Dealing with Today’s Athletes: A Coach’s Perspective

When TrainHeroic tasked me with writing about today's athletes, I thought to myself, “Oh, this one will be easy… I’ll just slam Millennials and write a diatribe on how kids these days suck.”

As I do with most of my pieces, I get my topic and spend a few days grinding my gears around it. Then write. To be honest with each one of you, I wish you could have seen the tug-of-war going on in my head over past couple of weeks.

What ended up happening was more of a learning experience for myself than I could have ever imagined.

Given the sharp stances that everyone appears to take, you can go either way with this topic. Are athletes these days soft? Are they unmotivated? Do they care at all? Like our feelings on politics and the many topics we can scream at one another over, the answer is both - yes and no.

The Good Ol' Days

I was born in 1975. I played my high school and college ball in the 90s. We were tough guys and were down for the cause (whatever “the cause” was at that time).

I grew up in the desert town of Lancaster, California: hot as hell in the summertime and freezing cold in the winter time. I lived in a trailer park and most of my teammates grew up either in the hood or in some crummy place on the east side of town. See, the west side is where most of the people with money lived. We weren’t poor, but we were by no means rich.

The kids I played with were grimy and hungry and we lived for playing ball - which is the only thing most of us had.

I moved on to junior college in town a year after graduation and played with a similar group of guys. Junior college at that time (and I’m sure it still is) was a gathering of athletic misfits trying to extend their playing days for as long as possible. One dude on the team was 42 and had 4 kids. I was one of those guys trying to resurrect my playing days and fighting to get a scholarship.

I played for a man who was rugged, who had been in the game for decades. He could give you looks that would cut like a razor blade.

We had one practice in the scorching 112 degree summer heat where our offensive block at practice was cut short because of a lack luster effort. So he ran us. 100s. For over an hour. At one point every linemen had fallen out. I was the last one standing. I ran to the point of heat exhaustion. I blacked out and woke up in a puddle of my own piss.

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I moved on to Eastern Kentucky University and played for a legend, Coach Roy Kidd. Coach Kidd was a wonderful man... but one you hoped would never speak to you (because you knew you were in deep trouble if he did). Yet again, here was another group of really tough dudes ready for whatever. I transferred there during the wintertime and became a fixture in the team early, before the real “newbies” rolled in for camp that following fall.

We lived in a legendary dorm on campus, O’Donnell hall. It was the gateway to hell, and we loved living there. I have endless stories about the goings-on in that building that I will leave to your imagination. Freshmen were placed on the top floor (4th) once they came to campus.

We veterans greeted each one of them by paying them a visit on their first night of camp - by throwing all of their belongings out their window. Not just clothes. Stereos, alarm clocks, books, you name it. I’ll never forget the sight of watching all these guys outside collecting their stuff - broken, dirty, and thrown all over the outside of a building without regard.

One of my favorite memories was during 3-a-days (yes 3), Coach Kidd became so enraged at us o-linemen (again for effort) to the point where we were brought up in front of the rest of the team and ceremoniously put on blast.

His punishment? He pulled the water from practice. For good. For the rest of camp. No water for you, no water for me - for over a week.

Remember, this is training camp, in August, in Kentucky. 90s every day, with humidity so bad you could barely breathe. We sent guys out on ambulances multiple times with full body cramps. Now in reflection, I’m surprised nobody died.

The last story about my playing time was one with a brand new walk-on who flaked on a lift. My strength coach at the time had a team-wide policy that if anyone was late or missed, the entire team paid for their sins... UNLESS they quit. So a group of about twenty of us got together, rolled into the Blockbuster Video he worked in, and let him know that he quit and to never show his face again or else. He got the message and disappeared permanently.

Today's World

Here's the reason I gave you the handful of stories I did (and I could write a book about the bizarre and almost ritualistically cruel things I witnessed): not one of those events would fly today. Coaches would be fired, athletes would be removed from the team, and many of those acts could get a coach jail time.

I needed to reminisce over the sea of stories I have to realize kids today are purely a product of what has been presented to them.

We adults have regulated and rule-changed the toughness out of the game. The fear of legal action almost paralyzes us the second we want to push harder. I know it because I have it in the back of my mind all of the time. And let’s be real: none of us coaches want to hurt these kids. We simply want them to have thicker skin.

A perfect example of this is a text I received this morning. An athlete reached out about “feeling a cold coming on.” Sit with that for a minute. “Coach, I feel a cold coming on, I don’t think I can make weights today.”

This one statement, unfortunately, is a perfect example of the norm we are faced with right now. Never in my life would I have ever troubled my coaches with, “I have a cold coming on.” I hid countless injuries from trainers, had dozens of concussions over my career, and still played. I went to practices with walking pneumonia and never said a word because I never wanted my toughness to be in question… ever.

This is not the case with kids these days, and again, I say this knowing it’s not their fault.

They didn’t chose to play youth sports and not keep score, we adults did it to them. We obsessively said, “Good job!” when they didn’t ask us to. We created the culture; they are just doing what we did in our culture - following the rules set by the adults.

How Do We Fix This?

The long and short of it is: we don’t fix it. We must adapt.

What I’ve found with the kids coming into my shop these days is they are completely unprepared for my level of expectations. I expect them to be tough. I expect them to love lifting weights. I expect them to want to win at all costs. I expect them to power through being sick and hurt and still find a way to get the job done. I expect them to feel awful when we take a loss. And in every situation, they just don’t or won’t.

It then becomes my job to teach them.

I’m not just a weight coach. I am a life coach for an athlete.

  • I have to coach them up on what it is to be tough and frame it so they know exactly when it’s time to be tough.
  • I have to be the person to help them understand that losing is the absolute shittiest thing I can think of, and help them learn to hate it with the same intensity.
  • I have to help them distinguish between being hurt or injured and how to navigate when to go anyway or when to go see the trainer.
  • I have to be the one to tell that one kid who’s sandbagging everything and moping around that, “You don’t really want to play, do you?” and then show him to the door.

You see, no one has ever taught them this. I can’t help them be accountable for something they have never really encountered. They haven’t kept score for most of their lives, so how on earth can I expect them to be sick to their stomach when they lose? It’s not their fault; it’s ours.

Therefore, we teach.

I teach technique and then tell them a story about winning the OVC Championship in 1997 and how good it felt to blow out Eastern Illinois at their house 49-7. We go out and run them into the ground. Then we talk about how much it will be worth it when we run through the Big Sky next season. I have to frame things for them, give them context, and help them learn.

I don’t beat my 4-year-old because she can’t do calculus, so I won’t berate these kids for what they have never been taught.

A Message To My Fellow Coaches

Listen guys, we love our athletes. Yes, we would like to choke some of them, but at the end of our day, they are reason we get out of bed.

I know how hard it is to listen to the sniveling, the endless pissing and moaning. I know it feels like a complete disconnect from reality. But think about little kids. Think about introducing something to them they have no understanding of.

We must teach at all times - and not just weight lifting.

I’m almost jealous of the coaches getting into the business right now. Yes, they have their own list of challenges they must face with all  the information coming at them. But socially, they will be better equipped to relate. Old-timers like me have to make considerable adaptations to the new bodies rolling in.

We live in a day and age where we cannot assume anything. We must coach 24/7.

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About The Author

Chris Holder comes to the TrainHeroic Blog with over thirty years as an athlete and coach. Chris is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. A football player first and then spending his entire professional coaching career at the college level, Holder has been in love with everything weight lifting since he was a little boy.

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