How can we positively impact and influence people through the difficult stages of emerging adulthood?

“Gen Z and Millennials” on the sports fields and in the workplace are getting coaches, managers and business leaders alike to re-think both how we approach and encourage the pursuit of the boundaries of their sporting and innovative potential. However, like my current research is evolving and other suggestions from behaviourism researchers, do we actually know or understand fully what these emerging adults (seen as currently between 16-26 years old) athletes or new employees want or need? Tony Robbins referenced "the brain being old hardware, previously used for fight or flight responses; now we are looking to choose fulfilment over achievement". Simon Sinek famously recorded stating how Millennials are chasing purpose and impact yet lack the patience and effort required to find these desired emotions. Angela Duckworth has defined grit as "passion and perseverance", something can could be perceived as lacking from this generation of leaders and athletes coming through. What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act?

Firstly, I believe a greater understanding of the importance of this developmental age needs to be understood. While we acknowledge the multiple transitions of life through education, work and sport is occurring, developmentally these people and players shall be starting to reconstruct their personal past, perceive the present and anticipate the future in an internalised and evolving self narrative that provides psycho-social unity and purpose, something not worked on until these adolescent years. At this stage, they identify and crystallise casual narratives through choosing life events of most individual importance to explain traits, attitudes and beliefs that ground and start their life story within an ideological setting. However, akin to James Vaughan’s reference of “form of life” in recent blog post (, Habermas and Bluck identified that “before a person can formulate a life story, they must become acquainted with culture’s sense of biography”; essentially, identities or internalised life stories are ascribed by culture rather than constructed by the individual. Therefore, while we as sports coaches or leaders are asking these emerging adults for greater commitment, attention, effort and expertise, possibly at this stage of life, players potentially need more space to learn, support to understand and time to explain attitudes and beliefs and allow athletes the opportunities to identify narratives through choosing life or sporting events of most individual importance to explain their personal traits, attitudes and beliefs.


What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act and help influence or support these young athletes? In previous sport specific research, Pelletier found that changes to people’s perceptions of competence and self-determined motivators should increase intrinsic motivations and identification while decreasing introjection, external motivators and amotivation in athletes (Pelletier, 1995). Theories around self-determination such as Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) addresses the degree to which people’s behaviour in a domain is governed by self-determined motivators (Adie, 2010). The areas addressed as basic needs requiring fulfilment include competence, autonomy and relatedness. Vallerand and Mageau’s research has shown that intrinsic motivations and self-determined extrinsic motivators are necessary ingredients for athlete’s optimal function (Mageau, 2003). Deci and Ryan’s research investigated that intrinsic motivation is experienced as consequence of feeling competent and self-determined. Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting; this would help support Duckworth's research of grit whereby working towards singularly important goals being the hallmark of high achievers in every domain.

An example of athlete’s pursuit of competence in theoretical stance would be achievement goal theory. Achievement goal theory “implies that people are goal directed individuals, participating in achievement settings with a view to demonstrate competence or avoid demonstration of incompetence” (Adie, 2010). Ultimately, the goal of action within achievement goal theory is the demonstration of competence; however, there is differences how the perceived competence is displayed and perceived by athletes and young leaders. Players aligned with task involvement goals, whom judge their competency through self-referenced targets or goals, are recognised as evoking high effort to obtain mastery and continually improve personal performance. Their ability and effort is not differentiated by others and the perceived ability is self-determined and success only realised when mastery is achieved. Ego involvement or orientation shows athletes more concerned with their evaluation against normative standards and recognise success as measurement against others, which is now infinity more conman in for this age of athlete with the world of social media and perceived perception of people around them, when performing as equal as others with less effort; therefore, not displaying striving for mastery or being focused on task. These players have ego based goals and they differentiate their effort and perceived ability based on social aspects surrounding them at a developmental stage when they are confronting the issue of internalised identity versus social role confusion.

