September 2022

When leadership, relationships and psychological safety promote flourishing in sport and life

Jyoti Gosai, Sophia Jowett & Jose Roberto Andrade Do Nascimento-Júnior (2021): When leadership, relationships and psychological safety promote flourishing in sport and life, Sports Coaching Review, DOI: 10.1080/21640629.2021.1936960.

Sarah Murray – Sport Psychologist – Director –

“More and more so within the world of high-performance sport and beyond, we are acknowledging and noticing the impact that coaches and leaders have on the psychological safety within a group or team, equally, the knock-on positive impact this has on sustained performance and satisfaction of the athlete/team member has also been suggested, this paper would reflect that.

The way in which the paper speaks about a combined coach athlete-centered relationship certainly speaks to the anecdotal observations of my work within elite sport over the years and the shift towards the more balanced nature of the coach-athlete relationship. Moving away from the traditional command style and towards an understanding of a mutual set of agreed goals that both the coach and athlete are working toward in a collaborative manner through the medium of creating meaningful and “human” connection to facilitate performance. This has taken some of the traditional unhealthy power dynamic out of the relationship.

Of particular interest whilst I read the paper was the link between coach transformational behaviours and the way in which these impact the quality of the athlete- coach relationship, we might be forgiven for thinking this would be obvious however, the way in which this is successfully achieved is both complex and nuanced. With this in mind the paper sought to explore the following hypotheses:

  1. Transformational leadership as an antecedent for psychological safety and for coach athlete relationship
  2. Relationship quality and psychological safety as a predictor for athletes flourishing, which then in turn predicts a positive effect
  3. Relationship quality and psychological safety also predicting levels of satisfaction in athletes

The results conclude that transformational leadership is in fact an antecedent for psychological safety, in other words, coaches that attend to the needs of their athletes, giving them ownership and autonomy over their development whilst supporting and challenging them in equal measure will likely create an impactful thriving environment for their athletes.

What was interesting and perhaps comes as a result of the relationship between the coach and the athlete being equally – if not more important than a feeling of psychological safety – was that there was a greater correlation between leadership behaviours and the coach-athlete relationship than there was psychological safety and coach-athlete relationship.

As a sport psychologist, the paper triggers me into reflection upon where our role can positively support and impact the coach-athlete relationships of those with whom we work most closely, whilst our natural tendency may be to build key relationships with athletes, this paper serves to substantiate the evidence towards supporting, developing and working alongside coaches in order to support their relationship building and leadership styles within their world. The way in which this is supported is something that needs further research and investigation in terms of how an individual seeks to educate and support a coach-athlete relationship. We are not in control of the style with which the coaches we work alongside build their relationships with their athletes, however as a sports psychologist we’re in a position to have a positive influence on both the presence of transformation leadership and psychological safety within a group.”

Betsy Tuffrey – Sport & Exercise Psychologist – Director – Seed Psychology Ltd.

“This work was an interesting read, with many avenues to discuss – be it the topic of psychological safety alone, or the finer details or transformational leadership.  With several measures and areas to pick through in this study, I gravitated to the detail around the coach/athlete relationship. 

Often, I think we perceive aspects such as inter-group sharing and question-asking as learning constructs; however this work hones in on such areas as heavily influenced by leadership.  With my primary area of work being with full-time football academy athletes, there is a huge social consideration to make when thinking and talking about group or team functioning.  The psychosocial benefits of good group function and psychological safety within a team i.e., satisfaction and the ability to work well with others, are not just beneficial for the sporting performance context, but in the wider realms of life.

The biggest ‘take-home’ for me from this piece is that we can be impactful on team members and the team as a whole by attending to athlete concerns and needs.  Whilst the wider team working with an athlete can play their part, the leadership from a head coach is of importance here.  This article delves into transformational leadership being a key way for coaches to empower and inspire through cultivating quality individual relationships with their athletes.  Sharing knowledge freely is a key facet, and implications for the psychologist within this setting may be to encourage individual interaction and mutual sharing – supporting both individuals in their quest to do so.

In terms of psychological safety, this article leans towards this being a group-level concern, and with full-time team athletes operating frequently within a wider group, this warrants further research from me.

A great piece that has provoked much thought on how I may support athletes and coaches – empowering both parties to share and collaborate within this unique relationship.

Summary – written by Betsy Tuffrey

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sarah’s thoughts on this paper. I echo her thoughts that as Sport Psychs, we have a keen interest in cultivating key relationships with athletes we work with, but arguably our role is to support and facilitate strong relationships between the athlete and coach. It’s key to leave our egos at the door here. I feel I’ve balanced this well in my own career to-date – acknowledging that I as a squad psych am not always the key vehicle of delivery of a message – even if that message has originated from my thinking, or more widely, my field. In this sense, influencing and encouraging transformational leadership will be a key consideration in my own work moving forwards – starting with a greater understanding of transformational leadership itself.