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How to diversify sport and create an inclusive environment

diversify sport in France

Studies have found that more diversity in groups and teams can enhance performance (Cunningham and Sagas, 2004). This post includes strategies on how to diversify sport and create inclusive environments.

Our new book Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7th edition contains a new chapter entitled Diversity and Inclusion. This article is adapted from that chapter.

Diversity and Inclusion 

The world is becoming increasingly interconnected. Countries that once existed in relative isolation to one another no longer do so. Diversity has been well researched and we only need to look at France, who won the FIFA World Cup in 2018 on how diversifying and being inclusive can lead to great rewards. The 23 man World Cup-winning squad was actually made up of a real mix of heritages, although 21 of them were born in France, 15 of the players have African descent, many coming from immigrant families.

Advances in technology have led to the information age in which ideas, information and images can be transmitted globally with a keystroke and advances in transportation allow people to easily and quickly travel great distances. These advances mean that values are also more easily shared and that we are more likely to be exposed to others with different backgrounds and ways of thinking and doing things.

Global interconnectivity is also greater than it has been at any time in human history. For instance, what happens with the economies of Greece or China affects the economies of most of the rest of the world. Within many countries, immigration and changing birth rates have caused major shifts in ethnic make-ups. For example, in the UK, 86% of the population described themselves as “White” in the 2011 census, whereas 20 years earlier in 1991, over 94% were “White”. 

Professional sport, especially at elite level is incredibly diverse. For example, in addition to the players from England, Wales and Scotland listed on the 2017 Manchester United English professional soccer team squad list were players from 13 other counties: Argentina, Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Holland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Serbia, Spain and Sweden. We also see increased patterns of ethnic diversity in most professional sports. This means that people working in professional sports, whether that involves coaching, sport science, administration, or health care capacities, need to be culturally astute.

Sport Is For All

All people, regardless of their backgrounds, whether they differ racially, in their gender, or in socioeconomic status, deserve to enjoy the benefits of sport and exercise and profit from sport psychology knowledge.

diversify sport and create an incluse environment
Children of different genders and from different ethnic backgrounds play a game of tag rugby.

Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould, the authors of Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7th edition state that studying and discussing diversity is difficult for several reasons. First, listing characteristics of any group of people can help us understand that not everyone is alike and does not necessarily see the world exactly as we do. Being aware of the characteristics of different groups also sensitises us to what we might expect when interacting with members of those groups. At the same time, emphasising differences is risky in that we may think that all members of a particular group can be characterised in the same way when, in fact, there are almost always more differences within a group than between groups. For example, an individual may read about exercise behaviour findings linked to being Hispanic and be unaware that not all Hispanic cultures are alike; Spanish-speaking individuals from Mexico differ from individuals from Spain, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is also important to recognise that studying and discussing diversity issues are often difficult because they are often politically charged.

At some point, each of us will disagree with certain culturally based views and practices (e.g., the lack of rights for women in some cultures) and will need to balance respect for others’ views with advocacy for social change.

This will not be easy. However, the authors of Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, state nothing important is easy to deal with. When inequities are perceived, it is important to voice our opinions in a professional and rational fashion. We also may need to actively oppose some groups when we feel what they are proposing is immoral or wrong. Too often, many people stand back and do nothing. At the same time, this does not mean that we do not let others speak or we resort to violence against them. Violence should never be used.

Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7th edition has chapters on effective communication and dealing with confrontations.

Diversify Sport – Progress is needed

Although sport is becoming more diverse and inclusive, further progress is still needed. In the United States, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement emerge as a result of concerns over the racial profiling of African Americans by police. Athletes have begun protesting the current racial climate in the United States. Epitomised by former San Francisco 49er NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes kneeling for the U.S National Anthem.

Sporting events can be a vehicle for athletes to bring attention to social issues.

In Europe, fans have called professional soccer players of African descent disparaging names. In December 2018, English footballer but Jamaican-born Raheem Sterling was racially abused on the pitch by Chelsea “fans”.

These incidents of prejudice are not limited to race. Despite the gains made in women’s sports participation, there is still a shortage of women coaches and administrators. In many countries, women are not provided with the same opportunities in sports as their male counterparts. Gay and transgender athletes often face prejudice and in a highly publicised incident, a player on the Miami Dolphins team quit professional football because of bullying by some of his teammates in the form of homophobic name-calling.

