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Psychological Safety: A Group Effort

Written by:  
Katie  Pagel - Director of Mental Performance
Published on: September 26, 2023

Anytime I start working with a new team or client, I make sure they know, up front, a few key things about me as a person and practitioner. One such nugget I always share is this: I’m a bit weird (“I wish you would just say quirky,” – My Mom). I’m weird in a lot of ways, and, notably, apologetic about none. I am always seeking an invitation to discuss the best Dungeons & Dragons character builds. My ideal social group is roughly thirty years my senior. I could deliver an hour long Ted Talk about the superiority of the 1999 made for TV movie version of Annie, without prep, at the drop of a hat. You get the picture.

One such oddity that I’ve discovered as an “adult” is this: I genuinely love to work. I’ve always loved to learn, had a penchant for working hard, and been hungry to make an impact. When things are going well, I can easily and enjoyably put in a 12 hour day. Unfortunately, on the flip side, when things aren’t going well (happens to the best of us, I like to think), I ruminate like nobody’s business, and experience a borderline unhealthy amount of stress and frustration. Since entering the professional world of sport psych, one recurring theme of my frustration has been this: No matter how much quality work I do with an athlete or team, their ability to grow, thrive, and perform is largely determined by the environment within which they are performing. The environment of a practice, a game, or a car ride has the power to decimate weeks worth of progress a client and I have made in a flash. To be frank, it can be infuriating. 

I don’t say this to discount the importance of my own work; rather, to demonstrate the centrality of your role, as coaches, parents, fans, and athletes, in doing the vital work of creating, maintaining, and protecting the soccer environments within which our kids play. Building optimal development environments for our kids takes nothing short of a sustained, intentional group effort, and I need your help. How, exactly, can you lend a hand? Well, only because you asked, I suppose we could take a moment to talk details…

Ingredient A: Psychological Safety

There are a number of very important elements to consider when looking to build quality sport environments. I am hopeful that, over my tenure at Rapids, I can write on several of them. For today, though, we will dial in on one that I (and, more importantly, many more experienced and better educated individuals) consider paramount: Psychological Safety (PS).

Per Dr. Amy Edmonson, a leading researcher and author on the subject, PS is a crucial characteristic of high-performing teams, especially those performing in volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments. Edmonson defines PS environments as those which individuals perceive to be safe for interpersonal risk taking without fear of judgment or retribution; environments where individuals can speak up, share concerns, raise questions, offer ideas, ask for help, make mistakes, admit to errors, and seek feedback without worrying about embarrassment or rejection. It’s important to note, here, that safety is not synonymous with comfort. The pursuit of growth and quality performance in any arena is inherently uncomfortable. It is because of this that promoting safety is crucial; in order for people to willingly, repeatedly, and fruitfully lean into the discomfort of growth as performers, they must feel safe as people.

Google’s somewhat famed 2012 Project Aristotle brought even more attention to the topic; after years of research examining the inner workings of hundreds of teams at Google, PS was identified as a top distinguishing factor between teams who struggled and teams who flourished. A construct with what is now a very strong empirical basis in business, healthcare, manufacturing, and tech contexts, teams who report high levels of PS experience:

  • Enhanced engagement, trust, motivation, resilience, and morale
  • Improved surfacing of problems, decision making, and solution-focused problem solving
  • A culture of continuous learning and improvement
  • Higher levels of collaboration, productivity, and team effectiveness
  • Greater creativity and innovation
  • Better team performance and personal well-being

But, Katie, we’re not Google! We’re a youth soccer club! Why should we care about psychological safety? A fair question, my friends! Let’s unpack it, shall we?

Psychological Safety…in Sport

It is at this point that I’d love to be able to tell you that every benefit of PS found in environments outside of sport transfer directly to our youth sport environment. Unfortunately, such an assertion would be incredibly lazy rhetoric. PS is a context-specific construct, and the evidence base for our context is still limited; only in the past three years has the relevance of PS in sport environments gained traction as a research topic. 

