By Gabe Ribas
December 3, 2012
I will admit it, I am becoming crotchety in my old age. At the ripe age of 32 I find myself readily saying, “kids these days!” I sit back and reminisce about the way things were, and how tough “my” generation is, as compared to the kids we coach. “Generation Y is so entitled,” this, and “these kids are just soft,” that, and so on and so forth.
What I am figuring out, is that the problem isn’t with the kids, the problem is how we as their mentors, communicate with them. Teenagers now are roughly the same as they were 10 years ago, but the language they speak, a language driven by technology, is hard for us crusty veterans in our 30’s and over to understand.
I don’t long for my teens or twenties. I have happily, though somewhat begrudgingly, moved passed my playing days and sophomoric behavior, to feeling comfortable in my skin as a coach. It is my assumption that most of the coaches I have had in my lifetime were actually named “Coach So and So” by their parents. On their birth certificate. Well, that isn’t me. I didn’t always know this is what I wanted to do, and I made some mistakes along the way. I have screwed up some good players, and helped out some bad ones. After 7 years of coaching, I now know what I am looking for out of my players. I finally understand that none of them are me, and none of them want to be me, they want to accomplish much more than I ever did. However, as the age gap grows, there are times when I feel out of tune with the rhythms of 16 to 22 year-olds.
For a bit of context, I went to visit my 90 year-old grandfather down in Phoenix this past weekend. My Grandpa Sheppard (or Panta as I call him), was a ranch hand in Montana and Idaho, and a heck of a high school point guard and quarterback for the Chinook Sugar Beeters, of Chinook, MT. He fought the Japanese in WWII. He was the chair of the Foreign Language department at Arizona State University for 17 years. He was an expert fly fisherman. The rare kind of American man who could fix your car, quote Don Quixote in perfect Spanish from memory, expound on the origins of language, catch you a trout from the Big Blackfoot, and sink a free throw underhand with the fate of the world on the line. My Panta Sheppard was a man amongst men. He is 90 now. Still sharp as a tack, but a bit slowed down by old age and a bad back. His hands aren’t steady enough to tie flies for the spring fishing season anymore, but they manipulate the apps on his iPad just fine. His days are spent, sending emails, reading about the world, and discovering the beauty of technology. Every time I see him I can’t help but think, “how hard is it for a man who didn’t grow up with a phone in his house to wrap his mind around the idea of an iPad?” I don’t know what the equivalent for me is going to be, but it has to be on par with the flying car, and artificial intelligence, I know that they could happen, but my mind will be fully blown when they do. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
While I didn’t grow up in the Stone Age, technology has moved so fast that I can hardly keep up. Back in my college dorm it was rare for people to have cell phones (I got my first one in 2001–it couldn’t send text messages), we were all learning how to use email on a daily basis, we were playing Bond on Nintendo 64, and you could hear the constant ping of Instant Messages mostly being sent from one roommate to another. I think Facebook existed but you actually had to go to the student union and buy one at the bookstore. No one had ever heard of an iPod, iPad, iPhone, or iAnything. If you were interested in the girl from the fourth floor you had to hope you bumped into her doing laundry, rather than checking out her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, posts to figure out if you might actually like her. We were forced to talk to each other, face to face without our technology as a crutch.
All that being said, I am a fan of the technology that has inundated our lives. It allows us to communicate our strongest beliefs, visions and directions to a large audience. Technology gives us the ability to be transparent, and strangely, more human. I can’t claim to understand the complete scope of social media, other than I get that it is very powerful. As Clay Shirky, Professor at NYU said in his 2009 TED Talk in Washington DC, “The internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time… The internet gives us the many to many pattern.” I suppose what Shirky is getting at, is that our conversations are no long one to one, but rather that we as producers of media are always on stage, delivering our group messages to thousands upon thousands of other groups. As I attempt to crawl out from my shadowy cave filled with long distance phone cards and instant messaging from my desktop, I must admit that I struggle with keeping up with the times. While I value face-to-face interaction, a firm hand shake and eye contact, I also know that longing for those things simply makes me dusty and dated. While the face-to-face may still be the cake of communication, people still love the slice with lots of icing.
In a very round about way, this brings me back to where I started– how can I as a leader and a mentor communicate with the hearts of the young men I recruit and coach? As Shirky says in the same talk, “These tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” I have to be so comfortable with the technology that it just makes sense– it has to become a part of my own every day life. By checking Facebook, following players and recruits on Twitter and Instagram, I am developing a relationship with all of the young people in my life that is much more broad and thoughtful. To understand the forces pulling at the players I want to lead, I have to do more than simply listen to the words coming out of their mouths– I have to see the things that motivate them, and speak in that same language. I have to be my Panta on his iPad exploring the world.
The concept of talking to players in their own language is the lynchpin to my existence here at Santa Clara. I had a chance to hear Coach O’Brien speak at our National Coaches Convention three years ago, and he talked about what it takes to communicate with a changing generation. At the end of the day, we can’t blame them for not being like us, what we need to do is blame ourselves as their leaders for not paying attention to what it is that they are saying. WE have to start talking their language. I am doing my best to tweet more. I check out pics on Instagram. I am writing this blog post right now. Leadership at its core is about following, listening, guiding, and loving the group you are in charge of, be that a company, a department, a team or a family. Fellow Northwestern University graduate and manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Girardi once said that being a good manager was all about listening to the hearts of his players. Now, those hearts speak a language that we as coaches have to learn if we want to achieve greatness. I can guarantee you this though, the teary hugs given at the end of a championship run will stay with me a lot longer than the pictures of those hugs will stay at the top of my Instagram feed.
— COACH RIBAS