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Dr. Paul Lubbers Talks About Generation Z’ers in Tennis: Compete Like a Champion Podcast With Dr. Larry Lauer and Johnny Parkes

Published: 2020-08-26
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J: Welcome to compete like a champion podcast. You're here with Dr. Larry Lauer, mental skills specialist, and coach Johnny Parkes with USTA player development. Today, we welcome back to the studio, Dr. Paul Lubbers to talk about generation Z'ers. Welcome back to the studio, Paul.

P: Thank you, Johnny. Larry, how are you today?

L: I'm great man. How are you?

P: Never better. Thank you.

L: Let's keep this going, we're doing like a five parter. Just keep bringing you back again and again. Well see, people love you. So that's why you're back.

P: Thank you.

J: So, Paul is our senior director of coach education sports science for player development. Huge broad of experience from as a previous player, teacher, coach, writer, speaker, researcher, and we dubbed him on the last podcast a master generalist. And that's what we sort of dove into on the last time. If you haven't listened to that episode, go back and listen to the essence of coaching, but we're going to get into generation Z'ers and how to coach generation Z'ers. I think, when was it? In one of our internal meetings we had last year, I believe it was, there was a fantastic presentation that you both gave with Dr. Dan Gould and it was really...

L: And Jenny Nalepa.

J: Yeah. And it was very, very eye-opening for us and it came out of that feeling that it's something that we need to get updated with every time a new generation comes along. It's really important for us to understand how that adapts our coaching. But I think before like we really get into the weeds, I think it's important that we talk about like what is generation Z and why is it important to know this information?

P: Yeah. I think that's when you're telling them like we brought in Dr. Dan Gould and Dr. Jenny Nalepa from Michigan state, um, to talk about gen Z with us. The impetus for that was we had some struggles and we weren't connecting with the young kids we were coaching, the younger kids, there was something amiss, right? And we were, we had some struggles. And we, we wanted to understand this age group and low and behold, we didn't even really know they were called gen Z. Right? And it was the sharing of information from the speakers on who are gen Z? Why is it important to us? And certainly, everybody understands that there are cohort studies have been card studies of generations for many, many years going back to the greatest generation, right? My father was a world war II veteran, the greatest generation. We have baby boomers, which I'm the end of a baby boomer generation. There are the millennials, there's gen YX, gen Y, gen Z. And I think though these generational studies are done to have an understanding of the social influences, the cultural influences on the generation, right? And why they are the way they are. Why did we behave the way we behave, why do we think the way we think? And it's the broader social constructs that affect the behaviors. Is that fair enough?

L: Yeah.

P: I think it's, this is nothing new. Generations have been going on for a long... Generational studies have been going on for a long time. Gen Z, as you talk about it, or the I gen is born after 1995, 1996, right. And that's what we're talking about. It's really the first generation ever to up completely in the digital world, completely in the digital world. And I think that's the influence that researchers are trying to understand. What is the influence of this process on this generation of, of over 74 million Americans, 24% of the population, our gen Z? What is the influence of technology on this culture? And I think that's the question we all think about, right? They have the phone in their hand all the time. What did Dan say that are some researchers found out when talking to these young kids that when they look at their hand, they see their hand, not as a hand, but their hand is with a phone in it.

J: Like the phone is a piece of them.

P: The phone is the piece of them, right? I think that construct of technology and the phone and instant information and the influences of that are great. And it's not that every kid is the same because it's not, but it's to give us some understanding of how we can best work with them, how we can coach them and lead them along the process to get better as a tennis player.

L: Yeah. I think when we talk about this, we're talking about general trends that we see in society and how events impact what happens in our world and how we interact with the world. And I think what we want to do is be clear that we don't want to overgeneralize to every child. We also want to look at some of the trends and understanding of why are they there, what, what's going on and, and what does that mean for coaching. We want to debunk some of the myths that are out there and we want to be clear on what actually is good practice when you're coaching with the gen Z and some of our coaches, our young coaches would be generation Z, now, Paul, I mean 1995 you're talking about age 24 now. I mean, so even like our fellows who are now in here training absolutely fall into that group potentially. We've moved into the world where coaches are now gen Z. It used to be millennials and all that good stuff. But for you Paul, I mean in, in your work and looking at the research, what are some of the important characteristics that we see that, well characterize this generation?

