The Five Stages of Responsibility (aka the Path to Accountability)

Guiding athletes through the five stages of responsibility to create a culture of accountability

(Update 3/3: I wrote about the connection between perspective, the 5 stages and accountability in a recent newsletter. Subscribe here.)

There are a number of critical moments in every athlete's career. 

  • Getting introduced to the sport
  • Joining our first team or getting our first coach
  • Achieving a personal milestone
  • Achieving a team milestone
  • Earning honors and accolades
  • Failing on a big stage
  • Retiring and/or moving on

If you’re a little like me, just reading that list triggered profound memories of moments that helped to shape who you are today. 

But that list isn’t complete. There's another critical moment that elite athletes all recognize as pivotal to their success: the moment they took true accountability for their career.

For some the moment comes after a failure. They pick themselves up, regroup, look in the mirror and realize they need to make a change. And then they do.

For others the moment comes after a conversation. A coach, teammate or supporter inspires them to change their approach and take ownership of their results.

For still others the moment comes from a book, video, or course. Something in the material connects with them and gives them the permission they need to make different choices.

As a coach, you're only ever as successful as the level of accountability you can cultivate in your athletes. As an athlete, your success often depends on the culture of accountability that you, your coach and teammates all create. 

Accountability is what sets great athletes and great teams apart. But it’s also something that needs to be built up, refined, developed. It doesn’t just happen. Most athletes go through a series of stages. Knowing what they are can help us to identify where we are and where we need to make changes.

This article outlines the five stages of responsibility that guide an athlete to true accountability. Use this as a framework for helping to identify where you (or your athletes) are today, and how you might build a culture of accountability going forward.

But first it's important to explain the difference between two related concepts: responsibility and accountability.

The Difference Between Responsibility and Accountability (and How They Relate)

We often use the words responsibility and accountability interchangeably. This is a mistake. The concepts are related, but they are distinct.

Responsibility refers to the carrying out of a task or activity. It is focused on the action itself. If you are responsible for taking out the trash, then that means you are the one who must take the trash to the curb. The action is defined and you must carry it out as defined. If the results turn out different than expected, so be it.

Accountability refers to answering for the results or effect of a task or activity. It puts the ownership on the outcome. If you are accountable for taking out the trash, it doesn't matter how the trash gets to the curb. What matters is that it gets there. If it doesn't get there, the blame or consequence falls on you.

We can think of accountability as “responsibility for the results.”

As you progress in any area, you go from being responsible for actions to being accountable for outcomes. Employees, soldiers, and athletes are (generally) held responsible for carrying out tasks. CEOs, generals, and coaches are (generally) held accountable for the final performance.

The same goes for young children. We may hold them responsible for eating all their food, staying in bed or cleaning up after themselves. But if the overall results aren’t what we are striving for, it’s the parents who are accountable. As the children grow and mature, we slowly transition this accountability to them.

The best performing employees, soldiers, athletes and children are the ones who go beyond responsibility and truly hold themselves accountable to the results. Teams and organizations achieve their potential when they cultivate a culture of accountability. 

Now let’s look at the stages we have to go through to achieve a culture of accountability.

5 Stages of Responsibility - Stage 1: Showing Up

Stage 1: Responsibility for Showing up

The first stage is simply showing up to play. I call this out because it's easy to overlook that this is the mindset many athletes have when they first start doing a sport. They just want to see what it's like, make some friends, maybe go on a team trip to Disneyland or have something to do away from home a few days a week.

This is perfectly normal. We all start here. Some of us start here at 6 years old and immediately move to the next stage. Some of us never really get out of this stage. 

If you're in this stage you’re not actually training. You're playing. You don't start training until you move to stage 2.

How to Measure Responsibility for Showing Up:
  • Being present and participating

Stage 2: Responsibility for Execution

The second stage is responsibility for execution. In this stage, you are working with a coach who owns the planning and evaluation of your training. Your sole responsibility is to do the work you're given to the best of your ability. 

The Classic Division of Responsibility

The above chart is used in Chapter 4 of Make the Leap. It identifies the three main areas of a training program: planning, execution, and evaluation. The line delineates who is responsible for each part. I like to call this the “Classic Division of Responsibility” because this is the old school coach-athlete relationship.

In this stage the coach plans the workouts and evaluates the quality of the work. The athlete is responsible for showing up, being ready to work out, following directions, and giving their all. I also believe athletes need to take responsibility for asking questions when they are unsure about what’s expected of them. 

Most serious athletes do a good job of taking responsibility for execution. A coach can make this easier by cultivating a strong environment and giving clear instructions. 

How to Measure Responsibility for Execution:
  • Following instructions
  • Clarifying requirements (it’s your responsibility to know!)
  • Showing up on time and prepared
  • Giving appropriate effort

Stage 3: Responsibility for Evaluation

In the next stage, an athlete goes beyond taking responsibility for the work they are doing; they also take responsibility for evaluating their work.

An athlete at stage three is documenting what they've done, reviewing it for patterns and/or areas of improvement, and communicating these learnings with their coach. They are also evaluating what factors in their lives are contributing to their performance.

The Optimal Division of Responsibility

As you see in the chart above, the line dividing athletes and coaches goes through the Evaluation and Planning activities. This is critical for athletes to understand: taking responsibility does not mean taking sole responsibility. 

You can take responsibility for certain actions and delegate responsibility for other actions where necessary. Just make sure it’s being done consciously.