Strategies for Diversifying Sport

Given that sport and exercise contexts are becoming increasingly diverse, there is a need to create inclusive and welcoming environments for all participants, regardless of their backgrounds. Culturally competent professionals are the cornerstone to creating such environments. Moreover, three general steps lead to becoming a culturally competent professional:

  1. Becoming culturally aware
  2. Becoming a culturally competent communicator
  3. Using strategies to create welcoming environments and culturally competent interventions

Cultural Awareness

The initial step in becoming culturally competent is committing to work to understand differences in others. For example, a PE teacher who has several refugee children in her classes takes steps to learn about their cultures. She notices that her students from Vietnamese backgrounds avoid direct eye contact with her and instead of interpreting the lack of eye contact as disrespect or lack of interest, she realises that individuals from many Asian countries like Vietnam avoid direct eye contact because it is considered rude and confrontational (Hansen, 2014). Similarly, an exercise instructor adjusts the intensity of his class during the monthlong Muslim holiday of Ramadan because his clients fast from sunrise to sunset. Or perhaps he could add an additional class early in the morning or late at night.

Cultural awareness is more than noticing, understanding and accepting differences. It requires considerable self-awareness.  We all are products of our own cultural identities and have biases and values associated with our previous experiences. For example, when scheduling practices or games, a coach from a Christian background may, without thinking, associate religious services with Sundays and never think about the fact that the Jewish athletes on his team have religious services on Saturdays. Similarly, a swimming instructor raised in a Western culture may assume that all his students will be comfortable wearing the typical Western suit or participating in mixed gender classes. However, students from some countries or ethnic backgrounds may have come from cultures that dress more conservatively and want suits that cover more of the body or where united swimming lessons are not seen as appropriate. Similar examples can be used across sports from the highest level to grassroots. Female Volleyball players were required to wear bikinis during competition up until London 2012, this excluded many Muslim women from competing at the highest level.

Germany’s Laura Ludwig up against Egypt’s Doaa Elghobashy,
 wearing a hijab and long sleeves during the women’s beach volleyball qualifying match between Germany and Egypt at the Beach Volley Arena in Rio de Janeiro during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. 

Cultural blind spots are common. These are the values, norms, cultural skills and worldviews shaped by our own culture that we take for granted and assume others share. Often we’re unaware of them. Self-awareness and critically examining one’s own views is important in identifying these blind spots and making our implicit biases explicit. The way that we become more self-aware is through reflection and talking to others about our own views and practices.

Culturally Competent Communication and Welcoming Climates

While understanding our own biases and accepting differences in others is important, culturally competent practitioners also engage in communication practices that are effective for the cultures they work within. For example, in some countries, people greet one another with a handshake, others with a bow and still others with a kiss on one or both cheeks.

A culturally competent professional uses the appropriate method in each culture. Similarly, an exercise physiologist running a wellness programme in a community where the majority of participants have not graduated from high school will adjust the language she uses when providing health-related information and explanations to her clients (e.g., using simple terms instead of complicated scientific terminology). Each sport, even within the same country, adopts its own culture as well. Leading sport psychology consultants approach different sports and situations differently (Schinke, Fisher, Kamphoff, Gould, & Oglesby, 2015). Specifically, they learn about the cultures they are entering by reading, talking to “insiders” from that culture, or carefully observing. They also spend considerable time trying to understand the individuals they are consulting with and working to understand the unique context that each team or athlete exists in. These experienced consultants spend considerable time reflecting on their own actions and views, noting what went right and wrong. Self and situational awareness are critical.

The Haka is a Maori tradition and the New Zealand team perform this ritual before every game. Although, as you can see from the video not every person in the New Zealand team descends from a Maori background, some clearly have a European heritage this cultural ritual is still performed and carried out with passion. This example is from when they played away in England in 2012.

Like highly effective sport psychology consultants, all sport and physical activity practitioners must work to understand their clients. In writing about cross-cultural exercise psychology, Hanrahan (2015) developed a list of cultural issues that practitioners should consider when delivering programmes:

  • Norms (e.g., men and women exercise separately)
  • Values and Ideals (e.g., family is a priority)
  • Beliefs (e.g., regular exercise is important)
  • Clock-based time (e.g., arriving late is accepted in some cultures)
  • Interpersonal space (e.g., the distance between people when talking)
  • Eye contact (e.g., lack of eye contact shows disrespect in some cultures)
  • Reluctance to state a firm opinion (e.g., some cultures consider it disrespectful to disagree with others)
  • Silence (e.g., being quiet does not signal disinterest)

Culturally Competent Interventions

The goal for most sport and exercise psychology professionals and exercise professionals is to design interventions and use strategies that allow people of all backgrounds to feel welcomed and included in programmes. To do this, a culturally competent professional must value diversity, participate in diversity training and work hard get to know those with whom he/she works.

This requires open and honest communication. Further, they must adopt strategies and interventions that align with the setting’s cultural values. For example, programme staff working internationally should consider cultural issues when initiating programming. For instance, one nonprofit group wanted to offer sport and physical activity programming for underserved girls living in India but was unsuccessful in initial efforts to attract participants. They learned, however, that it was not the girls who were hesitant to participate. It was the mothers and grandmothers of the girls who had to be convinced to let their daughters and granddaughters participate. Programme organisers placed staff in the villages six months before the programmes were offered in order to make contact and earn their trust.

