This article is a summary of the group project report submitted by the authors in lieu of fulfilling the criteria put forth by the ELMS Sports Foundation’s High Performance Leadership Program. Based on the nature of the topics and the quality of the project submissions, ELMS will be publishing select project reports and sharing the findings of the participants/authors in order to spread more awareness among a wider audience on the critical areas in Indian sports.
The purpose of this particular project was to understand the role of psychological safety in explaining the impact of leadership on team performance and athlete well-being in a high performance environment.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety refers to the ability to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences to one’s self-image, status, or career. The term “psychological safety” was first coined by organisational behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson, and originates from the corporate world.
Why does psychological safety matter?
It is easy to think that work is all about getting things done—and it is—but doing innovative work is also about learning, creativity, originality, and having an appropriate workplace culture that allows the innovative ness to thrive. This is where psychological safety comes in. A safe environment is one where colleagues or team members feel they can freely express their ideas, speak up when they believe something is going wrong, share a seemingly silly idea that shifts the direction of a particular plan—be it organisational or an on- or off-field training setup—and accept when they need time off.
How does it apply to sports?
In sports, we have a system for selecting the best team or individual. The underlying idea is always to look for the best performer or talent. However, we are also aware through various experiences that selecting the best individuals on a team is not sufficient. In an environment where athletes need to constantly take risks, be it in learning a type of technique or trying a move on the competition floor, creating a place of psychological safety is equally important, and this requires the supporting team to be willing to provide athletes with a place where they can take risks, have a voice, ask questions sans the judgement, feel safe to be vulnerable, open up and share, and be willing to be judged by individual team members. The supporting staff can help athletes build these attributes by creating a psychologically safe environment and thus contribute to creating those winning moments.
Measuring Psychological Safety
To ensure an organisation or a team is psychologically safe, one should first be aware of what psychological safety entails and be able to measure it to see where the team stands.
To help us do this, we used Professor Amy C. Edmondson’s simple 7-question survey that organisations can apply among their teams to see if they are psychologically safe.
For the purpose of our study, we asked teams from 4 different sports organizations to rate the below questions on a scale of 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree)
The survey was carried out across 4 organisations, and received a total of 66 responses. Out of the total responses, 27 were from athletes involved in high-performance training setup, 35 were from coaches and 4 from the support staff. Following has been the overall finding from the survey.
The findings highlighted that within a given group, only 33% athletes and 26% coaches and support staff believe that when they make mistakes, it is not held against them. However, 66% athletes and 59% coaching and support staff agree that they are being given the freedom to bring up problems and issues within the team. When it comes to accepting different viewpoints, 44% athletes and only 33% of coaches and support staff feel that the team they are working with accepts different viewpoints. However, this does not seem to stop individuals from taking risks, as 59% athletes and 67% of the coaches and support staff said they are free to take risks as part of their decision making. Also, almost equal percentage of athletes, coaches and support staff feel they find it relatively easy to ask team members for support, with percentages floating around mid 60.
Conclusion derived from the Survey
While most academies are neutral in terms of safety, only Academy 3 was found to be close to providing a safe environment for athletes while Academy 4 was found to be a safe space for the coaches and support Staff. However, a good sports ecosystem is one where all academies provide an ideal environment for all parties to collaborate and function. Thus, the survey revealed gaping holes in our sporting ecosystem’s psychological environment, making it our duty to ensure that our athletes train in a safe environment.
Steps to be taken by an organization for creating psychological safety
As a sports coach or a mentor, there are a couple of behaviours that can promote risk-taking by creating a psychologically safe environment. Some of these are
It is important to remember that this is not in isolation of the bigger picture; it needs buy-in from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy, but especially at the top. We thus suggest 3 basic steps to be implemented.
Step 1: Ensure physical and emotional safety of athletes
Step 2: Ensure athlete well-being
Step 3: Establish psychological safety
It is also important to create awareness regarding this among the employees working in the organisation. The people create the environment for psychological safety, hence it is utmost important that the people dealing with the athletes first need to understand completely what these 3 steps are and what is required of them to develop such an environment.
As rightly pointed out by Abhinav Bindra “athletes are sensitive human beings. Their focus is sharp and narrow. It is important for sports leaders to be sensitive, communicate with athletes and make them feel cared for. Those in charge of high-performance sport must strike a relationship with athletes that is not just transactional. And at the same time, it is also important they maintain a distance which is healthy for the relationship.
If we can ensure that human well-being is at the heart of high-performance sport, organisations will only get better. It is logical to conclude that safer the environment, better the performance.