An additional complicating factor is that sport – a domain where judgment and evaluation are consistently quantified and presented in the form of score lines, rankings, statistics, and playing time – is, to a degree, inherently unsafe. Especially when looking at elite sport environments, there is no denying that a lack of safety is baked into the cake; poor performances do bring about negative consequences for individuals and teams. A significant challenge I face in fostering buy-in around PS is the argument that it is unrealistic and counterproductive in competitive sport environments. To that I would say: 

  1. The argument for a lack of compatibility between PS and sport has more (though still very shaky) credence when discussing top-level elite sport. I hate to be the person to tell you this, but: We aren’t in the business of elite sport. We’re in the business of youth sport. I’m hopeful we can all recognize the significance of this difference.
  2. I can’t think of a single environment that is or could be made to be psychologically safe 100% of the time. This reality should not function as reasoning for not striving to make our environments safER. Perfection should never be the enemy of progress.
  3. The initial research looks very promising: PS in youth sport is a significant predictor of well-being and positive social outcomes; positively related to team performance, resilience, and conflict management; and acts as a buffer against burnout.*
  4. There is general, intuitive, agreement among many applied sport psych practitioners that athletic environments would benefit greatly from PS, given their VUCA nature and the expectations of athletes therein.

After typing all of that up, I’d argue that maximizing the intentional cultivation of PS whenever and wherever we can is of particular importance in sport because certain aspects of high levels of sport are inherently unsafe! So there! Ha! (I kid, I kid.)

Truly, though, I don’t know that we realize how much we ask of our kids at all levels of youth sport; in consistently expecting them to show up and put themselves out there, to try and learn and fail and succeed, to communicate and collaborate, we repeatedly place them in situations rife with vulnerability, discomfort, and unpleasant emotions. It seems to me that the very least we can do is set all of that against the backdrop of safety.

Building Psych Safety

Now that we’re on the same page (right?) about the need for PS in sport, it’s time for action. Every stakeholder within youth sport – coaches, fans, parents, players – has a role to play in cultivating, maintaining, and protecting PS. In looking to build PS, a simple and useful frame to consider is Dr. Timothy Clark’s four stages of safety: 

  • Inclusion Safety – Feeling safe to be yourself.
  • Learner Safety- Feeling safe to make mistakes and learn.
  • Contributor Safety – Feeling safe to speak up and contribute ideas.
  • Challenger Safety – Feeling safe to disagree, ask questions, and challenge the status quo.

Taking it a step further, here are some key stakeholder action steps:

Coaches: You are naturally the lead architect, head of security, and janitor of your team’s environment. If you do not take action to build, protect, and maintain PS, it will not grow or sustain. To promote PS:

  • Reflect: How do you carry yourself as a coach? How do your athletes perceive you? In what ways do you have power over your athletes? How does that power influence your behavior and relationships? Understanding and navigating these nuances is a key starting point.
  • Connect: Meet with athletes 1:1 (ideally early in the season) to get to know them as people first and athletes second. Demonstrate that you care and are invested in them. Structure time into practice for activities where connection amongst athletes is the primary objective.
  • Monitor Reactions to Failure: No matter what we say about risk taking and mistakes, our actions hold the truth. If we get mad when our athletes struggle, or bench them immediately after a mistake, that says it all. Regulate your own emotions around mistakes. Praise ideas, vision, and effort. Provide constructive feedback on decision making or technical execution.
  • Give Players a Voice: Intentionally ask for (and listen to) player input. let players pick a drill in practice. Ask athletes to lead team meetings. Openly seek feedback from athletes on your coaching. 
  • Model It: Be yourself. Own your mistakes. Make suggestions. Ask questions. In modeling all of these behaviors, your athletes will feel far safer to do the same.

