The Generation game: Throwing starfish and making a difference.

When this article reaches you the rugby season will be over for another year, except for the few of you coaching at top levels who have made semis or finals, or those that are playing post season sevens or suchlike.

I hope that the season has been both enjoyable and successful for you and that you’ll be back again next season giving your guidance to another group of rugby players. When I say successful, I don’t necessarily mean that your team has won the competition or reached the top four. If you have coached a team that finished in the bottom four, but you have assisted the development of your players and helped them enjoy a season that they will look back on with fondness, you have done a wonderful job for your players and for rugby and you should give yourself a big pat on the back.

As we move into off-season and look forward to some summer sports, rest and recreation and more time with our partners, friends and long-suffering families, I thought I might share a few thoughts on the nature of modern players and how we as coaches might best be able to help them reach their potential. I hope that this might give you cause for reflection in the off-season and give you some useful information that may assist you next season.

Sociologists (of which I am not one) refer to differing cohorts or generations by different names. The following are some you may recognise:

• Veterans/Builders, born in the 1920/30/40’s: (60+, execs).
• Baby Boomers, 50’s/60’s (40-60, managers).
• Generation X, 60’s/70’s (20-40, athletes/ staff).
• Generation Y, 80’s/00’s (0-20, athletes).
• Generation Z, 01/19 (just a twinkle in the eye at present).

I’ll just focus on generations X and Y here as many coaches are Gen Xers and our young players coming through are generation Y. Research indicates that there are some real differences between generations X and Y when it comes to their general characteristics. Generation Xers:

•Have witnessed inflation, political disenchantment, the 1987 crash and the move to the political right, workplace instability, negative consequences of downsizing and its effect on the family
•Have a focus on survival
•Want independent from parents
•Strive for self reliance, to be free agents
•Want a work/life balance
•Intent on keeping options open

In contrast, Generations Y youngsters:

•Have witnessed only economic growth with few bad consequences (they were too young to remember ’87)
•Want to be treated as adults, but they do value their parents
•Are bred for success – they see image of winners and losers all around them
•Need chance to achieve and shine
•Are (with obvious exceptions) unchurched – the church and traditional values are less evident
•Regard material things as manifesting success
•Grow up with fewer clear behavioural boundaries
•Are often well educated but theory is not enough for them, they need to understand the practical relevance of theories

Some general characteristics of generation Yers:

•Self confident, optimistic
•Can seem arrogant or disrespectful (especially to Baby Boomers!)
•Quick decision makers – prone to impulsivity
•Comfortable with both technology & tradition
•High tech - high touch
•They know they are customers & we need them
•They like to be entertained
•Can handle multiple inputs, but tend to have a short attention span
•They are concerned with self image - in line with fads

Of course these are generalisations, but I think there is some real food for thought here. While there may be some of these factors that do not ring a bell with those of you coaching or involved with young people, I’m sure there will be a number of them that will strike an “Aha, yep, I can relate to that” chord with many of you.
If it is true that some of these qualities are common to Generation Y youngsters, then what coaching approaches are likely to succeed?

Firstly, I believe that all players need clear behavioural boundaries, regardless of which generation or background they may come from, but I believe that for Generation Y players it is very important as they tend to have had fewer boundaries created for them at home. I have just had the great pleasure of spending a day with Sir Brian Lochore at an NZRU coaching forum in Taranaki and Brian was very strong in stating that young players today need leadership from their coaches and that this leadership should include the clear identification of what is right and what is wrong regarding player behaviour. If you think the players can identify what these behaviours are and implement them with minimal guidance from you, well that’s fine – let them do it. But if they’re not able to do this, as coach you need to say “Here’s the things that I think are important boys or girls and here’s the way we’ll do things around here”. Having done that, make sure these standards are upheld. Regardless of who institutes them, all human beings need behavioural boundaries and will be unhappy and perform more poorly without them. Sure we are also designed to push against and test the boundaries, but we really do need them. Try to develop a sound team culture where individuals matter, but the team comes first. Subsuming ones own needs to focus on something that is greater than the individual is fulfilling and self-enhancing. Selflessness is one of the great lessons to be learned from rugby, but you need to make sure that your team understands its importance and celebrate it when it is manifested.

In a world where young people have other attractions, it is critically important that the players enjoy their rugby environment. Not every player is a star, and not every team is a winner. At the same rugby forum in Taranaki, Graham Mourie stressed the importance of making sure that we enable players to enjoy what he called “the rugby journey”. He was referring to the enjoyment players ought to get out of the comradeship, the physical exertion and the joy of running, tackling, scrumming passing and kicking. This is something that rugby offers par excellence and something that we should all be trying to sell to young people when we are trying to attract them to play the great game and keep them playing it. Player enjoyment is absolutely critical at all levels.

Also be sure to include players in what is going on in the team. Ask them questions rather than give them commands, make sure that your trainings are innovative and pertinent, that your players are improving their fitness, skills and that you treat your players with respect and empathy. If you don’t know about something, ask someone – whether it be an RDO at your local union or an experienced coach. In both cases I’m sure you will receive useful help. If they don’t help you, then rattle their cages and insist that they find you someone that can.

And remember to enjoy your coaching and appreciate the successes you have, and I’m certainly not just talking about winning here. You are playing an important role in the lives of young people, but you are not Superman, Superwoman or Jesus Christ. You won’t get it right all the time and you can’t save everyone. I am often reminded (by myself mostly!) of the story about the boy who was staying on a tropical island after a storm had washed up millions of starfish that were stranded and dying on the beach. The boy decided he would do something to help and was throwing the starfish, one by one, back into the water. A man who was out walking on the beach interrupted the boy, telling him that there were millions of the starfish and that he was wasting his time. The boy listened, but just kept on throwing the starfish back in the water, saying “Made a difference to that one, made a difference to this one”. And really that’s what coaching rugby is about - making a difference to players, whatever their age, stage or ability.

Have a great summer – you deserve it! And keep up the good work.