5 Ways to Create a Psychological Safe Sporting Environment

Sports Psychology Tips: 5 Ways to Create a Psychological Safe Sporting Environment

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Do your players often play it safe and choose not to take a risk?

Whether it is on the pitch when passing the ball or selecting a shot to play many players retreat into their shell taking a safe approach. Some even play it safe in a group environment wanting to voice something but then retreating back and regretting it later.   Often situations crop up where players don’t want to tell the coach that your unhappy with tactics employed or team-selection, especially if you’ve recently had a bad game!

Where does this come from?  Often FEAR is a big reason.  

Taking risks come naturally for some people and not for others.  Being comfortable, playing it safe, taking the back seat or being routine like is a big part of some individuals personality.

Throw in sport, when players are exposed to a competitive, emotion charged environments, with attention coming at them on the sidelines and now more and more through digital platforms, this can be overwhelming and frightening.

Yet to progress in your sport, to achieve your potential, risk taking and stretching yourself is essential.  

So how can you help yourself if you’re a coach or help your players take more risks and stretch themselves more freely.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety has interested many people in different psychological fields and in the workplace in recent years. 

Harvard Professor, Amy Edmundson describes psychological safety as“creates a team climate where people are encouraged to take risks fearlessly and nurtures mutual trust, support and respect. As a result, employees don’t feel the need to censor themselves before talking and are not afraid to speak up.”

In sports psychology Kahn describes it as: “Being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career“.

How can we create a psychologically safe environment?

From the top down, senior management of your club or organisation must buy into this approach or the chances are the processes that you put in place will break down.  Senior coaches and players should be given training and spend time understanding why this is so important too and how they can influence the culture.

5 Top Tips for Coaches and Players

1.Being present and engaged

Whether you are a player, coach or senior manager in the club or organisation ensuring that you actively listen to your colleagues shows that you respect them and value their ideas and opinions.  If you’re distracted or there in body but not in spirit, not interested in what they are saying then this is likely to cause significant challenges.  It certainly won’t create an environment where people feel speaking up is encouraged and accepted.

2. Showing people that you care

In addition to actively listening, you could get into the habit of trying to understand the other person’s perspective by asking effective questions when you have these conversations.  For instance, if a player complains that they can’t do a certain skill.  For example, a goalkeeper may struggle coming off their line to deal with crosses.  As a coach, you could rephrase it – I heard you say that you struggle to come of your line to deal with crosses, why is that? This can open up conversations and help clarify any misunderstandings.

3. Consider your body language

Eye contact, your facial expressions and actively appearing interested by the way you hold your body can demonstrate that you are engaged.  Nodding your head in discussions and leaning forward can be helpful.  Make sure if you are a coach that you are aware when you look tired, bored or unhappy – players will see it a mile off and they may internalise messages you’re sending.  This can then stop them approaching you for even the smallest things.

4. Avoid the blame game

Ensure meetings take place to set some standards around blame, so everyone is on the same page.  It is so easy when things go wrong in sport, when emotions are running high to get involve in blaming people.  However, if you are going to build a sporting environment which maintain psychological safety your focus must be on solutions and what needs to happen.

In video analysis sessions in a professional rugby team that I’ve worked with in the past, often errors would get pointed out by taking the approach of “What happened and why?” players often came away angry and deflated.  It had a big impact on their confidence levels.  Whereas by asking better questions such as “How can we make sure this goes better next time?” or “To make this move go more smoothly next time what do we need to do?” this then turns the conversation into a group effort with no one singled out for making an error.

5. Ensuring the culture is about “self-awareness”

I have saved the best and most crucial tip till last.  This is the single most important factor in supporting teams and individuals to be the best that they can be.  Every athlete, coach, sport scientist, manager or executive in a club or sporting organisation is different.  We all have unique personalities, preferred ways of working and environmental preferences.   By ensuring each day something is in place for everyone to consider what they said or how they acted in situations and the impact it had on performance or the group is vitally important.  This can be brought to life through short constructive team meetings for all, regular unit meetings, long and more formal workshops or even through the use of personality profiling or psychometrics.   By doing so other people’s preferences for working and communicating can be explored and shared.  How people feel about the opposition at the weekend.   Whether home life is causing challenges.  If your contract situation is a problem for you or team-mates.  What comes natural to people, playing on team mates strengths can be a huge confidence booster for some. 

To sum up, creating a culture and environment which considers building psychological safety will pay off.  Players will give another 5-10%, they will feel more respected and valued.  When people feel safe and engaged they are also less likely to down tools and quit.  So why not look to add some of these strategies in your club and see the positive impact it has on your team.

If you’d like to learn more why not sign up to “The Mental Edge” where you will receive regular tips to your inbox.

You may also be interested in our online accelerator course – Achieve Your Goals Faster.  The 60 minute course has many ideas and exercises to help athletes or coaches to move forward positively and to get clear on how to keep developing themselves.  The ideas can easily be integrated into team settings in through questioning, short meetings or more formal workshops.

Best Wishes 

David Charlton

Global Sports Psychologist located near Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK and willing to travel Internationally.  

Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence and Founder of The Sports Psychology Hub.  With over 10 years experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to achieve their goals, quickly.  

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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