Take the Negativity out of ‘Accountability’

By Nancy Justis, Iowa Youth Sports Initiative

Every coach I've ever met talks about accountability at one point or another.

However, many of them use it largely in negative terms: "You did something wrong, now you must be held accountable." But the coaches who more often speak about accountability in positive terms seem to get better buy-in from their athletes. Before we go any further, let's define accountability. According to Merriam-Webster, it's "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions."

To help better understand the role accountability plays in sports, I reached out to Brian Kight, CEO of Focus 3. I loved what he had to share:

"The main reason accountability suffers on teams is because it is exclusively used in the context of punishment. When the phrase 'Be accountable' or 'Being held accountable' is used, it's never for what you did with excellence or for just doing your job. It is only used in the moments where someone does something wrong. The result is people work hard to avoid accountability because, justifiably, it means punishment.

True accountability is neutral. It is the combo of observation and action. Observe what people do, and act on what you see. Thank, reward, and celebrate people performing above standard. If you're going to hold people accountable for not doing their job, then (you must also) hold them accountable for doing their job well. Otherwise, just stop using the word completely."

Bill Belichick, one of the greatest football coaches of all time, has long harped on the power of positive accountability with three simple words: Do Your Job.

When each player does their job, amazing things can happen. And Patriots players have grown to take tremendous pride in that accountability. They're excited to do their job, because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That's positive accountability.

From my own athletic experience, knowing your alignment and assignment (particularly in football) can go a long way toward building a positive reputation among your coaches and teammates as "accountable." Knowing where you need to be and what you need to be doing is critical. If you can't be trusted with your basic alignment and assignment, it'll be difficult for others to feel confident enough to give you greater responsibilities (whether that be more playing time, a leadership position, a bigger role in the offense, etc.) You don't earn a reputation as "accountable" in a single day—it takes many repetitions of doing the right things over and over again. But the beauty of being accountable is that any student-athlete with the right mindset can achieve it, as accountability has nothing to do with being a five-star recruit or having a highlight tape filled with jaw-dropping plays.

I've talked to several high school athletic directors on the topic of accountability, and many of them hit on the same theme. That theme is that a great number of sports parents now undermine their child's ability to learn accountability through sports due to being a "helicopter" parent. How can a student-athlete ever learn accountability if their parents are constantly meddling in their sport activities? Remember, accountability is about accepting responsibility for one's own actions.

I've learned and observed that when adults step-in, it's often doing a disservice to their child. Whether the issue is playing time, a violation of team rules, or some growing pains in accepting team values, there's little a parent can do by interrupting. Accountability is learned and developed over time, but only if we allow the person to learn for themselves.