We are products of our culture

Whether you grew up in the United States, England, Spain, or Japan, for example, you have acquired certain values, beliefs, and practices based on where you were raised. Research has shown that American middle school youths tend to bring a more individualistic orientation to sport, whereas Asian youths tend to bring a more collective orientation (Kim, Williams, Gill, 2003). While we all exist within a larger societal culture (e.g., North American, European, Asian), we actually exist in many different cultures.

Culture, however, is more than a simple listing of characteristics. It involves power and privilege (Gill et al., 2017). Some groups are more privileged than others (e.g., individuals who come from middle- or upper-socioeconomic status backgrounds) and have more power, while others lack privilege and power and may even be oppressed.

Two other terms related to culture that are often used in the diversity and inclusion literature are acculturation and enculturation (Kontos & Breland-Noble, 2002).


This is a basic component of the socialisation process in which an individual acquires the skills and qualities needed to be a member of one’s own group. For example, you learn the proper way to greet someone in your society (e.g., handshake vs. bowing) or that it is appropriate to take your shoes off when you enter someone’s house or to let the person in authority speak first. In sport, this might involve learning that it is okay to yell things out to other players during sports like baseball, soccer and a bit of ‘sledging’ (insulting to out-psych the opposition) is accepted in cricket, whereas this would be frowned on in golf or snooker. It could also include learning that in soccer if you raise your hands to the opposition you will be sent off, often resulting in play acting and a lack of respect. In rugby this wouldn’t be considered such an offence unless it was very violent and dangerous, therefore there is much more respect for the opposition and the referee in rugby.

Australian fielders exchange a few words with the Indian batsman while the umpire turns a blind eye.

Below is an example of Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff receiving some sledging while batting for England against the West Indies, before getting his revenge when it is his turn to be out in the field.

Below is a video mocking football players and branding them as weak, soft and cheaters. The video also highlights the respect and power of rugby players. Of course, not all footballers are weak cheats, however many have become a product of the rules of the game, similar to how people become a product of cultures.


Acculturation differs from enculturation in that it involves attitudinal and behavioural changes associated with living in cultures that differ from one’s own or when one lives or works in a multicultural society where several cultures exist side by side (e.g., French- and English-speaking Canada) (Kontos & Breland-Noble, 2002). In this two-way process, a person tries to fit into a new culture while at the same time the new culture might change when people from other cultures enter it. For example, a young man from Brazil signs a contract with a professional soccer club in Germany and moves there to play for his team. However, he has never travelled outside of Brazil, cannot speak German and has not lived in a large city or where it is cold and snowy in the winter. This athlete has not been acculturated. At the same time, the German club may not have had a Brazilian player before and will need to experience some degree of acculturation as well.

Learn More About Sport and Exercise Psychology

The new edition of  Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7th edition is available as a hardbackpaperback, ebook or looseleaf. It will be available to buy in the UK/Europe in January 2019.  

Other books, journals and blogs


Cunningham, G.B., & Sagas, M. (2005). Access discrimination in intercollegiate athletics. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 29(2), 148–163.

Hansen, K.(2014). The importance of ethnic cultural competency in physical education.Strategies, 27(3), 12–16. doi:10.1080/08924562.2014.900462

Schinke,R.J., Fisher, L.A., Kamphoff, C., Gould, D., & Ogelsby, C. (2015).Certified consultants’ attempts at cultural inclusiveness: An examination of our tasks through the lens of the International Society of Sport Psychology position stand on cultural competence. InternationalJournal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 14(4), 353–368. doi:10.1080/1612197X.2015.1041544

Hanrahan,S.J. (2015). Running across borders: Cross-cultural exercise psychology

Kim, B.J.,Williams, L., & Gill, D.L. (2003). A cross-cultural study of achievement orientation and intrinsic motivation in young USA and Korean athletes. InternationalJournal of Sport Psychology, 34, 168–184.

Gill, D.,Williams, L., & Reifsteck, E. (2017). Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Kontos, A.P., & Breland-Noble, A.M. (2002). Racial/ethnic diversity in applied sport psychology: A multicultural introduction to working with athletes of color. The Sport Psychologist, 16(3), 296–315.

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Hi, I'm Ryan, the Marketing Manager and chief blogger here at Human Kinetics Europe Ltd. As somewhat of a washed-up athlete I've always had a passion for health, fitness and sport science. I now find myself working at the world’s biggest independent publisher of sport, health, dance and fitness resources. This means I get unrestricted access to all the best, most interesting, scientifically-proven writing on sports science. Of course I'm going to share this with you!

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