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Coaching Generation Z, Grit, and the Elite 11

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The nation’s best quarterbacks transfer at alarming rates

NCAA Football: Savannah State at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Summer camps, combines and showcases are well underway all over the United States as high school prep players try to impress power five coaches into offering them scholarships. On the flip side of that relationship, the college football programs and their head coaches are also trying their best to impress the young men (and maybe even some women) in the class of 2020 to commit to their school.

Down in Coral Gables, FL Manny Diaz is hosting Paradise for the first time as the head football coach of the Miami Hurricanes. Former head coach Mark Richt started the idea which has blossomed into a mega-event in South Florida. Coach Diaz has NFL Hall of Famers and former Hurricanes legends returning like Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin, as well as Willis McGahee, Alonzo Highsmith and many others.

If high school prospects want to see legacy they can look no further than standing in the Carol Soffer Indoor Practice Facility with names like Brian Blades, Gino Torretta, and Jeremy Shockey, all of which won national titles at Miami.

Today’s recruiting trail is littered with coaching camps off-site, combines and camps on campus, and of course: social media. It’s a battle of who is having more fun while still winning football games. Geoff Collins is using his charismatic personality to bring attention back to Georgia Tech (and apparently unlimited Waffle House) who played well but without flare under Paul Johnson in the flexbone triple option.

Then of course there’s the 7on7 all-star teams and tournaments and the big time recruiting shows like Elite 11. Elite 11 has its place via the documentaries they put out to hype their product. The Opening is a 7on7 tournament and linemen challenge that has brought eyes to the recruiting process, too. Players clamor for the attention that these showcases bring and in basketball where it’s AAU summer leagues and in baseball where it’s Perfect Game- football has The Opening and Elite 11.

If your high school coach isn’t on Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat promoting your accolades you’re probably going to transfer to a high school that will promote you on social media. The world of college recruiting is a highly competitive world filled with street agents, seedy bagmen, and large staffs of “recruiting assistants” that are trying to make each prospect feel like they’re the most important person in the room.

Generation Z

Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010, love instant gratification more than any generation previously. That comes with the electronic territory as they’ve grown up with smartphones in their hands, as well as iPads, Macbooks, Chromebooks, Playstation 4’s and other WiFi driven products that bring information and satisfaction instantly to their brains and into their frontal lobes.

While Generation Y (and the sub-sect iY) were known for helicopter parents and growing up with transitioning technology; the Generation Z’ers are known for lawnmower parents and internet in every home. While the helicopter parents would let their children make mistakes but swoop in to fix them at every bruised knee, the lawnmower parents bulldoze possible roadblocks long before they can ever be encountered. This has led to a large amount of players transferring high schools over things like playing time and what position the coaches have them playing, and even a more and more likely transferring from college to college. Dr. Peter Gray wrote a piece for Psychology Today called, “The Many Shades of Fear-Based Parenting,” and it aligns perfectly with the constant high school and college transfers we see as we leave the 2010’s.

Some of the issues of the transfer portal are that players are being made immediately eligible upon transfer by the NCAA. I personally agree that every player should get one “free-bee” transfer in their college career, especially when the head coach who recruited them leaves for another school (or is fired) or the football program has issues with the NCAA resulting in sanctions and/or probation. However, it’s having an impact on grit and growth in our student-athletes that has been long poorly modeled by college coaches and their high school equivalents.

What is the turnover chain but an extrinsic reward that’s going to for sure be posted, retweeted, and liked on social media? If instant gratification and online adulation work in 2019 and beyond then that’s the approach football programs are going to have to take to win ballgames.

The Elite 11

The Elite 11 would be the most obvious and damning of the evidence that with instant gratification comes a lack of grit. For instance, the 2000 Elite 11 roster had only two players transfer from their original schools: Ingle Martin (Florida to Furman) and Nic Costa (Arizona to Portland State). The 2001-2002 Elite 11 rosters had three combined quarterbacks transfer during their college tenure. Compare that data to 2011 which had five players transfer a total of 11 times. The 2012 class had 13 total transfers among seven players and multiple arrests from Kevin Olsen.

So what has changed over the past nearly two decades? Well for starters there’s more information out there and players have more data but less ability to use said data. While our access to data has changed rapidly since 2000, our brain’s ability to process said data has only slightly adapted via neuroplasticity. Yogi Roth claimed on The Solid Verbal podcast that the Elite 11 does so much for sports psychology that the high school coaches don’t, however they’ve embodied the grit’less transfer first ask / questions later approach that’s plagued the reputations of Gen Z. At the time of that podcast appearance, I quoted data to Roth on Twitter- stating that from 2009-2014, Elite 11 quarterbacks had transferred 34 times. I also called him out on his complete lack of support in his claim. Needless to say, Mr. Roth didn’t book his trip to Willamina, OR that summer (but he should’ve, the Spirit Mountain Casino buffet is excellent).

