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Acknowledging and understanding cultural differences in sports

The world of sports has been long accepted as an instrument of social integration, and now furthermore a means of intercultural understanding in an ever more diversified world. Just like food, music, theatre, sport too has a potential for inter-culturalism, as it has throughout the history of mankind, contributed towards, to the blending of cultures. Sports unites people where politics, religion and culture often divide. As someone who works in the field of sports be it, coach, psychologists, trainers etc, they increasingly find themselves working with individuals who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Cultural background refers to the cultural composition of any individuals’ background which includes many intersecting components, such as: race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic location, language, physicality, gender and lastly sexual orientation. Thus, at times it gets tricky to acknowledge and understand culture especially, thus in this article we’ll look over how we can address this very issue.

Multiculturalism and sports

Working with someone in a multiculturalist context has its own set of challenges such as:

  • Misinterpretation of cultural norms( emotional expression, communication),

  • Oversimplifying cultural practice(s) and identities to stereotypes.

Being culturally competent is the first step in addressing and making diverse athletes comfortable and welcomed. Being culturally competent is an essential part of being able to give quality training and effective practice to address the complex needs of culturally diverse sports participants.

The first step of being culturally competent is to recognize and accept that individuals have intersecting cultural identities which are at times composed of more than one single cultural characteristics such as: gender – sexual identities, socioeconomic status etc.

It’s also important to remember that in the process of becoming culturally competent, coaches may be provided with guidelines (follow in the next section) and that there are no nor there should be any definitive approach to working with athletes and performers based on their skin, gender, sexual orientation, cultural- socioeconomic status, or even religious background.

Oversimplification and overgeneralization leads to hushing and even marginalizing cultural identities.

A vital step towards understanding cultural differences is that coaches themselves distinguish their own power, privilege and beliefs in the light of the cultural- social group they belong to. For instance, a male coach working with a minority female athlete may ask himself:

In what ways do my social class, position, education and ‘male privilege’ power this hierarchy between me and my athlete? And how does it affect my relationship and my approach towards her?

When as a coach you ask yourself, these self-reflective questions you attain a sense of awareness which moulds your interaction with your athlete.

Gaining knowledge about cultures

When it comes to understanding cultural differences, it’s not enough to just ‘value’ the diversity but it also involves, actually gaining knowledge of different culture(s) and imbedding this particular knowledge into your coaching approach, techniques and strategies, it’s also your role as a coach to understand how diversity can impact the interpersonal dynamic between you and your athlete and thus being willingly reflective about the same. It’s also your role as a coach that you ward off against taking any cultural consideration too far.

The next step in attaining a culturally competent relationship between a coach and an athlete is to aim at achieving meaningful conversation or communication.

Even as coaches if we assume that culture can be ‘learned’, we at times wonder how one can familiarize ourselves with all the variation within a culture and as well as the dynamic hybridity of gender, class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, age, religion and so on and forth?

With the growing global mobility this pandemic brought upon us it resulted in ever more intensified cultural contact between the global cultural and local culture. Thus, the only way of attaining an empathetic understanding of the culture worldview of the others seems to be through meaningful communication.

As coaches, you tend to set the tone on and off the field for your athletes, and with addressing and acknowledging cultural differences with not only promote equality and break down barriers but we also promote personal development for all.

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