Coaching Gen Z

Written By: Graham Bodner

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a part of the ASCA Fellowship class. If you are unfamiliar with the program, I highly recommend it to any young coach. ASCA each year selects a group of coaches to complete a year long research project aimed at expanding the body of knowledge of swimming. Our group of seven coaches, lead by myself was a diverse group of coaches and hungry for knowledge. During the year long project, our goal was the study the Coaching of GenZ. How they liked to be coached, how they will change the sport and most importantly what are things we can be doing to better reach this emerging generation.

First, you need to understand WHO GenZ actually is. There were many classifications and other pseudo names given to them (Homeland Generation being the most interesting. GenZ does not know life without the department of homeland security and the threat of global terrorism). Our group decided that for our purpose, it was our age group athletes. Now that some time has passed, it is safe to say they encompass your entire team. Some of the oldest GenZ members are now freshmen and sophomores in college.

The first step in our process was to create a survey, but exclusively for athletes. It was the first of it’s kind. By the end of the survey, we had reached over 500 athletes from every LSC. Skill levels from B standard and below all the way to the National Junior Team. We asked very specific questions, some with open ended answers, others with quantitative answers

  • How long did they use certain electronic devices

  • Asked follow up questions for each electronic device they may use, like how long, when, where, how much and why

  • Emotional state without their electronic devices

  • Social media use (before the advent of TikTok)

  • Where they go to learn things (this is key in understanding this generation)

  • What things are important in their life

  • Future career, what is important to them

  • Why they swim

  • How they liked to be coached (ask yourself when was the last time you outright asked one of your athletes how they liked to be coached)

  • Qualities they liked in their coach

  • Technology on the pool deck

The next step was to take that information and learn from it. We came up with XXXX narrowed down bullet points that to this day, haven’t been shared.

“ know kids these days”

STOP-STOP IT. The first hurdle, is this statement. Every single generation, always complains about the younger generation. Don’t believe me? Ask the generation above yours how they perceived your generation. This isn’t new, this isn’t something unique to GenZ. I should know, I’m a millennial.

What this statement does is it eliminates any and all possibilities of better understanding GenZ. Think of it in terms of growth mindset. We believe the narrative that we tell ourselves, wether true or untrue. Walking on to pool decks since this project, it makes me truly sad to hear coaches say this about their athletes. More over, your athletes hear you say this. Lowering your athletes self-worth just because they were born in a different set of circumstances than you were, doesn’t make them less of a human. Can we all collectively get over it? Got it, good. Moving on.

They want a guide by their side, not a sage on the stage.

Now, I’m sure our group would like to say we coined that term, but we didn’t. There was a lot of literature research that went into the project and this is one of the concepts we found. This concept was also backed in our survey, 75% responded they learned best by ether doing or trying without much verbal explanation.

We learned that through using “inquiry based” learning, GenZ athletes were capable of retaining and applying the information they received. Making them the owners of their sport, responsible over their actions and the leaders of their own journey. When you think about why this is, the answer is fairly simple. Why do kids like to participate in skateboarding or snowboarding or other individual youth activities? How many coaches to do see around them? How many adults do you see telling them what to do? None. They are learning by doing and being inquisitive about the sport. In swimming, we can do the same.

Be honest

Name one thing that the “kids these days” coaches wouldn’t think that GenZ could handle, a coach that is upfront, transparent and honest with an athlete. Our survey showed that over 80% of athletes responded positively to coaches who were honest with them about their performance. GenZ are truth seekers given their ease of access to the internet. They are a group of young people who appreciate transparency and outright demand it from those around them.

In conclusion, GenZ is changing the way we coach. From technology to our approach in the process. It is up to us to adapt what we do, to better reach this generation of athletes.

Follow Up Reading

Ready to learn more? I’d recommend checking out the following books to spur on your own GenZ research.

  • GenZ @ Work by David stillman

  • This is first on my list because it’s written by an adult and his GenZ son. Remember, they want to be part of the process if not drive the process themselves. This book gives both perspectives

  • Generation iY by Tim Elmore

  • This was the book that ASCA had our group read prior to starting our project. Word of caution, we all were not huge fans of this book. I’m going to assume if you made it this far, you care about my opinion. It boardlines on the “kids these days” territory. Tim does give very practical advice on how to teach and engage with GenZ, just first giving them some undue criticism first.

  • Our short snippet in the ASCA Newsletter

  • Some of our findings were published in the ASCA newsletter in 2018, here is the link


Graham Bodner is currently the Head Age Group Coach of Berkeley aquatic club in New Jersey. Graham has been coaching for the past 12 years spanning three LSC’s and multiple levels of the sport. Including national, junior national, Olympic trial and state champions. He was voted 2018-2019 age group coach of the year for the state of Connecticut, was the group leader for the 2017 class of ASCA fellows and assistant coach of the 2019 eastern zone select camp.

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