By Bo Hanson, 4x Olympian and Coaching Consultant. 


At Athlete Assessments, when we work with clients one of the really critical models we refer to is the Circle of Safety. This article will describe what we mean by a Circle of Safety, why it is integral to creating a successful team and also analyse how different styles of coaching can contribute to creating a safe and secure environment for their athletes.

The Circle of Safety in Sport and Why We Use It

The Circle of Safety is not a concept we developed ourselves, it is taken from models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it is also taken from a lot of the work Simon Sinek has been doing, and the book that he wrote Leaders Eat Last.

The Circle of Safety refers to an environment the coach or leader creates for their athletes. What we mean by a safe environment is an environment where an athlete feels they can make a total contribution, where they can be themselves, where they can be free to communicate and express themselves without fear of being harassed, bullied or negatively impacted by anyone else in that playing environment or outside it.

Within a lot of teams that we work with, we ask the coach to spend a lot of time looking at what the impacting factors are that might influence that Circle of Safety. Some more common examples in modern sport are social media, the role of drugs in sport, the parental expectations of athletes, what colleges expect of athletes or the political environment that they have to perform within.

The key concept here is that if athletes don’t feel safe, it’s unlikely they will feel they’ll be able to make a full contribution and produce their best.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I referred to a model before, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The model, dating back to the 1940’s when researchers first discovered that human beings had a series of needs that, when met in a certain order, allowed us to be the best possible athlete or person we can be.

The most basic needs are the need for food, air and water. For example, when you’re really hungry or dehydrated, you forget how to make effective contributions to the team. Or when you’re absolutely exhausted on the field and your heart rate is at 180 and it’s been that way for a couple of minutes – you feel like you can’t go on, you forget about how you can be the best player for the team or how you can achieve your goals, or how you can execute your technique perfectly because one of your basic needs for air is being compromised.

However, once we have that basic need met, we have a need for security and safety, and this is what we mean by the Circle of Safety. Security in being part of the team, safety of being surrounded by people you know you can trust and believe in to have your back.

What Happens When That Need is Being Met?

This is where it applies and is so critical to have a culture that embodies the Circle of Safety. Basically what happens is a natural human response to being in a safe environment. It results in cooperation and trust between all members of that environment.

Every single team that we’ve worked with that has experienced some level of success talk about the fact they trust each other, the fact that they supported each other and the fact that they all had a strong level of cooperation and cohesion within the group.

What Happens Without a Circle of Safety in Sport?

If you look at some of the behaviors that emerge from the people within an environment neglected of safety and security, and it’s not just in sport – it’s in business and politics. You get an alarmingly high level of competitiveness and you get a similarly high level of individualistic behavior.

When we refer to that competitiveness, you’re not just getting a healthy level of competition where people are supporting and pushing each other and challenging each other to be better, you’re getting a level of competitiveness where the attitude is “I will try and beat you so that I can be in the team and that means you’re going to miss out”. This is so negative to team culture that athletes may actually do things to each other to undermine others’ performances. That’s the political nature of competitiveness that undermines team performance.

If you don’t have a circle of safety; if you don’t have an environment where your athletes feel like they can trust the people around them and believe in each other, where they feel safe, where they feel secure and part of the team, you will end up with an environment where the athletes will begin to conflict with each other’s performance in various ways.

Creating a Circle of Safety directly and positively influences team chemistry and team dynamics. Having great team chemistry is obviously an environment where people will safe, where they feel like they can make a quality contribution.

How Different DISC Coaching Styles Create a Circle of Safety

We place a lot of responsibility and spend quite a lot of time looking at the role of the coach in relation to their DISC profile – that is – the various behaviors that a coach, based on their DISC profile, will provide and do in order to create that safe environment.

For example:

  • A high D coach is going to be very good at creating an environment where everybody knows what the team’s goals are, where there is a vision that everyone wants to achieve, where the athlete knows how their role is going to contribute to the team and they know the job that they have to do. They also know that their role is not going to conflict with someone else’s role.
  • A high I style coach is very good at providing energy, atmosphere and enthusiasm. They’re also good at making it a fun environment and not taking things too seriously at times.
  • An S style coach is very good at nurturing every single athlete and making sure that they feel like they’re trusted and feel like they belong to the group – emphasizing the aspect of team.
  • A high C style coach creates a safe environment by making sure the environment is well-structured and well organised and logistically well planned so that things such as the fields have been booked, the necessary equipment is there, the doctors and the physio’s are there should anyone have an injury. They’re also concerned with whether or not the program that they’ve developed is the correct program for every single athlete, that is, making sure they’re not getting their athletes to do exercises that, biomechanically, are going to injure them.

The reality is, every single style of coach within the DISC model will contribute to this environment in a unique way. The bottom line is though is that we have to focus on creating this safe environment for our athletes and to recognize the way that we provide that environment and recognize that, potentially, there will be some gaps in what we’re providing. Once again it comes back to that concept of being adaptable with our coaching style.

As a last point, also recognizing that your different athletes will have different needs for what it is that will make them feel safe. What a high D needs is going to be different to a high I or a high S or a high C. Appreciating these unique needs is another critical aspect of creating a circle of safety.

At Team 8 Assessments, we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can assist you with, please Contact Us.

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