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The power of positivity: Gen Z is changing coaching culture

Will Healy had lost his way. The feeling gnawed at him for weeks, but it came to a head in a convention center ballroom-turned-dining hall in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The 2-4 Charlotte 49ers, coming off a 25-point loss to FIU, met for a pregame meal. The meal room, usually a source of community and conversation for Healy’s program, rang with only dull chatter. Headphones hung from the ears of many and some players hid behind the hoods of their sweatshirts, both unchecked violations of standards Healy holds sacred.

Shortly before the team bussed to face Western Kentucky, a usually effervescent Healy lit into his players. The message was direct: The team’s foundation was cracked.

The next day, following a 30-14 Hilltopper victory, Healy admitted something to his team: “Listen, I looked at myself in the mirror last night, and I’ve gotten away from who I am as a head coach. I’ve been focusing too much on wins and losses. I decided I’m a culture guy.”

Defensive end Tyriq Harris, now a three-time captain, underwent season-ending back surgery shortly after Healy’s speech, which he thinks helped spark the locker room. Watching Charlotte battle North Texas from his couch, Harris felt a surge that cut through even his sidelined lethargy. The defense was hyped, the offense celebrated everything and the 49ers pulled off a 39-38 last-second victory that ignited a five-game win streak to end the regular season.

Everything changed when Healy told a room of 18- to 23-year-old students he’d erred.

“I’m willing to grow,” Healy told 247Sports earlier this offseason. “If I think there’s a better way to do it, I need to be humble enough and willing enough to mature and grow.”

Healy, 35, is the fourth-youngest head coach in college football. He’s 12 years removed from winning a national championship as Richmond’s quarterback. He’s a millennial, defined as anyone born between 1981 and 1996 by the Pew Research Center. Healy coaches Generation Z athletes, those born from 1997 and onward.

The line of delineation between Gen Z and everyone else marks a divide in how people consume, learn and communicate. Andrew Driska, the coordinator of Michigan State’s online Sport Coaching and Leadership programs, said coaching this generation requires flexibility. In particular, coaches must adjust from a command style of teaching that used to dominate football to a more collaborative approach.

“Some are making an adjustment, others are not,” Driska said.

Healy helps lead a wave of coaches that are thriving as a result. Others like P.J. Fleck, who produced historic results at Minnesota a season ago, and Dabo Swinney, a two-time national champion at Clemson, have carved out space in college football thanks largely to cultures, purposeful or not, that have broad appeal to this new generation.

This positive style isn’t exclusive to the young. Healy mentioned 69-year-old North Carolina head coach Mack Brown – who he was set to face Saturday before the game was canceled – as an inspiration due to the way he can connect with people of all ages. Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards, 66, is on the advisory board of the Positive Coaching Alliance, an organization that provides training and resources to coaches, because of the way he’s carried himself for decades.

Positivity isn’t a choice for those like Edwards. It’s a direct avenue of connection to athletes he’s charged with developing.

“Coaching is about growing your athletes up,” Edwards said. “They all take the coaching a little bit different. Words are powerful, they’re very powerful. How you use those words in certain moments can either build a player up or tear him down. You always have to make sure that at the end, regardless of the situation, they have hope. … It’s your greatest asset.”

(Photo: Photo Illustration: Ted Hyman, 247Sports)

Culture Matters More Than Talent

Phil Fleck used to tell P.J. the sun set in Sugar Grove, Illinois. A young P.J. believed his dad. Why not? P.J. couldn’t disprove it on his mobile phone, the internet wasn’t available at a touch. If P.J. asked something, his dad told him to look it up in an encyclopedia. Good luck with that.

Thinking about the generational difference between today’s football players and those who came before, P.J. Fleck knows he’ll always have to answer why.

“I think some people, because you’re put in a position of authority, think everyone should listen to you, and no matter what you say it should be done that way,” Fleck told 247Sports. “This generation questions everything, not because they are combative but because they have access to information we didn’t have as a kid. They’re going to call you out if you’re wrong. They have resources. They always want to know why.

“It’s our job as coaches to find cultural ways to teach these lessons.”

Fleck hits on a point researchers from Michigan State covered last year in a research paper titled, “Coaching Generation Z Athletes.” The study, which interviewed 12 highly-experienced tennis coaches, found that Gen Z athletes generally shared several characteristics: They tend to set outcome-focused goals, didn’t initially handle adversity well, responded poorly to negative feedback, had short attention spans, needed to understand the “why” to be motivated and didn’t always have the strongest interpersonal communication.

Those traits, Driska said, are addressed more successfully by coaches who communicate with a positive bend. Coaches can motivate with reinforcement and encouragement or by fostering a culture that creates a fear of mistakes, only damaging a player’s ability to deal with adversity and trust his coach.

