Culture in Sport

From Perform & Thrive by Sarah Broadhead:

Sport cultures

Culture can be described as the way we do things ‘around here’.

John Amaechi, psychologist and former professional basketball player, says that culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated. A team, sport, or club can have great value statements, but if people are allowed to behave in ways that go against these values, they mean nothing. If you go into a club or team, you should be able to describe the culture based on the language you hear, how people speak to each other, what is encouraged and rewarded, and what is punished or ignored.



Write down three words that describe the culture of the sport, team, or training group you are part of.


Unhealthy cultures

A ‘win at all costs’ approach is often cited as a driver for unhealthy cultures. If the outcome is so important – and takes on life and death seriousness – toxic behaviours can result. Fear can be at the root of this. This could be a fear of consequences such as the shame of losing, relegation, loss of funding or jobs, and media scrutiny. In some environments, this has resulted in:

  • Extreme ways of losing weight or under-fuelling
  • Overtraining or training through injury
  • Hiding physical or mental struggles (putting on a brave face)
  • Fear of failing, feeling relief rather than enjoyment at winning

Non-accidental violence

  • Psychological abuse
  • Physical abuse (including doping)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect (failure to meet physical and emotional needs, or failure to protect from harm)

Non-accidental violence happens due to an abuse of actual or perceived differentials in power (IOC consensus statement 2019). Those found to be most at risk are child athletes, athletes who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, and athletes with disabilities.[1]

The reported prevalence of abuse in sport ranges from 2% to 49%, and the impact on individuals can be devastating.[2] Thinking about people that have been subjected to these cultures leaves many people feeling sad and angry; sport should provide positive, not traumatic, experiences!


When developing this book, several athletes talked about the difficulties of entering an environment as a young person, and not having the confidence to stand up for themselves or challenge what they were told by someone in power. Older athletes also mentioned power dynamics in their relationships with leaders and coaches.

Power can come from someone’s position in a team or organisation, from their knowledge and experience, or from the use of non-violent aggression. They might have power over decisions such as selection, keeping you on funding, access to support, time off, attention and praise, training programmes, etc. A comment from a leader in a position of power can etch itself into the mind of an athlete for a long time. If those in power don’t recognise this, it can have a negative impact on those around them. It might not be intentional, but there is a responsibility to be aware. Several athletes have set up ‘Global Athlete’, which is an international athlete-led movement whose aim is to address the balance of power between athletes and administrators. They are looking to gain more of a voice in world sport matters, and how sport is run.

Examples of unhealthy cultures

Pippa is an endurance athlete who moved to the US to study and train, and she describes the impact the culture had on her: “It was the perfect storm; I had moved away from everyone I loved at home in the UK, was living in a house with people with eating disorders, and in a training group that valued numbers over everything.

“The coach was paid based on our results, and she liked to control everything we did. We couldn’t have hobbies or sit in the sun as it would impact on our performance. No one ever asked how you were, and many of the group were extremely thin.

“Those I was living with were getting good times, so I thought how they were eating and living was normal, after a while. You feel abnormal if you don’t restrict what you eat.

“If I had a bad race, the coach and others in the group would take it personally. There was nothing we had control over, so monitoring and restricting food was something I could control. If you had a niggle, you were whisked off to the physio bed and given the time off you needed, but no one felt safe enough to tell anyone they were struggling mentally.”

Through support and advice from her family, Pippa realised the environment wasn’t healthy, and she went back to the UK. Pippa learnt that restricting food, so you don’t have the energy needed, is called RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport).[3] In the short term, weight loss can lead to performance enhancement, but the long-term health and performance effects can be devastating. We will look at this in more detail in Chapter 6.

Azeem Rafik, who played cricket for Yorkshire CCC, was subjected to racial harassment and bullying whilst at the club. He shared how these experiences impacted on him emotionally when he spoke at a select committee hearing in 2021. He said racist comments were accepted and justified as banter, and no one in power stamped it out. Banter is a common term used in sport, and is often used to justify behaviour; but if the person receiving it sees it as hurtful, then it is not ok.

The anti-bullying alliance[4] describes bullying as being hurtful, repetitive, intentional, and involving an imbalance of power (e.g., someone in a position of power – such as a coach – or a teammate doing it in front of others), whereas banter is a playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. If one person is not finding it friendly or playful, then it is not banter. There is no excuse for someone carrying on if you tell them that you see their comments as hurtful.

