Coaching & Development, Human Performance, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jul 17, 2017
An online meeting of Leaders Performance Institute members on 25 May 2017.

On 25 May 2017 there were two Leaders Virtual Roundtables based on the pressing question of psychological safety in performance. These invite-only internet gathering brought together members of the Leaders Performance Institute – directors of performance, mental skills coaches, psychologists – in Major League Baseball, international tennis and European soccer, as well as the US military, to discuss the concept how necessary it is for athletes or military personnel to ‘live the game’ and where the balance between their professional discipline and their wider lives needs to be struck. In the first discussion, the participants touch upon psychological safety in the individuals they work with, as well as their processes for developing their self-confidence. Here is the executive summary.

The participants

Dr. Dehra Harris, ‎Medical Director of Standardized Patient Program at Washington University in St. Louis [Moderator]

Clive Brewer, Assistant Director of High Performance, Toronto Blue Jays

Larry Lauer, Mental Skills Coach, United States Tennis Association (USTA)

Christian Luthardt, Sports Psychologist, Bayer Leverkusen

Malachi Thompson III, Operations Flight Commander, United States Air Force (USAF)

  1. The agenda

How much of the brain is dedicated to what others think of us? How much of an athlete’s identity should come from sport? Non-athletes usually have multiple roles that define them and if one aspect of their life is faltering they will usually have multiple other places they can draw from to maintain or restore their self-esteem. By contrast, professional athletes tend to have one aspect – their careers – that have been granted more importance and while this might offer a more direct route to self-confidence, the path may be beset on all sides by any number of problems or issues. In the past, it was widely accepted that successful athletes had to ‘live the game’, immerse themselves in their careers, often to the detriment of other areas of their life. As the understanding of sports performance continues to develop, this notion is increasingly seen as outmoded in the modern era. The participants at the roundtable discussed where they in their daily work help athletes to find the balance and the importance of language and communication in creating a safe psychological place for athletes that prioritises their personal growth.

  1. The player and the person

There is much work being done behind the scenes to establish the desired life/work balance at sports organisations and Malachi Thompson also gave an insight into the methods employed at the USAF. There is an emphasis on trying to “instil the human first” and a focus that takes them away from sport or the day job. Veterans have been on multiple deployments and embark on a continuous programme of operations and tours; they have also witnessed divorces, suicides and other impacts on family life and the USAF frames the necessary equilibrium as a ‘life balance’ as opposed to a work/life balance. Service personnel will be brought in for a five or six-week period where they will not be deployed; instead, they will attend roundtable discussions and various experiential activities.

At the USTA, players are encouraged to not think about tennis 24/7 and are actively given licence to not think about the sport away from the court. Larry Lauer explains that there are a number of “simple but powerful” approaches that assist the USTA in its work. For example, players will be assisted in framing their roles beyond the court, whether that is as a brother/sister, cousin, mentor etc. The idea is to “feed them from good sources of energy” from beyond the sport. He added that it is important to compartmentalise the sporting side and for players to visualise themselves as an athlete. Larry recommends that players plan their non-tennis time, which can take some work.

Clive Brewer of the Toronto Blue Jays says that players in baseball often perceive themselves as players first but that a balance must be struck and he spoke about the techniques of mindfulness employed at the Toronto Blue Jays.

At Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, the club begins life skills training with the 10-year-olds who enter its academy, said Christian Luthardt. Balance is necessary in soccer because, as he observes, players who are “100% the game” create very high stakes for themselves and endure the most extreme highs and lows; often these players are more susceptible to injury, too.

Dehra Harris of Washington University reflected on the high burnout rates in medicine and highlighted the need for diverse sources of identity. She observed a practice of ‘intentional’ behaviour, with medical students mindful of putting on their uniform and stepping into a role. In a sense, they are actors.

She also raised the idea of teams having programmes for spouses, parents etc. that go through the same pillars as those provided for the athletes themselves. They may be stressed about losing a game or even a contract but it may be the case that they are more stressed about calling their mum. A team cannot control the media but they can work to reach the relatives of the athletes in a direct mutually beneficial fashion that gives them to tools to help the athlete.

  1. The importance of language

Harris then turned the discussion to the importance of language in promoting either autonomy or dependence. Luthardt explained that as coaches at Bayer Leverkusen are primarily concerned with tactics, there have been two psychologists assigned to spend time with the coaches, who will also attend workshops. At these meetings, coaches are instructed in directing comments at the person rather than at the player. Luthardt and his colleagues will also debrief coaching staff after training sessions to ask what they felt or experienced before delivering their observations.

In addition, there is a feedback programme from age nine upwards. Questions will be posed based on the experience of training and competing; coaches will also be integrated into these sessions. The broad goal is to expand the emotional component of player development.

Brewer described how Toronto are looking at the ways their coaches engage with the players and how their approach is informed by posing the right questions to coaches rather than merely issuing instructions. He and his colleagues will also ask the players what their ‘ideal’ coach is, how they like to be coached, and what questions they like to be asked. Their process is about provoking better questions from players and coaches alike.

Thompson revealed that personnel in the USAF are asked to raise any problems that emerge and any issues relating to matters “not connecting” with their peers or their superiors. This approach helps them to develop strategies amongst themselves. He also stressed the notion that if you are not failing then you are not growing; failure does not define a service person.

The USTA has worked to create an environment where players feel cared about and comfortable with making mistakes; they will even talk about ‘good misses’ in practice. Lauer and his colleagues employ 360 degree feedback; and in his capacity he will sit down with players and ask their opinion of how things are going. It is incumbent upon him to have his radar up to developments around him; he must also empower the players to respond and develop a line of communication with their coach. Additionally, he likes to be around the players when they lose.

Further reading:

Psychological Safety, Part II

Athlete Performance and Welfare Data – the Challenges and How to Overcome them

Meeting the challenge integrating data for the betterment of a sports organisation

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