I believe one of the biggest challenges facing coaches today is fostering accountability on a team. What’s more upsetting to me though, is that it wasn’t nearly as much of a problem 15-20 years ago. While accountability on the team used to come much more naturally (for me anyway), I think now it must be explicitly taught more often than not. Our job as coaches includes teaching young adults responsibility through sport.
Easier said than done.
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Accountability in Sport
Accountability is when you do what you say you’re going to do to the best of your ability. For me, that means when I say I’m going to do something, you better believe I will get it done, and it will be work I’m proud of. Accountability doesn’t mean perfect or without mistakes. (I’m good at mistakes too). The point of accountability is if you promised you’d do something, you do it. As coaches, it’s our job to not only lead by example, but help athletes understand how important it is to be accountable to your teammates.
Accountability means if you promised your team you’d get in 3 yoga classes during spring break, you get it done even if no one is checking up on you. If you said you would complete every station in a cardio warm-up, you complete it to the best of your ability. Pushing yourself even if the coach’s back is turned.
The second piece of accountability is taking responsibility when you make a mistake. It’s never making excuses, blaming others, or complaining. You take ownership of your own actions and make sure you do the work 100% of the time, no matter who is watching.
Having accountability, teaching it, and keeping it are different things
In my last few years of coaching, I’ve noticed that a high level of accountability seems harder and harder to come by. Recently, I didn’t always trust that my dancers were doing the work if I wasn’t directly looking at them. In fact, I know there were athletes who had a very lazy approach to their summer workout requirements. It was obvious when school started in August and I usually heard their teammates’ complaining all summer. The bigger problem, however, is the lack of responsibility wasn’t just obvious to me as the coach, it was obvious to the rest of the team too.
Being accountable isn’t about doing what the coach asks of you.
I whole-heartedly believe what’s most important is that every athlete is accountable to each other.
When the team expects more of each other, when they feel like they let the team down if they skip a workout station or a few reps in the weight room… that’s much more powerful than disappointing the coach.
A lot of coaches like to tell an athlete who skimps on training, “You’re only hurting yourself.” I don’t think that’s true. I think the true consequence is you’re hurting your team by not doing what you said you would do. Every athlete should take care of her own training and discipline. Everyone should take care of herself and do her job on the team.
The Importance of Teaching Responsibility
I love to read coaching biographies. One of my favorites and most inspiring was the University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt’s Reach for the Summit: The Definite Dozen System for Succeeding at Whatever You Do. (For the record, Sum It Up: A Thousand and Ninety-Eight Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective is really good too.) I always admired her as a coach, and from the outside looking in, I think the way she created a sense of accountability on her team was a large part of her astounding 1,098-208 record and 8 NCAA Championships.
I’ve learned over the years that when you create the expectation of accountability on your team, you also foster a culture of hard work and discipline. Even better, you have athletes who want to do the work and push themselves even if you’re not around. Think of the advancement in skills or team accomplishments you could witness in just one season if everyone on the team was accountable all season! What if everyone on the team knew their job and did their job to the best of their ability? Every. Day.
The Rollercoaster of Coaching
As most coaches would agree, some seasons are better than others. My absolute favorite season as a coach came early in my 3rd year. At the time I was a 24-year-old newbie who, to be honest, didn’t know what I was doing. If you’ve read my bio you know I was a professional ballerina who took over a pom team. Let that sink in… I’d never even heard the phrase “high-v” or “toe-touch”. But I did have a natural ability to lead and bring the best out of my dancers, even if they had to teach me a lot along the way.
By the way, to those girls who were on my first few teams, thank you for your patience with me and passion for the sport. I wouldn’t be here without you!
The point of this quick trip down memory lane is that looking back years later I understand why that year was my favorite. ( I know we’re not supposed to have favorites. But be honest… you do too). Yes, we won a state championship and that was pretty amazing. But it wasn’t that. I’ve won again since then and it didn’t have nearly the same feeling behind it. I believe the magic of that season had everything to do with the leadership on the team, the team cohesion, and the accountability. It was the dance team trifecta!
That season, the accountability was incredible. Everyone from seniors on down to new freshman knew her role and made sure she gave it 100% every day. We set goals for team tricks and met those goals without issue. Everyone believed they could do it and then did the work to make sure they would be successful when it counted.
I never had to ask anyone to work harder.
Often it was the other way around and they inspired me to work harder and push them further. I think the magic of the accountability that year came when every girl did her ‘homework’ without being asked. If a girl missed a practice, she would reach out to a teammate and make sure she returned to practice prepared. If there was new choreography, or cleaning choices, or any announcements, they were prepared. Without being asked!
