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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

Psychological contracts: The application of organisational psychology in the context of sport

What is a psychological contract?

A psychological contract refers to the set of beliefs, expectations, and obligations that exist between an individual and their organization or employer. It is an implicit agreement that outlines the mutual expectations and obligations of both parties in a work relationship. The psychological contract is not a formal or legally binding contract but rather a subjective understanding of the relationship.

The psychological contract is shaped by a variety of factors, including explicit employment terms, organizational policies, informal communications, and individual interpretations. It encompasses the perceived promises, obligations, and entitlements that individuals believe they have with their organization and vice versa.

The psychological contract can include various dimensions, such as:

1. Job security: The belief that the organization will provide a certain level of job stability and protect against arbitrary termination.

2. Career development: The expectation of opportunities for growth, learning, and advancement within the organization.

3. Rewards and recognition: The perception of fair and equitable compensation, benefits, and acknowledgment for work performance.

4. Work-life balance: The belief that there will be a reasonable balance between work and personal life, with consideration for personal needs and responsibilities.

5. Trust and fairness: The expectation that the organization will treat employees fairly, ethically, and with respect.

6. Autonomy and control: The extent to which employees believe they have control over their work processes, decision-making, and the ability to influence outcomes.

When there is a perceived breach of the psychological contract, such as unfulfilled promises or violated expectations, it can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, decreased commitment, and even increased turnover. On the other hand, when the psychological contract is effectively managed and fulfilled, it can contribute to positive employee attitudes, engagement, and organizational success.

It's important to note that the psychological contract can vary among individuals and may evolve over time. It is influenced by factors like organizational culture, leadership style, and individual experiences. Organizations that proactively manage the psychological contract by fostering open communication, transparency, and fairness are more likely to maintain positive employee relationships and foster a productive work environment.

Who might be part of a psychological contract?

A psychological contract can exist between various parties in different contexts.

Here are some examples of who might have a psychological contract:

1. Employees and employers: In the context of employment, employees and employers have a psychological contract. Employees have expectations regarding fair compensation, job security, career development opportunities, work-life balance, and a supportive work environment. Employers are expected to provide these opportunities and fulfill their obligations, such as fair treatment, training and development, and a positive work culture.

2. Athletes and sports organizations: Athletes and sports organizations, including teams, clubs, or governing bodies, have a psychological contract. Athletes expect fair treatment, access to training facilities and resources, coaching and support, opportunities for growth and progression, and a clear communication of expectations. Sports organizations have expectations regarding athletes' commitment, performance, adherence to team rules, and professionalism.

3. Coaches and athletes: Coaches and athletes have a psychological contract in the realm of sports. Coaches are expected to provide guidance, instruction, and support to help athletes improve their skills and reach their potential. Athletes, in turn, commit to following the coach's instructions, showing dedication, and striving for performance excellence.

4. Students and educational institutions: Students and educational institutions, such as schools, colleges, or universities, may have a psychological contract. Students have expectations regarding quality education, support services, learning resources, and opportunities for personal and academic growth. Educational institutions are expected to provide a conducive learning environment, knowledgeable faculty, fair evaluation, and access to necessary resources.

5. Consumers and service providers: In the realm of consumer services, there can be a psychological contract between consumers and service providers. Consumers have expectations regarding the quality, reliability, and value of the services they receive. Service providers are expected to deliver the promised services, meet customer needs, provide satisfactory customer service, and address any concerns or issues that may arise.

These are just a few examples of the parties that can have psychological contracts. Essentially, any relationship or interaction that involves mutual expectations, obligations, and commitments can give rise to a psychological contract.

Why are psychological contracts important in sport?

Psychological contracts are also important in the context of sports.

Here are a few reasons why psychological contracts matter in sport:

1. Performance expectations: In sports, athletes and coaches often have implicit understandings regarding performance expectations. Athletes commit to putting in their best effort, adhering to training programs, and striving for success, while coaches provide guidance, support, and resources to help athletes achieve their potential. These shared expectations form the foundation for effective collaboration and goal attainment.

2. Role clarity: Psychological contracts in sports help establish clear role definitions and responsibilities. Athletes need to understand their roles within the team or sport, and coaches need to provide clear guidelines on expectations and performance standards. Clarity in roles reduces ambiguity, minimizes conflict, and improves overall team functioning.

3. Support and resources: Athletes rely on their teams, coaches, and support staff to provide the necessary resources and support systems for optimal performance. This can include access to training facilities, sports equipment, sports medicine services, and mental skills training. A well-managed psychological contract ensures that athletes feel adequately supported, which can positively impact their performance and well-being.

4. Trust and communication: Psychological contracts foster trust and open communication between athletes, coaches, and other team members. When there is trust and effective communication, athletes are more likely to feel comfortable discussing their needs, concerns, and aspirations. This allows for collaborative problem-solving, adjustment of expectations, and maintaining a positive team culture.

