3 Ways to Coach for Inclusion, Equity, and Justice

By guest author, Maurice McDavid

The role of “Coach” is one of the most impactful positions a person can have. The Good Athlete Project firmly believes in the research-backed idea that athletics provide a learning environment that is one of the most adept at producing results. Imbedded in daily practice, bus rides, and countless interactions within the athletic environment, there is a unique opportunity to influence young people. The way coaches model behavior matters. The language used around those young people matters. In this place of trust and constant influence, meaningful conversations can and should occur.

The unique qualities of the athletics space – assuming the culture has been well-cultivated – create the ideal setting for tough conversations. Unlike the classroom setting, there is plenty of physical space, implicit trust, and peers holding each other accountable to a common goal. Here, we can grapple with anything. We should be prepared to grapple with difficult topics like those surrounding inclusion, equity, and justice.

Some will make the argument that athletics are a time for recreation that should not be interrupted – fair enough. There is time for both a recreational release, AND difficult conversations. That is part of what makes athletics unique. As a coach, you are trusted to provide guidance. Conversations will erupt, and often those conversations go far beyond the realm of sports. For anyone interested in coaching real, necessary life lessons, those conversations should include methods to thrive in the multicultural world in which we are living.  

Even if we agree that this is necessary, not all coaches are comfortable having these conversations. With that in mind, here are three easy ways to encourage constructive conversations around these tough topics. 

1) Bring in a guest speaker who has used athletics to overcome adversity. There is such power in seeing someone who looks like you or has had an experience like yours who is now successful. A guest speaker can do a lot of things to help motivate student-athletes. In particular, seeing a former athlete who came from similar backgrounds as your students who can talk about how athletics is helping them be successful in an avenue outside of sports helps students see how the skills transfer from one arena to another. Some of the young men I have coached have not had many positive examples of ‘manhood’ in their lives. It can do wonders to allow them to see success, to have a model to follow and look up to. Once we allow our athlete to interact with real-world models, we can be explicit about the transfer of lessons learned through athletics to our home and professional lives. Sometimes, students need to hear these messages from multiple voices.

2) Teach students about the history of the sport and include past or current limitations. Many sports have a history that includes people not being able to participate due to racism, sexism, classism or some other “ism”. The history of how people overcame those barriers and went on to achieve greatness is a significant part of the history of the sport. Whether it is Black college running backs traveling into the south during the ’60s or Billie Jean King growing the sport of women’s tennis, these are moments that allow us to confront issues of equity while building a love for the game. Not everything was like Disney’s “Remember the Titans,” but those difficult moments in sports give coaches the platform to talk about building the skill of resilience. Real-world narratives can provide amazing templates for these sorts of conversations.

3) Be purposeful in building team relationships across races, socioeconomic status, ability level, etc., with a mindset of helping one another. Speaking of “Remember the Titans,” this movie provides a powerful example of purposeful team-building. While it is not always necessary to be as explicit as calling out the race of the players, teambuilding is a necessary step in preparing student-athletes. Consider partnering students based on ability level, mixing a starter with a student who may be second or third string. The social capital that comes from being a premier athlete can be shared and helps everyone to feel a part of the team. Ask students to be responsible for making sure their teammates without transportation make it to early morning practices and weekend tournaments. This helps to build social responsibility in all athletes. A team culture that pits one group of athletes versus another will not produce the type of people we should be producing, regardless of the results on the field, though it often lacks production there too. 

Coaching is more than an opportunity to build programs that win on the playing field. It is a chance to build student-athletes that win in life. While that may sound cliché, we know that is the motivation of great coaches.

Part of winning in our modern world is understanding the multiple cultures that are present in our world and being able to excel as part of a team that includes members representing all those cultures. We should feel free to fold in the idea that we are here on this earth for reasons beyond ourselves. Our ability to empower those around us to have success is exemplified by all of the great athletes throughout history. Modern empowerment must teach people to have conversations regarding inclusion, equity, and justice. Coaches, the ball is now yours to carry.