Defining Inclusion in Sport
This piece is a companion to my piece from 19 July, which you can read here.
I have been actively writing in these past few weeks and recently shared my coaching philosophy and discussed the high stakes for diversity and inclusion in amateur sport. My coaching philosophy is comprised of six behaviours, underpinned by my sporting values, my leadership style, and my overall purpose in life. One of the six key behaviours through which I express my philosophy is inclusivity in coaching. The importance of this behaviour is underpinned by my overall core value that the ultimate purpose of sport is to contribute to the mental and physical well-being and the ultimate success of the individual on their chosen path. There is nothing is more important in sport than the person within the athlete. Sport, in and of itself, has no value. Moreover, as I work closely with individual athletes, I do not believe that an athlete can perform successfully if they do not understand that they are safe in my coaching environment. Therefore, I prioritize the creation of a coaching environment is inclusive for athletes, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender identity. While that's a lovely sentiment, it begs the question of what "inclusion" actually looks like, particularly in a “high performance” context?
Why define inclusion?
I exist with a foot in both the sporting and educational spheres and so, I am intimately familiar with how “inclusion” has become a buzzword. It’s a term that educators, coaches, administrators, technical leaders, and charlatans are eager to insert into policy documents and coaching philosophies to “score points”, so to speak, and appear more sensitive to the issues of our time. Whether one does this out of self interest, moral fortitude, or something in between those two poles, that is the reality. With that in mind, it is not unreasonable to question someone’s use of the term “inclusion” in order to gauge their understanding of the term and how it might apply to their coaching. So, I was was both un-surprised and pleased when one of my instructors at the UBC School of Kinesiology posed the following question:
My last thought… is whether sport at the highest levels becomes more exclusive than inclusive. I too champion the need for inclusion and diversity in sport, and believe that both are required for “performance participation”. However, is the nature of sport not a paradox to a fully inclusive approach?
The short answer is that the meaning of inclusion is highly relative. The practice of inclusion is dependent on the context in which we are operating. Therefore, I believe it is critical to define the parameters for inclusion within various sporting contexts. One difference between using inclusion as a buzzword and using it as a philosophical and value-based behaviour is identifying the parameters by which we can judge our efforts towards inclusion. While this certainly will not be an exhaustive treatment on this topic, I will speak to three very broad categories: grassroots, governance, and high performance.
At the grassroots level, the goal should be to be “truly” inclusive and remove many, if not all, barriers to entry. Those barriers tend to be sport-specific but I’ll speak to examples of what I know, which is hockey. Over the last five years, amateur (minor) hockey organizations have been focused on the financial barriers of hockey and how those can be mitigated. These adaptations include “Try Hockey” events, equipment libraries, and bursaries to reduce the impact of registration fees. Unfortunately, these are still viewed as specialty programs and the bulk of participants are expected to shoulder the increasing financial burdens of participation in hockey.
Even in the case of an individual with a physical challenge or a developmental delay, we should make every effort to include them at the grassroots and Active for Life levels. I have observed success with integrating individuals with physical disabilities, developmental delays, and autism spectrum disorders in grassroots sport in the last several years. I don’t recall those individuals being broadly welcomed when I participated in grassroots hockey in the late 90s and early 00s. However, persons who are differently-abled are still viewed as special circumstances to be accommodated on a case-by-case basis if there is impetus to do so. We can do better; we can and should aim for true inclusion at the grassroots level.
Governance of sport
One issue that is glaringly obvious is the fact that participation in Canadian sport is increasingly racially/culturally/gender-diverse at the grassroots level but the upper echelons continue to be homogenous. The senior staff and directors of sport organizations continue to be overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cis-gender men of a certain age. What’s more, the structures of selection for these positions seem designed to preserve that insularity. The result is that individuals who might otherwise bring diversity to the upper echelons of governance are out of the sport long before they are eligible for positions of leadership. Whether they have been driven out or the “self-select” out, they are not represented in coaching and leadership positions to the same degree that they are represented in grassroots sport.