“You have that one moment to teach and educate,” Fleck said. “You can either take away somebody’s confidence or give it to them with education. We call it sandwich coaching. Give them something positive to catch their attention. Hit the nuts and bolts in the middle – the meat of what you’re getting at – and follow it up with a positive thing so they want to come back for more. We always teach what we want, not what we don’t want. We don’t use words like can’t and don’t. We’re always painting the picture of what you want them to do.”

Edwards likes to give players choices between two different options, both of which usually leads to the same end objective. He’s long found that people, especially college-age kids, respond better when they have a sense of agency.

This leads to standards. Edwards doesn’t have rules in his program. He believes in setting achievable expectations. This gives what would usually be a command a goal-oriented bend. In the NFL, he used to tell his team the standard is “We’ll all be in by 12 a.m.” He had much better success with that than, “You have to be in your bed by midnight.”

“I’ve seen ‘rules’ coaches,” Edwards said. “They spend so much time every day worrying about rules … They worry about too many things: Socks, earrings. When do you get to coach? Players don’t like rules.”

Edwards and Fleck constantly self-evaluate their teaching. Part of that is instructing their coaches on how the program will be run. But much of it is adaptability to ensure they understand what young players need. Edwards is 66. He knows today’s players don’t do what he did at 18. So, he’s got several young coaches on his staff, including 25-year-old defensive back coach Chris Hawkins, to help bridge the generation gap. “I need guys that are connected to give me that information.”

Fleck started as the youngest head coach in the FBS. He’s now 39. That’s still borderline puppy status for his role, but in a few years he went from being in the same generation as his players to doubling the age of some of his charges. He’s had to evolve, adjusting to new demands in recruiting — graphics, social media, even the music kids want to talk about. “If you’re not changing and you’re not adapting, you’re losing,” Fleck said.

Fleck has won plenty during his short career. First, flipping Western Michigan from 1-11 to 13-1 in just four years. Then he took over at Minnesota, where, in just three seasons, he went from 5-7 to 11-2, the Gophers’ first 11-win season since 1904. For Fleck, these historic results didn’t occur because of some talent overload. Instead, they’re built on relationships and culture. 

“I think (culture) matters more,” Fleck said. “At a place like (Minnesota) it matters more. That’s why a team like Minnesota with five four-star recruits can win the Outback Bowl when there’s 48 on the other sideline. Culture truly trumps skill.”

“He’s Truly Like The Sun, His Positvity Radiates Everywhere”

Earlier this month, Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds climbed a fence bordering the practice field and posed like a WWE Superstar. A few days later, wide receiver Cameron Dollar reeled in a deep shot and held the ball up like Simba from “Lion King,” the rest of his offense kneeling around him to recognize their new monarch.

This is Charlotte football. After every win the 49ers’ locker room transforms into “Club Lit,” where a shirtless Healy once donned the 49ers’ mascot head and crowd surfed after achieving bowl eligibility. Healy calls these celebrations “icing on the cake,” the flashy bit of the team’s culture that gets buzz and recruiting attention. Yet the smaller moments matter just as much. The day before Dollar pulled a Rafiki, Healy told his team they weren’t clapping hard enough. Seriously. The 49ers clap after every properly executed play. The reasoning is twofold: 1. It ups the energy. 2. It allows Healy to see who’s not locked in or paying attention.

“Little things like that can provide a spark in the boring, dull moments the guys might dread,” Healy said. “It’s having so much fun in the process that you don’t realize how hard you worked reaching the finish line.”

Healy is purposeful with his culture. The program has a 50-page guidebook that hits on the team’s four pillars — positivity, authenticity, accountability and community — and Healy spends at least 15 to 20 minutes of each meeting talking about anything but football. Healy recently took his staff on a culture retreat, installing it to his on-the-ground operators like he would an offense.

Healy hasn’t consciously created an environment that provides Gen Z athletes what they need. But the ideas align. Earlier this year, a player expressed concern he couldn’t breathe well with a mask on at practice and on the sideline. Reynolds said most coaches would just say, ‘Come on man, toughen up.’ Healy told the player: “Let me talk to the trainers and talk about it.” A day or two later, there was a full plan in place to distance the player from the team on the sideline to help him feel comfortable. When George Floyd was killed and protests popped up across America, Healy held a team-wide Zoom call where he asked what he and 49ers football could do to help. Healy, his wife and son later marched with the players in protest.

Conversation-focused team meals and the fostering of a familial atmosphere are designed to encourage communication and keep players off their phones. And while Healy isn’t afraid to light into someone for an on-field error, he hopes the relationships he’s created day-to-day help scale the tension later.

