March 2015


To push each other to get better, players and coaches must hold each other accountable. Arriving on time, practicing all skills in a drill, not merely the featured element, attending additional workouts, playing tenacious defense in practice, and executing game situations precisely are principles that are not followed by every team but seem to be exemplified by teams that win championship. Some young players cannot traverse the gap between good and great because although they may speak about their aspirations to improve, their actions are incongruent with this objective.

Dave Smart believes that success at Carleton “starts with the fact that we just work hard” and Tyson Hinz added that players practice harder and coaches prepare harder than anywhere else in Canada (Conn, 2014). But the Ravens also work smart and together. Even after a lopsided win – while the other team socializes – Carleton starters tutor their bench counterparts and go over pivotal plays from the recently finished game.

Making the Most Out of a Few Hours

Blindly participating in ten thousand hours will not guarantee basketball success. If players are to reach the levels of expert performance required to contribute to the Senior Men’s National Team in six-thousand hours (Baker & Côté, 2003, p. 18), players and coaches must hold each other accountable to ensure that the hours are dedicated and deliberate. Young basketball players in the high performance stream only devote seven percent more time to sport-specific players than those who are competitive players ( Leite & Sampaio, 2012, p. 293). A more important difference comes in how those eighteen minutes per week are utilized.

Generating Accountability

Athletes are created according to a fixed formula that converts a certain number of hours, games and workouts into an elite basketball player. Like teachers facilitate learning, coaches must facilitate improvement. Engaging players in their own improvement demands that coaches create a stimulating environment. Individual attention and feedback and creative and challenging tasks help adolescents reach their potential (Robinson, 2013).

Accountability is not compliance to a generic set of standards. The capabilities of each player are diverse so they will be able to achieve different levels. So accountability evolves from a concept entirely connected to the outcome to one intrinsically linked to the process. Holding each other to simple behaviours that any person could follow because those actions are linked to goals that everyone values is very achievable.


Coaches are accountable to their philosophies and everyone who coaches should take some time to outline their principles and follow up to ensure that their actions are in line with their values. No coach should alter their philosophy for a young player but it may be necessary to devote extra time to explain themselves to athletes to ensure the message gets through. Players also need to comprehend their role and value to the team so they can own it and expand it (Stein, 2015).

If players understand the coach’s philosophy – the why behind the how – they are more likely to follow it. A team motto may help crystalize a complicated idea into a concrete action. Coaches must consistent so that their deeds speak for themselves. Frequent communication, even digitally, may strengthen the relationship between players and coaches. Ultimately, you will get what you permit.

Hall of Fame North Carolina basketball coach is remembered by players for mentorship off the court more than his guidance on the hardwood because he held them to high standards. But more importantly, he respected them and allowed them to make their own decisions. Smith held principled beliefs personally but understood that each person had to be responsible for their own actions. Players appreciated this trust and reciprocated, even years later (Wolff, 1997).

“The Carolina Way” epitomized Smith’s philosophy. It was never about winning, but playing hard, playing smart and playing together. Smith acknowledged himself that he never looked at the scoreboard until the latter stages of the game and players recalled that he rarely used the word “win” in front of the team. If the process was sound, Smith was confident of the outcome. He might score a scrimmage based on shot selection, not made baskets, or ask a player to justify their shot selection to the team, even if they had scored.

Smith utilized a number of small gestures to transfer responsibility to players. When a player scored a basket, they would acknowledge the contribution of the assist by pointing to the passer. If a player was tired, they could ask to come out of the game without fear of being benched. Foul line huddles allowed the Tar Heels to get on the same page and take ownership of their communication. In his office, when players sought advice, Smith would explain the pros and cons of each side of the argument, whether it was declaring early for the N.B.A. Draft or another life choice.

Throughout his career, Smith always modeled the way, in matters both great and small. He was a pillar in the Chapel Hill community but lived the Carolina Way daily. If a player received a technical foul, the team would have to run suicides during the next practice. When Smith received a technical that was not a calculated gesture, the coaches would run, although the head coach was not in great physical condition and still smoked cigarettes at that time (Wolff, 1997).

Warm-Up, Cool Down and Recovery

Like any successful sport program emphasizes recovery and regeneration, accountability begins with warm-up, cool down and recovery activities. Athletes need to make time for preparing and recovering from practices, games and workouts, whether that means showing up early and staying late in order to get work in, focusing during all activities, whether it is a dynamic exercise to prepare for movement or a stretch to increase flexibility and disperse lactic acid or something that is uncomfortable in the short-term but beneficial in the long-term, for example an ice bath. When Tim Grover trains N.B.A. All-Stars, he demands that they follow the entire training program, not simply the ones that they like (Grover, 2013, p. 30).

