Diversity & Inclusion II: Leveraging the Differences that Make a Difference
Posted by: Katie Pagel, Jess Hanson, Nick Powell, Ariel Naftali, Elle Gilbert, Carlos Coto, Sam Buxbaum, Hunter Soens | University of Denver Sports Psychology
Welcome to the second installment of the Diversity and Inclusion (D & I) series! Before reading any further, I would encourage you to take a peek at last month’s blog, if you have not already done so. Within it, I provide my definition of diversity and inclusion, discuss why they are important, and outline an action plan to build inclusive environments within your organization or team.
Quite early in the writing process of last month’s blog, I realized that having a single author on a D & I blog series seemed a bit ironic (perhaps some of you readers felt the same!). After all, every individual’s experience with and thoughts on this topic are inherently different. In the name of widening our scope and providing unique perspectives, within this blog you will find contributions from seven additional authors. Some of these consultants discuss their views on D & I, while others share personal stories. Let’s dive in!
CPEX Consultants on Diversity & Inclusion:
Growing up in a small and, what most people would consider, to be a “privileged” (mostly Caucasian, upper-middle class, etc.) community in Northern California, diversity and different cultures are things that I never had much exposure to. Although I wouldn’t consider myself to be ignorant to this topic, as soon as I left my small town, I had feelings of shame for not understanding the true meaning of diversity. For a long time, my solution was to just shut my mouth when these types of conversations arose. I didn’t want to act like I knew everything, and I felt embarrassed to tell people what I didn’t know.
What I wish I had known from the start is that it is normal and completely okay to not know everything about other cultures and the effects that cultural identities can have on a person’s life. What is important is the ability to have conversations, ask respectful questions, and have a desire to learn. Additionally, it is crucial to know that just because someone may be a specific race/ethnicity, gender, religion, etc… does not mean that they have the same beliefs or experiences as others from that background. It is crucial that we remain aware of and respectful of the fact that everyone has his/her/their own experience.
Sport is an incredible avenue to bring people together, which is why diversity is so important to understand. Within this arena, understanding each other is a way to bring connection to a team, as celebrating differences is what truly brings unity.
In full disclosure, my own soccer story began in some of the least diverse places in the world. I grew up playing in New Hampshire and then played four years at a college in Maine. After college, I spent six years in German-speaking Europe, teaching foreign languages while playing semi-professionally and coaching youth teams. My first year, my team was made up of a range of ethnic backgrounds: nine Austrian, six “Yugoslavian,” four Turkish (plus me). The coach could only speak Croatian and German. In 2014, I moved to Stuttgart, Germany, a city with a 40% foreign born population (60% foreign born under 18), which only increased with the wave of refugees and immigrants soon after. I taught German as a second language, and one of the coolest experiences I had was teaching a class of 22 immigrants who spoke 21 different languages among them. During my four years there, I played and coached soccer with German, Turkish, Portuguese, Greek, Croatian, Eritrean, Romanian, Bulgarian, Ghanaian, and Serbian players.
Today, it is easy to take for granted that diversity is important, but why is that the case, and how does it apply to soccer specifically? I believe the most important reason is non-discrimination. Every kid should have the right to play the game, and nothing but their talent level, intelligence, and drive should limit them from reaching their potential. If the humanistic argument does not sway you, diversity is also significant from a results-based perspective. Psychological safety – where team members are free to express difference of opinions on how to achieve the task and reach goals without social repercussion – has been shown to be one of the largest determiners of team success. It makes sense that team members who feel comfortable in their personal differences will feel a closer connection with teammates that come from different backgrounds.
So the big question is: if inclusivity is moral and brings results, how do we as a soccer community build inclusive environments? I do not pretend to have the ultimate answer to that question, (the pay-to-play system is probably at the root of this discussion in some way), but my experiences abroad got me thinking about two topics.
