Do we really want to address culture in sport psychology?

This article presents some of the questions that have been presented to ethnically diverse sport psychologists that need to be addressed in larger audiences in order to improve multicultural awareness in the sport psychology field

By Ross Flowers, PhD, and Wendy Borlabi, PsyD

Education in multicultural issues and diversity is a requirement to earn a nationally recognized license in the field of psychology (American Psychological Association licensure) and an applied sport psychology certification (Association of Applied Sport Psychology certification). Beyond education, cultural awareness and the skills to apply the knowledge of multicultural issues and diversity are the next step to acquiring competence. Within this process of developing competency, sport psychologists need to account for the cultures which they represent, as well as those of the athletes and coaches with whom they work.The competency to work with diverse cultures in sport not only requires the educational training and experience, but also the exposure to multicultural settings, sensitivity, willingness to take the risk, and courage to address the issues (Schinke & Hanrahan, 2009). Addressing multicultural issues will also require the courage to break free of the Eurocentric framework of American sport psychology education. “Eurocentrism is the tendency to interpret the work in terms of European values and perspective and the belief that they are superior” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001, p. 146). Schinke and Hanrahan (2009) stated that many of the issues that sport psychology, specifically applied sport psychology, addresses are grounded in Eurocentric terms. For example, different cultures address motivation for performance by including cultural heritage and the significance of generational sacrifices to provide additional meaning to the more Eurocentric attention on personal sources of internal and external motivation. Multicultural competency can enhance the applied practice of teaching skills like motivation, confidence, focus, and mental toughness to athletes and coaches through diverse cultural lenses. There is an organized group of Black and Brown Applied Sport Psychologists (BBASP) of African-American, Mexican-American, Latino, and Caribbean descent who are taking the challenge to address and work with multicultural issues in sport. As a collective group of applied sport psychologists we feel an obligation to address multiculturalism in sport. While our intention is to frame the significance of multicultural issues in sport, we are not claiming to have answers. We are merely presenting opportunities and topics that tend to be discussed in smaller groups behind closed doors or simply avoided. This article presents some of the questions that have been presented to ethnically diverse sport psychologists that need to be addressed in larger audiences in order to improve multicultural awareness in the sport psychology field. Our desire is to provoke thought and encourage action to develop the rich texture of multicultural practices in applied sport psychology.

Q: To begin with, should we as multicultural sport psychologists address the ethnic diversity issue?
R: Absolutely! Would you allow your neighbor to sleep in your bed, eat your groceries, drive your car and be rewarded for your labor? As ethnically diverse sport psychologists we feel an obligation to be competent with our cultural issues, work within our cultures, and address our cultural needs. It is also our responsibility to be knowledgeable about the field within which we practice. “This is a lily-white field at a lily-white conference, that has older white men who are not going to give up their status in the field to an African-American woman.You need to be prepared going into this field, that(culture) is something that you will have to deal with.”This honest statement from a Caucasian male andoriginal member of the Association for Applied SportPsychology Executive Board, was advice offered as partof a valuable mentoring relationship with an African-American female who was entering the field.

Q: Why have ethnic diversity issues been avoided in sport psychology?
R: There is a pocket of cultural diversity research insport psychology (e.g., Gill, 2007; Schinke & Hanrahan, 2009; Schinke, Michel, Danielson, Gauthier & Pickard, 2005). However, despite the obvious diversity within today’s athletics and the apparent need for cultural competence, the field of sport psychology has neglected multicultural perspectives. Sport and exercise psychology research fails to address ethnic diversity issues, educational programs have yet to incorporate multicultural competencies, and in the past 25 years the field has not matured to meet public interest or demand (Gill, 2007, p.823). When change is difficult, the hardest step can be the first.

Q: What are the potential benefits of discussing these issues?
R: As professionals in the field of applied sport psychology, don’t we have an obligation to continue learning and developing our skill sets? Often when we becomecomfortable, we fall into complacency. Has thefield of sport psychology become so complacent that weare unable to catch up to the pace of our multiculturalsport society? I hope not. But if so, dust off the cobwebs,hydrate, get a good stretch and let’s get back into thegame. There are athletes, coaches, teams and governingbodies of sport craving the expertise of multiculturallycompetent sport psychologists. Discussing diversityand ethnicity through different cultural lenses may bethe rehabilitation tool needed for those who have becomediscouraged or have grown despondent to AASP.Multicultural discussions may provide the nutritionalvalue to strengthen our practice and provide the newgeneration of applied sport psychology professionals abuffet of information to facilitate multicultural aware- ness. This awareness may offer additional technical skills to enhance our performance as sport psycholo- gists and consultants. And multicultural competency skills may just provide the opportunity  to keep pace, get back in the game, and make an impact.

Q: How, when, where, why do we bring these issues up?
R: Fortunately, there are multiple opportunities and arenas to discuss multicultural issues, such as educational programs, conferences, speaking engagements, during consultations, within professional practice. The challenge is to take the risk and take the first step of engagement.Dr. Benjamin Carson, is a professor of neurosurgery, plastic surgery, oncology and pediatrics, and the direc- tor of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins Medi- cal Institution. He is well known for choosing, taking, and learning to live with acceptable risk. Before every decision to pursue a neurosurgery Dr. Carson asks the questions of “What, When, Where, Why, and How” toassess if surgery should be done. While Dr. Carson’s assessments may have far greater implications, it lends good advice to whether an uncertain path should be pursued. Similarly, the U.S. Navy Seals Special Warfare training teaches a method called the O.O.D.A – Loop, which requires soldiers to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Again, the stakes of deciding to discuss multicul- tural issues are far less dramatic than the decisions and actions of U.S. Navy Seals, but maybe we can follow the lead of the world’s elite in medicine and warfare to ap- ply some new skills and enhance our performance.

