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Coaches: Six Reasons (And More!) To Discuss Anti-Racism With Your Team

by Jack Bowen


Youth sports coaches assume a uniquely prized position: one based on trust, mentorship, and couched in leadership.  As we all work through the country’s recently heightened battle against racism, many feel overwhelmed, almost helpless: it seems as though any action available to the common citizen just won’t make much of an impact.  But this is not the case for coaches and other educators in such a role.

If a coach has done his job, then his athletes certainly understand the X’s and O’s of their respective sport.  More importantly, though, any successful team at any level has a foundation built on a culture of trust: a family in which players have each other’s backs, who embrace the team-first mentality, and know the real importance of being a teammate.

Coaches have an opportunity to meet their athletes where they are emotionally, intellectually, and socially.  There’s a real opportunity to have difficult conversations, in an authentic way that’s impactful.  It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s worth it, on so many levels.

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For the first two weeks of my own team’s Summer Season, we devoted the first half hour of our team meetings and training sessions to the topic of racial injustice.  I shared with them that it felt uncomfortable, I was in no way to be considered an expert, and that we would do this together.  Granted, I did a lot of reading the week leading up to our team’s Day One, not so much so I could prepare something, but so I could get an understanding of where I was personally, and what those who’d been thinking deeply about this topic for a long time had to say in their reflections.

Following that intro, I started with a question: “How are you all feeling about this?”  I wanted this to feel like a discussion, not a lecture.

It was silent.  And, as they know, I find value in silence.  I teach Philosophy and the silence following a comment or question only provides time for students to actually think and digest, versus feeling the pressure to quickly react and blurt out.  Because deeply philosophical, introspective issues like these take time to truly ponder.

What followed, for those four days, was a rich, honest conversation with players of varying ages and backgrounds, sharing together, all in an attempt to grow personally, and as a team.

As I reflected on this, I realized there were some real virtues that resulted from this and will continue to flourish as our team has made this our theme for the year.  Here are six benefits available to coaches as they consider discussing this topic with their athletes:

  1. Justice: This is the obvious one. This issue is hugely important for our current culture, for the wellbeing not just of minority races, but for everyone.  Justice is—or, at least, should be—an agreed-upon cornerstone of society on what our country is established.  Clearly, deeper reflection and self-awareness surrounding this issue needs to be done.  Coaches have the unique opportunity to provide their athletes with the gift of a safe haven for introspection and discussion on such a weighty and important issue.
  2. Athlete Self-Awareness: The issue of racism, anti-racism, implicit bias, and all other related issues need to be addressed by adolescents as a part of their education and growth. And, yet, very few settings provide a venue for thoughtful, intellectually and emotionally honest, vulnerable conversation.  Time spent on this instead of a few additional hours on their sport will yield considerably greater, more profound results.
  3. Team Culture: These conversations set the culture for a team. Last year, our team focused on vulnerability: we read about, watched videos of, and discussed the topic, reflecting on it as a team, and came out of that with a considerably richer team culture.  Likewise here: in discussing the difficult topic of racism in a serious manner, coaches create a culture in which anti-racism is a cornerstone, and inclusivity and vulnerability become the norm.
  4. Align with Mission and Values: Every institution has a set of values and a mission statement, either implicit or, ideally, explicitly stated. The Statement at Menlo School, where I coach, includes the commitment to, “Empower students to…become ethical, responsible, and engaged members of ever-wider communities.”  Our club has a service component built into it which aims to achieve this exact goal.  And now, we have a chance as a team to truly embrace this charge and foundational aspect of our school: in a way, to not do this would be to fail to live up to our own school’s Mission Statement.
  5. A Foundation of Trust: Good teams are based on trust. So, to even get a conversation of this importance off the ground, that foundation must be in place.  And, as the conversation develops, the trust increases.  In our conversation as a team, after the first two comments by Varsity members, the third comment came from an incoming freshman—the culture we had created made it such that a freshman felt equally welcomed and trusted to share his thoughts on the topic.  I can tell you already, because of that, this team will be good: and it will be a great place to spend countless hours over the course of the upcoming season.
  6. Signaling: Players recognize how precious training minutes are to coaches.  So, it’s one thing to send an email to your team or to say at the beginning of a practice suggesting you think this topic is important (and, if that’s all you do, then that is considerably better than nothing).  But when a coach takes some of those valued minutes and devotes them to some topic not related to her sport, the athletes receive the message loud and clear: this is very important.

Throughout our team’s discussions, I loved getting to hear where my athletes were and even, at one point, respectfully disagreeing with them, and them with me.  For example, we all discussed how to handle and think about racially inflammatory language in the context of popular music and rap.  What should we do, for example, if a song is played somewhere on campus with such language?  Do we turn it off, or is it not our place to “reclaim” that language which has a certain significance to a particular culture, all historically rooted in something we may never fully understand?  Regardless of our individual answers to this, we came out of the discussion better people, just as one would from any deeply philosophical, thoughtful discussion.  And our team realized we could trust each other, they could trust me with their different views, and they knew each other in a deeper way.

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I did bring something to the conversation on Day One because I wanted to be prepared in the case the conversation went off the rails (which it didn’t) or things fell flat (which they didn’t).  I’d read an article on the TED website by DeRay Mckesson entitled, “How You Can Be An Ally In The Fight For Racial Justice." This, incidentally, was the article that motivated me to bring this topic to my team as two of his eight recommendations include, “Figure out where and how you can do the most good,” and, “Start where you are.”  The quote I brought to the team fell under the heading, “Own your privilege,” and he writes, “[You need to realize] every Band-Aid in this country looks like your skin and not mine, baby dolls look like you, and the color ‘nude’ is your skin color.  That’s what the privilege of whiteness looks like—it’s not about what you’ve done; it’s about what society does when it treats white as normal.”  And then I prompted the team, “Discuss,” and sent them into small groups of varying ages and skill levels.  In matters like these, it often can be helpful to take quotes from someone else, so the students reflect on their words and not those of the coach or educator.

Mckesson urges us to talk about what’s uncomfortable.  Recognize the discomfort.  Know and admit you’re not going to get it right, but that you’re going to try.  And then know your players will be better off, as will your team culture and all those with whom your players interact on and off the playing field moving forward.

Athletes are good with discomfort: the entire athletic endeavor involves being uncomfortable at the level of both team and individual, risking losses, and pushing beyond boundaries while accepting personal failure on a daily basis.  And yet the rewards are so rich and valuable that the discomfort is worth it.  In the case of a discussion like this, it is even more so the case.  And the rewards here will likely reach further than any other few hours of practice time spent training.

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Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 21 years where they have won the league championships 18 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe and in 2020, at TEDxGunnHighSchool, "The Unexamined Sport Is Not Worth Playing".  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.