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What does psychological safety mean in sport?

What does psychological safety mean in sport?

3 min read
  • Sport psychology

Psychological safety is a relatively new concept, and getting more traction in recent literature in sport psychology.

However, many people in sport still don’t know what this actually means or why it is important. Here’s everything we know about psychological safety so far, and why it matters…

What is psychological safety?

Training settings can be a damaging place for athletes, particularly when individuals feel as though they can’t talk about their insecurities and are scared to make mistakes. Psychological safety focuses on creating a healthy atmosphere that in turn allows athletes to thrive and become the best athlete they can be. Without this, there can be negative effects on the athlete and the team.

Psychological safety has been 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”.

Athletes in a psychologically safe environment are genuinely interested in their teammates, have positive intensions towards one another, as well as a mutual respect for others’ competence, especially when mistakes are made.

When athletes feel psychologically unsafe in their team, this means they are reluctant to demonstrate their vulnerabilities, even if it could benefit the team, as they believe it puts them at risk of appearing incompetent or weak and posing a threat to their self-image. This is not a healthy environment for athletes to be able to work in.

So, what is the difference between a psychologically safe environment and a psychological dangerous environment?

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Psychological safety vs psychological danger

Here are some of the differences between a psychologically safe environment and a psychological dangerous one…

Psychological SafetyPsychological Danger
Comfortable admitting mistakes
Learning from failure
Everyone openly shares ideas
Better innovation & decision making
Fear of admitting mistakes
Blaming others
Less likely to share different views
Common Knowledge Effects

What has the research found about psychological safety?

Research has looked into the role of leadership in psychological safety.

The study revealed that with high-quality identity leadership, coaches, captains and athlete leaders all contributed to strengthening team members’ identification with the team. This means that athletes acknowledged and valued being part of the team. They found that this shared sense of being a team meant that athletes felt psychologically safe in their team to speak up, provide input and take risks.

This psychological safety within teams also created two pathways:

  • A team-orientated pathway, which lead to good teamwork, resilience and athletes feeling satisfied with the team performance.
  • An individual-orientated pathway where psychological safety created a buffer against athletes burning out and therefore enhancing their health.

This research suggests that a shared leadership in which team members are encouraged to engage in identity leadership leads to a shared sense of “we” and “us”, creating a psychologically safe environment, which in turn improves team functioning and health.

So, why is a psychologically safe environment so important?

  • It is a key component in cultivating successful performance;
  • It allows for better teamworkresilience and athlete satisfaction;
  • It is important for the health of athletes by protecting them from burnout;
  • It creates an environment where athletes feel safe to speak up and share ideas, ask for help and admit to mistakes;
  • Athletes embrace their mistakes and treat failure as learning;
  • It allows team members to feel accepted so they can flourish and fulfil their full potential without fear.

Gareth Southgate, manager of England’s 2018 football team for the FIFA World Cup, illustrates that a psychologically safe environment is important for developing good performances: “I want the team to be making mistakes because if they are making mistakes, then they are trying things. For me, all of our players, if they want to try and be as good as they can be, they have to try things and we have to accept that it might mean the odd failure; but what you then maybe get is the odd moment like they produced tonight, which is ‘wow!’

Final thoughts

It is clear how important a psychological safe environment is for creating a healthy place to train and become the best athlete you can be. Coaches and athletes need to be aware of this and understand the impact it can have on performance. It is not only important for physical performance, but also mentally for athletes, allowing them to feel safe and accepted so they are confident to perform at their best.

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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