I do believe that in the social media era players feel pressured to perform right away. They see tweets, blog posts, and message board postings about how they’re “busts.” They feel pressure from home to make money in the NFL. There’s a different level of scrutiny and access to student-athletes today than there ever was in the 80’s, 90’s, or even five years ago. That pressure needs to be addressed and “stay off social media” isn’t the answer. That takes mindfulness, mindlessness, and a deep understanding of psychology and our cognitive behaviors.

The Miami Hurricanes currently have two former Elite 11 quarterbacks on campus in Tate Martell, Jarren Williams and have a commitment from Tyler Van Dyke (class of 2020). Martell has already transferred to Miami from Ohio State after being the focus of not only Elite 11 fame but also the QB1 documentary. Williams has put his name in the transfer portal but rescinded with the Manny Diaz hiring as head football coach.

The real question becomes: is it best to transfer out of a situation that isn’t going well or is it best to ride it out and prove you’re worth of being a starter? At West Virginia, the Mountaineers just rode a transfer to 15 wins and two bowl appearances with Will Grier (Florida) at quarterback. This off-season new WVU head coach Neal Brown is working his way through Jack Allison (Miami), Austin Kendall (Oklahoma) and redshirt freshman Trey Lowe. Former Elite 11 QB Justin Fields left Georgia for Ohio State amidst racist taunts and received immediate eligibility to play in Columbus this fall.

Is this a lack of grit in Generation Z?

I think to a point- yes. I think that grit is lacking in many college students, athletes or otherwise, who transfer and struggle with the transition from high school to college. Today there is just easier communication tools between coaches of other schools and unhappy players who can enter the transfer portal and re-open their recruitment. The recruitment experience is extremely rewarding with it’s almost baroque style of lavish meals and fancy hotel rooms. There are parties, girls, lobster, and Cadillacs (see: Williams, Willie and his recruiting diary for details). Who wouldn’t want to enjoy that experience for a second time?

One interesting experiment would be to see the grit scores from Angela Duckworth’s “Grit Scale” (take the Grit Scale here for yourself) and see if players who have less grit transfer more than players with a grittier background. It would be a fascinating experiment and give some empirical data behind my theories of increased information, the transfer portal and wanting to enjoy that recruitment wave all over again.

The next question is whether or not it’s the coach’s job to teach their new signees about grit, growth, mindfulness and to worry about these young minds and their success? I believe that it is part of the puzzle that will create hard working, dedicated, passionate, and well-off student-athletes. Players may play well outside of their resiliency but not for long. Eventually the emotional duress and self medicating will result in poor performance, and probably when performance matters the most; such as conference championship games or at the NFL Combine.

So what does this all mean?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

There was a great piece on The Athletic by Max Olson titled, “What can college football coaches do to keep players happy in the NCAA transfer portal era?” There he talked with 10 coaches and most notably David Shaw about the recruitment process and players happiness. To paraphrase, Coach Shaw blamed the coaches as much, if not more than the players. Coach Shaw feels that players are misled by the typical recruiting experience of wine-and-dine and how they’re not seeing the real side of coaches during recruitment.

What Shaw calls for, in Human Resources, is called a “realistic job preview.” In other words, the coaches should offer the players an authentic look at their practices and coaching style. Players are going to be worked hard and often and if your style is to yell they should know it already. A grit score could help with that as people with passion and perseverance for what they love won’t quit when the going gets tough. Authenticity from the coaches is always paramount as well, you don’t want kids to transfer then don’t promise them playing time you can’t guarantee, or act like a saint when you’re obviously a sinner in a position group meeting or on the field.

In the end, a focus on psychology before the player’s arrival (if that’s even legal) and a massive focus on their psychology once they’re under your care (completely legal) would benefit both the program and the athlete. If athletes are left to only being physical properties and not giving their own focus on the mental and emotional aspects of not only the game but of life as well we’re falling short as fans, coaches, and administrators.

Grain of Salt

Let’s all enjoy the Paradise Camp, The Opening, Elite 11, and all of the other recruiting hoopla for what it is- a sales pitch. The players are selling themselves to the schools and the programs are selling themselves equally as hard at the same time. Michael Irvin isn’t in Coral Gables right now just to hang out, he’s there to sell potential signees on what Miami can do for them. Miami has The Rock, Texas has Matthew McConaughey, and remember when USC had Will Ferrell and Snoop?

It’s all a brand and what Pete Carroll had going with celebrities and championships at USC, Chip Kelly had in speed and uniforms at Oregon, and Manny Diaz is bringing his own brand to The New Miami in fancy boats and keggers. Whatever it takes to impress the flash-craving social media loving recruits of Generation Z. Just stay authentic and win football games, or else it’ll be the next guy’s brand taking over your office space.