School sports have always been one aspect of a high school athlete’s life. Today it’s the central focal point of his or her identity, community, lifestyle and livelihood. Gen Zs are pushing physical limits, breaking athletic records and, counterintuitively, even dropping out of major sports in order to earn scholarships, sponsors, salaries and celebrity. Welcome to the demanding high stakes world of youth athletics where sports, culture and technology intersect — and keeping up takes creativity.
DRIVENtops Gen Z athletes’ list of words that best describe how they feel when playing sports.
A full 40% of the student-athletes we surveyed play one sport only, and more than a third (37%) say this decision was driven by the desire to get really good at it. In an increasingly divided world of haves and have-nots, standout athletic performance could mean the difference between being just another jock and winning big. College scholarships, pro salaries, brand sponsors and social media celebrity have raised the stakes on athletic participation exponentially, something kids are aware of at a strikingly young age.
In fact, almost three-quarters (71%) of the student-athletes we surveyed say they play competitive sports specifically to earn a college scholarship. With college recruitment starting in the eighth grade, kids as young as 10 are hyper-specializing in the one sport they believe they’ll be able to excel at the most. By freshman year, many athletes imagine they’re on the fast track to fame and fortune.
Specialized athletics has gotten so extreme that it’s giving rise to the first generation of cyborg athletes, who use techy gear and training to expand the capabilities of the human body. One of the most extreme examples of this is IMG Academy, a private for-profit boarding school where $70,000 per year earns high school athletes access to a 10,000-square-foot weight room, nutrition counseling, a biomechanics center and a vision lab to enhance cognitive skills.
However, even average teen athletes partake in travel teams, private coaching, specialized camps, high-tech gear and personal data analytics…or risk getting left behind. As a result, top high school baseball players can hit the ball 400 feet and pitch a 95-mile-an-hour fastball — skills that used to only exist in the M.L.B.
Ironically, this pursuit of “moonshot” athletic achievement is displacing fundamentals; Vanderbilt University’s baseball program teaches incoming recruits basic skills, such as running the bases and bunting.
It’s almost like we’ve made a generation of robots.—Miguel Menendez, baseball coach at Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL
While social media has put all teens under a microscope, this is especially true for student-athletes. Self-promotion used to mean walking the hallways wearing a letterman jacket; today, teens use social media along with innovative platforms like Hudl (the leading sports video analysis platform where players create and share highlight reels) to promote their accomplishments to a much wider audience. The result is that high school athletes are accessing a new level of national celebrity.
Before his star turn as the number one pick in the 2019 N.B.A. draft, Zion Williamson was a high school basketball player who actively pursued the limelight through flashy plays, such as mid-game 360-degree dunks. As a teenager, Williamson amassed millions of Instagram followers, including the rapper Drake. Compare that level of hype to the pre-social media rise of Michael Jordan, who — without Instagram and YouTube — was third pick in the 1984 draft.
As N.B.A. player Stephen Curry said of teen ballers today, “It’s the highlight-driven generation.” Even for teen athletes who don’t aspire to Williamson-level fame, the new normal is to jumpstart your own celebrity rather than wait to be discovered. Social media training, once reserved for college teams and pros, is becoming compulsory high school curricula.
I love all the attention.—Football player Adam, 16, Chicago
Feel the Burn
With the pressure for student-athletes to perform mounting, it’s hard not to wonder how long these levels of intensity can last? Cameron at Hillcrest High School told us he has, “…really no time off.” His classmate Cross said that during wrestling season he’s hungry and tired and often thinking, “I’ve just gotta get through the day.” Julia sacrifices freedom and sleep. According to Fiona, “If you miss a day or you’re sick you really fall behind with work.”
Nearly a third (29%) of Gen Z athletes said they often feel anxiety around having to perform to a certain level; 27% said they’ve experienced athletic burnout so extreme that they’ve considered quitting sports altogether. Many high schools now employ sports psychologists and life coaches to ensure that stressed out kids have their heads in the game when it matters.
To keep up, many teens are training not only their physical selves, but also their mental, emotional and spiritual sides. As Cole, 16, from Greenville, SC, told us, “Fundamentals can only take you so far. After that, it’s creativity and hustle.” Case in point: meditation has become as standardized as weight training (the Headspace app emphasizes the benefits of mindfulness for athletes). Relaxation drinks, such as Dream Water and Just Chill, are being touted as the next big thing to hit the beverage market. And recovery modalities from cupping to infrared saunas, are having a moment. Sleep is considered an underutilized competitive advantage, and teens are now setting bed timers, donning Under Armour’s bioceramic recovery sleepwear and tuning into Spotify’s Sleep Sound Library. Sleep-training coaches may be up next.
Extreme, niche and, frankly, oddball sports are becoming our new American pastime. Adventure sports, such as rock climbing, mountain biking and BASE jumping, are projected to be the most-watched category of sports of 2020. Student-athletes we surveyed expressed interest in competitive bowling and horseback riding. Teens told us they wished their high school offered organized badminton, ultimate Frisbee and pickleball.
Meanwhile, several Div. 1 universities — and even pro franchises — have added a once-niche pastime to their rosters: esports. It makes sense! If you’re one of the millions of kids that doesn’t have a chance at becoming star quarterback, you might as well try to get good at League of Legends.