Caregivers: Your children will craft their narratives on topics central to PS (mistakes, ownership, vulnerability, etc.) from what your words and actions are telling them. A child’s perception of PS can be hugely influenced by what is possibly the most important environment within youth sport: The car ride home. To support your child’s perception of PS:

  • Give Them The Mic: Don’t know where to start on the ride home? No problem. Allow your kiddo to lead the conversation by handing them the mic before sharing your thoughts. Do you want to talk about the game/practice?
  • Ask Questions: If they want to talk about the game, take that as permission to continue asking questions as opposed to voicing your opinions. What did you think about the game? What went well? What was a struggle? If you feel so compelled: Can I share some thoughts?
  • Listen and Validate: Listen. Listen. Listen, with the intent to understand, as opposed to respond. Hear them. Validate (which is different from agreeing with) their emotions: “I can see how that would have been frustrating.”
  • Mind Your Commentary: How you talk about the game tells your kid everything they need to know. If you are harping their teammate for making a mistake, it’s not safe for them to. If you are highlighting the result of a game over effort and performance within a game, the former is where your child’s value lies. If you are being disrespectful toward the ref or a fellow parent, you are giving your child permission to do the same.

Athletes: You are at the heart of this undertaking! Your daily words and actions continually serve to either enhance or damage the safety of your environment for yourself and your teammates. Thankfully, when it comes to PS, your job is pretty simple:

  • Build Relationships: In many ways, this is the core of PS. Be willing to be yourself, actively work to get to know your teammates, and be kind and respectful toward the different types of people in your environment.
  • Make Mistakes: Full stop. Be brave enough to make mistakes. Without them, you and your team won’t improve (and if your coach or parent has a problem with it, send them my way).

Speak Up: Ask for help. Seek feedback. Share ideas. Be vulnerable. Bearing in mind respect, appropriateness, and timeliness, know that your voice is one of the most valuable things you can contribute to your sport environment. Let ‘em hear it!

All of That to Say…

As is often the case, I have provided an incomplete picture of a huge (and hugely important) topic. Nonetheless, I hope this blog has equipped us with a greater understanding of psychological safety as a construct and clear, actionable starting points in promoting it. Remember: Whatever space you hold in this youth sport setting, you are a key contributor (or detractor) to the environments within which our kids play, learn, grow, and perform. Despite the unique challenges presented by the nature of sport, I am confident that – if we all make a conscious effort to do so – we can make it a far safER place for our kids to be.

Best,

Katie

Looking for more information on Psychological Safety? Check out this episode of the Sport Psych Show with Dan Abrams and Dr. Mustafa Sarkar, Amy Edmonson’s fantastic book The Fearless Organization, Timothy Clark’s The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, or any of the articles below!

*Referenced Research

Written by
Katie  Pagel
Director of Mental Performance
[email protected]360-931-4557

Katie’s work with CRYSC began while she was a Sport Psychology graduate student at the University of Denver. With a passion for youth sport and coach/caregiver education, she knew then that CRYSC was the type of environment she wanted to work in after graduation. Now the club’s first Director of Mental Performance (a position that exists in only a handful of youth sport clubs across the country), she is thrilled to be a part of a club that is committed to not only the physical performance of its athletes, but also their overall mental well-being and psychosocial development. Katie feels lucky to work alongside the innovative and driven staff at CRYSC that continually strive to better themselves and each other while also creating safe, inclusive, and healthy competitive environments for their athletes.

Katie’s work with CRYSC began while she was a Sport Psychology graduate student at the University of Denver. With a passion for youth sport and coach/caregiver education, she knew then that CRYSC was the type of environment she wanted to work in after graduation. Now the club’s first Director of Mental Performance (a position that exists in only a handful of youth sport clubs across the country), she is thrilled to be a part of a club that is committed to not only the physical performance of its athletes, but also their overall mental well-being and psychosocial development. Katie feels lucky to work alongside the innovative and driven staff at CRYSC that continually strive to better themselves and each other while also creating safe, inclusive, and healthy competitive environments for their athletes.

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