Vulnerability And Team Cohesion

This 10 minute read and ‘must share’ feature article by our founding performance psychologist Gareth is on the topic of Vulnerability And Emotional Courage and how these misunderstood concepts relate to team cohesion.

Vulnerability And Team Cohesion Go Hand In Hand

How Important Are Words?

I have often pondered how important it is to use the correct word. Both in professional situations as well as personal ones. Yes, maybe it’s the flight of an overthinker, but the fact is that words matter.

As a sports psychologist, does it go against the Psychological Flexibility framework that underpins all of my consulting to insist that certain words are better than others in specific situations?

Let me use an example before diving into the main dish of vulnerability and team cohesion. Some clients will know I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘mistake’. From time to time, I have suggested that we even consider replacing this loaded term with the far more accurate and potentially beneficial phrase of ‘unfortunate occurrence’.

I will endeavour to write an entire article on this subject in due course, but here is the gist. Too many athletes take too much blame when something unfortunate happens during competition(s).

Imagine a team sport like volleyball where serving is a significant deal. Let’s consider a scenario in which one of the players cannot find any rhythm when starting the points. Are these mistakes? Or are they simply unfortunate occurrences? For me, to use a word like mistake (and the potential shame that comes with it) when the volleyball player – in this example – is trying her best seems wrong. Maybe a mistake is when the error was made on purpose. Very, very rare, but not unheard of, think of a tennis player tanking the rest of a game or set. If you are not stuffing up on purpose, then it’s not a mistake. It’s an unfortunate occurrence.

Back To Vulnerability

But I digress. The word vulnerability wasn’t used much in applied or academic sport psychology until recently. 

So, let’s look at the actual word itself. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word vulnerability means ‘able to be easily hurt, influenced, or attacked’. Hmm, that doesn’t sound that great! The Merriam-Webster free online dictionary isn’t much better with ‘capable of being physically or emotionally wounded’.

The appeal to want to become more vulnerable takes an even bigger blow when you look at the origins of the via Etymonline (below) 😬.

Brené Brown’s Work

Due to the smallness of performance psychology as a profession, more often than not, the research needs to come from a more generic source. And this is certainly the case here where the work by the legendary Brené Brown put vulnerability and related concepts on the map.

Before I stumbled across the work of Brené Brown, I must admit that I was guilty of not seeing the hidden benefits of learning to be vulnerable. Maybe it’s like sport itself. Maybe you need to do it to have an idea of what it’s really like. So this I did.

The Bridge in Kentucky, USA

Partially for personal reasons and partially for professional reasons, earlier this year, I spent two weeks at a facility in Kentucky, USA, called The Bridge. For those who follow the work of Dr Peter Attia, it’s the same Bridge he attended and mentions in his highly recommended book Outlive.

I will not include a full breakdown of my experience in The Woods of Kentucky, mostly because a thorough account of the entire program would be a far more appropriate subject for an entire book, not a 1000-word blog article. However, I’m happy to disclose that one of the most significant inclusions of the process was learning to be vulnerable in a group setting.

And when it’s done properly and professionally (and boy, was it), there is no substitute from a team cohesion and togetherness point of view. In 14 days, we went from a group of complete strangers to people who feel more like family than friends.

Emotional Courage

I know that for some reading this, it’s just semantics, but in 2024, before the world catches up, maybe what I was taught at The Bridge is better described as emotional courage. And I couldn’t help but notice when Googling Brené’s website to link it above the blurb in the search results puts the word courage first: Brené Brown is a researcher and storyteller who’s spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

The courage to let down the walls and let your real feelings come out. Brené correctly describes doing this type of work properly is messy. And messy it is, but necessarily messy. Unavoidably messy if you want the benefits on the other side. 

Team sports athletes – especially the men 😬 – are typically not very emotionally courageous with each other, and maybe this is necessary if the facilitator is not trained and experienced. Like dentistry, if it is not done properly, it can backfire and be disastrous.

But one thing is for sure. We will ensure that our growing team of sport and performance psychologists gets the appropriate skills training in this area. We will be ready to assist when the sporting world fully embraces vulnerability as a mental skill to be taken seriously. If you can’t wait until then, feel free to get in touch via Our Contact form beforehand (like now).

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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