Q: Is there a risk in addressing culture in sport? Is the risk worth it?
R: According to Dr. Carson, American’s have a “schizophrenic obsession with risk”(pg. 45). Dr. Carson suggests that American society is obsessed with mind-boggling,   death-defying,   high-flying,  made- for-entertainment  extreme sporting events like the X- Games. Millions of viewers celebrate watching other human  beings engage in threatening and unfamiliar events that test will, physical abilities, intestinal forti- tude and mental power on television shows like Sur- vivor and The Amazing Race. But as soon as we’ve finished watching those television shows, we’re up in arms, meeting, and legislating for more safety regula- tions to reduce the risk of everyday life. For example, schools need softer surfaces under swings, slides andmonkey bars to eliminate the possibility of a childfalling and getting hurt  on the playground (Carson,2008). In California, there are cameras on nearly every traffic light to discourage risky driving. Yet, the state was considering using license plate holders as mobile marketing devices. Can’t you just see the local injury attorneys scrambling to create the most eye-catching license plate advertisement, and then anxiously await- ing the ambulance sirens to scream.So, if there is a risk in addressing culture in sport, the risks are most likely the same risks we face in everyday life. We need to accept the challenge and ask the ques- tions of “What, When, Where, Why, and How” and do an O.O.D.A. – Loop assessment to help us address mul- ticultural issuesin sport. Isn’t living life worth the risk?

Q: When is the risk worth it?
R: Here are four questions to consider when deciding to take a risk?

  • What is the best thing that can happen if I do this?

  • What is the worst thing that can happen if I do this?

  • What is the best thing that can happen if I don’t do this?

  • What is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t do this?

We all have to make our own decisions about taking risks. But an educated and researched approach coupled with sensitivity and faith in a positive outcome, may make the risk worth taking.

Q: Is there a need to educate athletes and coaches about culture?
R: Consider the following example: one of the writ- ers of this article worked with a team for several years. This team engaged in what they called “backwards talk”. This is essentially saying the opposite of what you mean. The team (athletes, coaches and athletic trainers) called one of the players “Cracker” or “Crack” for two years. In a very nonchalant and joking manner, one of the players asked if the author knew why they called the other player “crack”. The author was then informed that this was part of the backward talk because the player in questions last name is “Kuhn”. Although the author knew the athletes last name, this came as a complete shock. Is one ever ready to be given such potentially ex- plosive information in such a carefree and naïve man- ner? Hearing the reason for why the team called the athlete “crack” was offensive but hearing it from two Caucasian males that were completely clueless to how offensive this was to the author was heartbreaking.At this point, the author felt it was important to not only educate the two athletes engaged in this conver- sation but also educate the coaches, athletic trainers, and the administrators in the athletic department. As an African American, this author did not feel comfort-able allowing this type of behavior to continue without educating the team, the athletic department and other teams about the negative consequences of degrading non-dominant  cultures. Although this author  felt it was necessary to educate, is multicultural  education an area for sport psychology? What, if any, are the po- tentially negative consequences associated with this situation given an ethnically diverse sport psychologist working in an ethnically dominant culture that is cul- turally insensitive?

Q: Do you normalize or highlight the identity of a sport psychologist?
R: There is room for great discussion about the ben- efits and risks of normalizing the role or position of a sport psychologist. Hopefully, within that discussion there are conscious efforts to investigate the depths of what the individual’s  identity as a sport psychologist brings to his/her work. Consider Anna Julia Cooper’s famous quote “When and where I enter, then and there the entire race enters with me.” As much as today’s so- ciety would like to be “color blind” such a position may mistakenly neglect rich history, culture and individual diversity.

Q: Is it beneficial for black sport psychologists to work with black coaches and athletes?
R: Research in this area states that there might be a benefit to having the practitioner and the client be the same race. However it depends on the psychologist and the client’s acculturation and racial identity devel- opment (Sue & Sue, 2003). In the field of psychology there are times when there is a benefit but how does this transfer to sport psychology or does it? It is im- portant to note that most sport psychologists or sport psychology consultants are Caucasian. As a field sport psychology has been growing leaps and bounds every year with more multiculturally diverse professionals, which brings an additional question. Are ethnically diverse athletes utilizing sport psychology services or are they an underrepresented  population in the sport psychology world?In conclusion, the future of sport psychology needsto not only be discussing, but actively addressing di- versity and multicultural issues as we educate within the field of sport psychology. More specifically, with- in the Black and Brown communities there is a great opportunity  to  service underrepresented  cultures of sport. For example, within Major League Baseball the enlarged numbers  of players, coaches and  managers born outside of American borders are widening the opportunities to address the cultural differences in the sport. Baseball is known as America’s favorite pastime and has a traditional culture of songs, food, language, pristine presentation, and clean-cut image. Yet, today, this All-American culture of baseball has to tolerate di- verse cultures and languages in order for the sport to grow. Where would baseball be without players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico? This reality opens the door for millions of young ath- letes and coaches playing the game. At the same time it widens the window of opportunity to applied sport psychologists with competencies to address the chang- ing culture of America’s favorite pastime. There is a lot more light and opportunity in a house with open doors and windows, than a house of tradition that can only be opened with golden access keys and secret passages. =


Carson, B. (2008). Take the risk: learning to identify, choose, and live with acceptable risk. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Delgado,R. & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical race theory: An in- troduction. New York, NY. New York University Press.

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Schinke, R., Michel, G., Danielson, R., Gauthier, A. & Pick- ard, P. (2005). Introduction  to cultural sport psychology: Special edition. Athletic Insight. The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 7(3), 1–6.

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