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Cultural competence in coaching

This is an excerpt from Successful Coaching-5th Edition by Rainer Martens & Robin S. Vealey.

Who we are and how we respond to our world is greatly influenced by the environment in which we’re raised and live. Culture is the term we use to describe those social forces that shape our thoughts, ideas, and ways of interacting with our world. Of course, there are other cultures and aspects of our own cultures with which we are unfamiliar. All of us should seek to enhance our cultural competence, which is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures, subcultures, and backgrounds (see table 4.1).

Cultural competence also involves being aware of our own cultural identity and personal views about difference. In particular, it involves a willingness and an openness to consider cultural identities and practices different from our own. It often requires us to step outside of our comfort zone to learn about difference, to lean into our discomfort to become more culturally competent.

You might consider what cultural groups or practices you didn’t encounter growing up, as well as messages that you received about people who are different from you (e.g., race, religion, sexual orientation). Obviously, our background experiences influence our perceptions of and attitudes toward other cultures. However, being culturally competent isn’t some quality that you achieve and then stop learning. Rather, it’s a continuous, lifelong commitment to learning how to understand and interact effectively with people different from us. Following are aspects of culture to consider on your journey.

Table 4.1 What Is Your Level of Cultural Competence?

Cultural Blindness

It’s common for people to mistakenly assume that cultural competence is cultural blindness (see table 4.1). An example of cultural blindness is when coaches say, “I don’t see color. I treat everyone the same.” Youth athletes are not all the same—they have different needs, personalities, motivations, beliefs, and backgrounds. Treating everyone the same typically means assuming everyone fits with the dominant culture. Telling young athletes to play catch at home with their dads erroneously assumes everyone lives with a dad, and also that moms are not competent for a game of catch. Not considering the date of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, when scheduling games or practices could eliminate an athlete from that activity and show your disregard for religious holidays other than your own.

Cultural Destructiveness

The opposite of cultural competence is cultural destructiveness, which damages our culture and all the people in it by deliberately discriminating against people different from ourselves (see table 4.1). The derogation of females, as well as gay and lesbian athletes, often occurs in the masculine culture of competitive sport. Coaches cannot ignore their responsibility in responding assertively when athletes engage in sexist, racist, or homophobic comments and jokes.

Coaches also must be thoughtful of their own biases. If a coach tells a female baseball player, “Yes, you can be on the team, but you’re probably going to hear some crap from the guys,” that’s culturally destructive. If a coach tells a young African American athlete, “There really aren’t that many Black hockey players in the NHL. Are you sure you want to play hockey?”—that’s culturally destructive. If coaches assume that female athletes are not as serious, motivated, and skilled as male athletes and fail to coach them properly, that’s culturally destructive.


We tend to categorize things in our world because doing so helps simplify the complex. A stereotype is a popular belief about specific types of people in certain categories. Stereotypes are our brains’ way of reducing complexity into neater boxes that are easy to remember. Example stereotypes are that girls are not good at sports, boys are messy and ungroomed, and all Asians are good at math.

Sometimes these stereotypes have some basis in fact, but they are typically gross overgeneralizations. Stereotypes become prejudices when they are negative opinions about groups of people that result in discrimination toward them. As a coach, you must guard against unfounded stereotypes and prejudices that may result in treating your athletes unfairly. It’s a real challenge to put aside prejudices when selecting the members of your team or your starting lineup, or assigning players to positions. It’s a challenge because you come to coaching with your cultural background and personal beliefs, and how you coach is inevitably affected by your culture.

In the following sections, we discuss various differences in athletes that represent challenges to your cultural competence as a coach.

More Excerpts From Successful Coaching 5th Edition