Why Gen Z are dominating professional sport

Over the (northern hemisphere) summer, we’ve seen an extraordinary number of athletes coming from Generation Z (people currently aged 6 to 24 years of age) and bringing recognition to themselves and their respective sport.

It’s the first time we see so many drivers in Formula 1 under 25, the first time in history a qualifier, 18-year-old Brit Emma Raducanu has progressed and now incredibly, has won a tennis Grand Slam final, winning the US Open. More teenagers have won gold at the most recent Olympics in Tokyo than ever before.

Before going into further detail about these achievements, let’s briefly look at Gen Z characteristics to see reasons why so many are starting to make a noticeable impact across numerous pro sports.

Characteristics of Gen Z

Racial diversity: Many have grown up amid diverse family structures – whether in a single-parent household, a multi-racial family household, or a household in which gender roles are blurred. As a result, they are less fazed than previous generations in race, sexual orientation or religion. 

“Digital Natives”: whilst Millennials were considered “digital pioneers,” who bore witness to the explosion of technology and social media, Gen Z was born into a world of peak technological innovation — where information was immediately accessible and social media increasingly everywhere. An abundance of information is at their fingertips, allowing Gen Z’s to broaden their knowledge and be proactive in their learning. 

Pragmatic and Financially-minded: Many Gen Z’s grew up watching their parents take substantial financial hits during the Great Recession. Having witnessed their parents’ struggles, Gen Z is driven by pragmatism and security. Gen Z’s were shaped by the economic pressures their families and communities faced, from the financial stress of the rental market to the added costs to kids and caregivers. Thus, they value the stability that comes with conservative spending, stable jobs and smart investments. 

Mental health challenges: Gen Z has been referred to by some as the “loneliest generation,” as their endless hours spent online can foster feelings of isolation and depression. However, this has also increased the huge numbers of political activists from this generation, getting behind and even leading the charge on causes such as police brutality, gun control and climate change. 

Shrewd consumers: Gen Z kids can rely on their tech-savvy and extensive social networks to make informed purchasing decisions. Their pragmatism leads them to explore and evaluate a range of options before settling on a product. In addition, they are more likely to be swayed by the recommendations of real-life users than by celebrity endorsements. 

How this gives them an edge in pro sport

They are respectful but at the same time knock down walls to get what they want if it’s something they believe in. 

They are very tech-savvy and use technology to inform their decisions. 

Although they are financially-minded, they prioritize meaning over money or establishing the why before taking action. They have additional reasons for doing what they do.

At the Tokyo Olympics, we saw the first-ever wave of Gen Z winning gold medals. 

Event won
Momiji Nishiya
Skateboarding: Women’s Street
Hongchan Quan
Diving: Women’s 10-meter platform
15 & 17
Chen Yuxi & Zhang Jiaqi
Diving: Women’s synchronized platform
16 & 17
Viktoria Listunova & Vladislava Urazova
Gymnastics: Women’s All-around, team
Guan Chenchen
Gymnastics: Women’s balance beam
Lydia Jacoby
Swimming: Women’s 100 meter breaststroke
Sunisa Lee
Gymnastics: Women’s all-round, individual
Keegan Park
Skateboarding: Men’s Park Skateboarding
Anastasia Zolotic
Taekwondo: Women’s – 57kg
Alberto Gines Lopez
Sport Climbing: Men’s
Christine Mboma
Athletics: Women’s 200 meter sprint
Ahmed Hafnaoui
Swimming: Men’s 400 meter freestyle
Athing Mu
Athletics: Women’s 800 meters
Sakura Yosozumi
Skateboarding: Women’s Park
Daiki Hashimoto
Gymnastics: Men’s All-around, individual & Horizontal Bar
Nevin Harrison
Canoe: Women’s single 200 meter

But how prodigious are they?

In Formula1, 9 of 20 drivers (45%) behind the wheel are 24 years of age or younger.  

At the US Open Grand Slam tennis event, three of the four women semi-finalists (Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Aryna Sabalenka) are Gen Z’s, with Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez being the first teens since 1999 to make it to the final. 

In the men’s draw, two of the four semi-finalists are Gen Z’s, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alexander Zverev. Numerous other Gen Z’s had reached the quarter-finals in both the men and women draws. 

There is no shortage of Gen Z’s at the top of table tennis, with 3 of the top 15 men (Tomokazu Harimoto, Lin Yun-Ju and Wang Chuqin) and 7 of the top 15 women (Sun Yingsha, Mima Ito, Wang Manyu, Wang Yidi, Miu Hirano, Chen Xingtong and Doo Hoi Kim) coming from the Gen Z pool.   

This is no fidget-spinner fad; Gen Z is here to stay. 

So how does it challenge or change coaches and their coaching approach? 

Ryan Jenkins, a Generations Keynote Speaker and author on Millennials and Gen Z, says a coach must apply their knowledge and expertise differently to Gen Z. He says the three steps are;

Be Timely: The closer coaching happens to the activity, the better. Impact and transformation diminish as time grows between the coaching opportunity and the act of coaching. 

Be Inquisitive: Ask sequential questions to elicit responses and spur growth. 

Be Brief: Effective coaching with Gen Z should be 10 minutes or less.   

For brands and the world of sport sponsorship, Gen Z brings a new, deep audience who have direct relationships with the athletes. To gain the connection with this shrewd consumer, it’s not about signboards at the back tennis courts or branding slapped across the chest of Chinese table tennis players; it’s about being accepted into their community. A difficult path for brands to navigate but incredibly important for validation with this generation.  

They have well and truly arrived at the Olympic and pro-sports stage……..fearless, energetic, dynamic and hungry. They bring a new level of excitement, and being “Digital Natives”, they are informed and savvy as they calculate their way to their next victory. If their physique holds up, it will be fascinating watching this group navigate through professional sports and how the “rest of the field” challenges or fends them off.     

It’s game on; let’s go! 

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