They Don’t Know What It Cost: 4 Ways to Train Gratitude in Your Athletes

Teaching athletes gratitude has always been a challenge for me as a coach, and for years, I primarily relied on reminding and lecturing them. Specifically, I would lecture and remind them to express gratitude to their teachers, parents, and even the janitor who maintains our facilities. Additionally, I would lecture them on the importance of being grateful for the opportunity to play, given that not everyone has access to a team, nice gear, or the physical ability to participate in sports.

Despite my persistent efforts to remind and lecture my athletes about gratitude, I found it challenging to genuinely teach gratitude, as their expressions of appreciation often felt forced or required constant reminders. Moreover, it seemed awkward and unhealthy for our relationship when I had to remind them to be grateful for the coaches and the effort we put in. This issue is prevalent among Generation Z athletes, and the growing sense of entitlement deeply concerns and frustrates me and many other coaches. I don’t want my players to just complain less and say thank you more; I want them to be truly grateful.

As my children grow up, I am starting to experience similar frustrations to those I've faced as a coach. Recently, after a family hike in the mountains, my wife and I stopped to get our kids, Alena (7), Kieran (5), and Conall (2), some ice cream as a special treat. I had to remind them to say thank you, and to my dismay, I even heard a small complaint about the lack of chocolate sauce on the cone from one of them. As I gave the lecture on the importance of gratitude and the need to stop complaining, a sense of déjà vu washed over me.

As I drove home contemplating my children’s lack of gratitude, I asked myself, “Where was I going wrong?” And then it hit me. They had no idea what it cost. Literally. The ice cream cones were €2.80 each. And even if they knew that, they had no concept of money. If they don’t know what it cost, why would they be grateful? To these kids, money seems to be in endless supply as we routinely tap our cards on machines and walk out of stores with clothes and food. And so, I resolved then and there to teach them the following day.

How I Taught Them the Cost

The next day I ordered a debit card for my daughter, where I, as the parent, can set a daily spending limit as well as a host of other controls. I then explained how she would get one of these cards to store her money on in the next week, to which she was ecstatic at the news she would be getting what appeared to be a money tree she could store in her pocket. Her brother was immediately envious, but I assured him he was only two months away from the privilege of getting one himself.

And that’s when I told them their terms and conditions to having one of these cards. First, they would go through a lesson with me and their mother on money and finances. Over the next thirty minutes, we had their full attention, and we explained a few things to them about money:

  • Currency: We live in Ireland and use the Euro, but family members always send Dollars, so we needed to explain currencies and exchange rates.
  • Where They Can Get It: They get it from one of two ways at their age. People give it as a gift or they can do extra chores around the house to earn it. As they get a little older, they can explore other ways of earning it like as my daughter pointed out, “starting a lawn mowing business like Marc in The Way of the Warrior Kid” (a great book I’d recommend for all parents and their kids).
  • Where Adults Get Money: We took time to explain how people gifting them money or paying them money have to work for it, which is why it’s important to not interrupt Mom or Dad on a work call. We’re earning money to pay for things they need and sometimes things they just want.
  • Wants versus Needs: We took the time to explain how we, as their parents, have a responsibility to pay for their house, food, and other things we feel they need for their growth and development. For birthday and Christmas gifts, we will often get them something they want, but outside of those things, if they want something they must pay for it themselves, like Pokémon Cards, candy at the shop, or an extra fancy pair of shoes.

We wanted them to understand not just what money was, where it came from, how they could earn it, but also what things cost. I knew that lesson in and of itself wouldn't be enough. I knew they needed to experience the cost, especially the pain of the cost! Fortunately, life would present an opportunity for that experience right away.

Some Things Must Be Experienced to Be Understood

After our 15-minute finance lesson, my wife decided to take the kids to the movies. She told them we’d pay for their tickets, but if they

wanted popcorn, drinks or candy, they’d have to pay for it with their own money. To earn a little extra money beyond what they currently had, we said they could help clean the house that morning. So, for the next two hours, they scrubbed toilets, mopped floors, and vacuumed.

When they had finished, my wife dropped one more surprise—they each had a friend coming with them to the movies. And then a proud parenting moment happened: my five-year-old son shouted, “I can’t wait to buy me and [my friend] popcorn and drinks!”. I couldn’t help but chuckle with pride and the knowledge that he would be nearly broke after buying highly-priced popcorn and drinks at a movie theater.

Yet, it was one of the highlights of his movie experience as he was very proud to tell me later about how he bought him and his friend the biggest bucket of popcorn he could buy! Later he asked if there were any more chores he could do that week as he recognized he had spent nearly all his money.

