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Brought to CheerConditioning.Academy

by guest blogger Dr. Emma Ross

Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport

Educator, Researcher and Scientist of Sports and Exercise Science 

I will admit at the outset, I don’t have much direct experience of Cheer. In fact, the extent of my Cheer insight comes exclusively from the Netflix series, which I binged and loved. I was impressed. The athleticism, skill and commitment to training certainly reflected that of athletes I had worked with over the last decade within the UK High Performance System of Olympic and Paralympic sport. But what was equally apparent about Cheer was the value of the team, it’s connectedness and support for one another played a vital role on the path to success.


Aristotle once said ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. A team can achieve more together than all of those individuals working on their own. But not all teams are greater than the sum of their parts – dysfunctional teamwork can hold everyone back.  In 2012 Google set out to find what makes a perfect team – aptly code-named Project Aristotle.  After years of analysing data and interviews from more than 180 teams across the company, Google found that the foundation of a high-performing team wasn’t to do with the skill level of each of the individuals, but was largely dependent on the environment and culture within that team, which they described as psychological safety.  Simply put, a psychologically safe environment is one where people feel safe to take risks, experience failure and be vulnerable in front of one another, all without the risk of shame or judgement.  Research which translates these findings from business to sport demonstrates that creating psychological safety facilitates athlete learning and engagement, improves athlete wellbeing and reduces athlete burnout.

When we look specifically at girls and young women in sport and explore what holds them back from fulfilling their potential, or worse still, what causes them to drop out of sport completely, it is unsurprising that many of the factors emerging from the research align to the concept of psychological safety. My work in optimising female athlete health, wellbeing and performance has led many sports to ask me how to improve the experience of female athletes within their clubs. 

Getting coaches and athletes to reflect on how psychologically safe they feel in their team and in the training environment is always a good place to start.  Once we get this right, we can develop resilient athletes with a growth mindset, we can avoid factors which have been shown to de-rail girls engagement with sport and we can open up important conversations that remove physical and emotional barriers to sport as girls move through their adolescent years. 


‘I can’t do it’ says the athlete, trying for the hundredth time to execute a new skill.  ‘You can’t do it yet’ says the coach ‘but the effort you are putting in is amazing and I can see you are trying different ways to make it stick– keep going’.  

When we praise athletes for their effort, their strategies, process or progress we emphasise the value of practise, of needing to fail in order to learn and of stretching oneself with difficult tasks. We create athletes with a growth mindset, who are hardy, resilient, and resourceful. And these athletes have been shown to practise for longer, work harder and with more effort. IN short, they are more likely to fulfil their performance potential. Compare this to kids who are praised for their talent and skill – ‘you are so good at tumbling, it amazing how you stick the landing every time’. These athletes feel valued because they are brilliant and gifted, so they stop doing anything that will disprove that. They become afraid of trying new or difficult things because they don’t want to contradict a coaches’ perception that they are talented.  These athletes have what we call a fixed mindset, they play it safe and this limits their development.  

To encourage a growth mindset in girls and young women, we have to make sure they feel psychologically safe. And an important part of that process is removing shame and judgement. Brené Brown, a researcher and practitioner in the field of shame and resilience, found that 85% of people can remember a shaming experience at school that affects their learning journey and experiences through the rest of their life. One comment from a teacher or coach that can affect an individual’s confidence, self-belief and motivation for that topic for the rest of their life.  Wow. When we want to support girls to fulfil their potential we have to be mindful of the words we use and the judgement we impart. This is especially important as women are far more likely than men to respond to these situations with self-criticism and a negative inner-voice.

In girls more than boys, sport highlights insecurities about body image and the fear of what people think of how they look or perform.  Shame and judgement fuel those insecurities.  But if shame and judgement are fuel for the fire, then empathy is the fire blanket.  Empathy requires us to connect with the athletes and understand their situation and feelings. So instead of ‘What happened! What were you thinking! Why did you do that!’ it’s more about ‘I know it’s tough executing these moves at the end of the session when you are tired. Help me understand what was happening that meant we didn’t hit that move.’ It’s not ‘you are too big right now, I think you’ve been overeating’ , but it might be something like ‘I know you are busy with school and training, so getting the right food in at the right time can be difficult - can we have a chat about how I can help you get the right fuel for training and recovery?’


The research shows that solid relationships are the building blocks of psychological safety.  This is even more important when working with girls and young women because of the confidence that they derive from the strength of their relationships.  Research suggests that boys gain confidence to perform from a belief their coach is technically good at what they do - they have the knowledge, skill and reputation, which instils confidence in male athletes.  Girls on the other hand talk about the relationships with their coach as being the biggest influence on their confidence to perform. A stronger connection and social support from the coach gave females higher confidence.  It appears that shifting the culture towards valuing relationships before outcomes, could in itself, increase the likelihood of success.


I can’t write about girls in sport without talking about some of the most significant barriers to these athletes fulfilling their potential, which are the physical and emotional factors specific to being female.  For example, in adolescent athletes, periods starting, changing body shape (girls start to store more fat on their hips, bum and thighs as they go through puberty), the hormones of the menstrual cycle having physical effects like pain, bloating or fatigue, or emotional effects like anxiety, overwhelm or low mood and breast development to name some have all been shown to impact on participation, adherence to training and confidence to perform.  And whilst a lot of my work is educating and empowering coaches and athletes with better understanding of these factors, you don’t have to become an expert in hormones or sports bras to support female athletes better. 

Once again, creating a space which feels safe and free from judgement will allow girls to discuss these challenges before they become the reason she misses training or worse still, leaves the sport.  These topics are taboo at the best of times, and for athletes wanting to appear strong and capable, they can be harder still to talk about.  My tips are to have a ‘soft launch’ of these conversations by sharing a podcast or article (maybe even this one!) about these topics.  That in itself shows athletes that you are open to learning and talking about them.  One of the biggest barriers to conversations about these things is lack of confidence on both sides – the male coach lacks confidence he knows enough to be able to have a useful conversation, and the athlete lacks confidence in the male’ knowledge on such things.  This usually equals permanent avoidance of any discussion.  Silence is not a good foundation for a psychologically safe environment!  And just accept it might be uncomfortable, you might get the words wrong, and the first time it might be embarrassing. Vulnerability is an amazing gift here ‘I might get some things wrong, but I’d like to try and help you with this’ – you’ll get a double whammy of demonstrating a growth mindset yourself as well as making that athlete feel safe and supported.

Using role models really helps influence how open athletes are when it comes to sharing female specific factors that are affecting training and performance.  In sports where older athletes openly say to coach, ‘If I look a little flat today it’s because I’ve got really leaden legs – sometimes I get that the day before my period’ or ‘I’m feeling a bit tearful today, I think it’s because I’m due my period soon – don’t worry about me, I am happy to be here really!’ we see younger athletes feel a lot more relaxed about sharing, when appropriate, what they need to with their coach or team mates. We know that anticipating or understanding others’ behaviours helps everyone to navigate through the situation more positively.


Finally, a consistent finding from research in teenage girls is that when sport stops becoming fun, girls feel less inclined to stay involved.  Extreme competitiveness and perfectionism can take away the joy of sport pretty fast. We want to keep the spark of love and enjoyment for training and performing alive in girls, whilst still being able to have healthy competition and a desire for success. But there’s also a need to reinvigorate and add credibility to the idea that ‘it’s the taking part that matters’ and reinforcing what girls can achieve beyond winning - enjoyment, personal development and building relationships. Because when girls experience all these things, they are much more likely to fulfil their potential – not just their performance potential, but their potential to live a wholehearted, happy, healthy life.