Helping Athletes Stay Accountable in Sport and Life
By: John Godina
Sports are a powerful metaphor for life. As coaches, we are often faced with delusional athletes who see themselves as more outstanding athletes than they actually are, envisioning big, bright futures for themselves as star athletes and rarely holding themselves accountable for their shortcomings.
This situation is often a source of heartache for the athletes in the long run, and a hassle and distraction for the coaches and the athletes’ teammates in the short term. I have found that confronting and dealing with such situations quickly and directly has always been the most effective and best strategy for everyone involved.
How Athletes Lacking Accountability Can Become Delusional Ones
Having dreams can lead athletes to work hard, challenge themselves, face their fears, grow as people and elevate those around them. Having delusions, on the other hand, can lead athletes to believe they are above taking responsibility for their actions, as well as having false feelings of entitlement. These delusional athletes tend to create paranoid conspiracy theories, drag their teammates down, degrade themselves, and perhaps even justify performance-enhancing drug use.
Athletes who truly believe they are better than everybody else and are above making mistakes, yet are regularly outshone, may jump to the conclusion that the only explanation for this would be doping by others. To them, this would be the obvious path through which to conceivably compete.
Of course, a multitude of issues must exist in order for an athlete to reach this extreme point:
- The belief that they are better than all others at their sport
- An uncontrollable and self-justified need to take everything possible from others
- The inability to critically self-analyze and take responsibility for their flaws
- A lack of accountability, foresight, or regard to the effect of their actions on others
- An insecurity with themselves and their true position in life—this reaches well beyond the bounds of sport
Recognizing these patterns as a coach can be easy, but can also be very difficult, as delusions can sometimes be disguised in what appear to be dreams. Once identified, what I recommend doing for that person is to guide them in facing concrete reality. Notice I said “person” and not “athlete.”
What a coach does or doesn’t do to address this issue with an athlete can have implications for that person for the rest of their life. The ability to live a fulfilling, accountable life free of self-centered misbeliefs and debilitating insecurities is the best gift a coach can give.
What to Say to Athletes Lacking Accountability
Remembering that delusions of grandeur are more often than not just a shield for insecurities, I have always chosen to confront this problem with a short, simple message. This is a statement that is not only a practical reality check, but also a caring message to help the person begin developing self-worth and accountability for their actions and attitudes:
“You just aren’t that good… and it’s ok.”
It may sound harsh, but it’s actually quite kind in the long run. It’s straightforward and unambiguous, leaving no room for misunderstanding. It’s also just a starting point.
In these situations, I have spent months backing up the “…and it’s ok” part of that sentence with athletes.
How do I make the athlete believe “… and it’s ok?” I simply remain consistent in my actions. I still coach them. I still mentor them. I still care that they fulfill their potential. I still work with them to find value in their performances. Most importantly, I still care about them.
What’s the message that they receive in return as people? “Coach believes I’m not that good, but still cares enough to do this for me. My worth as a person is not found in how good or bad I am at this sport.”
Developing Better Athletes by Developing Better People
Once athletes accept that reality, they can then step back and truly analyze themselves from the outside objectively. They are free to be themselves, take accountability for their mistakes, recognize that their worth is the same regardless of their athletic performance, and that win or lose, they will be okay. This also means that because of this newfound self-awareness and security, the athlete will be less likely to engage in doping or other dangerous and unsportsmanlike behaviors.
As a coach, I will work with dozens of Olympians who may or may not win medals. I will also work with thousands of athletes who have no chance of being Olympians. My impact on these thousands, as they prepare themselves for life, is my true legacy as a coach. Regardless of how much I help Olympians, they will always be great because they have greatness at their core and will find a way to succeed.
But helping everyday athletes find greatness in themselves is immensely gratifying because it changes their lives and improves them as people.
In the end, it’s crucial for coaches to always ask themselves: What could be better for them, for me, and for the world?
John Godina is a four-time World Champion in the Shot Put and currently resides in Mesa, AZ where he owns and coaches at the World Throws Center and World Athletics Center.