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Psychologically safe vs Psychologically informed coaching environments

Psychologically safe vs Psychologically informed coaching environments

6 min read
  • Leadership & teamwork
  • Sport psychology

Psychologically safe and psychologically informed environments are concepts growing in popularity, with both of them becoming more widely accepted and used in sport psychology.

We have previously talked about psychological safety and what is means in sport, but how does it compare to psychologically informed environments? How can you use them to get the most out of your athletes? Here’s what we know so far and why we think it’s important…

What are psychologically safe and psychologically informed environments?

As we have mentioned, psychological safety and psychologically informed environments are fairly recent ideas in the world of sport psychology. If, like many people, you are confused as to what they are, we’re here to break down these concepts.

What are psychologically safe environments?

Psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” This means that in a psychologically safe environment, your athletes should feel as though they can ask for help, admit their errors, and look for feedback from both you and their teammates.

A feeling of psychological safety means that your athletes will be genuinely interested in their teammates, have positive intentions towards each other, and have mutual respect for others’ competence when mistakes are made.

If your athletes are reluctant to show their vulnerabilities and open up to you for fear of damaging their self-image, this could be a sign of a psychologically unsafe environment.

What are psychologically informed environments?

Generally, this means basing your work on relevant psychological theory.

Psychologically informed environments take into account the emotional and psychological needs of the athlete, and focus on each athlete individually as opposed to focusing on the team as a whole.

In a nutshell, a psychologically informed environment uses psychological evidence and theory to create a healthy atmosphere, helping your athlete thrive as both a person and a performer.

What sets psychologically safe and psychologically informed environments apart?

These two terms can be easily mistaken for each other because they have similar aims, so it’s important to learn the distinctions between them if you want to use them to your advantage.

They can be even easier to confuse because a psychologically informed environment is one that fosters psychological safety – it allows athletes to feel comfortable to ask for help or admit errors, for instance. However, while having one of these environments helps to develop the other, the two differ in many ways…

Psychologically safe environments concern the team as a whole. To check whether your team feel psychologically safe, ask them:

  • How do they feel about each other?
  • Can they seek feedback from you and their teammates?
  • Do they feel comfortable in the training environment?

On the other hand, psychologically informed environments use theory and evidence to look at the individual athlete. Ask yourself:

  • What does each individual team member need to thrive?
  • Would they feel comfortable coming to you for help?
  • What relevant psychological theories can be applied to the situation to help my athlete?

It’s often thought that a psychologically safe environment is one that has been psychologically informed, but that doesn’t happen automatically. You need to know how to develop each one to get the most out of your athletes.

Try to focus on developing both types of environments as the two units that they are, alongside one another – treating them as the same thing will likely hinder your athletes’ development.

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How to develop a psychologically safe environment

1. Show your athlete that you care

    Whilst your athletes are performers, they are people first and foremost. It is important that you show them you care not just about how they perform, but about how they are feeling and what’s going on inside their head.

    Listen to your athletes’ concerns with compassion and be engaged in what they are saying. This will help them feel able to speak up and have an open, non-judgemental conversation.

    2. Don’t play the blame game

      Blaming others will make your athletes scared to make mistakes.

      Instead, focus on solutions to the problems and highlight that it’s a group effort – don’t single your athletes out. Solution-focused practice helps foster a supportive and encouraging team with a growth mindset.

      3. Offer feedback and reinforcement

        Technical feedback and correction are shown to be more valuable than general encouragement. Therefore, you as a coach need to be very knowledgeable in your respective sport to be able to deliver this kind of feedback. If you need some help with this, here are 10 Ways to Give Better Feedback.

        As well as feedback, lots of positive reinforcement is also needed. You could do this by providing your athletes with some sort of reward to make them feel good about themselves and keep them focused. Doing this will also help keep them striving for mastery and make them more attentive to details in their performance.

        4. Promote calculated risks

          Your athletes should feel like they could take a risk when the time is right.

          Encourage risks within certain parameters, but if there is a repeated pattern of unfavourable effects, this should be addressed. Every now and then, a risk can pay off, with research having shown that good performance often requires risk-taking and experiencing failure.

          How to develop a psychologically informed environment

          1. Keep up to date with the research

            A psychologically informed environment is built upon relevant psychological theory.

            Making sure you stay up to date with the latest research and practices is one of the best ways to ensure you can give your athlete the support they need.

            For instance, attachment theory suggests we all have a need to drive connections towards others and develop a “safe” attachment. The idea is that the person we form an attachment to can meet our physical and emotional needs. As the coach, you should become that person to your athlete. This attachment acts as a secure base for the athlete, making them feel comfortable about opening up to you.

            Once you use the research to create a psychologically informed environment, this should be conducive to developing a psychologically safe environment. An easy way to stay up to date with the research is to sign up to our free sport psychology newsletter to receive a weekly blog directly in your inbox!

            2. Develop positive relationships with your athletes

              You are trying to create trust and a mutual respect between you and your athletes. This will encourage them to open up and feel like they are in that psychologically safe space.

              Let your athletes know what you expect of them and what they can expect from you – set goals that focus on their performance and less on conditional outcomes.

              3. Tailor your approach to each individual athlete

                Some athletes in certain situations might benefit from a more informal and casual approach, whereas other situations could require a stricter approach.

                Get to know your athletes and how to make them feel comfortable – this is how you will get them to open up and perform to the best of their ability.

                By taking their emotional needs into account and hence being psychologically informed, you will help them feel as though they are in a psychologically safe environment, allowing them to open up more.

                4. Monitor differences in your athletes

                  You are trying to support continuous learning and improvement in your athletes – look for progress in their performance and their personal development. Is what you’re doing to help them working? If not, how can you change your approach?

                  Get feedback from your athletes on how they think you’re helping them and then adapt to their needs.

                  Final thoughts

                  There are many ways in which you as a coach can encourage both a psychologically safe and psychologically informed environment. We hope that by using these tips, you can help bring attention to this new aspect of coaching and help your athletes perform at their best.

                  Due to its base in research, creating a psychologically safe environment should be the natural result of a psychologically informed one. The conditions that the athlete trains under can have a huge impact on their development as a performer and as a person, and so it’s important that you put the effort in to keep them feeling comfortable in their training environment.


                  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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