These days, I work with a lot of different youth teams at various levels – from park district or recreational programs, to higher level club and travel teams. Due to the nature of my job, I often coach sessions with players and teams that are permanently coached by someone else as part of guest appearances, clinics, and various other types of sessions.
In one of these sessions recently, one thing that I noticed about the team I was coaching was how many players ignored the boundaries of a grid or field. If the ball went slightly out of bounds, they would just keep playing. It was as though they were thinking “This 10x15 yard grid is too difficult! Oh well. I’ll just pass the ball wider than the boundaries to give myself more space because this is too challenging.”
This. Drives. Me. Crazy. The entire reason that the grid is made a particular size is to create a certain degree of challenge, so when players ignore the boundaries, it defeats the entire purpose of having a grid!
As much as this bothered me, it was actually nothing new – I encounter this all the time when working with a team. However, during this particular session, I had an epiphany. Actually, I was inspired to write this blog post. It occurred to me that when players don’t hesitate to ignore the boundaries of a grid (especially a more challengingly-sized one), they must not be held accountable by their coaches on a regular basis.
As I continued to think about this, it became apparent that the problem was way bigger than just an “ignoring grid boundaries” issue. Ultimately, it is an accountability issue on all fronts. Too many coaches do not hold their players accountable on a regular basis in any way.
Furthermore, through my daily interactions with hundreds of different coaches, it seems that many coaches don’t truly understand what the word “accountability” means.
What Does “Accountability” Mean?
When most people think about accountability, they think that it means punishing players or having players serve a consequence for certain actions. Too many coaches think it means raising their voice, or players are having to sit out, or run laps, or do push ups, or even lose playing time.
In actuality, holding players accountable has nothing to do with providing negative consequences for undesirable actions. Such consequences should be used as last resorts and should be avoided as much as possible.
Holding players accountable simply means setting specific expectations or instructions, then ensuring that players follow them. Some of the coaches who have the most disciplined and accountable teams rarely raise their voice or use dire consequences to punish players.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I rarely raise my voice, never have my team suffer fitness-based punishments, and players rarely lose the opportunity to improve through playing time.
How to Develop a Culture of Accountability and Discipline
The key to developing a culture of accountability and discipline within our teams is through consistency and patience. It requires following through during key moments at every training and at every game, while also being patient and understanding that the kids are learning – they are rarely badly-intentioned.
Below are some examples of key situations in which we can teach accountability and ways to do it. Remember: these require repetition and consistency from coaches.
Make sure every player is quiet and listening before moving on to the next sentence/activity/phase of the training session – avoid the temptation to be in a hurry to get to the next thing. If players are not listening, simply wait quietly with gentle reminders that we won’t move on until everyone is listening. Give it time – at some point, the kids will recognize the stagnation in flow and the awkward silence. They will then start to tell each other to “be quiet” and “pay attention,” making such commentary from coaches unnecessary.
Team Huddle Distractions
Determine a specific way that players are supposed to stand or pose while listening in the team huddle, then wait until everyone is performing that action (i.e. standing with one foot on top of the ball, looking at coach). Again, be patient and don’t move on until everyone is doing it.
Praise Good Behavior
Give high fives and praise to those who exhibit the behavior we want. For example, when a player is standing with one foot on top of the ball in the team huddle, we can say “Excellent! Who else can stand like John?” Another example is to give high-fives to those who get to the huddle first to praise quick response to instructions. As other players see and hear their teammates receiving praise, they will realize that they need to follow their lead.
Begin by giving specific instructions on how to organize equipment. Then, when players kick the balls randomly or scatter the cones, make sure that players collect and organize the balls and cones appropriately. Again, do not continue with the session until this is done. Remember that we instructed the players to organize this equipment, not the coaches, so it is important that they follow through and do it correctly.
As mentioned before, when the ball goes out of bounds, call it out! The other team should take possession. The more we do this consistently, the more players will learn to respect the boundaries and hold each other accountable to all rules and expectations.
When we tell players to keep score, follow up and ask them what the score is. If they can’t give us a definite answer, either give them zero points or replay the round. There is incredible value in keeping score, which helps create a more competitive atmosphere in which players will be more accountable for their play.
The above are just some examples of situations and behaviors that occur almost every day. Desired behavior in these situations can be communicated and upheld in a friendly, encouraging, calm, and patient manner without doling consequences – especially early in the season.
In fact, the consequence that young players hate the most is sitting around waiting to get to the next part of a training session. All it takes from us is to be patient and wait to move on to the next phase, and once the players get tired of standing around (which doesn’t take long), they will start to help each other do what is expected in order to move on to the next step.
Through consistency and patience, coaches can ensure that the desired behaviors and instructions are being followed so that players learn what is expected and begin to not only act accordingly, but also hold themselves and each other accountable.