Bringing up topics like race, gender, sexuality, religion, or class can be intimidating and uncomfortable as a coach. But in many cases, staying silent on those topics can alienate athletes on your team, and make them feel as though they aren’t being understood. These conversations can be difficult, but they’re critical.
TrueSport Experts Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and President of Now What Facilitation, Nadia Kyba, MSW, are here to help guide you through how to have meaningful and constructive discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—and how to come to terms with the fact that you won’t always get it right the first time.
Create a safe space
Before asking questions and starting conversations, it’s critical that athletes know that your team is a safe space for them. “Coaches need to understand the importance of establishing their team culture as one where being open and being vulnerable is encouraged,” says Chapman. “Athletes should know that practices, team meetings, and meetings with you are safe spaces where they can talk about themselves as whole individuals, not just as athletes. They should feel valued by you as people, not as players. As coaches, we're growing young people and future adults, so we want to be able to make this a safe place to have these open conversations and learn from each other.”
Normalize asking questions
While DEI conversations should happen year-round, start your year strong by asking questions early and often. Kyba recommends having a connection-building circle at the start of the season, where athletes share their names and their preferred pronouns, and can begin to potentially share some things about their culture and background.
Kyba recommends starting with a question like, “How would you like to see your culture represented in the team?” For instance, if an athlete is Muslim, will they need to take fasting for Ramadan into account, or need certain breaks in practice or competition for prayer? Having these transparent conversations and being open to making these accommodations—even if athletes aren’t ready to share their needs yet—sets the tone for the season and builds trust.
Acknowledge that you may get things wrong
“The most important thing you can do is be actively engaged with your athletes. Be vulnerable and be curious, and ask questions that invite conversation,” says Kyba. But you won’t always ask the right question or have the perfect understanding of what an athlete is going through. “It’s important to be really open to feedback,” she adds. “Make sure athletes feel comfortable telling you when you get things wrong. Cultivate and invite that openness so that you and the whole team can learn.”
Remember, even if you don’t have the vocabulary for something, you can always look it up or ask an expert, but ignoring an issue or skipping a conversation because you’re afraid you don’t know the right terms to use doesn’t help your athletes.
Make it part of everyday conversation
Discussions around DEI topics shouldn’t be a one-and-done thing that happens at the start of the season. “Having one long meeting at the start of the season can be just as bad as avoiding the topic altogether,” says Chapman. “Instead, infusing these topics into everyday conversation is the best way to approach these topics. Keep that dialogue continuing, rather than checking it off a to-do list and never bringing it up again.”
Avoid yes or no questions
When having conversations around these topics, try to make your questions as open-ended as possible, and avoid yes/no questions. Your goal isn’t to get exact answers, it’s to start a dialogue that will lead to a deeper understanding for you and your team.
Consider the following questions and statements to encourage conversation:
- Clarification question: “I believe this…what am I missing?”
- Strengths-based question: “The news is hard right now, what’s keeping you going? How can I help?”
- Affirmations: “Thank you for bringing this up.”
Use questions to discuss problems
Obviously, bullying, racial slurs, threats, or violence cannot be tolerated on a team. But if you do notice a microaggression that may not warrant punishment but is clearly unacceptable, asking questions can be a good way of coming to an understanding with athletes around what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
“When an athlete makes some kind of gender or racial stereotype, I try to repeat back to them what they said, then ask them to explain what they meant by it,” says Kyba. It’s uncomfortable, but often, that process begins a larger conversation and helps athletes come to better understandings around why certain stereotypes are harmful. For instance, if an athlete uses the phrase ‘you’re throwing like a girl,’ ask them to explain why they think that’s true and what they meant by it. This prompting can turn into an enlightening conversation about gender stereotypes and identities.
Make sure you’re asking practical questions too
While having conversations around gender stereotypes and systemic racism are extremely important, coaches also need to make sure that practical questions around DEI topics are being asked. For a competition taking place over a few days, for example, there are practical questions to consider, like:
- Can each athlete afford this trip, or are there financial/class-based issues that need to be addressed?
- Do any of the athletes need to attend a religious service, or have a private place to pray?
- Are there washrooms available that support gender fluid individuals?
- Are all athletes comfortable sharing rooms?
- Are there any accessibility issues that need to be addressed for athletes with disabilities?
These questions are only a starting point, Kyba says, but should give you an idea of some of the topics to consider when planning for events with your team. And again, making sure that athletes know they can email you or speak to you in private if they have certain needs is important, since not every athlete is comfortable sharing their concerns in front of their teammates.
Tread lightly when it comes to asking athletes to share their experiences. It should go without saying, but if an athlete is uncomfortable being asked questions around their race/gender/sexuality/etc., don’t press the issue. Kyba reminds coaches that not every athlete is comfortable being the ’spokesperson’ for their race/gender/orientation, and shouldn’t be pushed to be.
While the intent may be good, too often coaches make the misguided mistake of spotlighting a marginalized athlete, making that athlete do the work of explaining how they feel, how they should be treated, and so on. This emotional labor is unfair to those athletes and causes more harm than good. “Often, when you are a talented person who belongs to a marginalized group, you literally get asked to do everything,” says Chapman. "But it is not the responsibility of that individual to educate you."
Be careful of tokenism
“Similarly, tokenism is significantly problematic and damaging to marginalized people,” says Chapman. “First, you can’t assume that this athlete represents a homogenous group of people. And I’ve also seen that paying too much attention to the marginalized person in the room can be a common problem. If I'm at a team meeting and I'm talking about various topics, I’ve noticed that some coaches focus too often on the marginalized people in the group. The coach is trying to convey that they want to include that athlete, but it can feel offensive.”
Enlist an expert
If you’re struggling with these conversations, or you sense that there may be an issue on your team already, you may want to bring in a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert or a guidance counselor to guide a discussion with the team. Remember, no one expects you as a coach to be the right person for every role, but part of your job is finding the right person to help when needed.
Starting conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion can be extremely daunting, but as a coach, these conversations can improve your team culture and society as a whole. Start by creating a safe space where athletes feel comfortable having these conversations, ask thoughtful questions, and remember to keep your athletes’ wellbeing at top of mind. Don’t push marginalized athletes on the team to educate you or their teammates, or to share their experiences unless they choose to do so. If you’re struggling to have these conversations, enlist an expert to help!
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