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Psychologically unsafe environments – What they are, and how to avoid them

Psychologically unsafe environments – What they are, and how to avoid them

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Psychological safety is often seen as a desirable trait to have in sporting environments, but why? It’s a concept that has gained a lot of attention these past few years, meaning people want to know more about it and how it affects athletic performance.

In previous blogs, we have spoken about psychologically safe environments and what they look like. However, we are now going to look at the other end of the spectrum: psychologically unsafe environments.

Here at Inner Drive, we’ve been very interested in what psychologically unsafe environments could look like in sport and how to avoid them. Here’s what we found…

What is a psychologically safe environment?

To know what a psychologically unsafe environment looks like, it may be helpful to first recap what a psychologically safe environment is. This is defined as all members of the team agreeing the group atmosphere is safe enough for them to take personal risks. This may look like:

  • Team members not fearing making mistakes
  • Athletes believing it is safe to take risks on the team
  • Players recognising that their skills are valued and utilised
  • Athletes knowing that if they ask their teammates for help, they will not react badly

This means that a psychologically unsafe environment is one where team members do not believe the group is safe enough for them to take risks. A group like this is seen to cause psychological harm. These environments could affect athletes in many negative ways, such as:

  • Athletes could experience an increase in anxiety levels
  • Players may view the environment as threatening
  • Athletes may experience a decrease in confidence and motivation levels
  • Players could display an increased fear of failure

What makes a psychologically unsafe environment?

There are a number of things that can make a sporting environment psychologically unsafe. However, research has highlighted two main factors. These are:

  1. The role of the coach
  2. Group comparison and intra-group competition

These factors have all been seen to impact the psychological safeness of an environment and, as a consequence, cause poor performance. Let’s look at each in more detail…

1. The role of the coach

It’s impossible to overstate the crucial role coaches play in athlete development. They have a large amount of control over the training environment and therefore a major influence over athletes’ emotions.

Many emotionally disturbing experiences described by athletes have been influenced by their coaches, especially when it comes to decision making. Experiences such as deselection can fuel negative emotions such as anxiety and a lack of motivation, which can encourage a player to view that environment as psychologically unsafe.

Coaches have also been known to adopt harsh approaches, especially at more elite levels. Coaches want the best athletes on their team, which leads some to judge and scrutinise their players harshly. Athletes may feel like they are consistently subject to criticism and view the training environment as more threatening and less psychologically safe.

2. Group comparison and intra-group competition

In the world of sport, you are always being compared to others. The higher the level you compete at, the more comparison – that is to be expected.

However, this can negatively impact an athlete’s psychological well-being. And this comparison isn’t just against the athlete’s opponents, but also their teammates. When players are all fighting for the same spots on the team, if an athlete isn’t performing well, another can easily step up and take their place.

Because athletes know they can be easily replaced, this can generate unhealthy intra-group competition. Instead of working together, players will be working against one another to show they are the best athlete. This can cause the training environment to be more threatening than challenging and can induce feelings of anxiety and fear of failure within athletes.

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Is psychological safety a double-edged sword?

It may sound confusing, but not every environment that displays psychologically unsafe elements is psychologically unsafe. The truth is, whether it comes from coaches or other teammates, athletes need to be challenged to develop and improve.

Players cannot get too comfortable in their training environment as sport is forever changing. To be the best, they need to be pushed to stay on top of their game. Many have said that there is too much comfort in psychological safety which can lead athletes to take a step back and not work as hard, whereas challenge can increase motivation levels and improve performance.

Unfortunately, coaches can never offer athletes an environment where no mistake will be held against them. But the way athletes react to this is what can set them apart from others and really get them to thrive and perform to the top of their ability.

What can coaches do to make an environment more psychologically safe?

As we have seen, psychologically unsafe environments can really pose a problem in sports for athletes. Luckily, here are some tips and tricks to turn a psychologically unsafe environment into a safer one:

  1. Explain to your athletes the “why” behind your coaching decisions. This will help them to understand you want to help them improve and not just scrutinise them.
  2. Provide your athletes with role clarity to reduce role ambiguity, which is very important when helping athletes navigate psychologically unsafe environments. You can do this by explaining what their role is in the group, what you expect of them and what they will be judged on.
  3. Try introducing “safety containers” in your training sessions. This is when, for a period of time, an athlete is removed from constant judgement or competitive demands. This may look like telling an athlete they will be selected for a given period of time no matter their performance or that they may be removed from competition for a period of time to make modifications. This will help athletes adjust to a more challenging environment.
  4. Let your athletes know exactly what they need to do for team selection. In an event such as long jump, an athlete knows how far they have to jump to make the team. So, try communicating to your athletes the standards they are required to meet to make the team.

Final thoughts

So, we know that the environment an athlete trains in has a very strong influence on their athletic development. If an athlete is training in what they perceive as a psychologically unsafe environment, then this can have a negative impact on their performance and psychological well-being.

However, it is important to understand that even though an environment contains psychologically unsafe elements, this doesn’t necessarily make it psychologically unsafe. Comfort does not promote athletic growth, but encouraging athletes to challenge themselves and venture outside of their comfort zone does.

Try following our tips to create an environment that your athletes can grow and thrive in to make them the best versions of themselves in any competition.


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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