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Meaningful Accountability With Accountability Agreements


Managing relationships on teams is just as important - if not more important - than managing X's and O's. How we give and receive feedback and hold each other accountable can directly impact our culture, connectedness, and success.


But in a world where it's harder to hold athletes accountable because of how they might react, how do you hold people to high expectations and to certain standards while still being able to communicate to them that you care about them?


Dr. Michael Gervais says that the relationships that go wrong or sour are relationships in which there is no trust.

Treatment Agreements are a way to build that trust so that every decision made is a decision that is made for the good of the group, not just a coach, athlete, or a small group of people.

Last summer, I coached a Nike EYBL girls' basketball team. EYBL stands for Elite Youth Basketball League. It is the most competitive high school basketball league in the country. In the EYBL, a select group of high school girls compete on only 32 teams. To be a top-level EYBL team, you have to have some of the top players in your area and quickly create a positive team culture.

Our biggest challenge was trying to get a group of girls, many of whom did not know each other before, to trust each other and play with and for each other in an environment where they were competing with and for each other for exposure and scholarship opportunities.

It can be a cut-throat environment, and you don't have much time to create a winning, selfless culture, so you have to be very intentional about how you create a space where everyone feels safe being themselves, safe being vulnerable, and sharing a purpose and vision.


After our first tournament together, the girls were already at each other's necks. They were pointing fingers and blaming each other for mistakes in order to earn more playing time and scoring opportunities. After one of our practices, we had to do a Circle and have a serious talk about how we wanted to treat each other throughout the summer.


We got in a Circle and did an informal Treatment Agreement. Treatment Agreements are a proactive approach to setting and communicating expectations. It is designed to increase accountability between students and teachers by giving everyone the opportunity to clearly explain how they want to be treated by their teammates and classmates, how they want to be treated by their coaches and teammates, and for their teachers and coaches to communicate how they want to be treated by their students and athletes.


In our Circle, I told them, "On every great team, players have to be able to hold each other accountable, and they have to allow their coaches to hold them accountable. Some athletes don't mind if we call them out in front of everyone, while others either shut down or fight back if you call them out publicly. Some teammates need to be praised out loud, and some just want a small fist bump and nothing in public. For us to have success as a team, we have to trust each other, and part of trusting each other is getting to know each other better, and getting to know how we like to be praised and held accountable."


I then asked them all the following 4 questions:

1 - How do you want your coaches to praise you? Publicly or privately? 2 - How do you want your coaches to hold you accountable? Publicly or privately? 3 - How do you want your teammates to praise you? Publicly or privately? 4 - How do you want your teammates to hold you accountable? Publicly or privately?


This worked well for us. I started, and we went in order, giving everyone the opportunity to share. It gave us the opportunity to have an open conversation and get real with each other. We felt like our athletes were honest, and for the most part, our athletes usually shared similar thoughts, but in different ways. We validated the thoughts and feelings of everyone, and we were able to talk about the different needs that everybody has and how we can meet those needs while still holding each other meaningfully accountable.


But I also let them know that in the moment, I might not always respond in a way that they would like. Sometimes I don't have time to be nice in getting my point across, but it doesn't mean that I still don't love and care for them. In those moments, I'm reminded of a quote my dad used to tell me: Listen to the message, not how I'm delivering it.


We had two major tournaments that summer, one in May and one in June, but we had smaller tournaments in between. We Circled and talked about our Treatment Agreement before the first tournament, and we did it again after the first tournament. We had a productive summer, and our culture grew stronger and stronger as we went.


Formally, A Treatment Agreement is a set of basic ground rules that we ask all of our classmates and teammates to follow. The Treatment Agreement answers 3 basic questions:

1 - How do the students/athletes want to be treated (praised and coached up) by their teachers/coaches? 2 - How do the teachers/coaches want to be treated by their athletes? 3 - How do the students/athletes want to be treated (praised and held accountable) by their teammates?


How To Do It Earlier, I gave an example of how I would informally do this with a team. I did this with the entire team together, but it also works well individually and with smaller groups.


In the classroom, we create Treatment Agreement posters. On one of the first days of school, we complete it together as a class, and we hang it up somewhere visible and somewhere where we can access it. We go through each section together. We ask the students to help us answer and fill out and revisit the Treatment Agreements every 9 weeks because grades go out every 9 weeks.

Daniel Coyle wrote The Culture Code, a book about some of the best teams and cultures in the world. In it, he said feedback is one of the key pillars of high-performing teams, but feedback can be tricky. Some athletes truly don't know how they really want to be treated, and some won’t give you the truth out of fear of feeling judged or because of a lack of trust.

Self-awareness requires some time for reflection, and when people join a new team, there is an understandable lack of trust. We try to beat this by getting vulnerable and staying vulnerable.


Here are four thoughts to use to help your athletes open up and share their truths:

Start With 'WHY' We all have our reasons for why we do what we do. When doing a Treatment Agreement, we start with WHY we are doing them. NBA champion Joe Dumars once said, "On good teams, coaches hold players accountable. On great teams, players hold players accountable." If we want to be the best team we can be, we have to hold ourselves accountable, and we have to allow our coaches and teammates to hold us accountable.


Framing the activity or the conversation can be valuable.

Model Vulnerability (Leaders Go First) Chemistry is created by small, repeated moments of vulnerability, and nothing is more powerful than when a coach shares their vulnerability. I share with my athletes that I have had to learn how to receive criticism publicly, and when I was growing up, I played best when my coach addressed me 1-on-1. Make it okay to be real and honest.

Hug The Messenger Harvard professor Amy Edmonson says that we have to hug the messenger and let them know how much we need their feedback. When our athletes open up and share, thank them for being real and honest so that you can help them feel safe enough to continue to do so again.

No Jerk Rule Finally, don't let anyone be mean or make fun of anyone else for opening up and being honest and real, at any team. This can kill your locker room and culture. Research shows that people on teams who value civility are 59% more likely to share information with each other than people on teams who don't. Define your expectations for how you expect everyone to be treated, manage those expectations, and model them for your athletes.


They might not listen to everything you say, but they are watching everything you do!


The Treatment Agreement is a living document that can be changed at any time. Whenever we have issues with how we are treating each other, or when we have new teammates, we jump into a Circle and talk about it.

The key is getting your kids to be real and honest. Effectively explaining the reason for doing this, going first and modeling being real and vulnerable for them, hugging the messenger, and implementing a no-jerk policy definitely helps!


When I am struggling to coach or hold one of my athletes accountable, I pull them aside and say, "It's my job to coach you. I'm on you because I care, but something isn't connecting. How do you want me to hold you accountable?" This could lead to insight and a conversation that can help me be a better coach and better lead and serve them. And sometimes I will ask their parents the same thing: "I have to get more out of your athlete, but they aren't responding. How do they like to be coached and held accountable?" When a coach calls me about an issue they are having coaching a kid, I ask them, "How does the kid like to be held accountable and coached up?"


Hopefully this is a tool that you can use to build better relationships with the people you work with.



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