Sport has the potential to positively impact its participants, however, a positive impact is not inherent. In fact, sport may be the source of negative or even emotionally abusive experiences resulting in trauma for participants. Many instances of abusive sport experiences have surfaced recently, particularly within collegiate sport. The University of San Francisco fired their head baseball coach in March 2022 after allegations of psychological abuse and inappropriate sexual conduct. Further, several high-profile women’s basketball coaches have been fired or resigned because of allegations from athletes regarding abusive behavior and toxic team environments. Additionally, the longtime swimming coach at the University of California was placed on administrative leave in May 2022 as an investigation into allegations of bullying and verbal abuse from current and former athletes began.
These toxic environments add to the mental health struggles of athletes, who are more susceptible to diminished mental health because of the unique stressors they encounter. Mental health issues can potentially result in eating disorders, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and unfortunatley suicide. The recent suicides involving Washington State University football player Tyler Hilsinki, Stanford University soccer player Katie Myer, and James Madison University softball player Lauren Bennett have certainly raised public awareness to the mental health struggles of collegiate athletes. Further, athletes within NCAA Divisions I and II report spending upwards of 30 hours per week on athletic related activities during the season with baseball participants topping the list at a median of 42 hours per week. Therefore, understanding how to utilize sport, particularly within the context of where they spend the most time – their team environment, to facilitate positive outcomes for athletes is crucial for sport leaders to understand.
In our recently published article in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics (JIIA), we qualitatively explored female athletes’ perceptions of psychological safety within their team environments. Psychological safety refers to the perception that a team environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking (i.e., asking a question, experimenting with a new skill, stepping into a leadership role, sharing your thoughts) without fear of retribution, shame, or embarrassment. A psychologically safe team environment stems from a sense of trust and respect across the team environment, flowing in both directions within the hierarchy (i.e., coach to athlete and athlete to coach). Psychological safety is a particularly important concept to explore within sport because research suggests that psychologically safe teams facilitate both high-performance and wellbeing among team members. It is a necessary ingredient for individuals to feel secure enough to be able to push themselves outside of their comfort zone and continue to develop, a necessary part of succeeding in athletics (Schien & Bennis, 1965). Thus, the purpose of this study was to understand female athletes’ perceptions of psychological safety in their collegiate team environments. Do they feel psychologically safe when they are in their team environment? If so, what led to this feeling? If not, why?
Interviews were conducted with 12 female athletes representing NCAA Division I, Autonomous institutions. Example interview questions are: “What does it feel like to be a member of your team?”; “What does it feel like to make a mistake on your team?”; “What behavior/communication demonstrates the safety or lack of safety in voicing your concerns, questions, or input?”
Four themes were constructed from the data analysis. Interpersonal relationships recognized the importance of high-quality relationships within the team throughout the hierarchy in establishing a psychologically safe team environment. Consistency and accountability refers to the necessary congruence between words and action as well as predictable behavior from coaches. Fostering vulnerability recognizes the importance of openness and sharing in establishing a psychologically safe team environment. Further, athlete voice suppression recognizes that many athletes feel disempowered within their role as an athlete and within teams that are not psychologically safe enough to overcome the risk of speaking up when there is a desire to provide input.
Participants stressed the importance of high-quality interpersonal relationships, particularly the coach-athlete relationship, within psychologically safe team environments. This was cultivated through intentional communication followed by active listening and an acknowledgement for participants as people, as well as athletes. Intentional communication and active listening included simple acts such as asking athletes how their day was and taking the time to really listen. Further, athletes felt “seen” when their coaches probed them if they seemed “off.” For example, one participant described how her coach asked how she was doing and she replied “okay.” Rather than just accepting that answer and moving forward with practice, the coach continued to probe the athlete asking why she was only okay. Likewise, it was important for participants to feel as though they were seen for more than their athletic ability. This was accomplished by coaches having conversations with athletes about more than athletics, as well as taking a vested interest in their personal wellbeing and development.
However, deterrents of high-quality relationships included disingenuous and performative acts and conditional care. Disingenuous and performative acts were actions taken to “check a box.” For example, asking how an athlete is doing and not really paying attention to how they respond. Further, disingenuous and performative acts also included not having actions match words. One participant said her coach positioned himself as a “father figure” to his athletes. However, she never felt cared for by her coach outside of her athletic identity. Further, participants described experiences of conditional care. If they were performing well, coaches gave them attention and encouragement. If they were in a performance slump, coaches disengaged. This led to a lack of security in the relationship. However, a lack of security in the relationship was also created simply by watching coaches interact with others with conditional care. One participant described how she felt lucky because she was not “the chosen one” to be bullied by the head coach. However, observing other teammates’ relationships with the head coach gave her a sense of unease knowing that that could be her if she stopped performing at a high level.
Therefore, coaches seeking to cultivate a psychologically safe environment should consider high-quality interpersonal relationships as an avenue toward doing so. These relationships can be cultivated through recognizing athletes as people first and demonstrating care and support toward athletes that is not based on their athletic performance. Further, intentional communication with active listening should be employed.
Consistency and Accountability
Participants described feeling unsafe when there was inconsistency between words and action because it left them unsure of the “real” team expectations. The participants expressed a desire for accountability, but they described how it should be consistent across the team with no one exempt from team expectations, including high performers. Further, they desired consistency in coach behavior. When coaches behaved according to a “mood” or stress, participants did not know what version of their coach would show up to practice each day and this was anxiety inducing. Therefore, a certain level of predictability in coach behavior, based on team values and expectations, rather than a mood or other circumstances, would bolster feelings of psychological safety.
