In the world of sport, where setting goals for success is the norm, it’s no surprise that there’s a focus on ‘winning factors’. But in recent years, there has been a diversion away from this, with more of an emphasis on some of the behavioural, emotional and psychological factors at play. This also includes the welfare and mental health in elite athletes.
This is why sports psychologists utilise shared understanding strategies. Tenebaum (2004, 2007) believed that a high degree of coordination is required for team performance, which can only come from a shared understanding. It would stand to reason, that collaboration, understanding, and team work are the cornerstones of successful teams – in sports and business.
So then, how can sports coaches and leaders create a thriving culture and environment for shared understanding? And what benefits can we expect? In this article we explore this theme in greater depth.
What is shared understanding?
In sports psychology we often talk about shared understanding. This is the coming together of teams with a shared ambition, goal and strategy.
It has been described by experts as “The development of shared understandings… underpinned by effective communication, where information is transformed into knowledge through a process of structuring, evaluating and interpreting.”
We create shared understandings to better achieve our objectives as a group. This is critical because if everyone is clear on their role, they will work together more cohesively. This can impact on performance and ultimately, success in achieving goals.
This has been developed over the years to help address real-time solutions to the daily challenges we all face. After all, we should remember that it’s common place for athletes to present with challenging behaviours. There is great pressure placed on athletes to train, compete and win, and all under the glare of the media spotlight.
Much like in all forms of team leadership, athletes are too subjected to pressures and stresses, which can manifest in many ways.
According to a study by Bickley et al, some of these challenges could include:
- Problems with attitude or apparent motivation
- Failure to access coaching support or engage with the rules
- Being a disruptive influence
- Being demand with high levels of need
- Being socially withdrawn or engaging in self-destructive behaviour (gambling, alcohol)
- Somatization injury behaviour
- Poor communication
The role of a sports coach and sports psychologist
In the role of mentor, leader, boss or sports coach, our ambition is to lead a team to seize its potential. This includes individuals as well as the sports institution.
In performance-focused proactive psychology, the focus is on helping individuals improve what they already do and do it even better. It’s not just about problem solving. It’s about partnering with individuals to bring out the best in them. Part of this is coaching them to avoid tunnel vision.
But only can this be achieved by addressing issues and making sure we aren’t repeating the same mistakes.
Growing individuals to become immersed in the sport on all levels, forms an important part of this function. This applies to all areas, from training to competition. There is also a role in influencing the wider company culture too, knowing that change cannot exist without the buy-in of wider stakeholders. Sharing this vision is important if you are to influence the whole system and make an impact.
There’s two sides to the shared understanding coin. The physiological and psychology impact on team members.
The physiological, ensures that teams are accountable in terms of performance outcome. It questions whether they are performing better. The psychological addresses the mental health in elite athletes. It questions when they are more robust mentally in performance terms, and reviewing their wellbeing at the same time.
Trust may just be the most integral part of this process. Since the importance of shared understanding relies upon the discretion and support of everyone in the team. In a sports environment this can often extend to a wider group of stakeholders, with confidentiality and discretion firmly in place. Those in the system will need to recognise that information will be shared for the wider benefit of supporting overall performance.
As a sports coach, it is their job to influence, challenge and support these systems, making them psychologically robust. One of the core elements of this sports psychology technique is bridging the gap between athletes, coaches and management. But this in itself can take time to develop, which flows nicely into the next point – formulations.
Formulating effective formulations
While it’s all well and good having interventions in place, these will be far more successful with an effective ‘formulation’ in place to support every athlete.
Despite its widespread discussion, it is hard to pinpoint any definition of the term. However, based on expert opinion and findings (Johnstone and Dallos, 2006), some of the defining features including being able to summarise core problems and indicating a plan of recovery. It also suggests how to identify difficulties and how they may relate to each other by drawing on theory. Finally, this means revising and reformulating these formulas where needed and remaining open to this idea.
There are a number of benefits in formulation setting, such as:
- Identifying the best way forward and informing the intervention
- Helping to clarify hypothesis and questions
- Providing an overall snapshot
- Being able to prioritise issues
- Increases transparency
- Determines what is required for successful outcomes
- Frames any interventions
- Promotes collaborative work with the service user
- Normalises problems
Working in sports psychology, we are uniquely placed to better understand athletes, sharing relevant insights with the wider team. In some ways, it is the linchpin that keeps everything together.
Considering the Hypotheses
As sport psychologists and sports coaches, we must ask ourselves what hypotheses are we testing? This challenge is to understand what are we basing judgement on – fact, or as is often the case, our own perspective. The official guidelines from the British Psychology Society also ask us to consider our personal approach.
In The Blind Men and the Elephant, formulations are once again highlighted as hypothesis to be tested. It is a strategy adopted by Olympic professionals and elite athletes and their sports coaches, to help maintain wellbeing and enhance performance at the same time.
The approach invites sports psychologists to question issues around performance. This might range from training habits, to athletes work ethic, or not listening.
The process asks you to identify the problem, and understand the specific issue you are trying to resolve. For instance, this might be waning motivating levels or general approach to sports. It also recommends gaining as many perspectives and stories as possible in order to formulate a hypothesis that is reflective and fair.
The Four P’s
When we look at formulating hypothesis, particularly with mental health in elite athletes in mind, we should consider the four P’s. These are better known as:
- Precipitating factors
These ask you to consider why now and what are the triggers?
- Pre-disposing factors
Looking at what’s going on in the background. These might be experiences the athlete faced from a young age, or general factors that have contributed to their current state.
- Perpetuating factors
Essentially, this is what maintains and feeds the problem, and ultimately perpetuates it.
- Protective factors
Considering the strengths and what might help them get out of it.
The best way to put these into action is by putting a plan together, with clear roles and responsibilities. Sports psychology techniques that come into play include objective setting. The plan needs to be clear about what success looks like, how it will be achieved, and who is accountable.
This could be an individual plan, or a systems plan. If there are team formulations permissions need to be considered on data sharing . In the process also think about intervention delivery – allowing some independence and freedom for expression. And finally, as with all plans, there needs to be a way to evaluate outcomes.
Let’s also take a moment to note the task of a sport psychologist, which plays a valuable role in bringing together the two important aspects of this. Linking personal attributes, such as thoughts feelings and meanings to the other – a process described as “ongoing collaborative sense-making.”
Importantly, this approach considers that all people are ‘meaning makers’ who creative their own personal narratives about their lives and the challenges they face. While formulations are strongly rooted in sports psychology, and evidence-based outcomes, these are less so.
The delicate dance required to be a successful team, or individual, is often the result of the parts that come together. For this reason, we have moved towards creating shared understanding to bring people together more effectively. With a shared understanding of goals and strategy, only can individuals be clear on the important role they play.
Understanding how we formulate a response is an important step in the process. Additionally, we must also be clear on the hypotheses we are testing. Bringing a touch of science, auditing and accountability to the mechanics of sport is no bad thing, and is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg!