A young athlete on the talent pathway will undoubtedly experience change and challenges, which may make them feel under pressure at times – the pressure to succeed, to be selected and to meet their own expectations as well as the expectations of those around them.
Outside of sport, young athletes may also experience other stressful experiences and pressures, including social, academic, family or other day-to-day pressures. Understanding, anticipating and openly communicating about these experiences will help support the young person and give them a voice and some control.
However, at times the balance can tip and the pressure begin to build, which can put athletes at risk of harm if not identified and addressed effectively. Coaches, sports personnel and parents should ensure they openly communicate with athletes, working together to ensure they are coping adequately, and responding appropriately when concerns of excessive amounts of pressure arise.
A talented young athlete may have a dream of succeeding at the highest level in their sport. Supporting them in setting achievable progress goals will be beneficial to help them to manage their expectations and navigate the ups and downs of their sporting journey.
Breaking down the overall aspirational journey into smaller goals being worked towards step by step may help to reduce the overall sense of pressure, and manage the expectations of the athlete and those around them.
Whether it be a tournament, a competition or a qualifier, recognising and celebrating success at each level can help athletes and their support network feel a sense of achievement.
Similarly, dealing with not achieving success in the same way will also help. Failing to achieve potential on individual occasions will feel less daunting – it doesn’t mean an end to their progression, just a small bump in the road. Instead, the athlete can be supported in perceiving this not as failure, but using the 'not yet' growth approach – as an opportunity to learn and move forward.
Dealing with success or no success
By definition, sport is competitive, meaning that it is almost inevitable that a young athlete will not win every time. No Olympic or Paralympic champion has become a success overnight.
Different athletes will have varying abilities to deal with no success at all levels, which can be exacerbated at the elite level due to the increased investment (such as, time, effort, financial, and so on).
While the importance of a competition, tournament or a qualifier may be difficult to hide from a young person, it is important to openly discuss in advance that they may not achieve their desired outcome yet.
A balance must be struck between encouraging and supporting the young athlete to work hard and perform their best, while also introducing them to the idea that they might not achieve their goal in that test. And though that may be disappointing, it's okay and it's not the end of their dream.
Coping with success can also be difficult for some athletes. With success may come the pressure to succeed again and to always perform, the pressure to act as a role model for other young athletes, and potentially pressure from the media, sponsors or other sources.
Coaches, sports personnel and parents should support athletes through the success journey, being careful to help them to manage pressure, manage their expectations and stay grounded in recognition of their hard work.
Selection and deselection
At different levels during sport there are selection and deselection choices made regarding which athletes are offered the opportunity to participate in an event or activity. This offers an exciting opportunity for some but also means another athlete in their social circle may not have been selected.
Being selected for a team, squad or onto the talent pathway may bring mixed emotions – happiness, but now a pressure to stay. This selection may also potentially bring changes to the young person's lifestyle, such as moving training groups, changing coach or less time for friends outside sport.
Parents are key influencers in the young athlete's life and career, and therefore they need to be part of the communication with coaches, particularly when changes are happening, so that they understand decisions and feel able to support their child.
Coaches should explain to the athlete and their parents why the decision has been made, and, if the athlete has not been selected, what they can work on to continue their improvement.
Parents should listen to their child and support them in their feelings towards the decision. Where possible, parents should encourage athletes to maintain a positive attitude towards the sport and see that they are on their own continual journey of improvement, and there will be future opportunities for progression.
Parents may disagree with selection decisions, and should be allowed to ask why a decision has been made, but unless they have a genuine concern of misconduct that has contributed to the decision, they should avoid causing tension between the athlete and their coach.
Coaches and parents should bear in mind that the young person may feel more upset if they see their parents reacting negatively to the decisions made and they may think that their parent is making things worse.
Whether it be due to injury, physical body changes, health, finance, education, or any other issue, athletes may find themselves having to retire from competing in their sport. Retirement can affect young athletes, particularly if the issue is out of their control.
Finding that they can no longer compete in their sport at an elite level can undoubtedly be upsetting for young athletes. Sports coaches, parents and other sports personnel should ensure that they support athletes through this transition.
Athletes’ expectations of their career length should be managed carefully, ensuring that they have an understanding that retirement will eventually become a reality for them. Athletes should be supported in developing new interests and ways to participate beyond retirement from their sport.
A culture of psychological safety
Sports organisations have a responsibility to protect athletes from a range of potential risks, including threats to emotional or psychological health. A vital part of keeping athletes safe involves creating an environment that positively influences the mental health and wellbeing of all individuals.
In recent years, research is looking to the concept of psychological safety to protect athletes from emotional harm and create an environment where athletes can thrive.
Psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals can take risks, express ideas or concerns, ask questions, be themselves, and acknowledge mistakes – without worrying about any negative consequences. It’s a culture that promotes a sense of trust and respect where individuals don’t feel judged and can be their authentic self without wearing a mask. This kind of community can help people feel able to put themselves out there and maximise their potential.
For more information on what psychological safety is, why it’s important in sport, and how to create this culture, see our pages on athlete mental health and wellbeing.
Psychological safety in elite sport
Having a psychologically safe culture is important at any level of sport. However, it is especially vital for elite athletes and young people on the talent pathway. There are a unique set of challenges in elite sport that can influence mental health, including:
- expectations that are self-imposed, which may lead to perfectionism and fear of failure
- expectations from others
- the pressure to succeed or maintain success
- selection and deselection
- the possibility of retirement or injury
- balancing elite sport with everyday life, including education and social time
- body image concerns or changes to body image through training
- increased attention from others
- a pressure to show mental toughness
Because of these difficulties, it’s quite common for elite young athletes to experience mental health concerns such as stress, anxiety, or eating disorders and disordered eating. What’s more, it’s been shown that athletes often avoid discussing mental health as they are worried that others may view them as weak. This means that many athletes may mask their symptoms, preventing them from getting the necessary support.
Experiencing mental health challenges may prevent some people from being able to perform at their best and may impact overall team performance. For instance, athletes may lack confidence, struggle to focus, or be unable to look after themselves physically. Some athletes may also withdraw from others, making communication in a team difficult.
Psychological safety plays an essential role in improving the mental health of athletes:
- When individuals feel able to show their authentic self and raise concerns, and also feel part of a respectful and non-judgemental community, they are more likely to feel comfortable discussing wellbeing with teammates or coaches.
- Mental health support is also more likely to be embedded into the environment, helping to normalise conversations around wellbeing and encouraging athletes to seek help when they need it.
- A psychologically safe space can also bring many positive benefits which may acts as a protective factors for ill mental health. For example, providing athletes with a space where they can connect with others, flourish in their sport, and feel celebrated for who they are can help to boost overall mental health.
- In this culture, psychological threats are also prevented. For instance, safe environments will have thorough safeguarding procedures, appropriate leadership and education, and sufficient support services.
Creating a psychologically safe culture involves thinking about several factors such as leadership, communication, and team relationships. Download our poster on psychological safety for some key tips that organisations can follow to create a culture of psychological safety and promote the wellbeing and performance of their athletes.