How should a coach talk about racism?

Interview

By Simon Turner

How should a coach talk about racism?

In 2014, then owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, was recorded talking about black players like he personally owned them. There was public outrage.

The Black players on the Clippers, like Chris Paul, were expected to speak out first, to make the first stand, even though they were the ones who had the most to lose - their livelihoods as employees of Donald Sterling.

Fast forward to 2020, in the context of worldwide protests by people of all colours against the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, it's no longer acceptable to leave the fight against racism to the victims. In sport, all coaches are now expected by many to make a stand against racism to send a message that there's nowhere to hide anymore.

To not explicitly speak out is to tacitly endorse a status quo that cannot continue.

But, how should coaches start the conversation about race with the people they coach? What's the first question or opening statement? What happens if a Black player doesn't actually want attention to be drawn to their race?

For coaches, the Black Lives Matter movement presents an opportunity to connect with players on an issue that affects all of us. Where conversations might have previously focused on technical / tactical or winning and losing, now they can start with fairness, action and accountability.

The question is....

How should a coach talk about racism?

We posed this challenging question to Billy Beddow, head coach of the England Under 15 boys basketball national team.

Billy's answer

I'm a 29 year old white basketball coach with little experience of overcoming barriers so my main focus has been to educate and equip myself with the knowledge and language to have conversations.

Within our team, I've focused on creating a safe environment for discussion first. We have to be really careful with young people that we've got the environment right so that we can introduce challenging topics. We're going bit by bit and helping them learn the language within the conversation so they can feel more confident talking about it. The focus is not to teach them to be politically correct - we're trying to help them become anti-racist.

In my experience so far, young player's understanding of racism is localised and situational. They remember specific instances or stories they heard of racist incidents at school or the local park. They're still at the beginning of their understanding of wider systematic racism. We've had some breakthroughs by sharing films and social posts with the players in our group chat. Then giving them time to think about it before having one-to-one conversations and asking open questions.

"It's been an eye opener for the white players especially - some of them are starting to recognise their privilege."

For me personally, it's been a tricky balancing act over the past few weeks and months. I want to reach out and show support but also not inject myself into a conversation and put young people on the spot. One thing I always come back to is to stay connected with the young people and just allow space for conversations to start. Although I've never experienced racism, I don't want to use that as an excuse for not trying to understand racism better.

Three takeaways

1. Just start

If we wait until it's comfortable to start talking about racism and social inequality with players then the conversations may never begin. So just decide to start. It might be awkward at first, but once the ball gets rolling it could get easier. Looking back, you might be a little embarrassed by your early stumbling's but grateful for the more open conversations you're then able to have.

2. Call out subtle acts of exclusion

Raising our awareness of subtle acts of exclusion, and calling them out whenever we see or hear them at work, in social settings or on the sports field can serve to bring issues of inequality into everyday conversation. While overt forms of discrimination are relatively easy to spot, we cannot neglect the subtler everyday actions that make exclusion a normal reality.

3. Diverse thinking leads to better decisions

In a complex and rapidly changing environment, individual coaching skill and experience are not enough anymore. Surrounding ourselves with a diverse range of people can bring the divergent thinking that's needed to help us overcome the blind spots that beset us all and make informed decisions about difficult problems.

Reflection questions

1. What power are you willing to give up?

2. How could you start a conversation with players about racism at your next session?

3. Have you got many years coaching experience, or one years experience repeated many times?

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