As the saying goes ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’. That’s easy to say if risk-taking comes naturally to you. But for many people, it’s a difficult issue to deal with, particularly in their professional life.
In sport, where you’re at your most exposed in a competitive environment, sometimes with the media attention on you, this can be especially daunting.
However risk-taking and challenging oneself is crucial for personal progress and stretching our abilities. It is central to progress the game of sport.
In this article, we look at the fundamentals that underpin our confidence and ability to take risks and face challenges head on.
What is Psychological Safety?
It’s human nature to want to avoid risks and take the easier journey. It makes sense. Except, sometimes in life, we need to push ourselves and overcome hurdles, quite literally! It’s often the only way that progress can happen, for records to be broken and for new standards to be set.
But in order to take risks we need a safety net, or as it’s called in sports psychology – a psychological safety net. Kahn (1990) describes this as: “Being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career“.
It’s clear how this is crucial in sport, since team members that feel accepted and respected can flourish and fulfil their potential without fear.
As a sports coach, there’s a couple of behaviours that can promote risk-taking by creating a psychologically safe environment. Some of these are:
- Positive Reinforcement – From the top down, every member of an organisation should be supportive and encouraging of its team. Positive reinforcement plays an important role in this, and will help develop personal growth and curiosity.
- No Judgement – Conflict is not always a negative. In fact, sports psychology views it as a positive, since you need to be comfortable in company to be able to express personal views. But this requires a healthy level of active listening without judgement from all parties involved. If we are to respect other team members and expect the same back, we must lay the foundations in the first place. Creating an environment therefore, where people feel like they can express their views without criticism is highly important.
- Feedback – In a collaborative team, sports organisation or otherwise, the sports coach will promote the opportunity for feedback. This might be one-on-one, or as a team, but the opportunity is there. The greatest example of this is where opinions are shared freely and individuals ask edfor feedback without fear of being ridiculed.
- All Welcome – It can be easy, especially in large teams, to intimidate junior members. Trainees, team support, athletes in the making. Yet, we’ve all been there and had to start somewhere ourselves. This is where the ‘all is welcome’ approach comes in. In this environment, learners as well as senior team members are welcomed and all opinions are considered valuable and important.
- Openness – In sports coaching, we devote a considerable amount of time to our environment. Creating an open culture is central to this, and it comes from the top down. In an open environment team members are encouraged to bring up issues, no matter how challenging they are for discussion. In a time when mental health and personal wellbeing is even more significant, it’s ever important for the sports coach to promote an inviting environment for communicating with each other freely. Not only is this a cathartic exercise, but it’s a great way to promote problem solving within teams too.
- Being Yourself – In a psychologically safe environment, individuals are encouraged to be themselves. In doing so, we strive not to untenable standards, but instead to be the best version of ourselves.
How to Create a Psychologically Safe Environment
Now we understand how an organisation’s culture and individual responses can affect team dynamics, let’s look at ways in which the sports coach can nurture a psychologically safe environment. It’s important to remember that this isn’t in isolation of the bigger picture, it needs buy-in from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy, but especially at the top.
- Inviting – The first way to create such a dynamic environment is by encouraging sharing, exploration and critiquing of ideas. It’s not always a comfortable environment to be in and can be awkward at times. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. This is essential for growth and performance. In the same way that an athlete might review a sports coach at the end of the contract, so must we incorporate best practice into our professional life too.
- Establishing boundaries – As earlier mentioned, the top of the business is equally as involved as any other in creating the right culture for change. Therefore, building relationships with key influencers will create the necessary foundations. When it comes to having difficult conversations, this will make it that bit easier for the sports coach.
- Transparency – The buzzword of recent times. Transparency is growing in response to the current world we find ourselves in. As athletes and ambassadors of sport, it’s integral to our credibility to be able to be respected. Transparency plays such an important part in this, least of all because sports coach relationships are built on trust. This also means being able to hold up the mirror to ourselves and empowering others to do the same.
Sometimes sport takes us to difficult places, emotionally and physically. Risk-taking and collaboration may feel uncomfortable, even stomach-churning at times, but it’s an important emotion to confront.
Because in facing up to our responsibilities we are helping to better ourselves and the world of sport. But in order for this to be successful, we need to first create a psychologically safe environment in which everyone can be their best selves. Achieve this, and everyone wins.