John Tauer Ph.D.

Goal Posts

How to Help Young Athletes Learn and Grow from Adversity

Taking Responsibility for our Actions

Posted Sep 19, 2010

In a recent blog, we examined Rick Pitino's marital infidelity and the way that he seemed to excuse his behavior by making external attributions. I also shared a story about a young basketball player at camp who did not want to accept responsibility for his part in a loss. How do we teach children to be honest about their actions, and how these actions led to failure?

We must first understand that we have two basic social needs: to feel good and to be accurate. When these needs conflict (e.g., after we make a mistake), oftentimes we sacrifice an honest appraisal of our behavior for an explanation that maintains our basic need to feel good. Unfortunately, this desire to feel good can lead us into a vicious cycle where we deny accountability for our actions, ignore areas where we can improve, and continue to make the same mistakes.

Take the child who makes an error in a baseball game and blames it on a bad bounce. He is now less likely to decide maybe he needs to practice more, work on his reaction time, keep his head down, stay in front of the ball, and concentrate. Instead, he has decided there is nothing he did wrong, so why work to improve?
Several readers emailed me to ask how we can work with children to improve the likelihood they will take responsibility for their actions and their mistakes. I will offer two suggestions, one in this week's blog, and a second suggestion in the next edition of Goal Posts.

Remove the emotion, add a dose of realism

There is an old saying in coaching that "The tape doesn't lie." That is, if you can get a player to watch a videotape of himself or herself, away from the emotions on the court after a tough play or game, it is often easier for players and coaches to have rational discussions. During the heat of the moment in sports, our bodies have a surge of adrenaline which helps energize us physically, but can make it difficult for us to be calm, cool, collected, and rational.

Several years ago I coached an All-American player who had a rough game (as did our entire team). After the game, he offered several reasons (I thought they were excuses) justifying why he played the way he did. He didn't get the ball enough, some shots rolled in and out, he was being fouled all game, the other team made some lucky shots.

As good as this player was, I knew that we needed him to be honest about why we had lost so badly. Before watching the tape, we again began to debate what went wrong in the previous game. I felt we did not play well, he felt it was just some bad luck and things would be fine. We popped in the tape and within two minutes, he commented, "I can't believe how bad I was on Saturday. Now I see exactly what you're talking about."

The tape allowed him to step back and be more objective. Although his reasons for our team's performance may not have been completely off base (the other team may have played better than usual, he may have been fouled occasionally), we cannot control those factors. All we can control is how we prepare, play, and execute. The message to young athletes to control what they are able to control (themselves) is an important one, and one that empowers young athletes to be accountable for their actions.

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About the Author

John Tauer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and Head Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas. He is also the author of Why Less is More for WOSPs: How to be the Best Sports Parent you can Be

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