Is there one answer – and if so, what is it?
If fifteen or more causes of Millennial problems in football required fifteen or more solutions, we wouldn’t be writing this article. But they don’t. The key is to focus on one solution that will give the quickest, broadest, and most functional payoff.
Most of the consequences of Millennial team problems – organizational or sporting – are the result of poorly developed interpersonal skills and an unwillingness to face uncomfortable conversations. Sounds too simple? Well, let’s back it up with some practical examples. The consequences may vary from code to code and with the makeup and structure of teams, but all the following problems will occur in one form or another.
Codes vary in how intrinsically teamwork-dependent they are. Running and passing games such as Rugby codes – where at any point a player could be passing the ball to any other player in the team – are highly dependent. Soccer too, to a lesser extent. And American football less so, because of the dominant role of the quarterback in offensive plays. But there’s always the greedy players who put themselves ahead of the team. When this becomes a habit, conflict arises between team members. Given the Millennial mindset, this is highly unlikely to end in rational discussion and a meeting of minds. A more likely outcome is simmering resentment that will damage performance and team motivation, even after management steps in to force a resolution.
This has elements of the self-indulgent but goes further. Show-offs want spectacular recognition for spectacular plays. Those low percentage moves which, ironically, have a greater chance of success the more times they’re indulged in. Again, this encourages conflict, with the consequent head-butting and resentment among team members. But it’s even tougher to resolve because of the psychological component, and those cheer squads in the media who delight in flamboyant “Hail Mary” plays when they come off – conveniently forgetting the times they didn’t.
My way or the highway
Gallup 2017 listed this as a key reason for Millennials quitting a position to go elsewhere. These players want everyone else to indulge their desire to “do what they do best” – whether that’s playing in a preferred position, assuming a certain responsibility, having the power to overcall plays, the right to roam, or anything else that puts their needs ahead of the team’s. And they’re prepared to use blackmail if necessary to get their way – because this is all they can see. Again, the friction caused with management is a side issue to the layers of conflict it creates within the team.
The famously rousing “inch-by-inch” speech by Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, was based on the premise that all team members would take on the discipline. But few football teams are exempt from those who pick and choose their moments to step up. No one is better placed to recognize the vagaries of this than fellow team members. And it infuriates. In some ways, it’s more “up yours” than the other examples. When one player, or a couple, are taking breathers in stages, while the rest of the team work their butts off minute by minute, the affront becomes personal, and the flow on that much more damaging.
Teams within a team destabilise harmony and breed resentment. Minds shaped by social media are vulnerable to forming cliques, with the explicit and implicit exclusion of other teammates that goes with it. Cliques can form for a variety of reasons, based on different rationales for cozying up with certain teammates over others. Football in all its codes is fundamentally tribal, at the level of the fans. But sub-tribes within a team – touting extra entitlement, privileges or stature – are fundamentally destabilising. And this mindset is invariably at the root of off-field poor behaviors (or so-called “indiscretions”) which destroy otherwise-promising careers, dry up grassroots participation as parents (mothers in particular) are alienated by a code’s tarnished reputation, and put additional pressure on securing and maintaining sponsorship bucks at a time when this is already more challenging than ever – ironically because of the advertising reach of the very same tech and social media companies whose influence has disrupted player attitudes and behaviour in the first place.
A tale of two headspaces
As a coach, club manager, current or prospective sponsor, code administration, fan, player agent… which headspace would you prefer in your players?
One who is defiant towards authority and disinclined to take advice, or one who is respectfully open and even when they disagree, will offer their case with respect? The player who dictates how they should be understood, or who genuinely attempts to understand where others are coming from? One who is confused by the lack of a core moral grounding, or one who is grounded by consistent personal standards? The player who is easily led by peers into situations of risk (or induces others into such situations), or the player who will stand up to peers and reject the pressure? The player who is wholly driven by impulsiveness – whether in going for the spectacular one-handed slam-down which becomes a match-losing bounce, or the unnecessarily risky touchdown, or giving no thought to the consequences of post-game night-club behaviour – or the player whose game and life-focus combine both short and long-term perspectives? The player who treats social media as uncensored self-gratification, or one who sees social media as a genuine vehicle for enhancing their personal, team, and football code image?
It’s not hard.
Focus on the consequences
All of the common instances of player irresponsibility, (and there are many more in addition to those above) lead to antagonism and conflict within a team and damage performance and morale. The influences that shape Millennial day-to-day lives – the peer-group echo-chamber, the knee-jerk “haters gonna hate” response to any and all criticism, the chronic fear of missing out, the social media-generated petty jealousies and resentments – none of these encourage a “see the other side” mentality. Moreover, the typical Millennial upbringing, with peers replacing parents early on as the dominant influencing models, denied them the opportunity to pick up negotiation skills in the course of their growing up. No surprise that this generation lacks the mental framework or psychological mindset for bargaining or reconciliation. As the Millennial mind perceives it, all opposing views are ill-informed. Inflexibility is the default mode in any dispute, and compromise is just admitting you were wrong. And this is the endemic problem.
So it’s the consequences team management should sensibly be addressing, not the underlying causes. Even when those causes are ingrained, such as the show-off, the problem has a better chance of being resolved if each side adopts an accommodating mindset rather than evading the issue or looking to be confrontational (which in the case of those for whom some degree of aggression is a trademark, can well end up in physical violence).
The answer is…
Giving players the mindset, skills and process (all three are necessary) for resolving disputes constructively, pays off in short and long term ways. And far more productively than any alternative remedy. When Millennials acquire the capacity to deal with conflict, and even negotiate disagreement when that’s the appropriate course, it equips them to deal with “uncomfortable conversations” at any level and in any context – in their team relationships and also in their personal lives (something not to be downplayed or forgotten). Interpersonal problems can be anticipated and avoided. And those that still occur are much more easily resolved without ongoing rancour.
The confidence that comes with this new ability is empowering and life-changing. It takes a narrow perspective on life and broadens it beyond recognition. Further, it provides a foundation for tackling longer term issues – such as, what will they be equipped to do with their lives when football careers are ended?
If this solution was difficult it would still be a priority. The fact is, it’s very achievable. And, even better, relatively small improvements in dispute handling skills yield large payoffs. Although the benefits flow to all stakeholders, the greatest beneficiaries are the players themselves. And that’s the key.
Gallup, (2017) State of the American Workplace, sourced from https://news.gallup.com/reports/199961/statnke-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx .
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