When my kids first started ski racing, my husband I spent most of our time on race days at the start. As coaches, that is where we were most needed, scraping snow off boots, putting bibs on, making sure goggles were down, snowpants were off, etc. At the start, everybody is engaged, eyes bright, cheering for each other. It’s all positive energy and action. Other than what we could see from the start, we’d have no idea how any of the kids “did.” If they made it into the starting gate, put both poles over the wand, and propelled themselves onto the course with a whiff of purpose, it was a victory. The start remains my favorite place on race day for one simple reason: it’s so full of hope.
I feel the same way about the start of a ski season, when anything is possible, and winter stretches ahead like a sparkling expanse of unbroken powder. All that is left to do is to drop in. As we prepare for a new season, it’s worth asking ourselves, “What are we hoping for?” Sure, there may be specific milestones and achievements we know would warrant a touchdown dance, but in the bigger picture, what will make this season a good experience? I suspect I’m like most parents and coaches, who want our kids to be in an environment that brings out their very best, in every way. We want them to be amongst people who “get” them, who have fun with them, who respect and support them, so that they can feel comfortable being themselves, taking risks, and stretching their limits to find out what’s possible.
In culture parlance, this is called a “psychologically safe,” environment and if it sounds a bit like a flashback to Psych 101, that’s because it is. Think back on (or Google) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see an explanation of how our most basic needs must be met before we are motivated to fulfill higher ones. Physical and emotional safety own a chunk of real estate near the bottom of that pyramid, right above physiological needs like food, water and sleep, and right below less pressing needs like achievement and self-esteem. In other words, “safety first” is actually a thing.
We are surrounded by evidence that we value a physically safe environment: B net, course prep, helmets, releasable bindings, shin guards, back protectors, radio communication and so many other things offer assurances that the venue is as safe as possible. These things allow athletes to focus entirely on performance vs. survival.
A psychologically safe environment works the same way, appealing to our tribal selves and the need for belonging. When you trust the people around you to protect you, encourage you, defend you, listen to you, lift you up, cheer you on—basically have your back no matter what—you can focus your energy on taking the risks you need to take to achieve extraordinary things. In such an environment, any individual feels safe disagreeing, speaking up, making suggestions, making mistakes, being goofy, being vulnerable, giving and receiving honest feedback. Essentially, people feel safe being themselves. Conversely, in an unsafe environment, where it’s acceptable to shut people down, embarrass them or ignore them, people either: expend energy worrying about fitting in and not screwing up; or, simply stay in their safe boxes, giving and getting little. A safe environment involves confrontation and disagreement, but it starts with the premise that team members are valued for their unique potential, and contribute to the tribe’s strength.
CORNINESS AND COURAGE
I love Southwest Airlines, mostly because they have free bags and no change fees. But I also like their vibe of humor and the feeling that they are looking out for you. The front section of the flight magazine is dedicated to letters from customers about Southwest employees going out of their way to help them. It’s totally corny but reading the letters always makes me want to be in a position to act boldly and improve someone’s day. I was going to keep that little habit secret, until I saw a TED talk that mentioned Southwest and the effect that a safe environment has on their employees. Instead of worrying about making mistakes, employees are encouraged to act independently for the benefit of the customer. Hence, all the great corny stories.
We’ve all been in some safe and some not-so-safe environments (middle school comes to mind), and likely seen radical differences in our own performance in each scenario. We have all likely also seen that the actions of just one person can make a hostile environment feel safer. How? Courage baby! Courage is like a muscle, that grows stronger with use. When one person talks to the new kid, or joins the kid sitting alone at a table, or stands up for the kid being teased, others feel more comfortable doing the same.
SAFETY IN THE BIG LEAGUES
Safety and belonging isn’t just important for little kids or new kids or struggling kids. It’s important for professional athletes as well. At a breakfast before the last game of the 2018 World Series, parents of Red Sox players made a point of thanking team manager Alex Cora for treating their sons so well. Even with fat pay checks and the adulation of fans, it mattered hugely to feel like they belonged and were respected in their own dugout. I recently interviewed a good friend and teammate for an upcoming article in Ski Racing, and realized for the first time that her ski tribe had been a life-raft in her youth, and a critical foundation for life beyond sport.
Michael Gervais, the Seattle Seahawks sports psychologist prioritizes maintaining an environment where athletes are valued for their uniqueness. “Let’s not let them be who they are,” proposes Gervais. “Let’s celebrate who they are, and celebrate what’s possible.” Gervais encourages players to surround struggling players and lift them up vs pulling away and further isolating them. This philosophy pretty much sums up the environment any of us would want for ourselves and our kids, and it depends on an uncomplicated but unwavering commitment to safety in every sense of the word.
Now, when I do get to my own kids’ races, my duties revolve around crock pots in the lodge or my superb gatekeeping skills (which is to say I have a pulse and can wield a golf pencil with my gloves on). I may not get my start fix anymore, but I know my kids are safe within healthy tribes, and that’s all the hope fix I need.