5. Motivation and commitment: Psychological contracts influence athletes' motivation and commitment levels. When athletes believe that their team or organization is fulfilling its promises, such as providing fair treatment, opportunities for growth, and a supportive environment, they are more likely to be motivated and committed to their sport. On the other hand, unmet expectations can lead to decreased motivation and commitment, which may impact performance and overall team dynamics.

6. Well-being and satisfaction: A positive psychological contract contributes to athlete well-being and satisfaction. When athletes perceive that their needs and expectations are being met, they experience greater satisfaction, enjoyment, and overall psychological well-being. This, in turn, can enhance their performance, resilience, and long-term engagement in sports.

Managing and nurturing psychological contracts in sports requires ongoing communication, fairness, and the establishment of a supportive team culture. When athletes and coaches have a clear understanding of their mutual expectations, it sets the stage for positive relationships, improved performance, and a fulfilling sports experience.

What can happen if a psychological contract is ‘breached’?

When a psychological contract is breached, it can have various effects on individuals and the overall work or sports environment.

Here are some potential consequences of a breached psychological contract:

1. Decreased trust and commitment: Breaching a psychological contract erodes trust between the parties involved. When individuals feel that their expectations or promises have been violated, they may become disillusioned and lose confidence in the organization, team, or leadership. This can lead to decreased commitment, loyalty, and engagement.

2. Increased job dissatisfaction or athlete disengagement: Breaching a psychological contract often results in feelings of dissatisfaction. Employees or athletes may become disillusioned, frustrated, or resentful, leading to decreased motivation and lower job satisfaction. In sports, athletes may experience a loss of passion for their sport or disengagement from training and competition.

3. Reduced performance and productivity: A breached psychological contract can negatively impact performance and productivity. When individuals feel let down or undervalued, their effort and focus may decline, leading to lower levels of performance. In sports, athletes may underperform, lose their competitive edge, or struggle to meet expectations.

4. Conflict and strained relationships: Breaching a psychological contract can lead to interpersonal conflicts and strained relationships. When there is a perceived breach, it can create a sense of injustice, animosity, or resentment among individuals. This can disrupt teamwork, collaboration, and overall team cohesion.

5. Increased turnover and talent loss: Breaching the psychological contract can contribute to higher turnover rates. Individuals who feel their expectations have been consistently unmet may seek opportunities elsewhere or disengage from their current environment. In sports, athletes may decide to switch teams or retire prematurely, resulting in talent loss for the team or organization.

6. Legal implications: While psychological contracts are not legally binding agreements, repeated and significant breaches may lead to legal consequences. If the breach involves explicit employment terms or promises that were not fulfilled, individuals may take legal action, which can result in reputational damage, financial liabilities, or legal disputes.

It is important for organizations, teams, and leaders to be aware of the potential consequences of breaching psychological contracts and proactively manage them. Open communication, addressing concerns, and fulfilling commitments can help repair breached contracts and rebuild trust. By actively managing psychological contracts, organizations and teams can foster positive work environments, enhance employee or athlete satisfaction, and improve overall performance.

Do psychological contracts change?

Yes, psychological contracts can change over time. Psychological contracts are not fixed or static agreements but rather dynamic and evolving understandings between individuals and organizations or teams.

Several factors can contribute to changes in psychological contracts, including:

1. Shifting organizational or team dynamics: Changes within the organization or team, such as restructuring, leadership transitions, or changes in team composition, can influence the psychological contract. New policies, practices, or expectations may be introduced, altering the mutual understandings and expectations between individuals and the organization or team.

2. Career development and progression: As individuals progress in their careers, their expectations and aspirations may change. They may seek new challenges, opportunities for growth, or increased responsibilities. These evolving career goals can lead to changes in the psychological contract, as individuals negotiate new terms or expectations with the organization or team.

3. Changes in personal circumstances: Life events and personal circumstances can impact the psychological contract. For example, an individual becoming a parent, experiencing health issues, or facing personal challenges may require adjustments in their work or sports commitments. These changes can influence the expectations and obligations within the psychological contract.

4. External factors and market conditions: Changes in the external environment, such as economic conditions, industry trends, or regulatory changes, can also impact the psychological contract. Organizations or teams may need to adapt their strategies, policies, or practices, which can affect the expectations and obligations individuals have within the psychological contract.

5. Communication and feedback: Effective communication and feedback processes are crucial in managing and updating psychological contracts. Regular discussions, performance evaluations, and open dialogues allow individuals and organizations or teams to clarify expectations, address concerns, and renegotiate terms as needed.

It's important for individuals and organizations or teams to recognize that psychological contracts are not fixed agreements but rather fluid and subject to change. Open and ongoing communication, transparency, and mutual understanding are key to managing and adapting psychological contracts to ensure they remain aligned with the evolving needs and expectations of both parties involved.

