camps or on travel teams designed to maximize their potential.
Few athletes enter college with as much pressure as those who play football. Florida State this week welcomed its incoming class of football players. They’re still months away from their first college game but many Seminoles fans have, in some cases, followed their recruitment for years.
As college football recruiting has gained popularity — exposed through fan-driven Web sites affiliated with Rivals.com and Scout.com — the expectations surrounding young players have soared.
“One of the big challenges [in coaching] is that we’re in the information age,” said Dan Mullen, Ole Miss head coach and former Florida offensive coordinator. “A young man that comes in to play in the Southeastern Conference right now for two years has been profiled the whole way through. With the Internet, with all the attention given to these young people, they come in and I think they feel a lot of pressure . . .
“The expectations are so high with today’s athletes that for an 18-year-old, that’s a lot to deal with.”
And, experts say, the current generation — classified as “millenials” — is less equipped to handle such pressure, even if much of it is self-applied. According to Voight, who has led seminars about coaching today’s athletes, dissatisfied college athletes are more likely to transfer schools, complain to the media, lead a coup against a coaching staff, fake injuries to get out of practice and instigate a player mutiny or revolt.
Still, the idea of coaches adapting to fit the needs of their players is still a relatively new concept, Voight said.
“There’s definitely kind of this missed connection,” he said. “Especially the older coaches; you know they’ve done it a certain way for so many years and it’s worked for them so why should I change?”
Bowden isn’t alone in his assertion that athletes haven’t changed much over the years. Asked if players grow up more quickly these days, or if coaching them is somehow different, first-year Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said, “They’re still 18 to 22 years old and they’ve all come from various places and backgrounds and that’s kind of what’s neat about being a coach . . . And I don’t think they’ve changed over the years.”
Experts say that mindset is outdated.
Yet it persists, they say, especially in the world of football — a sport so much defined by its physicality that its mental side might perhaps be overlooked.
“I bang my head against the wall trying to get more and more NFL coaches trying to come around to the idea [of sports psychology],” said John Murray, a noted sports psychologist based in Palm Beach. “I think there’s an old mindset that eventually needs to die out.”
If Saban’s seminar is any indication, perhaps the “old mindset,” as Murray described it, is fading.
Rich Brooks, the veteran Kentucky coach, said psychology is more a part of his job than it ever has been. Brooks, who has been coaching more than 40 years, said recently players have become more difficult to coach and that “it’s probably because of the information age and expectation levels.”
“They all come in believing they can play as freshmen,” Brooks said. “They all come in believing that they’re going to play in the NFL. And in reality that ain’t going to happen. So dealing with those expectations, I think, takes a little bit more psychology than it used to in coaching.”
Part of the issue, Voight said, is that the athletes of today are savvier, better connected and less patient. He said the phrase he hears most often from coaches to describe athletes of today is that they arrive on campus “with a sense of entitlement.”
Yet the trend of how athletes have changed over the years is difficult to quantify, Voight said.
One thing that has changed, Bowden said, is the parental responsibility placed on coaches. He told a story during the booster meeting about a parent who’d complained to him after one of his players had found trouble.
Bowden’s response: “You had him 18 years. I had him two.”
“You go back to your youth, how your parents raised you — made you go to school, made you go to church, made you do this and that,” Bowden said. “They don’t do it anymore. They don’t do it anymore.”
He told the crowd that the players hadn’t changed but that the parents had — and that they needed to get better. Those in attendance applauded.
Another contribution from sports psychology.