This article has been a long time coming. I’ve written drafts of it many times in the past, and then decided not to publish because I don’t want to… what exactly? Sound negative about my experiences? Be controversial? I can’t even put my finger on it. But toxicity in sport is what drove me from sport science into sport management and then into organizational coaching. I saw people being hurt and I wanted to try to fix it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a fair number of my colleagues from sport science have taken similar paths. We all saw something that went against our values, against our deep-seated belief that as team staff everyone should be there to help and support the athletes we worked with.
As often happens, someone wrote an article on this very topic that made my mind race. My thoughts started forming and this post started writing itself in my head. This time, the article was by Philippa York, and it was titled “Pro cycling can be a toxic place for an athlete’s long-term well-being” (Cyclingnews, 26 Jan 2021). The line that cracked me was right up top:
Not, “how are you” as in “how are your legs?”, but human to human, asking about the whole person. The whole article echoed what I saw so often in the teams I worked for – an intense focus and control over physical fitness, and a lack of interest in the person. So many athletes talk about feeling like a “cog in the system”, perhaps it stems from this robotic approach to performance.
The culture I’ve experienced was one where psychological safety didn’t exist. Not for the staff, and definitely not for the athletes. What is “psychological safety”, and why does it matter?
Team psychological safety means that people are confident that “one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”, and it stems from mutual respect and trust. When it is present, people are comfortable asking for help, admitting errors, experimenting, constructively resolving conflict, and seeking feedback – all of which are necessary for learning and growth (Edmondson, A., 1999). For a great in-depth review of the topic, Edmondson & Lei (2014) is worth a read.
There is substantial research showing that psychological safety improves all kinds of factors that are crucial for teams, and would be relevant in sports teams;
- team effort, monitoring, and problem solving
- information sharing
- conflict frequency
- decision quality
So why is there still a belief in high performance sport that if people are comfortable they won’t perform at their best? That you should constantly “knock people off balance” to keep them performing? That athletes and staff talking about emotions and personal issues is unprofessional? The question that drives me to try to fix this situation is “how much better would people perform if they were psychologically safe?”
High performing teams have been shown in study by Google (re:Work, Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness) to have five factors:
Without psychological safety, the foundations of the team crumble, and the other four factors are much harder to attain. How are people supposed to have easy conversations about their role on any given day, if they don’t feel safe raising the questions they have? How likely are they to feel that their work has meaning and impact if the culture is focused on what everyone did wrong?
In a very few cases, toxicity is created on purpose and is unfixable, except by the departure of the person causing it. In most cases, though, it’s accidental. It stems from assumptions that someone holds that have never been challenged, from the team not having ever discussed HOW they work together – only WHAT they work on. Now, this isn’t easy work to do, it requires bravery and time and the committment of the people at the top of the hierarchy. But it is possible. Culture can shift in a matter of moments, if you’re having the right conversations.
This is what I built my business to do, to try to help shift these toxic cultures in sport and in the corporate world. High performance is high performance, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Olympics or the annual profit-loss report. I, and other coaches like me, can help. All you have to do is ask.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383. doi:10.2307/2666999
Edmondson, A., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour, 1, 23-43. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305
Google re:Work Guide. Understand Team Effectiveness. https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/introduction/. Accessed 28 Jan 2021.
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