P: I think one of the broader concepts is that they don't need us. This generation does not need adults to get better and learn. We grew up those who were outside of this, the gen Z, you needed a teacher in a classroom to learn. I needed to, in order to do research, I needed to go to the library and talk to a librarian to find out where research articles were. We needed adults to help us to learn through this process. This generation doesn't need an adult. They can go to their phone, they can go to Google, you can do everything. They can have school online, right? Online learning. Adults are kind of a byproduct to them. And the idea that we used to walk into a room, and we saw an adult, there was this instant respect. There was a relationship that I needed them to help me learn, to help me develop. So, if you take that construct now that they don't need us to get better or to learn. What is the value of an adult, right? So why do I need you? So now the process is much different that we're a coach. We're on a tennis court, the coaches need to show value to these young people, why they're important. Now tennis is a little different because they can't, I mean they need us, but the concept is still the same. So that means the relationship is the first thing that matters. I didn't need to have a relationship with an adult before. I just walked into the room and I automatically respected them cause I and I needed them. Now, these kids can actually check what you're saying, if it's right or wrong, right? Imagine being a history teacher. Imagine being a history teacher. They could be checking what you were saying every second on data immediately. They're not there... If they're not there because they don't need dates and figures and information, why do they need you? And as a coach, we, one of the big takeaways is relationships matter more now than ever with this generation. And if we can establish a relationship and you can establish trust, now you can go down a road that's very different in terms of the asks you have for them, the demands you put on them, the challenges you give them. But I think that's the first, that's the first concept. Then you have a phone, they have technology, they can learn everything in the world, on YouTube and in an immediate way. What's the value that an adult brings?

L: Do you then think, I mean this was also brought up in generation Y or the Millennials having to explain why you're doing what you're doing as an adult or as a coach. How important is that then for this generation based on what you're saying.

P: You tell me.

L: It's huge.

P: It's huge. The why.

L: It's the only way to teach these days and to coach. Cause if you don't have a why, which that's not to say that's wrong actually. Maybe it should have been this way all along, but if you don't have a why, they're probably not going to do it.

P: And it goes back to challenging actually the way we teach and coach, doesn't it? I mean I think, look, if I'm a teaching pro at a club, a really good teaching pro at a club has worked with every age group all the time, so instinctively you might have a 60-year-old female or male you coach. You might have a 12-year-old, you might have an 18-year-old, right? They're generations. It spans generations. And really good coaches learn how to connect with people. Intuitively, I think with this generation, the technology piece has made a bigger difference. Shorter attention spans, right? They text each other when they're sitting next to each other instead of doing what? Having a conversation, they don't use a phone call, they don't have conversations. Some of our coaches have good, great stories about traveling, you know, with a group of players and they sit down to dinner and, and what starts happening.

J: Heads are down, typing away.

P: And being methodical about, you know what? And when we're at dinner, there are no phones. And by the way, at dinner, we're going to have a conversation and I'm going to tell you in the morning what the conversation and the topics going to be at dinner so you can prepare and think. You can use your phone to prepare. But when we come to dinner, there are no phones and we're actually going to have a conversation about a topic. Now that's really intentional and things that you did have to do years and years ago because people sat down to dinner, a team would sit down or a group of players who sit down to dinner, what would happen? There'd just be a natural conversation because that's all you did. So now the way we approach developing an attention span and focus and creating strong interpersonal skills, how we affect the ability to focus over long periods of time, right? Those are things that we have to bring into this environment where we're working with this age group.

L: That's, that's just great stuff, Paul. One of the things that you know Michigan State has alerted us to is that generations want to be involved in the decision making. As you mentioned earlier, you had that immediate respect, I need this adult to help me. I'm going to listen to what they have to say and I'll just do it, right? In many cases, but this generation Z, they want to be involved in decision making. What does that mean for coaches and what do we have to do?

P: I think to ask questions. I mean again, my coaches would tell me what to do and guess what we did. We did it.

L: You went and you did it.

P: So now the coaches are going to, players are going to go, well why? I think it makes us a better coach. It's an opportunity. I should have become a better teacher and coach to be aware of why you're asking people to do things? Why are you structuring practice the way you're doing it and to be more on point, if that makes sense. It actually is an opportunity for us to be better at the job we do and instead of telling athletes all the time, what can we do differently? Ask them questions and listen and listen. Make them part of the process and that that creates a strong, we know that creates a better learning environment right by question, by discussion, by, you don't want to get along debates necessarily every time, but the why is really important.

L: This makes it seem to me, you know, JP, as you think about this, coaching is pretty complex because you're trying to figure out a scary thing of giving up some control because it's easier if you just go in and dictate what everybody's going to do at all times because I'm not being questioned. You're going to do what I say I'm the authority and just do it versus opening yourself up to, there's different ways to do things and I'm open to your opinions, you know, and giving up some of that control is really scary to coaches.