We need urgent research, backed by decisive action from our Provincial and National Sport Organizations, and robust external oversight to address the root causes of why these individuals are self-selecting out or being selected out of the sport. Broadly-speaking, our culture is a purported meritocracy; there is an ethos of “putting your time in” to “earn” opportunities. Without diving into a sociological analysis of whether or not that is even true, I will simply assert that an individual can not and will not spend decades “earning” their opportunities in an environment that is not welcoming them. Moreover, this issue is a perfect storm because the actions that are taken today likely won’t pay dividends until ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the road. So governing bodies can make statements and form committees but the longer they wait to take action, the longer we wait to see meaningful change. (I discuss this phenomenon more here)
So, I clearly feel quite strongly about the need to improve access and inclusion in sport. Having said that, I recognize that at a high performance level, there will be more natural barriers to access. I would define “high performance” as a level at which the result is more important than the development of the athletes. In most team sports, this begins at the U21 level but every sport is different. Some of these can be overcome but others cannot. For example, every sport has an ideal physical profile for their high performance athletes. If an individual falls too far outside of that profile, they not a viable high performance athlete. A lot of those physical traits are determined by genetics; that is a major barrier to entry right off the bat and there is nothing we can do about that. However, that’s more applicable at the highest levels of sport and doesn’t explain how, for example, 81.5% of USPORT athletes are visibly identifiable as “white”. As I alluded to in the previous section, there is no question that certain athletes are self-selecting or being selected out of competitive sporting environments long before they arrive at a senior, competitive team.
There are also barriers that can be mitigated but not erased: for example, elite athletic training costs both money and time. Every sport in the world is becoming more competitive, meaning athletes who can access training at an earlier age are at an advantage. Additionally, athletes who have the ability to live at home into their twenties are able to dedicate more of their time to optimizing their training as compared to athletes who have to keep a steady income to pay their living expenses. So, although having affluent parents is not a requirement, stated or otherwise, in order to compete at an elite level, there is no question that it helps. Unfortunately, as we live in a capitalist society, as much as we may mitigate those types of inequalities, we will never erase them entirely. Nonetheless, we should endeavour to do so and understand how systemic inequalities within our society will impact our sport programs.
High performance sport is, by it’s nature, exclusionary; by it’s very definition, we are accepting the exclusion of those who can not train and compete at a certain level. That’s neither positive nor negative. However, it is important to recognize that by entering into this space, we will be excluding individuals who want to be there. As a result, athletes will make every effort to showcase their strengths while downplay their weaknesses (real or perceived). The reality is that even evaluation of so-called “hard” skills are highly subjective: “Defender A” has a harder slap-shot but “Defender B” can release their slap-shot quicker; which is the better player? That subjectivity is multiplied ten-fold when evaluating so-called “soft-skills”. Traditionally, these subjective evaluations are a breeding ground for exclusionary policy and it often starts from the moment participants begin trying out for certain teams or clubs. Over time, this leads to the type of chronic exclusion from high performance sport that we see today.
In order to protect against unnecessary exclusion, we must be crystal clear about our parameters and be prepared to justify our decisions; not only because of external scrutiny but to ensure our practice aligns with our stated values. Therefore, when I think about inclusion as a core behaviour within my philosophy, as a coach and technical leader in a high performance context, I am thinking that if a barrier to access exists, one of two things must be true: either I should have a plan to remove or mitigate said barrier or I should have an irrefutable explanation as to why removal or mitigation is not feasible at this time. The challenge for leaders in a high performance context, is to state those values and parameters publicly and then justify every decision according to those values.
Where do we go from here?
As I think about my own experience in sport, I can think of countless viable participants and athletes at different levels who were excluded because they “didn’t fit the culture” (subtext: was uncomfortable with hazing-type behaviour) or “didn’t fit tactically” (subtext: didn’t gel with the star of the team) or even individuals who simply didn’t fit in socially with most of the group. Instead of viewing diversity as potential for growth, these participants were viewed as a problem that would interfere with performance. These are the result of coaching and leadership that is not values-based. They are the result of decisions by leaders who valued their own success in sport over the contribution of sport to the well-being of the athlete. Every person who grew up in sport can recall examples of wholly unjustifiable exclusion and unfortunately, some of the people reading this were those examples.
We must work urgently to create environments that allow for heterogeneity. That means educating our athletes on inclusive behaviour and constructing a team culture reflects those values. While I feel somewhat equipped to do that, I am not an expert and so, we as coaches and technical leaders must also work to educate ourselves. We should allow our athletes from marginalized populations to set terms of engagement but not rely on them to lead or educate ourselves or their peers. We must allow our athletes to flourish both within sport and outside of it; because sport has no value if it is not contributing to the nourishment of the whole person. This requires us to do the work in advance and commit to building trusting relationships that will allow those athletes to succeed or fail on their own merits. There is enough natural exclusivity in high performance sport and our mission should be to ensure our environments are as inclusive as possible and to always strive for better.
This piece is a companion to my piece from 19 July, which you can read here.