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  • Liz Ricapito

Accountability in Sports

Accountability, according to Mirriam-Webster, is an obligation or a willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s own actions. Being accountable can also mean admitting you made a mistake. Teaching athletes to understand accountability, and its role in success is a challenge most coaches face every season. Teams that lack accountability rarely reach their potential and look more like a collection of individual players than a cohesive unit. Former Detroit Piston, Joe Dumas once said, “On good teams, coaches hold players responsible, on great teams, players hold players accountable.”

How can you get your players to understand the value of being accountable? First, as a coach, you need to model the behaviors you want to see. Communicating your expectations in advance so every athlete knows what to expect, connecting during practice to discuss progress and provide direct instruction, and giving praise, support, or feedback are all good places to start. Coaches can encourage athletes to share feedback with them, as well. Accountability needs to apply equally to everyone. You can’t play favorites or let some things slide for some while not for others. Accountability requires consistency.

According to, Justin Foster identifies three basic strategies to help establish a culture of accountability.

1. document clear and agreed upon goals

2. describe individual roles

3. articulate standards of behavior

Mr. Foster also recommends that coaches avoid being the sole source of discipline. This makes athletes assume the coach will take care of handling player performance and behavior. He suggests having older players take younger/newer ones under their wing and guide them. Coaches also need to be sure their athletes have the tools to be successful. This may come in the form of off-season workout routines that should be completed to ensure athletes are fit to start the season, weekly charts to track running or cardio work, and access to different drills or stretches they can perform on their own outside of team practices.

It’s a lot of work for a coach to manage the off-season for an athlete, so the next piece of the accountability puzzle is how to hold athletes accountable. Some individuals will just do what you ask, but you need to support those who need more guidance, especially with younger athletes. Setting up review sessions to check how everyone is doing, might prove helpful. One example of a team that was successful in creating a culture of accountability was the Utah Utes Senior Softball Team. In the article, “Strategies for Athlete Accountability in Sport”, Bo Hanson, from Athlete Assessments, explains how he worked with the team during the off-season to improve the cohesiveness of the team and accountability. The girls took what they learned and created their own assessment plan and asked their coach to purchase journals. These were used daily by the girls to reflect on their performance, to document how things were going, and to critique themselves. They would ask themselves the questions: Did I do my job today? and How can I be better tomorrow? They would then share their thoughts as a team and formulate a plan to improve and move forward (

Many people see accountability as a negative. It’s what happens when things don’t go well and fingers get pointed and blame is laid at someone’s feet. But in reality, accountability sets a team up to win! Many athletes, don’t understand accountability or why it’s important. As a coach, you can use team meetings to lay bare the bones of accountability. Be clear about the type of behavior and effort you want from your athletes and explain clearly what accountability looks like to you.

For an athlete, accountability should mean you say what you’re going to do and execute to the best of your ability. Take ownership of your behavior on and off the field and make sure you’re doing your job 100% of the time. It means not whining, blaming, or complaining ever! Accountable athletes don’t throw equipment or yell at officials when something doesn’t go well. They assess what went wrong, change their mindset, and get back to the task at hand. After practice or a game, an accountable athlete needs to critique their own performance and ask for feedback from coaches and teammates. But it can’t stop there. An athlete needs to take the feedback and set goals for improvement. Looking at oneself critically isn’t always fun. It’s not easy to admit help is needed, but successful athletes do this all the time. A player won’t continue to improve unless they are willing to set goals based on feedback, change what they are doing, or seek help.

Accountable athletes also need to be willing to share feedback with coaches and teammates. The culture of the team has to support and allow for members and coaches to share freely what they see and think about what happens on and off the field. In his bestselling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni says that accountability “refers specifically to the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team.” Confronting a teammate about behavior can be awkward, but until a team can move past that, they will never rise to the level of champions.

In addition, athletes can strive to create bonds with other teammates where they can call one another out for a mistake and still have each other’s back the very next play. It takes time, though. Talking is the easiest way to build camaraderie, offering to help or work with another player after practice, showing support after a teammate has just been chewed out by a coach, or spending time together off the field are all ways to bond with others. As an accountable athlete you need to help someone heading down the wrong path. An athlete not behaving up to the team standards needs to be told how their selfish behavior is affecting the rest of the team. It’s hard to believe someone critiquing you means well, but if you assume the comments are meant to help, then you may be better able to accept them as something positive rather than negative.

Accountability takes effort on the part of the coaching staff and the athletes. Front load the beginning of the season by laying out expectations and team goals. Review individual roles and how athletes will execute them. Seek out and provide feedback both as a coach and an athlete. And accept what constructive criticism a teammate or coach says as positive and meant to help you improve. Do your job well and work to encourage others to do the same. To sum it all up, Pat Summitt, Legendary Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach once said, “Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.”

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