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Coaching / Development, Culture, Performance, Psychology | Jul 24, 2017 | 4 min read

Leaders Virtual Roundtables: Psychological Safety, Part II

An online meeting of Leaders Performance Institute members on 25 May 2017.
John Portch

On 25 May 2017 there were two Leaders Virtual Roundtables based on the pressing question of psychological safety in performance. These invite-only internet gatherings brought together members of the Leaders Performance Institute – directors of performance, mental skills coaches, psychologists – in the NBA, MLB, international tennis and European soccer 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 this second discussion, the participants touch the work and life blend, the importance of language, and playing and coaching initiatives. Here is the executive summary.


The participants

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

Phil Cullen, Director of Basketball Strategy, San Antonio Spurs

Scott Drawer, Head of High Performance Hub, Team Sky

Neil Mackintosh, Performance Manager, Scottish Football Association (SFA)

Caroline Rodriguez, Sports Psychologist, United States Olympic Committee (USOC)

Paddy Steinfort, Head of Mental Performance, Toronto Blue Jays


  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. Blending work and life

Elite sports teams are trying to bring a sense of normality to an abnormal situation and this can create all manner of obstacles for players at all levels. Scott Drawer from Team Sky observed, from his experience across a range of sports, that most successful have a good blend in their work and life; he intentionally uses the word ‘blend’ because there is not one size that fits all. He suggests that an athlete’s downtime should be perceived as equally valuable as any training session or competition because they all contribute to helping the athlete compete and, ultimately, find that blend.

Phil Cullen at San Antonio built on Drawer’s point to explain that the Spurs rely on key individuals within the coaching and support staff building personal relationships with the players. He explains that every player has a different understanding of family dynamics and it is incumbent on the staff to find out what it means to each player and to earn their trust. Another essential is teaching young players in a manner that they find enjoyable. From there, it makes it easier to find the desired blend of work and life.

Of the work being done at the SFA, Neil Mackintosh explained that age-group players will be introduced to programme of off-field activities; they will also work with the players’ schools to help establish a suitable blend. The organisation has noticed gender differences too, which must be taken into account.

Teams in MLB will bring players into their system at an older age, but Paddy Steinfort at Toronto says that the environment they are introduced to is still removed from normality. Central to the effectiveness of his work is his ability to be on the road with the players, who are travelling continually, and spending some downtime with them. The two are not forced but when it is done with due care and sensitivity it serves to break down the barriers between staff and players.

  1. The importance of language

There are pitfalls to be avoided in the use of language with young players and Mackintosh conceded that he occasionally caught himself coaching the ‘player’ rather than the person. The observed that the key is for players at all levels to feel valued. Cullen raised the point that speaking a language that the players understand is vital.

Dehra Harris observed that it is can make coaching more effective when the protagonist – the player – is given the impression that they can help shape the system. With sensible use of communication young players feel they can impact the coach, while the coach feels they can make the most important interventions.

To this end, the SFA has been working for the last five years or so to promote responsibility and accountability, particularly amongst their 12-16-year-olds. Mackintosh spoke of the continual dialogue between players and coaches; review sessions; individual plans; charitable work. He observed that not all children respond to that and it raises questions about how the SFA both selects its talent and shapes it programme. He also explained that players with better coping skills tend to thrive more.

Drawer told the participants that Team Sky have produced a profile of the type of athlete they are looking for because there are certain characters that fit; he pit this against the idea that the team hopes to expand this range and so he asks if there is more value in systems and norms or in embracing unique abilities.

  1. Playing and coaching initiatives

Participants at the roundtable also spoke about the player and coaching initiatives and how they might be shaped to put the individual at the centre. Mackintosh explained that the SFA spend considerable time with their players, whose parents will be involved at age-group level, and coaches, who will attend workshops. Their goal is to promote resilience and a growth mindset in young players.

Steinfort at the Blue Jays said that he and his colleagues were careful not to ‘get all up in the players’ grills’. He and his colleagues would be embedded with the team, a regular presence, and would in that time tease thoughts out of players; they will then break down any fears or concerns; the team environment ergo provides a level of psychological safety. This process has become normalised and it might be that when a player is enduring a down period, the coaches at Toronto might remind them to do what they were doing when they were winning.

  1. Conclusion

There are variable to approaches for young and senior players; there can also be gender differences. Programmes will differ from each other in character but all support the idea of self-concept and promote identity outside of sport. The goal is to create athletes that are adaptable and self-aware.


Previous Leaders Virtual Roundtables:

Psychological Safety, Part I

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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