Outside the Lines: Navigating Broader Social Issues in Sport Coaching

The Gist: Athletics, including youth sport, is becoming increasingly diverse. While social issues may seem less relevant to youth sport coaching, navigating these matters is critical for coaches to support athletes as players and people. As coaches, we need to critically consider who we are, the identities/histories of our athletes, and features of our sport context in order to effectively attend to these issues. When we check our blind spots, we can coach in socially responsible ways that optimally support our student-athletes on and off the field.

girl HS football

Though athletics are often treated separately from politics, recent events remind us of intersections between sport and social issues. Take, for example, Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality on communities of color or #MeToo movement athlete activism regarding sexual violence on girls and women.

While instances of athlete activism in professional sports may see less relevant to the youth context, these moments matter. First, professional athletes are role models that youth revere and emulate. Second, these social issues cannot be separated from sport, at any level or setting, because they cannot be divorced from who players and coaches are as people. When we take to the field of play, we carry experiences and identities that are bound up in the social contexts in which we live. Even if we show up “just to play”, these matters unavoidably impact the performance, motivation, and development of athletes and coaches alike.

As a youth sport scholar and coach, I’ve thought a lot about what the changing nature of our sport landscape might mean for my practice—specifically asking myself 1) place social issues have in a young person’s development through sport, and 2) what role do I (and coaches generally) have in addressing these issues to support athletes?

While some research-informed coaching approaches designate that coaches should be aware of athletes’ social identities and avoid encouraging student-athletes to separate their sport and lived experiences, few resources are available for coaches to give practical guidelines on what we should do to navigate broader social issues to optimally support our young athletes. Recently, I conducted research (…one among many lame life excuses I have for the overly long break from both-and blog posts!) asking head coaches how they navigate social issues such as mental health, sexual violence, and underage drinking, etc.

I’d like to share key insights from conversations with coaches and illustrate how to start the conversation among youth sport stakeholders such as coaches, athletic administrators, and sport organizations. I’ll end with a few starting points for coaches to consider in their practice in order to be more socially responsible in the work with student-athletes.


3 KEY FINDINGS

1) Coaches viewed a variety of social issues in their sport

Some of the most frequently cited issues across sports included mental health, healthy social relationships, sexual violence, underage drinking, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation/gender identity, and gender.

2) Relevant social issues depended on the sport, community context, and other characteristics of the team/athletes.

The social norms of our broader society, local community, and unique sport setting dictated what issues coaches identified as relevant—or not. For example, despite the recent flurry of athlete protests related to race/racism, in this largely upper-middle class, white context many high school coaches viewed race as an issue that was less relevant. They more often expressed that mental health and psychological distress were a prevalent issue among student-athletes because of the high pressure to succeed within the high school community.

3) Coaches offered promising strategies for navigating and dealing with social issues.

Across various sports, coaches identified several tactics for navigating social issues including talking with athletes, being flexible and proactive in response to social issues, working with athlete leaders, and getting to know athletes as individuals.


While coaches identified diverse issues and offered promising strategies—some of which may resonant with you and your coaching—they also expressed feeling less comfortable addressing certain issues and deemed some topics as non-issues.

Before I offer, and unpack, an illustrative example, I want to preface that addressing social issues is tough work for coaches to do! On top of the x’s and o’s, and other “hats” that coaches wear, undertaking the messiness of these social issues can be a daunting task. Below is an illustrative example from my conversation with one coach to shed light on some critical considerations coaches might make regarding when, and how, we navigate these challenging moments.

“Some of them [issues] don’t necessarily fit very comfortably, like LGBT thingsthat doesn’t really fit into a nice neat box, but it is more about treating people with respect and being responsible and kind to everyone. That is how I try to address that.”

-Head coach, boys’ football

What might can we more critically consider from this coach’s response?

While coaches don’t need to address every issue at every moment, the increasingly diverse nature of sport may demand that we not only identify what issues are most relevant to our athletes & context, but carefully, critical check our blind spots—the issues we might be overlooking. As coaches we might ask ourselves, why given our identity and past experiences, sport context, and athletes, certain topics seem less relevant. For this coach, it may precisely because of his social identity and the “macho, tough guy” football sport culture that alternative notions about “what it means to be a man” don’t fit neatly or comfortably. In this situation, addressing such issues may be all the more important in order for a coach to create a supportive climate for all of his student-athletes to thrive on/off the field.

How can coaches check their blind spots on social issues?

1) Reflect on your personal experiences, identity, & best practices.

Coaches are unique individuals. Our distinct social identities and past experiences inform our coaching philosophy and behaviors. We can better check our blind spots on certain social issues by critically considering what assumptions underline our approach and “best” practices. We might ask ourselves: do my practices optimally support athletes with identities and lived experiences different from my own? Or, is there a player for whom one of my best practices might not work?

2) Acknowledge your athletes’ stories.

Youth athletes step onto their sport stage and bring with them unique experiences and identities. Coaches need to be aware of these histories, with a particular sensitivity to aspects of an athlete’s identity that underline experiences of oppression. We can build a knowledge of their athletes’ stories by intentionally carving out time to ask players questions about who they are and actively listen to them. We should be as deliberate about cultivating relatedness as were are with allocating time for teaching technique and tactics. In doing so, coaches can create inclusive climates that honor our athletes’ identities and support their development.

3) Consider your sport subcultural context.

Every sport has unique physical demands and social norms. Some examples from my study include when the football coach explained how physicality is tied to notions of toughness in football, or swimming coach described how coach feedback patterns and coach-athlete interactions are impacted by how his athlete train/perform underwater. These sport-specific characteristics can influence the actual prevalence of, and limit our awareness to, certain social issues. As coaches, let’s think critically about how, if at all, our sport invites, or discourages, discussion of some issues and not others. We might start by asking ourselves two questions: 1) what social issues are relevant given the unique characteristics of our sport space (e.g., body image in sports with an aesthetic emphasis), and 2) how might the subculture of our sport prevent social issues from being acknowledged as such (e.g., sexual orientation/gender identity in football).

Take-home message

            Athletics, including youth sport, is becoming increasingly diverse. While social issues may seem less relevant to youth sport coaching, navigating these matters is critical for coaches to support athletes as players and people. As coaches, we need to critically consider who we are, the identities/histories of our athletes, and features of our sport context in order to effectively attend to these issues. When we check our blind spots, we can coach in socially responsible ways that optimally support our student-athletes on and off the field.


*This post is also featured in Michigan State University’s Sport Coaching and Leadership blog here!

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