Last Monday seems to have been months ago. I would guess that most of us were aware of the news of the world and took the coronavirus outbreak seriously. For my part though, being informed and serious proved to be no armor against my naiveté. By Wednesday, as Positive Coaching Alliance leadership and staff had swung into elaborate planning to determine what to do during the crisis, I commented to a colleague, “Monday seems like a long time ago.” At that point, we didn’t know all that much more than we had 48 hours earlier, but the gravity of the situation had become evident and personal. A core issue we should know a lot about from our work in sports is human connectedness. I was suddenly hit full-force by the critical relevance of this issue. I began to see that we must address it to stay healthy ourselves and to be of service to others.
More fast-growing realization hit me when I collaborated with colleagues on a blog post to address athletes’ profound sense of loss as they saw the promise of their seasons end abruptly. The colleagues with whom I collaborated - Eric Fischer, Jennie Wulbrun, and Casey Miller - and I worked to construct a piece that could be of practical use. As we did so, I realized that I would normally look at some related resources to help frame and focus my ideas. There are no resources that offer advice for athletes during a pandemic. Again, I was struck by the enormity and complexity of addressing a situation that is truly unprecedented. The draft copy ideas I submitted were unfocused and meandering representations of half-developed ideas I thought the post should contain. The final product, as further sculpted by this ad hoc team, wound up being far superior to what I’d submitted. A team effort, it truly exceeded the sum of its parts despite having started as uniquely challenging. My inspiring colleagues taught me a less obvious lesson: We are now called to apply truths from seemingly unrelated endeavors to a situation that has no precedent. Frighteningly, our creativity and courage in doing so may have life-or-death consequences.
Numerous realizations born of these and other events during the chaotic swirl of planning last week have been interweaving loudly in my thoughts in the days since. I try to be careful not to turn everything into a sports metaphor and not to overstate the meaning or relevance of sports in comparison to more weighty issues. But I kept seeing more points of connection between the work we do and the evolving enormity and complexity of our national and worldwide crisis. In the blog post, we’d specifically worked to connect what we’ve learned in sports to provide practical, positive ideas to help athletes, parents, and coaches. The more I tried to think through how it all relates to the newest facts I learned from the news, however, I started also to become uneasily aware that some of those connections foretold frightening possibilities.
If my work and evolving understandings and beliefs in education and sports could be said to be narrowing into one core framework, the single word I would choose is “connectedness.” Through the work done by our finest researchers and practitioners, we see that the ways in which we relate to each other psychologically, emotionally and spiritually have a more profound and fundamental impact than we’d previously appreciated.
Working at Positive Coaching Alliance, I’ve been blessed to get to connect and work with Dr. Mary Fry, sports psychology researcher at the University of Kansas. Dr. Fry’s meaningful and groundbreaking research has centered around the concept of whether a team provides a “caring climate” for its members. She and her research team study how the “climate” of a team - its collective psychological and emotional effect on its members - affects teammates’ experience, growth, performance, and outcomes. The importance of the climate, it turns out, is extraordinarily profound. Teams that provide a “caring climate,” one in which its members feel safety and love, are significantly more successful by almost every measure: Not only do team members feel better and have a more enjoyable experience, they enjoy better health and perform better both as individuals and collectively. The difference in teams that are characterized by such a climate is so profound that it could easily be characterized as one of the few attributes that alone could “make” a team successful or “break” a group of otherwise remarkable athletes by hindering their success.
The well-documented “Project Aristotle” research project done by performance-obsessed Google to identify the common elements of successful work teams both echoes Dr. Fry’s discoveries and extends them beyond sports. In it, researchers found that there were few elements that could be singly responsible for a team’s overall strength or weakness. The particular attribute shown to be universally important wasn’t intelligence, experience, education, or skill. Similar to Dr. Fry’s findings in sports, the crucial attribute identified at Google was “psychological safety” and its components.
Both “psychological safety” and “caring climate” are ways of characterizing how team members connect individually and collectively. The effects of this connectedness are so profound that they challenge some of our generally-accepted beliefs about what skills might allow a group like a team or a community or even a country perform at its peak level and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. They suggest that our capabilities and outcomes are inextricably related to the quality of the “climate” of our group and that the role of “connectedness” on our emotions, psychology, health, and performance cannot be overstated.
The enormity of the effects of connectedness has broad implications during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. This is especially evident as epidemiologists show that one of the core strategies to fight the spread of infection is human isolation. It is clear that carefully planned and executed isolation is essential to save as many lives as possible. Other major cities are likely to soon follow the Bay Area’s lead and impose “shelter in place” policies to slow the spread of the virus. Many infected individuals will endure some form of individual isolation. These necessary policies are especially frightening as we start to see the broad importance of human connectedness.
When Eric, Jennie, Casey and I wrote that blog post, we made some suggestions to help our youth sports community endure the loss of their seasons. One of the ideas we highlighted was the honor and value of shifting our focus to a “higher call” of civil responsibility and life-saving acts of service. Among the suggestions we offered for athletes were to connect with teammates by “checking in” and to connect with trusted adults for help when necessary.
But last Thursday seems to have been months ago. The more I consider where we are and what is to come, the more clearly I see that actions building and reinforcing the ways in which we connect are more crucial than I’d understood. While online communication including social media, video conferencing, and distance learning courses have sometimes been indicted as culprits for creating interpersonal distance and limiting social interaction and skills, in the past two or three days we are starting to see them live up to their promise.
Certainly, advances in telemedicine will be important as health care professionals face overwhelming caseloads, but we are also seeing creative uses of networked communication being brought to bear on creating and nurturing the types of caring climates we’ll need to support our psychological and emotional health. This will only become more clear as we see the important role of connectedness in promoting healing for the many who will become infected and must summon the strength to regain their health while in isolation.
Important work by researchers like Dr. Fry has taught us that the impact of our social climate goes far beyond something that is “nice to have.” We need it alongside nutrition and medical care if we are to fight the ravages of illness successfully. Like Dr. Fry has learned from the teams she’s studied, a caring climate is a key component of “winning.” Only here, the cost of failing to win is infinitely higher.
Beyond our roles in the sports community, we’re all being challenged to answer the higher call to be key members and leaders of our larger teams of community and country. As we accept the difficult responsibilities of adhering to isolation and other medically-necessary policies, we need to pay equal attention to committing acts of service to help each other maintain our bonds of connectedness and to fight to create and maintain a caring climate. It’s not a sports metaphor, it’s a collective ethical imperative.