Incorporating sound training principles into a basketball season demonstrates attention to detail on the part of the coach but also provides the ancillary benefit of determining which players are truly committed to getting better. Once the benefits of training correctly are explained and everything demonstrated clearly, great players will buy-in to the entire program. In order to prepare for a contract season, Jimmy Butler unplugged from cable, phone and internet and incorporated yoga, Pilates and more rest into his skill development and training routine (Davis, 2014).

Leading recovery and regeneration activities can be an effective leadership assignment to convert a silent team member into a more active one by having them lead warm-ups or serve as a peer-training mentor. During and after their careers, athletes appreciate coaches and support teams who look after all aspects of their performance. However, the coaching staff remains responsible for ensuring that these activities are performed properly and issuing prompt corrections (Pfaff, 2014).

Games and Competitions

Playing and performing should supplement improvement, not impede it. Ken Robinson states that “The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning” and by extension, the role of a coach is to facilitate improvement (Robinson, 2013). Youth basketball coaches can play a critical role helping athletes understand what happened, why it transpired and how it can be ameliorated going forward.

Winning and losing can both teach valuable lessons if players and coaches focus on internal attributions, instead of external ones. Gregg Popovich combined the bitter disappointment of losing the 2013 N.B.A. Finals with the determination of winning a fifth ring with San Antonio’s core group to rebound and win the championship in 2014. Popovich did not want his team to blame fate – either during Game 7 that followed their stunning loss in Game 6 or throughout the following season.

The coach immediately took ownership of losing a title in the final seconds of a game and refused to blame fate: “it’s got nothing to do with the basketball gods. You’re in charge of yourself. There are always things you can do better.” The team addressed the loss at the start of training camp by viewing the entire tape of the last two games and looking at areas for improvement that were within their locus on control.

Popovich acknowledged that time was needed to process the loss and degriefed over the summer with the coaching staff. The coaches then debriefed the team professionally, without blame and emphasizing what could be done better. Turnovers, rotations, box outs and extra passes were discussed in detail. Popovich challenged his team to do better, stating “it’s on us to see what we can do to get back into that same position. Can we or can’t we?” Adopting a process of reducing mistakes and playing together resulted in a completely different outcome (Adande, 2014).


When making decisions in basketball, there are bound to be errors but it is imperative to move on to the next play. Players must understand that they are responsible for their choices on the court but nothing is so severe that it should harm their self-concept. One of the key changes Doc Rivers made when assuming control of the Clippers in 2013 was to minimize the importance of mistakes.

Certainly, they should be addressed and corrected but he did not want to dilute the impact of his coaching by repeatedly showing clips of the same mistakes or assuming a negative attitude – as Vinny Del Negro had done. Rivers shows the error in a film sessions, introduce the adjustment in practice or a shootaround and allows the team to monitor themselves. A trade-off for not overworking the team is the expectation of greater focus and energy when the team is together (Fagan, 2014).

Rivers has always been willing to hold key players to account but first he convinces them that his approach is best. Engendering buy in from Kevin Garnett or Chris Paul over the years has involved showing them that what he wants is better for all parties, for example moving away from Chris Paul isolations in crunch time has led to open shots and wins for the team. A good shot for Chris Paul becomes a better shot for Blake Griffin become evolving into a great shot for Jamal Crawford and the Clippers when everyone plays selflessly.

Basketball is a game of mistakes; the team that limits their errors and moves on to the next play will succeed. Players and coaches must admit their mistakes, address the problem (debriefing after a period of degriefing to manage the emotions involved) and refuse to repeat the same miscue. The first time is an error but the second time is a choice (Stein, 2015). While mistakes happen when coaching young teams, it is not necessary to repeat the same mistakes.


When student-athletes first join a team, they may understand how to play but lack the ability to communicate and lead effectively. Although not every player can be a star, everyone is capable of communicating clearly and assuming leadership responsibilities. A player may be skilled and work hard but they may struggle to lead assertively. Mike Krzyzewski would affirm the strong points, such as the player’s effort on the court, and ask that they continue to model that behaviour but encourage them to occasionally supplement their actions with words, even if they are only a short phrase or a reminder to keep working hard (Sitkin & Hackman, 2011, p. 494).