The first is language. All of the clubs I played for in Europe had a list of rules for players regarding timeliness, interactions with teammates and coaches, etc… Some of these clubs had a rule that German was the only spoken language allowed. This is an area where Germany and the U.S. differ. In this country, I think many people would see this rule as exclusionary and an attempt to suppress other cultures. Indeed, one prominent U.S. youth national team coach claims he was fired for speaking Spanish to certain players. I believe the difference here is that in the U.S., at least in many areas, it is a question of English versus one other language. In our case, only allowing English excludes Spanish. In German-speaking Europe, using German is actually inclusive, in that it is the common language among many. On the youth team I coached, I had two particularly confident players of Portuguese descent. When they communicated to each other on the field in Portuguese, it felt as though they had their own exclusive club, to the detriment of the feeling of “team.” This is a complex issue and, again, I do not have the answers. However, I feel this is a topic that should be discussed.
The second topic is that soccer is the most diverse sport. Played all over the world by every nation, it is a sport that brings together cultures and people. Americans need to stop apologizing for enjoying it. We have this attitude that the sport is “someone else’s,” and we’re just happy to even have a national team. Until soccer is more deeply ingrained in American culture across multiple backgrounds (ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, etc.), we run the risk of being forever outside looking in at soccer culture. To rectify this, we can start including a more diverse spectrum of people into our own unique, America melting pot soccer culture.
Diversity, in any space, is important because it allows for the collaboration of different perspectives in generating ideas and finding solutions to challenges we face. For diverse groups to work together effectively, individuals must cultivate awareness of their own stimulus value and cultural biases. Being inclusive means recognizing and respecting differences that are present in a group. It does NOT mean pretending that racial, ethnic, or gender differences aren’t present. At its core, inclusion means that all individuals have the right to be acknowledged, respected, and valued for who they are in whatever space they occupy.
My understanding of diversity lies, not in the firmly outlined boxes and labels of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc., but in the range of human experiences every single one of us bring to the table. Relating to, communicating, and engaging with others, no matter the situation or width of that range, should be driven by openness, authenticity, curiosity and a large dose of humility. A fundamental rule I have instituted in my own life is assume nothing. By choosing to see every person we meet as our teacher, we prioritize human dignity and allow empathy to take the place of judgment. In guiding a Paralympic, visually impaired athlete, I have learned how important having conversations is. Often, we think if we don’t “see” differences (e.g., color blindness), we are being culturally sensitive and inclusive. This lack of dialogue inherently breeds assumption and leads to tension, lack of understanding, and greater divides. This athlete has taught me to ask questions from a place of curiosity and not be afraid to have the difficult conversations about differences. This is the space where compassion and understanding are built.
Celebrating diversity is particularly important in our country because it has historically been the destination for millions of people that are coming from countries all over the world. The US is home to many different cultures with different values and different points of view. Placing the necessary importance on D & I in American culture, will hopefully create a healthier society and environment.
Sport is the perfect vehicle for building more inclusive environments. As a first step, this can be made possible by having the coaches start and continue conversations in relation to D & I. This will help normalize D & I as much as possible, especially for the younger athletes. Coming up with new ideas, like hosting workshops where the athletes get a chance to attend speeches with professional or collegiate athletes that come from different backgrounds, can also help build inclusive sporting environments.
Diversity and inclusion – two increasingly loaded words and concepts in today’s age and society. But why? Why have these words (words that attempt to move us towards a better, more equal, and open society) garnered so much weight? Although there is a time and place to dive into the history of these words, I would argue that the why is less important than the what now?
Inspired by the counseling courses we’ve taken in the DU MA Sport & Performance Psychology program, I’ve thought a lot about how and how much one asks questions. Overall, I’ve learned – and continue to learn – the importance of asking open, nonjudgmental questions about the person or groups one works with. Asking questions openly and frequently (more frequently than one might think!) is imperative for us to continue moving toward a more integrated and inclusive society.
So, let’s ask each other more questions!
Put simply, the world is a diverse place. If we try to avoid diversity, we are not fully experiencing life. Understanding diversity and interacting with those that are different from you, can lead to wonderful experiences and opportunities for personal growth. At the end of the day, we are all humans that desire connection and belonging. Inclusion can help to satisfy these needs, as well as create a space for learning and deeper connections. To build an inclusive environment, we need to be very intentional with the words we use and actions we take. We must do our best to include as many people, cultures, and identities in our professions, teams, organizations, and everyday life.
We hope that you enjoyed reading more perspectives on the topic of diversity and inclusion. Stay tuned for next month’s blog, in which we kick off a two-part series on coping strategies for youth athletes. Thanks for reading!