Yesterday, I was teaching a group of 10 14-year-olds about leadership and I told a story about the first time I learned about leadership. I was their age, and someone I looked up to handed me three cassette tapes by John C. Maxwell. Then a hand slowly went up. “Yes?” I asked. With a confused look on his face, he thought for a second and said, “cassette tape?” That’s right...I had to literally draw a picture of a cassette tape on the board. But, why should they know what a cassette tape is? Side note, I told them what a mix tape was. “Oh, like when you make a playlist for your girlfriend on Spotify?” Yes, like that, except they will never know the pain of sitting through a Keith Sweat song when the radio DJ starts talking over the last part of the song! I taught them a little bit about the past, and we moved on.
Today, I caught a Pokémon. On a walk with one of my summer staff, I pulled out my phone and fired up the PokemonGo app. "What are you doing?" asked Will. "Connecting to my students," I answered." An hour later, after I had a 10-year-old explain to me what I just did, I used it as an example of Followership. I now had 15 uninterested 11-year-olds on the edge of their seats because their teacher understood a little about their world.
Last week, while teaching a bunch of college athletes, I used Harry Potter as an example of how a great leader accepts help when it is needed and knows how to delegate tasks to those with the proper skills to get the job done. I knew they would understand because seven years ago, when they were in grade school, Harry Potter was all the little kids talked about. I read the books then, and now I catch Pokémon.
A few months ago, a few of my teams found out I was the guy on the Farmer’s Only commercial and it gave me instant street cred. I don’t know why it had that effect, but I used it as a way to connect to them. So now, when I am in the lunchroom and I hear, “Hey coach, you don’t have to be lonely…” instead of being annoyed, I smile and finish the song with them. They laugh, and in class I am that much more connected to them.
Connect with them and let them teach you something.
Find ways to connect to your team. Kids have not changed, but the world they live in is different than yours and mine. They don’t know about John Wooden and his pyramid, so asking them to be more Industrious will leave you frustrated. Your story about Joe Montana doesn’t resonate with kids the way it did 10 or 15 years ago. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was replaced by Jordan, who has been replaced by Lebron, who will someday be replaced by someone else (save your arguments about who I should have written, and just see the point I am trying to make).
Something I have done for years is to make sure I know what fiction books my athletes are reading in school. I especially enjoy it when they are books I read in high school, like The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. They are already learning about that, so use it to your advantage.
Lastly, if you don’t understand the latest craze/technology/time waster, ask your athletes to teach you. Having an athlete teach you something they are passionate about (no matter how stupid you think it is) is a great way to build rapport with your athletes. Best part about doing this is you will be alone, because most other coaches would rather spend time on Xs and Os than learning about what is important to their athletes.