In this article, our guest columnist, Ms. Sanjana Kiran, Senior Sport and Performance Psychologist, Founder and Director of A-Game (a sport/performance psychology endeavor) and Head of Psychology at the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, advocates for the sports ecosystem to proactively nurture a psychologically safe environment for all athletes if we want to facilitate good mental health as well as achieve best performance outcomes in training and competition.
Sanjana was one of the eminent speakers at the inaugural High Performance Leadership Program, and conducted a webinar on “Understanding Athlete Psychology”.
Having worked with a wide range of athletes, from beginners to Olympians, since the inaugural YOG2010 in Singapore, I have been very eager to clarify that athlete psychology is not, as is traditionally believed, just about how tough or resilient an athlete’s mind should be in overcoming the rigours of high-performance training and elite competitions.
Athlete psychology is also about the impact of the sports ecosystem on an athlete’s mind, which in turn impacts athlete mental wellness and sports performance. The opportunity to helm a session on ‘Understanding Athlete Psychology’ for the participants at the inaugural High-Performance Leadership Program, curated by the Abhinav Bindra Foundation and ELMS Foundation, helped kick start a conversation to aid the awareness of athlete psychology among the crème de la crème of India’s sports ecosystem.
In their pursuit to conquer their dreams and perhaps their loved ones’ dreams, athletes work hard at becoming comfortable with the discomfort of being continually judged for their skills – technical, tactical, physical and mental – during training and competition. The ‘play’ which they associated with joy before being anointed as stars, now becomes a commitment which cannot be fuelled by passion alone. Their own expectations and those of the ecosystem have to be dealt with a lot of discipline to perfect their craft and requires a major sense of ownership as they go through the rigours and monotony of training and competition calendars.
Most athletes who make it to the elite category are seldom familiar with failure. They are expected to be strong at all times and are forced into such a coping mechanism that they quickly move on to the next goal without healing. Athletes, young and experienced, are expected to deal with the trauma and expectations. It is not a pleasant experience when athletes experience a drop from their peak.
At the same time, coaches are on their own passionate trip in finding that path to glory with a similar attitude and achievement orientation as the athletes. Competition outcomes, more often than not, are the barometer for measuring the quality of the Sports Science/Sports Medicine experts’ craft. Athletes’ parents, on the other hand, tend to feed the narrative of luck/being fortunate/being blessed, rather than taking away their young one’s attention from glory and keeping him/her grounded. And, administrators, managers have so much to explain for the use of funds/public money, when a medal seems like the most plausible answer.
The question arises: Is it unfair of the sports ecosystem to place such an expectation on the athletes? It is a tough call. Yet, is there anything the sports ecosystem can provide to lessen this burden on the athletes? Athlete psychological safety could well be the answer to this question.
Psychologically unsafe athletes can feel stifled, marginalised, or silenced. Athlete behaviour in such environments is mostly compliant. A psychologically unsafe environment can create a lot of noise in the athlete’s mind, most of which is beyond his or her control. This can impact the athlete’s mental health adversely as it adds to the existing trauma around training and competition.
Psychological safety of organisation personnel has been a key area of employee mental wellness for three decades. According to Kahn (1990), psychological safety is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. Edmondson (1999) posits that a psychologically safe team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Clark (2019) suggests that psychological safety is removing fear from human interaction and replacing it with respect and permission. More recently, Clark (2020) stated four stages of psychological safety: Feel included, feel safe to learn, feel safe to contribute, feel safe to challenge the status quo.
For all that, psychological safety is a pretty much unexplored aspect in the field of sports psychology.
Drawing from the fact that organisational psychology and sport psychology address performance aspects, athlete psychological safety (APS) is a term that I derived from the works of Kahn (1990), Edmondson (1999), and Clark (2019, 2020). It embodies the essence of these schools of thought. APS refers to athletes feeling safe for interpersonal risk-taking with the sports ecosystem, feeling accepted as an integral part of the sports ecosystem, and feeling respected by the sports ecosystem. It comprises three tenets: (1) to feel safe for interpersonal risk-taking, (2) to feel accepted, and (3) to feel respected (Kiran, 2020).
The sports ecosystem must provide APS to the athlete. This aids sporting journeys in becoming more pleasant and fulfilling. A psychologically safe environment facilitates good mental health and best performance during training, promoting attainment of peak potential during competition.
Having said that, it is easy to see that the impact of psychological safety in a physical activity setting is not limited to athletes alone. Can psychological safety affect physical literacy (PL) participants as well? The holistic approach of PL aims to improve the biological, psychological and social health of participants. Can feeling unsafe negate this objective?
The goal of PL interventions is to increase the number of people who adopt and maintain a physically active lifestyle. For the success of these interventions, aspects of the intervention context, such as the characteristics of the target group, the intervention setting, and the level of intervention, are vital in guiding the program goals and strategy selection. Does psychological safety impact PL intervention context? Yes, it does.
Cognitive factors such as self-efficacy and motivation are important participant characteristics as they impact adoption and adherence to PL programs. Moreover, like the saying goes, ‘it’s how you make them feel that matters’, participants’ subjective experiences are key to their adherence to PL programs.
Behaviours such as passing judgments on their PL capability, not including their suggestions/recommendations in PL goals, ignoring personal participant stories about their perceived barriers, displaying bias towards introverted participants, can make participants psychologically unsafe and this can have a negative impact on their motivation and self-efficacy in their PL journey.
Compromised psychological safety can pose a major barrier to continued participation. In other words, the PL program drop-out rate can be attributed to a compromised psychological safety among other barriers. Therefore, participant psychological safety (PPS) is an important consideration. It refers to participants feeling safe for interpersonal risk-taking within the PL ecosystem, feeling accepted as an integral part of the PL ecosystem, and feeling respected by the PL ecosystem (Kiran, 2020).
So, what can the respective ecosystem do to make an athlete or a PL participant feel safe for interpersonal risk-taking?
Among other things, the ecosystem can for interpersonal risk-taking?
Among other things, the ecosystem can
· Communicate effectively
· Maintain confidentiality
· Be non-judgmental
· Refrain from bias
· Include athletes/participants in the goal-setting process
· Give athletes/participants responsibilities
· Involve athletes/participants in the decision-making process
· Be open to feedback
· Refrain from gossip
· Offer constructive feedback by highlighting both strengths and weaknesses
· offer positive feedback anytime and negative feedback individually
· Consider suggestions given by athletes/participants
· Maintain clear relationship boundaries
Does this imply that psychological safety of athletes and PL participants has been ignored for so long? No, I want to believe that psychological safety is already being exercised in many ways. Perhaps, some of the ways are working and some need tweaking. Perhaps there are some gaps that can be filled. The aim is to help reflect on our practices as sports and PL ecosystems, such that our efforts towards these endeavors are more effective and efficient.