Coaching Model: Be Accountable to Yourself

Introduction

This model originated from my experience in coaching and sports: in both areas I have regularly observed myself while experimenting with different strategies and support structures, aiming to understand more about the impact of accountability on myself as a person, coach, sportsperson. Its name is essentially an exhortation (both to the client and myself as a coach) to accountability.

The model is intended to be applied throughout a coaching relationship: it focuses on the overarching process. My contribution is not in the definition of several original steps, condensed into an easy-to-remember acronym. It is rather about how stressing accountability in every step of the coaching relationship can greatly improve the client’s progress wrt. The change they want to bring in their life.

My own experience as a person practicing sports gave me what I believe can be a powerful, concrete, and easy-to-grasp visualization of a coaching relationship as a year in the life of an athlete. In the following paragraphs, I will elaborate on this parallel.

The Goal

In sports: way before the start of the season, at the beginning of the year’s training camps, players define where they want to be at the end of the upcoming season. There are a goal and many challenges ahead: to make it, there needs to be a strong motivation, a sense of ownership, and a willingness to sacrifice. Athletes choose to do everything possible to get there, committing to the coach as well as to themselves.

At the beginning of a coaching relationship, the client and the coachwork on the foundation of their partnership. The client reaches awareness about his/her goal, what should be addressed/changed/targeted in his/her life, and the motivation to do so.

A useful tool that can be proposed to the client consists of answering the following two questions in writing.

Imagine you have succeeded and made the change you are seeking in your life:

  • What will change for you?
  • What will change for those around you?

Do not stop before reaching 25 items each.

This simple exercise forces the client to go deeper into motivations. It furthermore magnifies ownership through a deeper understanding of both importance and benefits.

Finally, the consequences of inaction become evident by contrast: the two lists clearly state everything that would not happen in the case of inaction.

Imagining that the goal has already been achieved is a powerful shift in perspective. Instead of looking at the obstacles ahead, we encourage the client to look around and describe what he/she sees. Looking backward, the way to get there is doable, in fact, it has already been walked on. So it is no longer a matter of possibility or odds, rather one of choice and determination.

Action or inaction is at this moment totally up to the client: this ignites a sense of ownership and stimulates willpower in the client, who can choose to embrace and pursue change.

Ownership (defined as self-accountability, i.e. the responsibility to oneself for achieving the goal) is so stimulated right at the beginning of the coaching relationship: it creates a solid foundation that can be built upon.

Once the client is empowered by this perspective, the coach can use one final question:

What are you willing to do to achieve this goal?

This formulation once again reinforces the individual’s self-commitment. What’s more, realizing there could be obstacles or sacrifices to be made is making the client perceive to be accountable for the process, instead of just the outcome. In my research paper, I underline how a combination and balance of the two is important.

Training

In sports: The pre-season conditioning training is especially important for athletes of all leagues. Off-Season Accountability is especially needed here: it is the foundation of a more permanent form of accountability that will move the athlete towards the individual season goal.

“By the time the season arrives, it’s too late. Habits are set and athletes know the boundaries. Abruptly change this, and athletes lacking individual accountability will lose what little buy-in they had.  Fighting for accountability during the off-season is optimal because all the battles will have been fought by the time off-season ends.”

This is the most important phase to lay the foundations of success not only for athletes but also for our clients.

During the first few sessions, the coach educates the client about the coaching process. Session goals are identified. The coach helps the client in setting timely session goals and within reach (quick wins). This is helpful in many ways.

First, it avoids the client being overwhelmed by a goal that might seem difficult to reach.

Additionally, the client sets their own rules for success and (eventually) follows through. This lays the foundation of a virtuous cycle, fueled by the gratification of achieving goals, celebrating successes, and feeling recognition (by the coach and – hopefully – by others, too). In other words, this is where the muscle of accountability starts to be stimulated and grows stronger, ready to lift more weight when more ambitious goals start to come in.

For the client to succeed, the coach:

  • walks the talk (in other words, a coach is an ownership role model for the client).
  • is support for accountability (eg. How was the week? Did you follow through? and any question reflecting the way the client asked the coach for support)
  • stimulates the client to own the process (How will you ensure you follow through?)

Gearing up

In sports: before each game, every athlete, regardless of the practiced sport, works on two factors: gear and focus. Tools and equipment are external tools created to eliminate unnecessary friction and ease every move or action during the performance. Focus eliminates distractions and helps to tap into our potential.