Krzyzewski also stresses that leadership is always plural. A team may feature a dominant personality but not only could leadership spring forward from diverse sources at different times, success is contingent on this happening. Each leader provides unique contributions, according to their abilities which should all be valued and acknowledged.

To achieve this during critical moments in a game, players must have the opportunities to practice their leadership skills on and off the court. These duties could be formally assigned or simply mentioned casually, for example asking a player to make a small number of comments or give a few specific directions at a moment that suits them best. Embed opportunities for communication in daily team activities and connect with individuals, so they feel welcome to contribute and develop a sense of responsibility to volunteer (Sitkin & Hackman, 2011, p. 498).

Work Ethic

There are certain things that all players can do, irrespective of ability. Players can arrive on time and communicate with teammates and coaching staff. Players can work hard for during every repetition in practice and sprint during games, even if this demands that they play less minutes until their physical conditioning improves. Players can cheer and encourage their teammates and everyone can do one thing well and own it. Players are more than capable of holding each other accountable for their work ethic.

Great players push each other to get better and this peer pressure can be a very powerful influence. Initially, athletes such as Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade trained individually in order to reach the pinnacle of the N.B.A. but as their careers progressed, they realized that they needed to bring their teammates up to their level (Grover, 2013, p. 40). When Ron Harper joined the Bulls in 1995 and LeBron James signed with the Heat in 2010, the stars on those teams understood that they had an obligation to show their new teammates how to work hard. Scottie Pippen could have declined to join the “Breakfast Club” but he knew that he had to do something to reach the next level.

All-Stars like Stephen Curry want to train with other All-Stars because they not only feel responsible for their own improvement but for pushing their workout partners as well, increasing gains (Curry, 2011). After winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 2014, Kevin Durant redoubled his efforts in the off-season: training with Steve Nash to refine his dribbling, running on sand dunes with Russell Westbrook to boost explosiveness and keeping in touch with teammates to build chemistry. Durant may have been one of the top players in the world but he continued to keep score in shooting drills and endeavoured to surpass his own benchmarks while training (Malloy & Malloy, 2014).

Engaging Players

Sport commitment can be divided into two main categories: attraction-based and obligation-based. Attraction-based commitment stems from athletes who want to participate in sport because of enjoyment, health benefits and competence and obligation-based commitment includes those who feel that they must participate because of previous commitments, personal identity or external pressures (Weiss & Ferrer-Caja, 2002, p. 169). High sport commitment can aid athletes to be accountable to their goals, teammates and themselves.

Although athletes develop attraction-based commitment when the sport is enjoyable, fun is not the most important factor for collegiate athletes. Involvement opportunities and social support are also integral for elite athletes to foster sport commitment (Boyst, 2009). Coaches should make activities fun but they should also include diverse methods for athletes to be involved, such as acknowledging all athletes for their contributions to the team, congratulating team members for reaching goals and creating different roles for team members. Crafting a positive and supportive atmosphere around the program including family, friends and other supporters strengthens sport commitment.

Thinking and talking about accountability is not sufficient for adolescent athletes, as they require the tools to put this concept into action. If teenagers fixate solely focusing on the powerful emotions generated by reaching a goal or the danger posed by obstacles in the way, they can become distracted and discouraged. Putting success and failure in perspective and focusing on the concrete steps required is more likely to result in a positive outcome (Tough, 2012, p. 93).

Coaches can help players form some habits and rules that will engender accountability over the course of the season (accepting feedback, communicating respectfully, controlling body language, thinking critically, picking teammates off the floor, executing all elements of a play, competing for loose balls, pressuring the ball continuously).


When the Eastern Commerce Saints won consecutive Ontario Provincial Championships in 1995 and 1996, they practiced harder than they played. A team featuring future N.B.A. All-Star Jamaal Magloire supported by other Division I players would have been tough to beat but the players took it upon themselves push themselves even further.

Once the players realized what coach Simeon Mars wanted to accomplish, they bought in and pushed themselves to the next level. Team members describe “locking the door” and “going at each other” in practices. Defense in the Eastern gym was tougher than anywhere else in the county. Offensive sets were executed precisely because nobody was going to get in the way of the Saints’ lofty goals.

Coaches and staff members made the team accountable to academic and athletic standards but it was the intensity of the players their commitment to each other that created a culture of accountability that defined a legendary program for years to come.

Works Cited