Duty of care

Duty of care is a moral and legal obligation to ensure the safety and wellbeing of others. Everyone has the right to enjoy sport that is free from harm and abuse, so your club or organisation must satisfy this duty. They need to be able to properly spot concerns and risks and act upon them, and physical and mental health must be a priority. There should be a safeguarding policy that is available and understood by everyone.

The Ann Craft Trust[5] has resources available that can help with governance and policies. As an athlete, you should know who you can go to if you are experiencing harm or see it happening to someone else.

Healthy sport cultures

We will look at two areas of a sports culture that can contribute to good mental health and performance. These can apply at youth/development level right through to high-performance sport.

Approach to sport

  • Focus on the process
  • Keeping it fun
  • Balance
  • Recognising more than the outcome

Understanding and getting the best out of each other

  • Feeling socially connected
  • Shared creation of the culture

Approach to sport

We have seen the potential consequences of a ‘win at all costs’ culture, so what are the alternatives? Outcomes will always be important in competitive sport, but it is how you frame them that matters.

Focus on the process

Cultures can sometimes talk more about the process and ‘being the best we can be’ rather than the outcome. There will always be consequences to outcomes in life, but focusing on them can promote fear and stress responses, which in turn reduce the chances of performing well over the long term.

We cannot directly control an outcome, so focusing on the aspects we can control or influence under the circumstances has been shown to help reduce feelings of pressure.

Athletes in cultures that promote this have said, “I felt like I couldn’t fail as my coach encouraged me to try to see what happened. We would learn something… no matter what. I don’t remember us talking much about medals, just progression.”

Others have described how their team took the opposite approach and how unhelpful it was. “I would complete my race, and the team would ask why I hadn’t got a better result. I wanted to do well and had given it my all, and – rather than exploring things we could learn or improve for next time – they just talked about the outcome.”

Keeping it fun

Sport can be tough at times, but several athletes talked to me about the importance of remembering why you got into the sport and the value of having fun. “I have been on a number of professional teams in my career, and I always performed best when the team had a fun vibe. People seemed more relaxed, and you pick up on this.”

Often, we get into sport as it is enjoyable, and this can get lost along the way as everything becomes more serious. In fact, it can become a big reason why people drop out of sport. Healthy cultures remind us of what we love about the sport and that we can have fun along the way. Shaun White, the Olympic snowboarder, took part in his fifth games in Beijing in 2022. He said that if he didn’t love what he did, there was no way he would have kept competing for so long.

Team enjoyment has also been shown to enhance resilience, with teams that collectively – not just individually – experience positive feelings proving increasingly motivated to deal with adversity.[6]


The word obsession gets used a lot in sport, and some argue you must be obsessed with what you do to win. There is no denying that a huge amount of hard work and commitment is needed, but if taken to the extreme, it can be counterproductive.

A healthy culture can encourage you to see yourself as more than just an athlete, and a healthy culture actively supports other activities. Fear can be a barrier to encouraging this; a worry that other things will be a distraction to performance. We are not talking wild parties every night here, just doing something that lets you switch off from your sport without feeling guilty, and which allows you to develop other areas of your life and identity.

Some athletes report being happy, with sport being their only focus and they don’t feel they are missing out. This might be the case when they are getting the results they want, but when performance dips, or they leave their sport, this approach can be unhelpful.

There are a growing number of athletes that have found improvements to their performance and happiness by having balance in their life. Katherine Grainger, ex-Olympic rower and the Chair of UK Sport, told me how important balance was to her as she completed a PhD alongside her rowing career. “Studying helped me have a different focus and environment, and one benefited the other. I had a coach who encouraged this, and we would talk about what I was working on over coffee. It would have been hard if they weren’t supportive of this.”

Callan was a junior Red Bull motor racing driver and is now a coach. He recalls how he failed to find balance. “I got myself so stressed; I was too obsessed and didn’t need to be. I was weighing out all my food, didn’t have a social life, felt guilty if I did anything not related to sport. It was fine when results were going well, but when they weren’t, I had nothing else.

“I needed someone to encourage me to find balance as it is hard to do it yourself. I realise now I would have been a better driver if I had found life balance earlier on.”

