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10 tips to develop psychological safety in sport

10 tips to develop psychological safety in sport

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Psychological safety is defined as a belief that a team feels safe to share “interpersonal risk-taking, such as asking for help, admitting one’s errors, or seeking feedback from others”. In our previous blog, we talked about what psychological safety is and why it is important. Let’s now follow up with our top tips on how coaches can develop psychological safety in sport…

1. Show that you care

You need an environment whereby athletes want to, and feel able to speak up. A coach can do this is by ensuring they show the athletes that they care about them as a whole, and are not just focused on how they perform. One way to do this is by just being aware of your actions when talking to others. This leads on to the next tip…

2. Be engaged when talking to others

Whether you are a player, coach or senior manager in an organisation, actively listening when others are speaking to you and showing that you are present and engaged is important to create an environment where people feel valued and respected.

Eye contact, facial expressions and body language can demonstrate that you are engaged. Looking bored or uninterested may send signals which will stop athletes approaching you for even the smallest things.

3. Discourage blaming others

When things start to go wrong in sport, it is easy to blame others, especially when emotions are running high. However, this is detrimental to creating a psychological safe environment, where athletes aren’t scared to make mistakes.

Coaches and managers should aim to focus on solutions and what needs to happen next time, rather than blaming a certain player or situation. This will then prevent players becoming angry or deflated and ensure the conversation is around a group effort, so no one is singled out for making an error.

4. Create a supportive and encouraging team

Creating a sense of family and a close relationship between team mates is important to enable athletes to take risks. Encouragement, care and helpfulness helps establish a safe team environment. Having a supportive team around you will help you feel safe and able to make mistakes and be truthful about how you feel. It also helps boost your confidence knowing you have support from others to go out and perform at your best.

This close bond is not only important between team mates, but also between coaches and staff. A fellowship and common ideology is important to create a safe environment for everyone to work well and feel safe to express their views.

5. Open and non-judgemental communication

In order to create safe environments where people feel they can share opinions and issues, there needs to be no judgement. If we are to show respect to other team members and expect the same back, foundations need to be set from the beginning. Therefore, and environment where people feel like they can express their views without criticism is highly important.

Athletes who are reluctant to tell the coach how they are feeling need to be encouraged to do so. For example, some athletes may be afraid to tell their coach that they are nervous to do something, but coaches should be open to non-verbal signs that will show how the athlete may be feeling, as well as being willing to hear what they have to say without judgement and telling them they’re wrong.

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6. Feedback and reinforcement

Safe interactions also come from the behaviours of coaches in the form of technical feedback and correction. Technical correction and feedback have been found to be more valuable to young athletes than general encouragement. Therefore, coaches need to ensure they are extremely knowledgeable in their respective sports in order to facilitate this kind of feedback. For some feedback tips, check out this blog.

Along with performance feedback, continuous positive reinforcement is also needed. This combination of communication will help the athlete strive for mastery. This involves providing rewards for efforts, which enhances self-esteem. This then means that because the athlete feels good about themselves, they are more focused in training and feel personally safe in that setting. Athletes who feel like this are more attentive, open to corrections and generally more in tune with what is going on around them.

7. Safe doesn’t always mean comfortable

Coaches and athletes may need to work through uncomfortable situations in order to develop and move forward. But it’s important to remember these happen for a good reason. You need a balance whereby athletes feel psychologically safe to express themselves, but also feel safe in elements of discomfort and ready to work through it. Sport is full of ups and downs, and it’s not always going to be positive.

8. Promote calculated risk

A psychologically safe environment is one where athletes feel able, when the moment is right, to take risks. You should encourage these, within certain parameters. If there is a repeated pattern of adverse effects, this needs to be addressed – but every so often, a risk can pay off. If it doesn’t, you need to create an environment whereby the team communicates and picks it back up.

Research suggests that achieving great performance inherently requires one to take risks and experience failure. An example of this is from the England 2018 FIFA World Cup where England player, Marcus Rashford scored an audacious goal. Gareth Southgate publicly praised him, recognising that risk taking is important.

9. Responding to mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable in sport – everyone makes them from time to time. But what is really important is how the coach as well as the team respond to these. The language that is used can determine the athlete’s level of psychological safety.

This is where a growth mindset comes in: if you set an environment of learning, mistakes will happen but athletes will try and learn from them instead of feeling ashamed.

10. Let people be themselves

Athletes should be encouraged to be themselves to create a psychologically safe environment. This means coaches should be aware of individual differences between people, and allow an environment where athletes feel safe to be themselves and not judged.

This may mean adopting different approaches for certain players, and this is where using your emotional intelligence skills is beneficial to be able read the emotions of athletes in order to account for individual differences.

Final thoughts

It is not possible to discuss all the ways to encourage psychological safety within sport in this short blog, but here are a few to allow coaches and athletes to begin this process and bring attention to this aspect of coaching.

Whilst it also may be difficult to develop psychological safety in elite sport where result and performance really do matter, the important message here is that coaches and the athlete’s experiences in sport has a significant impact on the athlete and their development. Therefore, it’s not only important for coaches to put in efforts to keep the athlete physically safe, but also mentally safe from harm and irreversible damage.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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