Eliminating friction, easing change, and eliminating unnecessary or non-functional ways of thinking are key elements that the coach will stimulate in this phase.

To proceed towards the overarching goal, the coach supports the client in setting the stage for change. This is a preparatory phase that paves the way to a smoother transformation journey.

Setting the external stage is about creating a functional and supporting environment. It is an integral part of the coaching process. Some tactical actions usually help: eliminating distractions, identifying and removing concrete or logistic obstacles, coming up with and leveraging support structures.

The internal stage has more to do with the client’s attitude and feelings towards the challenges ahead: this is about tuning the self for success. Unhealthy expectations, resistance to change, fears are examples of inner obstacles that might generate backlash. Tapping into the stated motivations may help to ground and putting these factors into perspective.

Another aspect that may be helpful for the client to visualize is preparing to consider outcomes different than the desired or expected one, for example asking:

  • What could go wrong along the way?
  • What would happen in that case?
  • How would this make you feel?

Although this might sound like giving up responsibility (i.e. accepting whatever might come), using a simple follow-up question actually encourages focusing on what is in the client’s control, thus targeting action and energy where they can be most effective. In fact, this is the real goal behind this exercise:

  • Which part of this can you influence?
  • What do you want to do with it?
  • What else?

Finally, inspiration and role models can fuel motivation toward change. Recognizing some valued characteristic or feature in a role model may fuel aspirations in the frame of the sought goal.

All of the above are processes the coach can leverage to move the client towards an empowering perspective, one where s/he takes ownership of the process as the one responsible for the outcome, focusing on those factors s/he can influence, and preparing the environment and the inner self to the journey. By exploiting everything that is in his/her reach, both externally and internally, the client effectively does everything in his/her power: the consequence is a sense of being righteously at peace and trust in the possibilities ahead.

I mentioned support structures. Setting up a helping environment is one of the most powerful moves, especially because some of these structures go hand in hand with accountability. The coach will encourage the client to go beyond their ways of thinking and exploring new and different supporting mechanisms. In particular, questions like:

Who can support you in doing this?

help to identify specific people/accountability buddies. This is especially crucial to leverage the social implications of accountability. Reporting progress (or the lack thereof) to another person triggers a series of inner psychological behavioral patterns that stimulate us to hold up to our words; at the same time, our innate need for recognition gratifies and motivates us as we share each step in the right direction with others (ref. to my research paper for more about this subject).

Gameday

In sports: it’s game day, time to put all of that training and preparation into practice. Everything that should have been done is in the past, regardless of if or how it was done. Now it’s time to lean over the edge and reap the yield of all that hard work.

Just as in sports, once all of what is described in the previous sections has been done, the major work is behind the client. Now it is time to reap the benefits: it’s time for action, i.e. taking steps towards the overarching / higher goal. By building upon motivation, a functional environment, a focused and empowered self, there is no space to indulge in reflection any longer.

Here is where accountability partners really show their value.

What are you going to share with X after you have taken the action you identified?

This is one powerful question for the client: it serves as the trigger for all of the pre-work done until this moment (motivation, ownership, accountability, and recognition) and ignites the client’s willpower.

Performance Review

In sports: After the game, athletes go through a thorough performance review with the coach. That’s where the good of their performance is recognized and the areas of improvement are identified. Training and preparation can start for the next game, this time with a slightly improved focus.

Throughout the coaching relationship, the client will design action plans and identify support structures. At the beginning of each session, the coach will enquire about the execution of the plan created in the previous one, serving as a primary accountability partner. More importantly, by definition, the client will share progress with the identified accountability buddies. This is how the social dimension of accountability will continue to be effective.

After each time the client takes action, the coach will stimulate the client to identify the successes made towards the higher goal, encourage state new learnings, and re-assess where the client is along the path.

The way to go will require some additional preparation, motivation, and work on areas of improvement. Neurosciences show that motivation can be seen as the gap between expectations and the present reality (a particular kind of neuron has been found to actually compute the gap between expectations and reality and secreting a proportional amount of dopamine, thus regulating how much we feel is worth taking action). Consequently, it is no surprise that it is likely to change over time. Coach and client will go through several iterations, which will end after the coaching relationship.

References

Christopher McQuilkin, Athlete Accountability

Helen Abadzi, Accountability and its educational implications: culture, linguistics, and psychological research, UNESCO, 2017

Salamone, J. D. & Correa, M. 2012. The mysterious motivational functions of mesolimbic dopamine, Neuroscience 76

 

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