Can Elite Sport Environments Be Psychologically Safe?

January 26, 2024

Can Elite Sport Environments Be Psychologically Safe?

Psychological safety in elite sport, characterised by enormous pressure and brutal competition, is fundamental to good team performance according to Steve Johnson, co-director of the ‘Leading from Self-Awareness‘ program

Psychological safety is a foundational concept in team dynamics, referring to an individual’s perception of taking risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed.

The concept was first investigated in the 1960’s with the work of Ed Schein and Warren Bennis from MIT. But more recently, psychological safety has become popular through the work of Project Apollo at Google and through Amy Edmondson’s Health Care research and her book ‘The Fearless Organization’.

In sports, psychological safety encompasses the belief that one can speak up, take initiative, and express oneself without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.

Psychological safety is the bedrock of high-functioning sports teams because it allows for open communication, promotes a diverse and inclusive culture, supports mental health, and fosters resilience. These factors collectively contribute to better individual performances, effective team dynamics, and, ultimately, greater success in the competitive world of sports.

“The most successful sporting organizations often attribute their success to a culture of ‘One Team’ that fosters a sense of social identity, sets very high standards and proactively develops the holistic wellbeing of their athletes”

Psychological safety is not only possible in elite sport, but it is also increasingly recognised as a critical factor for achieving and sustaining high performance. Elite sport environments are often characterized by intense pressure, high stakes, and fierce competition, which can lead to stress, burnout, and interpersonal conflicts.

Here’s how psychological safety can be fostered and why it’s achievable even at the highest levels of competition:

  • Leadership Commitment: As leaders in elite sports, coaches, managers, sport psychologists play a pivotal role in establishing a culture of psychological safety. They can set expectations for open dialogue, encourage athletes to speak up without fear of retribution, and model vulnerability by acknowledging their own mistakes.
  • Clear Values and Expectations: Teams that have clear values and expectations regarding behaviour, respect, and teamwork can create a strong foundation for a psychologically safe environment.
  • Structured Communication: Implementing structured communication practices, such as regular debriefings and team meetings focused on learning rather than blaming, can ensure that all team members have a voice and that their concerns and ideas are heard.
  • Emphasising Learning and Development: Focusing on continuous improvement and seeing mistakes as learning opportunities helps build a growth mindset. This approach mitigates the fear of failure that can undermine psychological safety.
  • Support Networks: Creating support networks within the team, including mentors, peer-support groups, and access to sport psychologists and wellbeing specialists can provide athletes with the resources they need to navigate the pressures of elite competition.
  • Balanced Approach to Performance: Recognising that athletes are more than their sports achievements and fostering their development in a holistic manner, can help alleviate performance-related anxiety and build a more supportive team environment.
  • Mental Skills Training: Incorporating mental skills training into the athlete’s development programs can equip them with skills to cope with pressure, which contributes to a psychologically safer environment.

While psychological safety in elite sports may initially feel like it can’t be achieved due to the inherently competitive nature, it is not only achievable but its essential.

The most successful sporting organizations often attribute their success to a culture of ‘One Team’ that fosters a sense of social identity, that sets very high standards where everyone is accountable and proactively develops the holistic wellbeing of their athletes, knowing that these are the key components of sustainable elite performance.

Steve Johnson is CEO of the Wellbeing Science Institute.

Steve Johnson is CEO of the Wellbeing Science Institute. He will be co-faculty lead of ‘Leading with Self-Awareness a joint program run by Johan Cruyff Institute and Wellbeing Science Institute.

Leading with Self-Awareness is an innovative leadership program that focuses key areas of modern neuroscience to help leaders develop and integrate a nuanced emotional toolkit into their leadership practice.


Leading with Self-Awareness Program

A truly innovative program around the Mindset, Attributes, and Capabilities required for leaders to be successful in the future world of sport and business. 'Leading with Self-Awareness' will be taught in English, from February to August 2024, in blended learning mode and will consist of six modules: 2 modules on campus, in Amsterdam and Barcelona, and 4 modules online. The program has been designed for coaches, managers and leaders who understand the relevance of a new mindset, motivation and leadership skills that all modern and successful organizations require.

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