How to Measure Responsibility for Evaluation:
  • Keeping a training log
  • Calling out mistakes and ways to fix them
  • Communicating what you’ve learned with your coach
  • Seeking out context when necessary

5 Stages of Responsibility - Stage 4: Planning

Stage 4: Responsibility for Planning

Many athletes never get to the stage of being responsible for planning, and for some that will be preferable. It's important to note that even athletes who are knowledgeable enough to plan their own training programs may not want to. Most athletes prefer to hire a coach to do this. 

Still, there are aspects of planning that only the athlete can own. They can take responsibility for communicating how they feel about their training plan. If there are certain workouts they prefer, they can push to include them. If they know they have outside responsibilities that may interfere with their training plan, they need to be responsible for ensuring there is a plan to navigate them. 

This also affects goal-setting. Athletes at stage four ensure that their personal goals are communicated clearly and aligned to both their training program and lifestyle. 

Whereas responsibility for evaluation is backward looking, responsibility for planning is forward looking. This means identifying your future obstacles, understanding the time and energy commitment required of you, and communicating those clearly.

How to Measure Responsibility for Planning:
  • Communicating how you feel about your program
  • Accepting risks and trying new things
  • Identifying potential obstacles
  • Considering the time/energy required to execute effectively
  • Aligning goals with the training program

5 Stages of Responsibility - Stage 5: Results (aka True Accountability)

Stage 5: Responsibility for the Results (aka True Accountability)

The results you achieve are the output of more than just your formal training plan. They depend on your hidden training program as well.

Many athletes who don't achieve at the level they want will blame the coach, the program, the conditions, or maybe just the alignment of the stars. They may be taking responsibility for their formal training activities, but they aren’t taking responsibility for their results.

Athletes who are truly accountable accept all of the credit and blame for their performances. They look to themselves first to consider whether they truly put in the right effort, created the right training environment, cultivated the right support network, prepared the right way, and executed the right plan on race day. In short, that they lived the right lifestyle.

There are some great talents who put up amazing performances without reaching Stage 5. But there are no great athletes who sustain excellence without taking full accountability for their performances and the training that led to them.

And the moment that they take that full accountability is often just as critical as all the other memories we mentioned above. It's a decision that alters the course of their career, and defines who they are as not just an athlete, but as a person as well.

We can't force athletes to make this decision. But we can guide them to it.

How to Measure Responsibility for the Results (aka Accountability):

  • Focusing on explanations, not excuses
  • Embrace criticism where appropriate
  • Identifying negative forces that affect your ability to train or compete
  • Seeking out the support you need to improve your results

Simple Steps to Help Athletes Be More Accountable

We’ve gone through the five stages. Now let’s look at a few simple steps you can take to help guide an athlete to the next stage.

  1. Have a conversation with them. Talk about responsibility, accountability, and what it takes to be great. Don't try to change behavior. Just focus on understanding. Use this article or at least the 5 stages to show them that there's a progression for them to follow.
  2. Have them read about responsibility and talk with them about what they read. (This is really a 1A.) Give them chapter 4 of Make the Leap or any other resource you have that dives into these topics. Most bios of great athletes will include a passage or story about their path to accountability. And having something external to talk about makes the conversation feel less about them than about what they read. Even if you both know it's really about them.
  3. Outline clearly what you want athletes to do. Responsibility is about executing actions. Don't assume your athletes know how to do what you are asking. And just because it's obvious to some doesn't mean it will be obvious to all. Take some extra time to make sure they know what is expected of them.
  4. Let them dip their toe into the next level. An athlete at Stage 2 may be ready to take on some Stage 3 responsibilities. But they also may not be ready to take on all the activities right now. Pick one or two and let them own just those ones. Then add more as they show a readiness to do more.
  5. Include them in creating the training plan. This one depends a lot on their interest and ability, but find ways to include their input where you can. If you are fine with either of two options, let them choose. Make it easy for them to communicate potential challenges in their lives so that you can work together to plan for them. You can't take responsibility for something if you have no role in it.
  6. When an athlete is doing all the right things but not getting the desired results, challenge them to figure out why. This is the final step to becoming truly accountable. Some athletes will do this on their own, or as a result of some other influence. But if they are ready, don't be afraid to push. We all need that person in our lives. Trust that you'll know when it's time, and seize the opportunity.

    Thinking Better Leads to Training Better

    One of my central beliefs is that athletes train better when they think better about training. Think better, train better.

    Thinking better can mean many things. It includes identifying and prioritizing more productive ideas, building better mental habits, making connections between different areas, and making better decisions both in training and competition.

    Thinking is an ability just as playing a sport is. It can be honed and improved with deliberate practice. One of the better ways to do this is by introducing frameworks and mental models that explain aspects of our training. 

    An effective framework doesn’t answer all your questions or solve all your problems. It helps you ask better questions and gain perspective on your problems.

    The five stages of responsibility is this type of framework. It won’t apply to every situation, and you will surely identify scenarios where it breaks down. But if you use it to consider your current behaviors, it can help to identify how responsible you are and how far you have to go to take true accountability for your training.


    If you are looking for more frameworks and mental models to help you think better about your training, Make the Leap was written to provide a set of practical, productive frameworks that you and your team can apply today. The companion Think Better Workbook will help your athletes think about these concepts as they relate to their training programs.

    I hope you found this article helpful. If you’d like to give me feedback or invite me to talk to your team about the five stages of responsibility, please contact me.