While intrinsic motivation stems from innate physiological need of competency and represents the prototype of self-determined behaviour, self-determined extrinsic motivators, which are extrinsic motivators which have been internally rationalised with oneself, become activities which are being carried out as are important and concordant to one’s values (Mageau, 2003). Self-determined forms of motivation also result in optimal behaviour, resulting in peak performance and persistence (Deci and Ryan, 2008). Encouraging young athletes and leaders to adopt a mastery approach to competency would encourage them to positively perform the task to the best of their ability and to self-regulated standards while attempting to continually learn and improve on an interpersonal level. Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) looks at offering and fulfilling involved people's autonomy, competency and relatedness or connection. However, perceived autonomy has emerged as a large predictor of motivation while competence and relatedness has served as small to moderate positive predictors (J. P. Pope & Wilson, 2014). Again, what does this mean for our current leaders and coaches? The importance of offering autonomy, the capacity to decide for oneself and pursue a course of action in one's sporting or working life, and being autonomy supportive to our young leaders is key. These actions include acknowledging and providing choice within specific limits and rules, providing rationale for tasks limits and rules, inquiring and recognising other’s feelings, allowing opportunities to take initiatives and complete independent work, provide non-controlling feedback, avoid over control, controlling statements and tangible rewards and prevent ego involvement from taking place. This shall help start to offer the engagement, purpose and impact these emerging adults are desiring and searching for as they start to understand themselves and their position in sport and life in broad, existential terms.

Results from Pope and Wilson’s studies showed athletes who perceive coaches to be supportive of decisions, provided with clear feedback concerning goal pursuits and engage with them in genuine and empathetic manner report greater need fulfilment, more self-determined motives and more perceived effort in sport (J. Pope & Wilson, 2012). Relatedness or connection can be seen as establishing and maintaining secure attachments with others to feel recognised, acknowledged and belonging to environment as opposed to isolated and ignored. Past sports research has provided results showing “the more athletes perceived their coaches to be caring and involved, the more self-determined in their motivations towards sport” (Pelletier, 1995). Hollembeak and Amorose also “found autocratic behaviour had a significant negative relationship with feelings of relatedness” (Hollembeak, 2005). As studied by Mageau and Vallerand, athlete’s perceptions of relationship with coaches is assumed as essential for intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (Mageau, 2003). Therefore, it can and should be recognised that coach-player relations or leadership within the workplace effect can influence performance, welfare and motivations of people and athletes of all ages.

Again, what does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act? To look at relatedness, leaders and coaches should start by raising expectations for what is needed and expected from connections to others. Meaningful connections is key here; engage on a significant and sincere level and teach our young athletes or leaders to do likewise in a period where they starting to develop a meaningful narrative to their lives. In sport specific research, Chan and Mallett recognized that high performing coaches require additional skills including ability to facilitate functioning leader-follower relationships, revolving around emotional intelligence and empathy, beyond the standard technical and tactical skills (Chan, 2011). Jowett’s research into coach-athlete relationships looked at the interrelated emotions and behaviours captured through constructs of commitment, closeness and complimentary, tied in later studies with coordination (Jowett, 2004). Both performance enhancement and physiological well-being is deeply ingrained within the development of meaningful relationships. All leaders and coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognition, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007).

The main aspects of influential and successful relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship. Within team sports like rugby union, the relationship between team cohesion and sports performance is an important and positive connection; Carron’s studies recognised that social cohesion has a stronger relationship than task cohesion on performance. Recognizing the benefits of promoting autonomy in team atmosphere for self-determined motivations, democratic coaching styles vastly improve team task cohesion when accounting for commitment, closeness and complementary within coach-athlete relations (Jowett, 2004). LaVoi’s conceptual model recognized the importance of human’s need to belong and feel connected and close within relationships; this can be accomplished through key characteristics in relationships including authenticity, engagement and empowerment between the coach and athlete (Jowett, 2007). High quality coach-athlete relationships, which are optimised by harmonious passion, result in higher subjective well-being within player (Lafrenière, 2008) This is an area which is critical for age grade player retention and development of self-determined motivations and mastery mindset, especially at this age bracket of emerging adults where players shall call upon symbolic images and anchoring events to support the psycho-social goal of creating an identity, on and off the sports field.

So again, do we actually know or understand fully what these young athletes or workers want or need at is critical stage of development? Exactly what we want in return; passion for learning and application, meaningful communications and relationships, support to choose and make autonomous decisions, following instinct while offering honest feedback on performance and support for a growth mindset; all things we must educate, support and train to others.  Hopefully this application of sport specific studies being applied to general working or coaching environments has offered food for thought.....