How can you develop positive psychological contracts in sport?

Developing positive psychological contracts in sport involves creating an environment where athletes, coaches, and other team members feel valued, supported, and motivated.

Here are some strategies to foster positive psychological contracts in sport:

1. Clear and open communication: Establishing clear lines of communication is vital for developing positive psychological contracts. Encourage open and honest dialogue between athletes, coaches, and team members. Regularly communicate team goals, expectations, and performance standards. Provide opportunities for athletes to express their needs, concerns, and aspirations, and actively listen to their feedback.

2. Define roles and expectations: Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations for athletes and coaches. Ensure that everyone understands their specific contributions to the team and the broader objectives. This clarity reduces ambiguity and helps individuals feel confident in their roles, promoting a sense of belonging and commitment.

3. Provide support and resources: Demonstrate a commitment to supporting athletes by providing the necessary resources for their development and well-being. This includes access to quality training facilities, equipment, sports medicine services, and mental skills training. Offering comprehensive support systems can enhance athletes' confidence, performance, and overall satisfaction.

4. Fairness and equity: Foster a culture of fairness and equity within the team or organization. Ensure that rewards, recognition, and opportunities are distributed fairly and transparently. Avoid favoritism and ensure that decisions are based on merit and objective criteria. A sense of fairness contributes to trust, satisfaction, and a positive psychological contract.

5. Professional development opportunities: Provide opportunities for athletes to grow and develop their skills. Offer access to specialized training, workshops, or educational programs that align with their career aspirations. Investing in athletes' professional development shows a commitment to their long-term success and helps strengthen the psychological contract.

6. Recognize and appreciate contributions: Regularly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts and achievements of athletes and coaches. Celebrate milestones, highlight exceptional performances, and express gratitude for their contributions. Recognizing individuals' efforts and successes reinforces a positive psychological contract and motivates continued engagement and commitment.

7. Support work-life balance: Acknowledge the importance of work-life balance for athletes. Provide flexibility when possible to accommodate personal commitments, rest and recovery, and overall well-being. Strive to create an environment that recognizes and supports athletes' holistic needs, promoting their overall happiness and commitment to the sport.

8. Continuously evaluate and adapt: Regularly assess the satisfaction, engagement, and well-being of athletes and coaches. Seek feedback through surveys, individual conversations, or team meetings to identify areas for improvement. Be willing to adapt and make necessary changes to meet evolving expectations and maintain a positive psychological contract.

By implementing these strategies, organizations and teams can cultivate positive psychological contracts in sport, leading to increased motivation, satisfaction, and performance among athletes and coaches.

What should you do if you feel as though your psychological contract has been breached?

If you feel that your psychological contract has been breached, it's important to take proactive steps to address the situation.

Here are some suggestions on what you can do:

1. Reflect on your expectations: Begin by reflecting on your own expectations and ensuring that they were clear, reasonable, and aligned with the organization or team. Assess if there may have been any misunderstandings or miscommunication regarding the terms of your psychological contract.

2. Gather evidence and examples: Collect specific instances or examples where you believe the breach of the psychological contract occurred. This can include unfulfilled promises, inconsistent treatment, or discrepancies between expectations and actual experiences. Having concrete evidence will help support your case and facilitate discussions with the relevant parties.

3. Communicate your concerns: Initiate a conversation with the relevant individual or individuals involved in the breach of the psychological contract. Choose an appropriate time and place to express your concerns. Clearly and calmly articulate your expectations, the perceived breach, and the impact it has had on you. Use specific examples to support your claims and focus on the behaviour or situation rather than personal attacks.

4. Seek clarification and understanding: During the conversation, be open to hearing the other person's perspective. They may have different interpretations or be unaware of the impact their actions had on you. Seek clarification on their intentions, reasoning, or any contributing factors. This dialogue can help uncover misunderstandings and find potential solutions.

5. Explore potential resolutions: Work collaboratively with the relevant parties to find a resolution that addresses the breach of the psychological contract. This could involve renegotiating expectations, revisiting roles or responsibilities, or finding alternative ways to meet your needs. Be open to compromise and mutually beneficial solutions that restore trust and align expectations moving forward.

6. Seek support: If the breach remains unresolved or the conversation does not lead to a satisfactory outcome, consider seeking support from higher-level authorities, such as supervisors, human resources, or team leaders. They may provide guidance, facilitate mediation, or offer additional resources to help address the situation.

7. Evaluate your options: If the breach of the psychological contract persists, you may need to evaluate your options and consider whether the situation can be improved or if it is necessary to explore alternative opportunities. This decision will depend on the severity of the breach, your personal well-being, and the potential for a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Remember to approach these situations professionally and constructively. It's important to advocate for yourself and address the breach of the psychological contract, but also to maintain open lines of communication and a willingness to find common ground.

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