J: I think it's almost like we have to be as coach has a lot more creative in how we get the athletes to buy in and there's many different I guess techniques you can use with that. How do you get them to, even though there might be something we tell them a hundred times, but if we get them to feel like they came up with the idea, then they've bought into the process that they were the decision-maker in it and that's a pretty unique skill to be able to get an athlete to do that or feel that way. You know other ways with how are the ways we can get the athletes to buy into the direction we want to go in is showing them almost going through that process of goal setting. What is the end in mind and what, what are the building blocks we can put in place to get there? Do we agree with this? You know, one, one thing I did when I was back in England and I was working with some athletes as we did a thing called deal or no deal and it was, we listed out everything the, that we believed was going to help the athlete get from A to B with where we were wanting to get. I'd have a set-out, a list out as the coach and the player would write out a list of things. And what we do is we would go back and forth discussing that list. There might be some things on the player's list that I didn't have on my list and vice versa. And then what we would do is we would come to an agreement how he get to A and B and then it was, do you deal or do you no deal. If you deal with this then we go forward with this plan, no excuses. And if you're no deal then we don't move forwards. And so, so we always played that game of deal or no deal as a way...

L: And making it fun too. You know, creative.

P: And then Larry, your question, another thing is, so are they, are these, is this generation good with technology? Yes.

L: They're unbelievable.

P: Leverage it. Go with what, go with the strengths. Do they like looking at themselves? They take pictures, right? They're unbelievably strong with video. So, so what, so what do we want to do with teaching technique or tactics? Leverage video.

L: That actually seems that will help our cases coaches, right? They will mind... A lot of players I used to work with, they hated seeing themselves on video.

P: There was a time when there was a research base on the dangers of using video with kids because they'd never saw themselves before. And they're not looking at the performance. They'd be looking at how they actually look and how they perceive themselves. That might be part of it still. But I think leveraging technology and using technology with gen Z is a must. I think the idea of, you know, they're more visual, so using visual cues to teach instead of talking. And again, I'm going back to my premise, this generation gives us an opportunity to be better teachers, better coaches at the craft of teaching and coaching. They learn fast, but they forget fast. If you think about dead fluids, the technology, right? They're looking at information, they see it, they learn it, what happens? They're onto something else. What does it mean for how we structure and build capacity to stay focused? And for us to understand that they may not be able to be good at time on task for a long time, for a while, but to incrementally keep building that capacity of focus and concentration. It's something that they don't come with because the media and the technology is about short, quick bursts. And I think that's where we have to not buy into that cause everything's now marketed to the kids in a model that's quick and fast. Tennis is a game that's played over time. And to build capacity of focus and build capacity of time on task has to be part of what we do.

J: Jose Higueras tells a great story about when he went over to New York and was working with Carlos Moya and he saw a young Rafa Nadal training. And the thing that he was talking about engagement and he tells his story whenever you ask him about engagement. And the thing that stuck out to him wasn't that Rafa was obviously completely in tune and engaged, no different than what you've seen now. But what struck him for such a young person was the duration he was able to keep that engagement and that laser light focus. And that was the, well, he said it's obviously what makes him who he is, but that was pretty impressive. And so that kinda goes to your point now, that time is coming less and less. How do we build, help build that into players?

P: It's true. I mean it has to be there. It has to be part of what we do. I think everything we do in coaching is about capacity building, right? It's about capacity to focus, capacity to increase attention, capacity to deal with suffering on the court, right? Physical, tiredness, fatigue or resiliency. So again, I just go back whatever capacity we're trying to build the capacity to communicate, to have conversations, which we went back to. They're not good at communicating. When you ask them a question they're going to go, I don't know. And as a coach, what do you do then do you say okay, or do you actually teach them how to answer questions? You teach them how to have a conversation, something that we never dreamt of. Going back to the idea that we have to build capacity is really important. One of the things that one of the researchers that Dan shared with us, a book by a guy named Tweng, I think it is, T W E N G in his book, this generation is growing up more slowly. 18 year old now are acting like 15 years old, 13 years are acting like 10 years old. The whole idea that safety and security is really important. The thing that I remember being talked about was that the parents of these kids were parents right around 9/11, right? The idea of an unsafe world around their children and I'm trying to protect them and keep them safe from all the ills of the world. Even though children are safer now than they've ever been in the history of the world. But this idea that it's a dangerous world and I need to keep my child safe. These young kids have been part of a cocoon in many ways. It's all about safety, security, going slow growth, and development maybe happening slower now. So that affects somewhat of the capacity we can build and expect from some of these kids in the, in the learning environment.