Participants also described the differences between constructive and destructive accountability. Constructive accountability reinforced an athlete’s potential and the desired behavior. A coach could say, “An expectation on this team is to show up on time. I am holding you accountable to this expectation because I care about you meeting your goals and our team meeting our goals.” Accountability should be delivered to reinforce the team values and expectations without diminishing them as a person. In contrast, destructive accountability attacked the person rather than addressing the behavior. One participant described breaking a team rule and her coaches using the words “toxic, dead weight, and selfish” to describe her following the incident. This diminished her relationship with the coaching staff and did not lead towards correcting the behavior and ultimately improving her performance.
Therefore, when striving to cultivate a psychologically safe team environment, emotional intelligence, specifically emotional regulation is paramount. This would allow for more reflective and consistent behavior that is rooted in personal and team values rather than being engulfed in emotional moments and letting that dictate erratic behavior. Further, accountability should be framed in a way that reinforces the desired behavior and encourages individuals to meet expectations rather than attacking an individual’s character.
Vulnerability was often used as a mechanism to build psychological safety within the team. However, in order for participants to feel safe being vulnerable, they first needed to observe vulnerability from someone in a position of power (i.e., influential teammate or coach) and see this vulnerability met with acceptance and support. Response to mistakes was an important part of fostering vulnerability within the culture. Athletes are less likely to take risks that could result in a mistake, even if it is ultimately in the best interest of the team, if coaches respond to mistakes punitively. However, when coaches frame mistakes as an opportunity to learn and release the fear associated with making a mistake, athletes can focus on performing well, rather than self-protection and not making a mistake.
However, participants also described instances of vulnerability as a deterrent to psychological safety. This occured when participants were vulnerable with their coaches and then their vulnerability was used against them. One participant described how she was vulnerable with her coach and told the coach about her fear of never being successful as an aspiring medical professional. At a later date, the coach then took this information and berated her after a poor performance saying that she will never be successful. Thus, when it comes to vulnerability, action speaks louder than words. It is not enough to say the team is a safe space and it is acceptable to be vulnerable. Cultivating vulnerability within the team requires observations of vulnerability displayed from people in power (i.e., a coach admitting their mistakes) and vulnerability being met with acceptance and support as well as not used against them in the future.
Athlete Voice Suppression
Athlete voice suppression was characterized by one-way communication from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy rather than in both directions. Participants referred to themselves as “just an athlete” while positioning coaches as experts requiring inherent trust. This limited the ability to form a true partnership between coach and athlete, potentially constraining productive conversations, idea generation, and discussion. One participant described how offering feedback to coaches was a real “no-no” on her team. One of the risks associated with offering any constructive criticisms up the hierarchy was being perceived as disrespectful, complaining, or a lack of commitment to the team and the coaching staff. However, research recognizes productive and unproductive forms of silence. Productive silence is when individuals are processing information internally or do not have anything they would like to contribute to the conversation. Unproductive silence is when individuals are quiet because of the fear of speaking up, even if they have valuable input. The athlete voice suppression uncovered within this study represented the latter – unproductive silence rooted in fear.
Therefore, different forces within the team environment and overarching sport culture may lend itself toward athlete voice suppression thereby limiting the ability to form true athlete-coach partnerships facilitating peak performance. The aforementioned mechanisms (interpersonal relationships, consistency and accountability, and vulnerability) should be appropriately implemented within the team environment to mitigate forms of unproductive silence. Further, this can be met with less risky options for communication such as opportunities to provide anonymous feedback to gauge the team environment and provide opportunities for athletes to provide their perspective.
Coaches are constantly striving for ways to improve team performance, and psychological safety offers a mechanism to do so. Likewise, it can contribute to the facilitation of improved athlete wellbeing and more positive experiences in collegiate sport. However, coaches cannot implement what they do not know. Thus, athletic departments should be intentional in establishing clear expectations for the team environments within their department as well as resources to support coaches in meeting these expectations. Furthermore, although athletic departments provide resources to support athlete wellbeing (i.e., life skills development, mental health counseling), it is also important to value athlete wellbeing within the team environment, where athletes spend the most time and are subject to highly influential relationships (i.e., coaches and teammates). This will only help enhance the other resources being provided to athletes when coaches are educated and supported in creating psychologically safe team environments.
In order to create mechanisms for positive athlete wellbeing and psychologically safe team environments, coaches could begin by constructing small changes in communication and behavior (i.e., focusing on the individual as a whole person, active listening, and demonstrating consistent verbal and non-verbal behaviors). Additionally, athletes are seeking opportunities to learn, grow, and improve their performance; coaches in psychologically safe team environments foster this continued education by allowing their athletes to make autonomous decisions, create improvement plans together, allow the athlete to voice concerns, suggestions, and feedback, and ultimately craft a relationship built on shared trust and work towards a unified goal. Further, athletic departments could provide emotional regulation training for their coaches. Working and coaching in athletics is a highly demanding, fast-paced, and incredibly emotional endeavor, however, coaches must ensure that their emotions can be harnessed and captivated to improve team climate and team performance not deteriorate it. Lastly, athletic department staff should monitor and evaluate their coaches consistently based on the intangibles described throughout this article, not simply by athlete performance and team success.