Accountability or Unnecessary Confrontation for Youth Athletes?

Accountability. The word, and the concept, get thrown around so much, it’s become a cliche. But are we using accountability with youth athletes more like a blunt object than a sharpened tool to sculpt success?

Much has been said and written about the value of accountability in training and sports. So much, in fact, that the necessity of “accountability” in sports and training has become more widely accepted than the flat-earth theory was in the time of Columbus.

As Columbus and his cohorts did with the intelligentsia of his age, I’m going to cause a few of you to have seizures, or at least spit your sodium-free, ion-filtered spring water (not available in the 15th century) through your nose with my next statement.

Accountability is a useless form of confrontation. Utter crap.

Is everyone okay? Take a deep breath and I’ll explain. Accountability is fine; it’s useful in fulfilling dreams, whether those dreams include the playing field, the corner office, artistic excellence or any other endeavor.

Provided, that is, that whatever you are pursuing has sprung from your purpose, your “why,” and not from some externally imposed or “settled on” causation or impetus.

In some cases, a look at why an athlete pursues a sports or training goal may result in said athlete walking away from the sport they’re pursuing – and that just might be the best thing for them, depending on the situation.

However, I don’t want to dwell on the many things that may be “wrong” with an athlete’s motivation to play or train. What I DO want to look at are those athletes with positive purposes for excellence and examine the role of accountability in those instances.

Too often, I think, we rely on the “tools” of accountability – the what and how, if you will – rather than guiding our athletes to discover what really drives them.  To-do lists, training logs, eating plans and all the other ways we “track progress” or “hold athletes accountable” are pointless if that athlete doesn’t have a deep, burning and intrinsic inspiration to get out of bed and excel each day.

When our kids discover the spark that lies within them which moves them to think and feel differently, they will BE different about their life and about their sports performance and preparation. When they begin to grasp and understand, at a deeper, near-spiritual level, what it is that moves them to athletic excellence, no tracking tools will be necessary. Notice that I didn’t say they wouldn’t be useful. They simply won’t be necessary.


When a young athlete begins to get in touch with why they strive to excel, they’ll begin to DO differently at that point, and accountability will become a result of the process, part of the journey, rather than a challenging product or end result of its’ own.

The “WHY” of their life, their PURPOSE is what makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning.  It also makes every grueling workout, every challenging practice and every temporary setback part of a process of learning how to succeed and win, not just “paying your dues.”

Granted, most of these athletes are kids, and their “why” may change over time as it relates to career paths, choice of sports or any number of other things. But the basic, essential and critical things that lead them to be who they are will always impact and affect their thoughts, and by extension, their actions.

Athletes have shared with me that many times, the “accountability process” feels confrontational and painful for them. Coaches and parents often couch the accountability questions in the “why DIDN’T you” format, rather than simply exploring what DID get accomplished, why it mattered, and then helping kids get connected to what seems important to be NEXT.

In other words, the focus is on a failure (perceived or real,) which is in the past and cannot be altered, rather than the possibility of success which lies ahead of the athlete. This ugly and painful (in the youth athlete’s eyes) look at the past does nothing to reinforce the powerful spirit of the possible which lies within the heart of every athlete.

What if we addressed the idea of acceptable “status quo” with our kids while skillfully avoiding allowing it to become ABOUT THEM? With this in mind, we can certainly “confront” a lack of accountability or completion of agreed-to tasks and objectives with reasonable faith that our efforts and considerations will bring positive progress and results. The magic is in the method.

You see, for the fragile teen and pre-teen psyche, pointing out and dwelling on what they have not done will likely be perceived as failure in their eyes. No matter how much they HAVE achieved, the accountability process, as previously mentioned, too often centers on what IS NOT done. This is experienced, emotionally, as failure in the mind of the youth athlete.

Success! You're on the list.

Failure and the emotions attached to failure become part of a very negative proprioceptive feedback loop that can create a slow (or fast) negative spiral to a mental and emotional pattern of failure followed by exposure followed by the reinforcement of that failure. The athlete may then begin to accept the failure-exposure-reinforcement process as part of their own perception and a part of “who they are.” Their experiencesthen become an extension of this perception, since these experiences will be viewed through the lens of its emotional effects. As a result, the expectation of a failure outcome becomes part of the athlete’s internal mind track.

THAT is a recipe for continued failure, resentment and ultimately, surrender for your athletes.

One easy-to-integrate method for addressing accountability without a failure focus is to work from the WHAT’S LEFT APPROACH. With this approach, we address the achievement process in 4 steps:

  1. Review – using a supportive and cooperative outlook, review the goals and expectations the athlete set for themselves at the beginning of the training journey. Be certain to connect the athlete to the purpose for setting those goals in the first place. What emotions was the athlete seeking to experience? How would the accomplishment of those goals reinforce the athletes’ belief system or further desire for success? WHY did those goals matter in the first place?
  2. Reinforce – take the time to guide the athlete to understanding why, in the context of their goal scheme, each aspect of training, nutrition, rest, practice and even academics matter. Reinforce the truths of achieving and completing each of the activities that go into completing and accomplishing training or other goals and milestones. Make the positive aspects about the athlete and any negative aspects about the process and the learning that takes place.
  3. Celebrate – take as long as needed to show the athlete how far they’ve come. If their accomplishments aren’t “on the list,” explain to them how proud you are of whatever it is that you see in their development and how it will help them move along the path toward the bigger goals. Be sure to re-attach the athlete to the positive emotions available in the celebration of achievement; emotions are the most effective anchoring tool we have when it comes to the athlete’s psyche.
  4. Break down and re-start – break down, in a realistic yet upbeat manner, all that remains to be done on the road to accomplishing the goals originally set by the athlete. This is a good time to “massage” any objectives which may be unrealistic relative to timelines or other factors. How you speak and your body language will go a long way to helping the athlete accept any changes which need to be made. Think before you speak and speak with love, respect and a true desire for the athlete’s success in mind. Once you’ve re-set and adjusted any goals or portions of goals, it’s time to re-stoke the fire for your athlete! Use emotional language and get genuinely excited for them – they’re starting on a fresh journey, even if the road remains the same!

Help your athletes get connected to their purpose, their why ( I KNOW…it’s not that simple when dealing with mercurial, hormonal and tempestuous teens, pre-teens and young adults…) and you won’t have to worry about accountability. While they don’t want you to be a vapid, empty “cheerleader,” they DO want you to be an emotionally charged, highly motivated agent of influence for them!

Keep them focused on their goals and teach them to love the journey. Their goals and desired results will become a natural extension of who and what they are. Accountability will come from within, and they might just call you out on why you don’t challenge them MORE…

I think that’s an outcome we can ALL agree would raise the bar and lead to amazing things.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.