After almost a year and half of life on pause, the return of international sport is providing some very welcome normality for many of us. Yes, debates might still be raging about the wisdom of staging the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but the signs from Europe are that fans are eager to return to football stadiums and tennis courts for some of the biggest events of the year.
Sport both excites and unites us, especially big tournaments like Euro 2020, where we see the hopes and dreams of nations played out in front of us, but it can also teach us a lot - both good and bad, about how we should be approaching our careers and our lives.
Linking sports psychology to workplace performance is nothing new. Many former professional sportspeople have gone on to coach business leaders and deliver motivational speeches about visualising success; but 2021’s summer of sport has seen a shift towards new territory: the open discussion of psychological safety and mental health in sport. The same topics that are also dominating discussions about the future of work post-pandemic.
From Naomi Osaka’s very public prioritisation of her mental wellbeing over her ambition; to Gareth Southgate’s open letter to England, which spoke of humility, pride and the devastating pressure inflicted on players by social media; it’s clear that a new narrative is emerging in sport. One that looks beyond the glory and reveals a picture of our sporting heroes as ordinary people, subject to the same highs and lows as any of us. That they are not invincible, despite their many talents and successes.
Writing in the Guardian, Tayo Bero shone a spotlight on this, drawing parallels between the stigma of sports stars revealing they struggle with their mental health with the difficulty many employees have in opening up too: “Admitting you are struggling to your bosses or colleagues is something most people have been socialised to avoid like the plague.”
Bero underlines the importance of Osaka’s admission, “particularly for the many young people who look up to her”, and points to it being “timely in crucial” both in terms of the example it sets to Black and Asian communities, where talking about mental health is particularly stigmatised, and in the wake of the pandemic, when so many people have been “stretched to their limits”.
Southgate’s letter explores similar themes around the importance of setting an example and the pressures of public visibility on young stars. Expressing his disbelief and disgust at the online abuse that has been levelled at many young England players, he argues that the very same players will be a big part of the response, which he believes will lead to a “much more tolerant and understanding society.”
The letter itself is an eloquent, soaring retort to the criticism England initially received from some for deciding to take the knee at the Euros, and suggests that Southgate not only aims to create a climate of psychological safety in the England dressing room, but wants to extend it to envelop players and fans alike. We’re yet to see if Southgate’s stint as England manager will result in triumph but it’s clear that his values and leadership qualities are hard to question, and will likely be held up as an example in boardrooms for years to come.
Ultimately, when you look back at many sporting heroes of the past and the cult of ambition that accompanied them, it’s fairly easy to draw a line to some of the more ‘performance’ driven behaviours of corporate cultures of old. Cultures that rewarded risk-taking, pressure and the perception of invulnerability.
What’s interesting now is that the change in the debate about success in sport - and the rejection of the idea that it must come at any cost - is also being reflected in many companies and organisations who are striving to create more supportive and respectful cultures. What’s less clear is whether that change will stick, and whether safer spaces will be created - both in workplaces and within professional sport - to have more open and honest conversations about our wellbeing.
It remains to be seen but we're hopeful.