Lizzie Yarnold, ex-Olympic skeleton athlete, took golf lessons and learnt to bake to develop other interests in her life. Sporting careers don’t last forever, so developing other skills and interests are vital. Cultures can help people to broaden the number of areas we attach importance to.

Recognising more than the outcome

Cath Bishop,[7] ex-GB Olympic rower says that podium moments don’t happen that often, so cultures should emphasise other aspects as being important. These could be learning to deal with setbacks, focusing on improvements, learning about new cultures when you travel, inspiring others, and adding value to your community.

Katherine Grainger says that winning is not a bad thing, and we should be proud to talk of our successes, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we talk about. “Athletes should leave their sporting career feeling it was a good use of time and they are better for it… no matter what results they got.”

Another athlete told me, “If you didn’t get a good result, people would ignore you and gravitate to those who had done well. If you were on a run of poor performances, this could really get you down. Once you started to do well, they wanted to know you again. When you do well, you need less support; it is when you haven’t performed how you want to that you need the most help.”

A healthy environment will not just celebrate medals, and it won’t ignore you if you don’t perform to the expected level. Paula Dunn, Head Coach for the British Paralympics programme, described how she created a healthy culture at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. “We had a WhatsApp group. I didn’t want to just congratulate those who won medals, so we recognised people who had got season’s bests or personal bests, or those who had overcome difficulties to even get to the games.”

Sarah Stevenson, GB Taekwondo fighter, told me, “I lost both my parents to cancer in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games. I fought badly but would rather have competed than regret not doing it. It kept me going and gave me a focus. I wouldn’t have got to read the Olympic oath or got an MBE if I didn’t go. If it was just about medals, I would have felt like it was a waste of time, but it gave me so much. You will fail more times than you will win, so you need to learn to manage that.”

Understanding and getting the best out of each other

We are all different, so it is not surprising that some cultures suit some people but not others. However, there are things that can be done to get the best out of everyone in an environment. Most humans have a need to feel socially connected to others and feel they have a say in how things are done.[8] In terms of creating a culture, most people like to have some input into this. We will look at each of these in turn.

Feeling socially connected

A positive social connection with a person or group means that you trust them and feel safe enough to be yourself. You don’t fear being rejected or shamed if you share your opinions, make a mistake, or take a risk. The psychologist Amy Edmondson calls this ‘psychological safety’.

Psychological safety in sport has been defined as ‘The perception that you are protected from, or unlikely to be at risk of, psychological harm in sport.’[9] Katherine Grainger endorses this approach. “You should feel safe to be yourself and feel understood as a human being.”

In a safe culture, there is no blame. Instead, open discussions are held about what could be improved. This doesn’t mean everyone is always happy or avoids tough conversations; in fact, the opposite is true. If people feel safe, it means difficult topics can be talked about without fear of the consequences, and egos are put to one side to do what is best for the common goal. If an athlete feels their selection is under threat if they speak up, then it is less likely they will.

Those in positions of power have the most influence in creating a feeling of safety; they need to be accessible, approachable, and care (people can tell). Being aware of this influence and checking how safe people feel is essential. Encouraging others to speak first before giving their opinion, asking for views different to their own, and praising people when they speak up, all help to create this feeling. When people always agree with those at the top, it is not a good sign.

Katy Winton races bikes downhill. Imagine a slope covered in rocks so steep you can barely walk down it… that is what Katy rides down at speed. “We are doing a dangerous thing, so you need to be in an environment where you feel safe, and people are calm.

“If people around you are stressed, critical, or don’t believe in you, you will ride stiff, and results go out the window. Respect and kindness make all the difference.”

Psychologically-safe environments ensure positive and respectful relationships between teammates as well. The power isn’t always with the top person or captain.

Being in a psychologically-safe sporting environment doesn’t mean all obstacles are removed or there are no real-world consequences based on performance. Cultures should help equip people to deal with these and provide opportunities to face tough things in a helpful way. It is not enough to promote health by avoiding stress or building bridges to keep people from falling into the river. Instead, people must learn to swim.[10] In environments where high levels of challenge exist, such as sport, there should be equally high levels of support. Duncan French, Vice President of Performance at UFC, said, “You can’t change the bar of what you need to do to perform, but you can help fighters develop skills to navigate it.”

