Respect has always served as the foundation of any productive coach-athlete relationship, but the dynamics of coaching have changed over the courses of the careers of Cal State Fullerton’s head coaches.
While they say athletes were previously approached with more rigid structure and stricter rules, Titans Head Coaches George Kuntz, Rick Vanderhook and Dedrique Taylor have found that coaching millennials requires different techniques.
“In the past, it was ‘You’re going to do this.’ It was basically ‘My way or the highway,’” Kuntz said.
Taylor and Vanderhook said in the past, all players would be treated the same, and coaches were far more intense than they are now.
“When I grew up, not that long ago, but obviously a long time ago, the message was way more harsh. It was more direct, and there was no care and concern about your feelings,” Taylor said.
Now, CSUF coaches are focused on the vital component of establishing a relationship with every one of their players.
“It’s quite obvious that you have to coach a different way now, and one of the most dramatic differences is really learning more about your student-athletes,” Kuntz said. “To show that you care first to build a trust so that when you have to coach or teach or demand, there is an understanding that you care.”
Even beyond just their impact on the game, Titans head coaches feel these relationships and trust make success possible because of the way they motivate players.
“You have to let them know that you love them and you care for them,” Vanderhook said. “These guys together here with us spend more time with us than they do their families for the next year. So you got to have some trust built in there.”
The trio of coaches said the relationships are essential to work cohesively with their players and produce wins.
“I think if you have a good relationship and you invest in the relationship, it allows you to stretch that relationship and get after it, and be direct and frank with them and they’re not as sensitive because you’ve built a relationship with them,” Taylor said.
As opposed to the more straightforward and strict way they were coached, Taylor, Vanderhook and Kuntz emphasize building close relationships with each of their players that don’t coddle them, but rather challenge them to pursue improvement instead of putting them down, which used to be more common.
The challenge is finding the happy medium between the two.
“For us, it’s finding that bridge to still allow them to grow (while) also keeping their confidence up but also having that trust with them that you’re going to let them know that they’re still not there yet, and that’s the challenge,” Kuntz said. “It’s a fine balance.”
However, with the new principles of getting to know and care about players, some things never change. CSUF coaches still value the rigor and hard exterior they were faced with and continue to use their past experiences to cater to millennials.
Vanderhook found that he’s had to adjust his previously tough coaching style to more of a “tough love” approach, making every mistake a learning lesson for his 35-man roster.
“I still yell at them because I try and make everything a learning environment, so if somebody makes a mistake and gets chewed on, I can be a little loud, because they need to understand that if one guy makes (a mistake), then everybody can learn from that guy’s mistake,” Vanderhook said.
Aside from forming relationships with their players, CSUF head coaches are in agreement that the communication between all members of the team is another major, new difference.
With the advent of smartphones and social media, today’s athletes communicate with each other and with their coaches far differently than how Vanderhook and the other coaches remember communicating.
“A lot of kids that’s all they do is use their thumbs to communicate, to the point where you still need to know how to communicate,” Vanderhook said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to teach is how to communicate, how to be an adult, and I think pushing your phones to say some message to somebody isn’t the way you’re supposed to do that.”
Taylor also believes that it’s important as a coach to become immersed in the millennial world and disseminate information in the ways his players best take it in.
“They communicate differently, so if you want to get a message across I think it’s incumbent upon the speaker to get into their arena and allow the millennials, if you will, to absorb the information the way that they do,” Taylor said.
But while they do have to meet millennials halfway in the way they communicate, Vanderhook said that doesn’t mean they can hold back when offering criticism of their play in front of their peers, even if the player isn’t used to it.
“A lot of people like to be brought up and cuddled and talked to about it. But when you have 35 guys and you can find a learning point, you need to make sure everybody learns from that one point,” Vanderhook said. “You have to control how you yell at them. Most of them have probably never been yelled at very much.”
Although millennial athletes may require different strategies to communicate with a text or a softer tone, all three coaches said one thing has remained the same across generations: The athletes’ obvious love and passion for the game.
“To get them to play at a level, or believe in a mission that you have, you have to build trust. You have to build relationships,” Kuntz said. “It’s much more than the game.”