L: It does. And I think I think about that a lot in my work as a mental coach. And there's, there are some things that are opportunities like visualization or imagery. They're pretty darn good at it and they're creative and they can, they can do that holding their attention. It's, some is not as good necessarily. So we get to do things like mindfulness and focusing exercises and working on that and carving out time in a day where there is quiet and there is focus because what they're asking of themselves as the tennis players to be able to hold that attention over an hour, two hours, three hours. One of the interesting things that comes out with just the large social media presence is that players or young people really care about what other people think. And it's constantly, it's, it's like it's on steroids now where everything that they do is being judged. You know, I remember looking up at a player like Mickey and not knowing all of his escapades off the field and not being able to judge him, but now everything is in the public eye and how is that impacting our young people, their confidence, their focus, their ability to learn and be motivated.

P: The influence of social media, right? They're being judged all the time and that this generation, gen Z, are very sensitive to criticism on the surface. Again, if, if there's a relationship between a coach and an athlete, if there's a trust between them, then the positive criticism will be digested. But on the surface, they're very sensitive to this context of social networking and the ongoing judgment that takes place.

L: And it makes it challenging because I think it's pretty normal in tennis anyway to compare. Cause I think the kids, I mean if you think about what happens in normal growth and development, they get to around age nine 10 they start looking at their peers more and less to their parents and that obviously becomes more accentuated over time. But this whole idea of comparison I think gets accelerated with social media because they are being confronted with some of the things that they're doing and getting negative feedback online or even positive feedback. But it definitely is challenging as a coach because you're trying to keep it focused on process of getting better and they're getting all this different feedback from these different voices.

P: And that can I jump in? Because we're talking about social media and those interactions on the computer, right? Or on the phone. So it's not face to face connecting. It's, it's this distance. There's some other things that are even something we need to pay more attention to. The incidents of mental and emotional issues with this generation is increased and it links to directly, you know, anxiety, depression, linking to screen time, linking to this context of social judgment and then social networking. And, and I think the research is pretty clear on that.

L: Yes it is.

P: And so how do we as coaches in our learning environment, take this out of, again, the word counterculture. Do you allow phones at practice, I'm not going to answer that for the coaches or even the parents who are listening, do you allow phones at dinner? Do you set constraints on the amount of screen time?

L: We have disagreements on this among our staff, let alone all the people who are listening.

P: Well, there was an NFL football team, I don't know which, I think it was Arizona, Arizona Cardinals. The head coach, their new coach there is going to build in time in their practices, so the players can have five minutes off to look at their social, their phones.

L: Cliff Kingsbury.

P: So that's falling into the context of give them what they want to keep them happy. And that's a different environment, right? But I think, you know, we've, here with the players that when they come to the national campus, there's no phones in the gym, right? There's no phones on the court. There's, there's time away from the phone.

L: It's all about being focused on the present, right?

P: Absolutely.

L: On the task, your purpose at hand. And that's where not only the best performances occur, but I believe where life is more fulfilling is in the present, not constantly distracted from your present self by others or by you know, information constantly being thrown at you. So, well, what do you think, you know, because there is some research out here and you mentioned this a little bit, that gen Z might not be the best communicators and I'm not putting that on the kids. I'm putting that on society and the way that we environment we put them in. If we're, we're doing things counter-culturally, what can we do to improve the communication skill of our young people?

P: I think it's being intentional. Rick Furman, who was the former CEO of the USTA for many years and a great tennis coach, one of the things that he tells a story about when Todd Martin was a junior at the club in East Lansing, Michigan is after practice every day, the kids would come in the, in the high-performance group, there were like eight or 10 players and every day they'd have to share something positive and constructive criticism about everybody else on the practice that day. Right? So that meant two things. They had to be aware and paying attention, not just to themselves during practice, but they actually had to be aware of what was happening out on the court. Whether it was technical, tactical, physical, mental, emotional behavior, whatever. And then they had to be able to communicate that in a way to the group. So that the, I mean I use that as an example of being really intentional about creating communication skills and building time into that. And it goes back to, again, the coach asking questions, the coach asking players what they might want to do for practice today, involving them in the process. I also think about the kids being risk-averse because it goes back to being safe. Think about the idea of taking risks on the tennis court, being aggressive, being assertive, taking chances in their game style. The whole idea of creating a player that's willing to make mistakes, that's the actual tennis component of the game. If kids are risk-averse and they don't want to fail and they don't want criticism, now all of a sudden that could influence the way they played the game of tennis. So, all of these different characteristics we're talking about being aware of them and how we create an environment to overcome some of them.