By allowing him to experience the cost of the popcorn, he gained a sense of pride and self-worth in the fact he used his own money, some of which he had to earn himself through hard work. Over time, I have no doubt these experiences will help him and his sister to continue to be truly grateful for the things they have in their lives, to take better care of their things, and develop a work ethic founded in the fulfillment only gained by having to work hard for something.

4 Ways to Let Our Athletes Experience the Cost

There is so much that goes into coaching and running a program well. It’s not just running the practice, it’s planning the practice, coming up with new drills, setting up beforehand, and cleaning up afterward. You’ve got to scout opponents, organize referees, set up the playing field, clean up after the game, review the film, break it down, and share it with the players.

And then there are all the other operational tasks like scheduling, communicating the schedule, ordering gear, the list goes on. Typically, we take it all on as a coach, and when our players complain or don’t express gratitude, it wears us out! Except, they don’t see or understand all that goes into it. They don’t see what it costs us and our families! They can’t appreciate all that they have been given if they don’t know what it costs. We can fix that. Here are four changes you need to make as a coach to combat the growing sense of entitlement and train gratitude:

1. Fundraising

There is a growing trend in sports for athletes to ask for money, not earn it. New apps are making it easier and easier for the athlete not even to have to ask for it! They just enter in 20 emails or phone numbers, and it sends people a message asking for a donation to support the program. I get it’s easier and saves time, but this approach is missing so many opportunities.

My teams used to run a pancake breakfast at a local restaurant. Each athlete was given 20 tickets to sell. We told their parents not to help them sell the tickets. We wanted our kids to not only have to work every step of the way, but we wanted them to get the experience of talking to adults asking for donations.

And then on the big day, while the restaurant would cook the food, our athletes served as hosts, servers, and cleaners. Not only did they have to put in the work, but once again, they got valuable experience of talking with and serving adults.

2. Give them Chores and Tasks

I used to do all the setting up for practice. I’d put out the cones, get the balls out, dry mop the floor, and then hook up the clock. After practice, the coaches and I would spend time cleaning it all up, loading the washer with practice uniforms, and by the time it was all done, it could be another 15 to 30 minutes before we got to go home.

When we implemented a Captain’s Council, this all changed. We tasked the Captains with rotating responsibilities. The captain’s themselves didn’t have to complete all the tasks; they with their units of 3 to 4 teammates would make sure these tasks were always completed in time for practice to start and when practice finished. If you want to learn more about a Captain’s Council check out my book The Culture System.

One of the most powerful principles I learned from Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of the book Positive Discipline, is that we shouldn’t do things for our kids that they can do for themselves. If we do, we rob them of the opportunity to build skills and a sense of ownership. Look at the responsibilities within your program you are currently doing. What could your athletes take full or even just partial responsibility for? Give it to them.

3. Empower with Coaching Experience

On Episode 298 of The Coaching Culture Podcast, Tim Elmore tells the story of former Texas Longhorns Coach Mack Brown and how he gave ownership of part of the practices to Colt McCoy and his teammates. Mack asked them how they felt they should prepare for the next game. All of a sudden, the players took responsibility for the result of every game. With this new sense of ownership, they made it all the way to the National Championship.

Ownership helps to increase motivation and reduce stress, but it also helps people understand what goes into making something successful. It helps them experience the cost.

For most coaches, planning practice often takes more time than even running practice. Get a group of your leaders together and ask them to plan a practice. Then, before the practice, sit down with them and review the practice plan. Ask questions to help them consider things they have ignored and make improvements. Then give them some parts of a practice to actually run so they can see how much thought must go into executing practice efficiently.

4. Learn to Say No and Explain Why

Lastly, we need to say no while also explaining why. I used to be at my players' beck and call. If a player texted me last minute that they wanted to get in the gym, I would drop everything in my life to go and open the gym. I rationalized this with, "I was just excited they wanted to get in the gym!"

Try saying, "I’d love to, but I can’t because I am spending time with my family. In the future, if you can give me more time, I’ll be more than happy to open up for you." It’s not just with athletes, but it’s with parents. We want to encourage parent communication while setting boundaries of no calls after a certain time by explaining the only time with your family during the week will be at these certain times, so you will be unavailable. Taking the time to explain why helps make them more aware of the sacrifices you are making.

Move Beyond Lectures and Reminders: Train Gratitude

Gratitude is a virtue, and for any virtue to be developed, it can’t just be taught, it must be trained. Training comes from experience—not lectures or reminders. So this season, make some changes to battle the growing sense of entitlement within your athletes.

- J.P. Nerbun

Author of The Culture System

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