Understanding each person as an individual is the key to connection. What drives them, what are their fears, what is important to them in life, what challenges have they faced, what is the best way to communicate with them? A healthy culture can understand, appreciate, and interact with people from cultures or belief systems that are different to their own. Callan describes how he does this with the drivers he coaches. “As a team, we take an interest in each person’s personal life. We make time to go for a coffee outside of training and consciously don’t talk about racing.”

When everything is measured to the nth degree, it can be easy to forget there is a person behind the numbers. Many athletes talked about wanting to be seen and cared about as a person rather than a cog in a machine. Craig Morris, technical coach for GB Canoe Slalom, believes in a person-centred approach, prioritising connections with the athlete. His approach is praised by athletes he works with, such as Kimberley Woods, who has talked openly about her emotional struggles and self-harm. Morris helped her to feel comfortable enough to be open and helped her find the right support.

Craig Brown, psychologist, and ex-Taekwondo athlete, said that we are missing an opportunity if we don’t take time to learn about each other. “I am Christian, and other athletes on the team were Muslims. Having people in the environment that take time to understand what your faith and culture means to you is so important. Representation matters as others of the same race or faith can relate to you more easily.”

Hassan Haider, another ex-Taekwondo fighter, agreed, saying, “The Asian culture puts pressure on you to go to University. What I was doing was different, so I felt I had to be successful. Having people in my sport understand this pressure was really helpful.”

The concept of privilege has been talked about a lot more in recent years, and how it is important to recognise where we might have it and others don’t. John Amaechi summarises this concept brilliantly in his BBC bitesize video[11] where he talks about privilege as being the absence of inconvenience and challenge in a particular area of your life (for example, being wealthy or able-bodied or white). It doesn’t mean you have not had challenges or life has been easy, but that your finances, skin colour, or ability were not the cause of your hardship. Healthy cultures will make the effort to understand, avoid defensiveness, and make changes to address inequalities. These should be captured in policies and brought to life by actions. Paula Dunn said that, as a team, they remind themselves of the mental toll that travel and accessibility can have for Paralympic athletes, and how they make efforts to understand and support people as well as they can.

Understanding how a female athlete is different, and applying this knowledge in practice, is starting to happen in high-performance sport. Most coaches are male, so they are not aware of – or don’t feel comfortable – talking about periods and the impact on training, mood, and performance. Cultures need to support people to feel comfortable having these discussions.

It takes time and effort to understand people and develop relationships, but it is worth it. As Katherine Grainger says, “It brings out the best in people and makes it more sustainable. It is not a healthy culture or medals.”

Shared creation of the culture

It takes effort, conscious thought, and action to create a healthy team culture. Involving others in the creation usually results in better engagement than just telling people what it will be. For individuals, this could be creating a culture with your coach, family, or supporters. These areas need to be discussed and worked on regularly; this is not a one-off activity! Ideally, you would have a person who can drive this and keep a watch on whether the culture is being lived. Just because everyone comes up with it doesn’t mean they don’t need reminding or encouragement. When things are not going well, it is particularly important to review progress and make sense of what has happened.

Aspects to discuss when creating a culture:

  • What is important to us and why?
  • How can we get the best out of each other?
  • Approach to sport – what are our views on having a process focus, keeping it fun, balance, and recognising more than the outcome?
  • Roles – who will do what?
  • Behaviours on and off the field of play – what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviours? How will we deal with conflicts?
  • Accountability – how will we remind each other of these factors and hold each other to account in a helpful way?

Aim to be as specific as possible, so rather than saying honesty is important to us, say how you will be honest with each other and when.

Chris Opie, ex-professional road cyclist, described how a team he rode for would make time to develop their team culture, “At the start of the season, we had a workshop where staff and riders came up with what was important to us and ways of working as a team. We would revisit it throughout the year, and it meant we stayed on the same page. At first, we thought we should just be getting on with riding our bikes rather than sitting in a room, but it helped us feel trusted and valued.”

[1] Australian topflight footballer Josh Cavello is the only football player in the world to come out as gay, in 2021.

[2] Reardon, C. et al, (2019) Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic committee consensus statement. British Journal of Sports Medicine.




[6] Sarkar, M. & Page, E. (2022) Developing individual and team resilience in elite sport: research into practice. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action.



[9] Vella, S.A. et al, (2022) Psychological safety in sport: a systematic review and concept analysis. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

[10] Unravelling the mystery of health: How people manage stress and stay well. Aaron Antonovsky (1987)