Sadly, in the last few years, I had to make it a RULE that when you missed a practice you would reach out and learn what you missed before you came back. I believed in them, but they didn’t always follow through. Why did that happen!? How did we reach a point where I had to clearly state that you had to do your job and be accountable? It used to just happen… Maybe they were burned out…maybe I was too. Either way, we were seriously lacking accountability.
I share this with you to also demonstrate that every team will have it’s up and down years for various reasons. Accountability is like leadership, team cohesion, and talent. They fluctuate year to year, and sometimes you have to work harder to get there than others.
How do you know when the team doesn’t have accountability?
One big sign is when different dancers go by different rules and get away with different things. Take a minute and reflect on your team. What happens when someone is late to practice or forgets the right shoes? Or using my earlier example, what happens when someone misses practice and shows up lost when you are trying to move on in choreography? (Ugh, I HATE that!) Is it the same consequence for everyone? It’s not even about explicit consequences, but how does the team react? Do seniors get a little slack because no one is willing to approach them about poor behavior? Or do rookies get away with things because they’re new and need time to learn the rules?
How to increase accountability on your team
Encourage your athletes to be self-critical with a dose of reality. Mentally tough athletes are able to be self-critical in the name of development and growth. The best way to be accountable is to always have an honest self-critique of your effort and your performance. They should know that self-evaluation is expected regularly and that you will check in with them.
There are two key areas of accountability: physical skill performance, and role on the team.
Ask your dancers to evaluate their work after practice one day. Ask them to give themselves a score of 1-10. 1 = I was a space cadet and not present at all today so my skills suffered, to 10 = I never lost focus or gave anything less than 100% the entire time. Then ask them to evaluate how well they did as a team member. For this to work, every athlete has to know his or her role on the team. Leader? Teacher? Friendly support?
We always seemed to have a ‘Team mom’ who had Advil, Band-Aids, tampons, protein bars, bobby pins, whatever you could need in her bag ready to help a teammate in need. Or a team clown who kept things light and fun when we need a reminder. And a taskmaster who kept everyone focused when practice goes astray.
If everyone knows their role, then you can check in on a Friday afternoon practice and ask them to think about how well they executed their role on the team this week and rate it 1-10. If your role is to be a leader, how well did you execute that role this week? Were you speaking positively to your teammates? Did you arrive on time and prepared? Maybe you were teaching a routine today, how did that go? Where you clear, concise, and listened to your teammates’ needs? Or did you go too fast getting flustered and cranky?
Take it a step further and have athletes write it down in their journals (along with goals, choreography notes, and training progress). You don’t have to share scores, but you as the coach can take a look occasionally too. You know your athletes best and based on personality, some are going to be much harder on themselves than others.
So watch out for those overly self-critical dancers and make sure they get an extra dose of praise when you catch them doing something good. If you do decide to share, probably not every day, but weekly, have the team share their ratings with each other. Quickly go around the room and say your two scores. They all know who has slacked off and who hasn’t and taking responsibility and owning that goes a long way to establish accountability on the team. Then you can have a quick goal setting brainstorm for the next week about what improvements need to happen in order to get things back on track.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Constant
This doesn’t have to happen every week all season. That gets to be a little much. Instead, if accountability isn’t an issue, don’t worry about it. If it wasn’t an issue but then suddenly in the crunch time of competition season you notice accountability drop, try this for a few weeks and see if it improves, then let it go.
Athletes have to be able to take responsibility for themselves. But they also have to be able to call each other on poor performance or behaviors that might hurt the team. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, and can be tricky, but high performing teams get past the discomfort. Ultimately, if you’ve created a Positive Motivational Climate, constructive criticism and calling out behavior that is hurting the team should only improve cohesion and motivation, not cause drama and friction.
Take this with a grain of salt
I will add, that you have to take this with a grain of salt and consider the level of athlete… a high school team will look different than college and professional teams. I would expect a lot more accountability to the whole team, honest self-assessment, and constructive feedback from older more experienced athletes. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t successfully implement this with high school and younger athletes. Set your expectation, don’t waiver, and they will reach it.
Finally, remember that you are a member of your team too and are just as accountable. Whatever expectations you establish on your team, they should be the same for everyone, and it goes top down starting with you, Coach. You are just as accountable to the team as they are to you and each other. If you make a mistake, own it, apologize, correct it, and move on.
The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.
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