Things are shifting inside sport culture – players are opening up about their mental health challenges and the pressure that can come with being an elite athlete. Athletes who we look up to are sharing the reality that can exist inside elite sport – it is easy to lose ourselves in the process, to put intense pressure on ourselves to win and perform, and to forget why we are competing in the first place.

While much of the emphasis is on the athlete to prioritize their own wellbeing – the culture of a team, organization, and the leadership inside those programs has huge impacts. More and more sport organizations are seeing that systems and leadership can be abusive & cause detriment to the long-term wellbeing of the athletes involved, yet it can leadership to be held accountable. After coaching collegiately for nearly a decade and spending the last two years supporting athletes and former athletes as a life and mindset coach – I’ve seen both the positive and negative impacts of culture on athlete’s wellbeing long term and I want to share some insights so athletes can empower themselves when something feels off.

When there is trust in the coaching dynamic, coaches can be direct and challenge their athletes. What matters is the intention behind that challenge. It all comes down to these questions: does my coach has my best interest at heart? Do they care about me as a human first, athlete second? Or are they more worried about winning and the scoreboard and aren’t seeing me as a human in this process?

Here are four culture “red flags” that any athlete can use to reflect about the culture they are currently training and competing in and the dynamic that is created. While there is no such thing as a perfect culture, it’s important to address culture red flags and how it may be causing negative impacts on the athlete’s mental health long term.

Coaches who define themselves by solely the number of wins or successes they have had.

We all love to win – but it’s important to consider – does the coach think about WHY they are in coaching? Do they care about being a role model for their athletes and do they talk about athletes as more than just a “stat” or a number? Do they think about the impact they are having on the lives they are leading everyday? When stakes are high and the pressure is on – coaches who are not connected to their impact and often become connected to their ego which means they are likely to coach through fear, manipulation & control.

Athletes feel intense pressure to win and perform for their coach instead of enjoying the journey. Athletes will be motivated to “please” their coach instead of competing for themselves and when they don’t perform feel like they let their coach down or have to walk on eggshells. In recruiting this might look like consistently saying “I’m going to make you the next [insert star athlete] instead of saying I’m going to work with you to bring out your highest potential.

Look for this instead: Coaches who use values to drive their culture and their actions align with their words. They talk about the character of their athletes just as much as they talk about the wins and successes. They talk about the process, see each athlete as a unique individual and they have deep love and care for the athletes they coach.

Shaming athletes who get sick or have injuries.

It’s one thing to have a conversation with an athlete who isn’t taking care of their body properly or getting appropriate rest about getting the support they need… it’s another to be a part of a culture that pushes athletes aside the moment they are not injured. This goes hand in hand with red flag #1 – when coaches see athletes solely as “pawns” in the game to winning and success – they forget that their athletes are human beings. The human body is incredibly intelligent – when it is operating under large amounts of stress and forced through all training no questions asked – it will be even more likely to shut down.

Athletes connect their worth to their ability to perform. When they feel like their bodies are getting in the way of performing, they will hate and fight their bodies instead of listening and working with their body. Many former athletes have a negative relationship with their body and push through everything until they are so burnt out they have to shut down. This can create long term cycles of hustle and burnout and a distrust within self.

Look for this instead: Coaches that create relationships of trust and respect with their athletes FIRST, challenge athletes to get outside of their comfort zones while empowering their athletes to listen to and prioritize their body. What’s required here is communication with the athlete from a place that says “let’s work through this together” and figure out how we can get you to your best.

Coaches who give treat athletes differently solely based on performance.

While I do think that it’s fair for coaches to have favorite athletes in terms of how they show up to training, the attitude they have, and what they bring to the environment every day, there are many cultures that allow top performing athletes to get away with things that other team members could not get away with. This includes negative attitudes towards other teammates, breaking team rules and getting away with it, preferential treatment at meets, allowing top performing athletes to be involved with team decisions & being allowed to “opt” out of certain things because of their performance level.

What this creates is an environment where the rules are not respected. Team expectations are not upheld when some team members are given freedom to break them. This causes distrust in the culture over time. Additionally, it creates a dynamic where high performing team members believe they are better than their peers based on performance. They now feel the pressure to uphold their performance because subconsciously it is tied to privilege and how they are treated. They will see themselves as only as valuable as their performances with little consideration to their character.

Look for this instead: Cultures where everyone has value no matter their performance and all athletes are held to the same rules and character standards no matter who they are. Cultures that empower athletes to lead in different ways other than just performance and celebrate each individual for their growth.

Cultures that are creating followers not leaders.

Often we are sold this picture of coaches creating 100 athletes that do things “the right way” and listen to their coaches no matter what. This culture is created by coaches who believe that they know best and that there is only the right way. Other things that happen in cultures like this is that athletes do not speak up or ask questions. They are afraid to voice their opinions or have conversations with coaches. Athletes who lead as “followers” of their coaches might have a tendency to lead in the same way the coach does versus think about how it looks for them to lead in their own unique way.

Athletes that believe that the reason they are successful is because of their coach and that there is only one way to create success. They don’t get a say so in their success. They are good at following plans but don’t trust themselves to deviate from a plan –
giving up the opportunity for failure and learning. This also create cultures where athletes aren’t allowed to lead as their authentic selves.

Look for this instead:
Cultures that encourage athletes to have conversation and communication about their training, how it’s going, and adjustments that need to be made throughout the course of a season and career. Leadership that empowers athletes to try new things, fail, and
learn from that failure. Look for programs that help the athlete understand themselves and what they value outside of just doing things.

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