Running sprints for being late to practice. A “no-excuses allowed” policy. Giving equal amounts of critique to every player on the team.
In terms of sports, being accountable is often thought of in punitive contexts like these.
But accountability can be taught in ways that don’t involve scaring or softly threatening kids into doing what they’re told. Instead, it’s something that can be taught in a much more positive and empowering light, especially when coaches and parents do the following.
Being heavy-handed with praise is an important virtue for any youth sports coach to have. While it’s not in everyone to be Mr. or Mrs. Optimism all the time, it feels good for youth athletes (and anyone) to be praised for something done well, especially when it comes from a coach or parent.
But praise coming from teammates is also valuable in creating an accountable team. Designating captains respected by the rest of the group whose praise and opinion is valued, and who stay positive even in tough situations can organically create a team in which each member is accountable to one another.
Especially at the high school and collegiate levels, many coaches have a clearly defined punishment system. While assigning X punishment for being late to practice or skipping class might be effective at those ages, younger athletes might respond better to a more positive set of expectations.
Instead of it being failure-punishment-based, spin it into an action-reward-based system, e.g., “If everyone does X (e.g., show up to practice on time, complete a team relay drill under a target goal time), the team receives X award.” The reward could be less running at practice or letting the team choose the next drill or scrimmage style.
With minimal coach involvement, this setup builds a great deal of trust and accountability (not to mention teamwork) amongst a team working toward a common goal.
Getting youth athletes to treat practice with the same intensity of focus they would a game can be difficult—and to be fair, the games are largely what we remember most about playing sports and why most sign up in the first place. However, what leads to actually winning in those games and makes athletes better overall is of course focusing on the drills, scrimmages, and workouts as if they were important as any game. This can be a difficult point to get across to many youth athletes.
This message can be subvertly communicated by taking an approach that places more importance on how much effort is put into practices and games as opposed to the wins and loss columns. Praise effort and teamwork over anything quickly quantifiable, regardless of the game’s final score.