It’s with that idea Healy thinks back to his 10-year-old self. Healy played in a soccer tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee and his dad, Rob, told him he could go to a music festival later that evening. Healy’s team went on a four-game winning streak, qualifying for the championship game scheduled for the next morning. When Healy informed his dad he was ready to go to the festival, Rob said no. Will flipped out. Rob broke into tears: “I’d love so much to tell you yes,” he said. “It’s not easy to tell you no. But I love you enough to tell you no.”

“I believe that,” Healy said. “I love you enough to tell you no. If there’s a relationship behind it that’s pretty dynamic. If there’s not, it’s just words.”

Harris, the sixth-year senior defensive end, has seen Healy get into his players and is old enough to have seen many coaches do much the same. But the way Healy spends the other 98 percent of his time virtually erases any tension that bubbles up in those moments. 

Thinking about what Healy’s done for Charlotte in some 21 months, Harris credits Healy’s relentless positivity as a change agent that not only sent the team bowling but also changed his life.

“He’s truly like the sun in that his positivity radiates everywhere,” Harris said. “It makes you look at things differently. Everything I do now is different.”

Athletes Are Forcing Coaches To Change

Edwards knew at a young age he responded best when coaches taught in a calm, digestible manner. Fleck is a self-described runt. He knew he had to work harder and bring more energy than everyone else. Healy watched his head coach at Richmond, Mike London, invite the coaching staff’s families to the pregame meal before a national championship. He thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

None of their coaching styles are the same, yet they all arrived in the same positive coaching headspace because they were drawn to teachers who practiced those principles.

“For me it’s just like, ‘Who’s an infectious person to be around?’” Healy said. “Coach Brown and Coach Swinney … are in different age brackets, but you can see players love being around them. I’m drawn to those types of people. Energetic people that understand they don’t have all the answers but understand they’re making the best decision for the moment. This industry can’t have enough of them.”

Yet Driska, who teaches coaches for a living, said the culture of football is a tough thing to crack.

“There’s a lot of resistance to doing things a different way,” Driska said. “Even something like how you teach a skill. … Can you imagine as a young assistant coach? Nothing is more stifling.”

Asked to speculate as to why, Driska said FBS coaches are responsible for a lot. They’re in charge of 100-plus players, have to deal with heavy fan expectations and work in a bottom-line business. Brandon Whiting, a seven-year NFL vet and senior Partnership Manager for the Positive Coaching Alliance, speculates the mindset is rooted in the sport.

He points out some of football’s defining terms — blitz, trenches — have a grueling, military-like connotation. The sport boomed in popularity with blue-collar America, emerging as the nation’s most-watched sport in the 60s, according to Gallup. Says Whiting, who played from 1998-2004, “Back in my generation, if a coach told you to do something, you did it. You didn’t ask.” He thinks that militia mindset lingers because the sport is built on a macho brand of physical toughness and the need to conform with rules that are necessitated to keep 11 players working in unison each play.

The thing Whiting hears most often in negative association with positive coaching is a lack of discipline. It’s “soft.” He’d push against that. So would Healy, Fleck and Edwards. All three stressed their glass-half-full outlook doesn’t mean they avoid getting into players. Far from it. It’s picking their spots and pushing with passion instead of anger.

Coaches who practice fear-based instruction still populate college football. Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle recently split with the Hawkeyes after 21 years following accusations of player mistreatment. Former Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was fired in 2015 after an external review showed he put his players at risk by pressuring them to play hurt. Howard head coach Ron Prince abruptly resigned last year after allegations surfaced he threatened and was verbally abusive to players and his coaching staff. Those are a few public examples among many.

Edwards believes there’s a different way. He’s the son of a Master Sergeant. He knows discipline. It’s why his days start at 4 a.m. and a 90-minute workout is completed by 6 a.m. But he knows a message comes across with far more clarity when he avoids reactionary anger.

“When people get emotional you make bad decisions,” Edwards said. “You just do. You can be passionate. There’s a difference. When you’re emotional you don’t think correctly.”

Whiting described coaching in the NFL in the late-90s and early-2000s as “in-your-face yelling and swearing.” Back then, players would enter the locker room and light up a cigarette at halftime. He’s seen a shift in the cultural norms in the time since, a period that’s given players more power and held coaches more accountable for their actions.

Yet Whiting often turns on the TV and sees coaches, who were veterans when he arrived in the NFL, still roaming the sidelines. He believes it’ll take coaches like Fleck, Edwards and Swinney — winners with a more positive approach — to cycle through college football and have their stylings copied. Otherwise, Darwinism never plays out in a sport so obsessed on wins and losses.

That evolution might soon be accelerated.

Gen Z has shown a penchant for activism this offseason with players like Kylin Hill, Chuba Hubbard and Marvin Wilson speaking out for social justice or change within their programs. In each instance, their multi-million dollar head coaches were forced to either conform with the goal or bend.

“Athletes are forcing coaches to change their games,” Driska said. “They can’t just give orders anymore. They have to try harder.”

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