There has been a recent push to consider and improve the well-being of people in high-performance sports organizations. While the focus has been primarily on athletes, there is a need to consider the well-being of staff and management to create the conditions for a healthy environment.
Traditionally, there has been a ruthless focus on performance in professional sport, to the detriment of everything else. The attitude was “if you can’t survive this environment, you’re not cut out to perform at the highest level”. Well-being was considered to be each person’s responsibility, and if you couldn’t maintain your well-being you were considered weak and flawed.
The introduction of Sports Psychologists, Sports Psychiatrists, and Mental Performance Coaches has been a step in the right direction, as they have been able to teach people tools to build their resilience and ability to perform under pressure. One of the unintended side-effects of having people in these roles has been that they are often seen as being the only ones on the team responsible for dealing with emotions. It has enabled some managers and staff to deal only with “performance’, and consider emotions and well-being to be Somebody Else’s Problem.
Interestingly, there is a relationship between well-being and performance that has documented in the scientific literature. Anthony M. Grant (2017) developed the Engagement and Well-being Matrix (©) to describe this relationship.
You can see from the figure that people can vary on the two axes – they can be anywhere from low performance to high performance, and anywhere from low well-being to high-wellbeing. How they are is a function of what combination of performance and well-being they are experiencing.
You’ll notice that it’s possible to have low well-being and still perform well – “distressed but functional” is a common state in high-performance environments. We have been seeing more and more “distressed and dysfunctional” athletes being open about their experiences; Tom Dumoulin, Marcel Kittel, Yoann Offredo, and Jon Dibben are recent examples from professional cycling. They get to a point where – despite their obvious and proven abilities – their capacity to maintain their well-being in the sport reaches its limit, and they either retire or take a break.
If the goal of a professional team is to win races consistently and provide value to their sponsors and fans, they need to consider that “flourishing” athletes and staff are necessary to achieve that goal sustainably. They could reduce burnout and turnover and improve the consistency of competition performance by providing a culture and environment that supports the well-being of everyone on their team.
Supporting well-being doesn’t mean being “soft” – which is often the accusation in high-performance cultures. “Soft” is when people are allowed to be in the “Acquiescent” box, where they have high well-being and low performance. That’s not the goal. The goal is to move people from the “distressed but functional” box to the “flourishing” box, rather than allowing them to slip into the “distressed and dysfunctional” box.
If people on your team are flourishing, how much less time would you spend managing negative emotions from people on your team? How many less conflicts would you need to deal with? How much better would people work together under pressure, to provide those wins you all want and need?
If you did want to create a culture that supported well-being, how could you do it? Grant (2016) talks about creating a coaching culture of quality conversations, where everyone is trained in coach-like communication skills. This can minimize the anxiety around feedback, interactions with leaders, and the kinds of conversations that need to happen to fine-tune team performance. It’s well-established that unpleasant experiences are more “sticky” than pleasant ones, and have a bigger impact, so reducing disagreeable and unpleasant interactions can have an disproportionaly large effect on well-being.
If you did want to create a culture that supported well-being, how could you do it? Grant (2017) talks about creating a coaching culture of quality conversations, where everyone is trained in coach-like communication skills. This can minimize the anxiety around feedback, interactions with leaders, and the kinds of conversations that need to happen to fine-tune team performance. It’s well-established that unpleasant experiences are more “sticky” than pleasant ones, and have a bigger impact, so reducing disagreeable and unpleasant interactions can have a disproportionately large effect on well-being.
Using coaching and coach-like communication can improve the dynamics within a team and make interactions more positive, effective, and efficient. It can create a culture of psychological safety that will allow everyone to flourish and perform.
Anthony M. Grant (2017) The third ‘generation’ of workplace coaching: creating a culture of quality conversations, Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 10:1, 37-53, DOI: 10.1080/17521882.2016.1266005