The Real Problem with Entitlement

For years now coaches, parents, and teachers have complained about a sense of entitlement that plagues our young people, but what exactly are we talking about here?

The concept of entitlement can be hard to define. It reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” As coaches, we can surely identify with the squeamish feeling we get when a player believes they deserve more playing time, shots, or recognition, but what’s really going on under the surface?

In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson defines entitlement this way, “the feeling that one deserves good things without actually earning them.”

I might generalize that even further to a feeling that, “I should have it because I want it.” 

Of course, no player or parent would ever come out and say it that way. No one wants to be perceived as a spoiled brat. Saying something so brazenly self-centered is still taboo in our society. Instead, they will often search for alternative reasons for why they should deserve it. 

That brings us back to Manson’s definition - the feeling that they should have something without actually earning it.

This form of entitlement is easy to spot. For example, a coach might say that playing time is earned through performance in practice. When the player’s performance doesn’t measure up, a player or parent may argue there are other reasons they deserve to play. 

She’s a hard worker.

He’s done everything you’ve asked for four years.

She plays for <insert prestigious club team here>.

He’s been the leading scorer on the JV for the last two years.

Sometimes the argument might target the player that’s in front of them.

You don’t know what he’s doing on the weekends. Just wait until he gets caught.

She has a bad attitude on the bench when she comes out and never cheers for her teammates.

He’s only playing because of his last name.

She never goes hard in practice.

Or my all-time favorite…

She’s not playing because it’s personal.

When you start to recognize arguments that are contrary to performance criteria for how playing time is earned, you start to see it everywhere.

So what’s the problem here? Don’t we all do this from time-to-time?

Of course we do, but there are two troubling trends associated with this growing sense of entitlement.

1) It fuels a belief that negative experiences are NOT okay.

Manson explains it this way: 

“Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences - anxiety, fear, guilt, etc. - is totally not okay.”

Not to diminish the mental health struggles that persist among young people today, but we have come to a place where all negative emotion is to be avoided at all costs. It’s not just anxiety, fear, and guilt that we steer clear of - it’s a plethora of other feelings that are baked into the sports experience itself. Pressure, boredom, embarrassment, failure, uncertainty, disappointment, nervousness, struggle… it’s nearly impossible to be in a competitive environment and not experience these things often. 

There was a time when we criticized “snowplow parents” for removing all obstacles from their child’s path to ensure their success. However, today it’s becoming increasingly likely that kids will abandon the path entirely when they don’t get what they want, when they want it. As a result, the lessons that these obstacles could have provided are left unlearned. 

As we well know, the real world requires resiliency, and sports should provide the perfect crucible for learning how to deal with life’s negative experiences within a healthy support structure surrounded by caring coaches and teammates. When we endure hard things together, we become stronger ourselves.

As a result, our children are becoming more fragile and less resilient, but there is an additional concern that stems from the entitlement epidemic.

2) Only one question matters - What’s in it for me?

Inherent in our definition of entitlement is a belief that what I want will make me happy, or even more dangerously, it’s the only thing that will make me happy. This close minded conviction can be explained this way:

  1. My experience only matters if it makes me happy (and I should be happy all the time).
  2. Nothing else could make me happy other than getting what I want. 

What’s missing in the athlete’s narrow-minded focus on what they want is the possibility that there are other things that they might find even more satisfying about the experience, they just can’t see them. The player may be fixated on their minutes, thinking it’s only worth it to be out if I’m starting, without having any concept of what it feels like to be part of a group that is committed to something bigger than themselves.

This is a hard lesson for kids to learn because everything in their world is centered on them. In the classroom they are evaluated solely on their individual achievement. Club teams and colleges recruit for their individual talent. Sport trainers work with players in isolation honing their individual skills. Parents rearrange their entire lives around the child’s schedule putting work, vacation, family, and friendships on the back burner for years to give their child every opportunity to succeed.

How can we blame them for thinking, “It’s all about me?”

This is why our work as coaches is critical because at some point kids need to hear, feel, and experience the joy that comes from putting others first. There are fewer and fewer places where they are asked to sacrifice for the betterment of another. Yet, this might be the most important lesson of all to ultimately enjoy a meaningful life. 

Sports teams are the perfect place to make this discovery - to know how it feels like to give of yourself for the betterment of the team - and to have others do the same for you. It’s a place where they can find collective success because everyone is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of a common goal. 

Few teams can win any other way.

Few marriages can survive any other way. 

As our friend TJ Rosene recently shared on the Hardwood Hustle, so much of life is what you give to it, not what you get from it. Yet, a teenager’s entire world screams, “What’s in it for you!”

At some point in life, they will find a committed relationship, or have children themselves, and a realization will come - there are people in my life that are more important than me. 

Being part of a team can offer that perspective, perhaps for the first time, helping kids to realize that “it’s not about me, and that’s okay.” And when everyone around them shows up the same way, they might just find a greater sense of peace, purpose, and joy than they could ever find for themselves. 

This is why our work as coaches is so important. There are families that will form years from now whose very survival may depend on a father’s ability to search for joy in sacrifice rather than demanding his own fulfillment, or in a mother’s ability to find meaning as she serves the interests of others before herself.

The love of self runs rampant in our world today. We must continue to fight the good fight that our athletes might discover what it feels like to honor one another above themselves, and to be honored by others in the same way. In doing so we are using sport to help them learn how to love, and how to be loved.

What kind of world might that create?

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

[email protected]

Join Our Weekly Newsletter

The most practical insights on leadership and culture... 

  • 3 Minute Weekly Tools & Tips
  • Notes to the Coaching Culture Podcast
  • FREE Chapter of The Culture System

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.