AGC #017 - The "someone else will" problem

4 ways to avoid diffusion of responsibility in sports teams

Team sports have the advantage of having people to support you and share the burden of whatever game you’re trying to win, or goal you’re striving after.

But that shared responsibility can also breed something toxic to strong team cultures:

The “Someone Else Will Do It” Mentality.

Smarter people than me have called this the “diffusion of responsibility”, which occurs when people who need to make a decision wait for someone else to act instead.

The more people involved, the more likely that each person will do nothing, believing someone else from the group will probably respond.

You can see this phenomenon at play in endless ways in team sports.

It could be small things, like everyone standing around at the start of a practice, waiting for someone to tell them to begin the warm-up.

It could be big things like an entire team shutting down and becoming unresponsive at half-time in an important game they’re losing, waiting for someone else to rally the troops.

It’s something both players and coaches must guard against, by insisting on certain standards and behaviors.

Here are 4 ways to avoid having the “someone else will” mentality impacting your team:

Provide role clarity on and off the field

Make a list of every single job that helps a sports team function that could and should be done by the players. That could be:

  • Putting the goals away after practice

  • Keeping the team’s equipment (balls and cones) are organized and accounted for

  • Making sure everything gets loaded on and off the bus on away trips.

Whatever is relevant in your environment.

Assign the jobs and ensure all players have access to the full list, with instructions that the assignee doesn’t have to do the entire job themselves - they can enlist their teammates to help.

But make it clear that if it isn’t done, it’s clear who the coaches will be looking to for an explanation.

Give one free pass, but a second offense across any job not being done has a small consequence for the whole group. Rotate the jobs regularly so the easier and harder tasks get shared around.

Pretty soon you’ll have a self-policing team, a simple accountability loop, and less time spent picking up the balls after training.

Insist on EGBs

The 2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament had a lot of teams talking about (and tracking) energy-giving behaviors, or EGBs.

Numerous studies have shown that teams that purposefully and intentionally find ways to use physical touch - high fives, back slaps, fist bumps, etc - tend to win more.

Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash was the poster boy for this in the 2000s, and researchers from UC Berkeley found a direct correlation between showing signs of enthusiasm and winning basketball games:

Insisting on these types of controllable connective behaviors in your team environment has multiple benefits, not least that it’s obvious when a player chooses not to participate.

It normalizes the idea that everyone has things they are responsible for outside of just playing the sport, to create and maintain connection and provide support for others.

With practice, this can eventually become the norm in tough moments too. When a player misses an open goal or gives away a penalty, getting a high five and a “we got this” is far preferable to eye rolls and isolation.

The energy from your team should go up in these tough moments, not down.

Otherwise, every man truly is an island.

Get players to coach each other

Admittedly, this one works better with older players that have more experience of their sport.

But if you want to help reduce or eliminate the “someone else will” mentality, try setting your players a technical challenge that they can’t move on from until it’s complete, then removing the coach’s voice from the equation.

This could be a shooting exercise that doesn’t end until you’ve scored a set number of a certain type of goal, or a chaotic passing and receiving drill that needs 60 seconds of no mistakes and is restarted every time one occurs.

The first hope is that your players will support and motivate each other towards the shared task, as well as help each other handle the frustration of it.

But the second is that they provide technical feedback to help each other complete it faster.

The coach can’t be the only source of support and guidance for a team, especially in invasion sports with few stoppages.

Normalizing players providing solutions but also giving corrective feedback to each other in practice should help them demand more from each other in the game.

Specific feedback, specific questions

One of the primary reasons the diffusion of responsibility can be so toxic in team sports is that when coaches (or players) give generalized feedback to the group, nobody thinks they’re the ones being talked about.

This is why you need to train your players to add names to their demands of each other on the field. Just shouting the thing into the void won’t get the person’s attention.

But it’s even more true for coaches. How many of us have gone into a half-time team-talk after a rough first period, and said things like…

“We need to fight harder for loose balls”

“We need to follow the game plan”

“We need to play to our strengths”

All well-intentioned statements, but not specific enough.

You have to thread the needle to avoid shaming individuals in front of the group, but something like “Outside midfielders - you guys specifically are over-running the ball, can you get your eyes up and see what support you have first?” leaves everyone under no illusions as to who the feedback is directed at.

The same goes for asking questions to the group, to check for understanding.

If we’re working on a new forward shape in our press, I need to hear from the forwards, so I’ll attach their names to the prompts or questions.

Leaving it generalized ensures the answers will come from the same few people, and allows those who don’t understand but are too scared to ask questions to get away with staying quiet - all of which will lead to more frustration on game day.

If you have any tips on how to minimize the “someone else will” mentality in your teams, I’d love to hear them - drop me a line at hi[at]alangood[dot]com, or on X or Instagram!

Whenever you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you:

1. Efficient Practice Design: My multi-step system for creating practice plans that will flow smoothly, stretch your players appropriately, and save coaches of all team sports dozens of hours a year, on and off the field.

2. Premium Practice Planner:  A Notion template to help sports coaches plan, deliver and review their sessions with maximum efficiency - then smartly archive everything.

3. Coach’s Dozen: An ebook of 12 small-sided games with diagrams and animations to help you train goalscoring in field hockey, co-authored with Mark Egner.