L: Well, I think that's amazing insights, Paul, and I think it's going to help our listeners a lot as they think about who they're dealing with because if we go back to what it means to coach, you have your philosophy and in your way of doing things, but then you always adapt to the person that you're teaching, right? Because it should be athlete, person-centered coaching. It shouldn't be about the coach, right? So I have to consider these characteristics, but then I have to have, I have to observe and I have to ask questions and I have to pay attention because I might be dealing with a kid that's completely opposite of these things and I need to be aware of that right and there, there are those kids who are out there. I know kids who don't want to have a phone and they don't want to be on social media and they, they actually are very focused and I think a lot of our kids who still, who are looking or tracking towards being, you know, very good college tennis player, maybe pros, some of the things that they do is counter-cultural, but because they've had to, because of their interests.

P: You gotta look for the outliers, right? I gave this presentation to a group of coaches in Miami and one of the coaches had a child that was there. It was a 12 years old boy, and he was listening to the presentation on his age group, right? Gen Z. He goes, Oh, all my friends are like that. But I'm not, because in our family we do this, you know, he, he listed these things. We don't have, you know, I'm limited with when I can do phone, social media. I'm limited by not having my phone at dinner. I have to have, he talked about his family being counter-culture, but it was really interesting for a kid who was listening to this conversation and going, well, I'm not like that, but my friends are.

L: Yeah, that's cool. And the fact that he was listening.

P: He was listening.

L: He could've been on the phone playing candy crush. That's all credit to that kid right there.

P: The other thing I think about is tennis is a game of adversity, right? Absolutely. We can play for three hours and I can lose more points and still win the match. But it's all about adversity. And if kids are, if the gen Z's face adversity, they don't like taking risks. They want safety, they want security, they're in this environment. Now we have to create adversity. It goes back to the last podcast we had where we talked about learning needs... To have really deep learning there needs to be struggling.

L: Yes, absolutely.

P: So now we need to orchestrate that, and we need to dose that in a way that allows the learner, the gen Z to go through this process. Now again, there's some that you can put the wall up and they're gonna run through it. But for some other ones, you're going to have to set the wall a little lower and let them get over it and build the wall high and high and high. And eventually, maybe they'll jump over it, maybe they'll run through it. But we have to be mindful of how we dose adversity.

L: That's very important. And I think there are a few things as you're seeing, you have to consider. One is the why and do they want this and explain to them why you're doing it. Then you've got to support them through it, right? And actually, teach them the coping skills to be successful. And finally, you gotta be really good at debriefing on these things and bringing, bringing the lessons back, right? Because I can put you through struggle, but if there's no reflection on learning, a lot of its lost and you have to redo it and well, losing time, right? As we talked about maximizing your time. And I believe sometimes that, especially with this group, you need to communicate more with them and obviously most of our practice should be doing, but there needs to be time built-in for setting up the stage and certainly reflecting and those teachable moments. And we've got to find, I think the compromise there. You know, we also have coaches who talk way too much and they have to be careful with that as well. Everything's a lecture. Going back to the questions and listening, but a lot of good insights here today. I guess Johnny you want to, did you get another point

P: Just wanted to share the two books that are, that we have on this topic. One is written by a guy named, I think it's, I'm not sure.

L: Jean, a female, yeah.

P: Jean Twenge, right. T W E N G E. And the book is called iGen and that's, that's one book that's a, that that's a really good resource that really goes through the topics and strategies to work with this group. And then another broader book by a, I think a Congressman from somewhere out West, Ben Sasse.

L: Was its Iowa maybe

P: Might be or somewhere. And it's just about the vanishing American adult, our coming of age crisis and how to rebuild a culture of self-reliance. So those are two resources that might be an interesting read for the, for the audience.

L: Outstanding. Thank you for that reference there.

J: Brilliant. As we close out here, what would you say your top three pieces of advice to coaches coaching gen Z?

P: I think, I think being aware of the influence of technology, going back to the idea that relationships really matter, it always matters in coaching and in tennis, but you know, to gain trust, to gain relationships, look, the evidence of this generation is that they'll do their, they're the most educated generation, they're gonna, the evidence that they're going to do great things is there, but it has to be with trust and relationship. And once you have that they'll do anything. And I think the third thing, we have to build resiliency. We have to build struggle. We have to build in adversity because that's life. How we do that, we have to be creative and I think that those are my three takeaways.

J: Awesome. Thank you. That was extremely insightful and brought back good memories of the uh, presentation we went through before, so appreciate your time. Really, really appreciate you coming on a second time and hopefully, we can get you on some more as well. But that, that's it for this week's episode of Compete Like a Champion. Again for more resources, you can always go to our website From Dr. Larry, Dr. Paul and myself. We are checking out until next time.

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