Talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion can feel tricky as a coach: You want to get it right, but you’re not sure what exactly to say. And it’s understandable: The language used in the DE&I space evolves, and you may be worried about getting something wrong. But ignoring the topic entirely can be much more damaging to your team than making an honest mistake about pronouns versus preferred pronouns.
Here, TrueSport Experts Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorder; Nadia Kyba, MSW, President of Now What Facilitation; and Michele LaBotz, sports medicine physician, share how to navigate these potentially tricky conversations and explain a few specific examples of the ways language has changed in recent years.
Language is constantly evolving
We often think of language as static, but the reality is that it’s always evolving. Consider the pronoun ‘they.’ In recent years, ’they’ has shifted from being plural to being grammatically appropriate to use in the singular. “People will try to say that using ’they’ as a personal pronoun isn’t grammatically correct,” says Kyba. “But that’s not true anymore. And maybe more importantly, if a person is requesting that they be referred to as ‘they,’ then the respectful course of action is to use that pronoun.”
Don’t avoid conversations for fear of being wrong
It’s tempting to avoid conversations around gender, sexuality, race, ableism, or ethnicity altogether to avoid using the wrong term or phrase, but ignoring these topics isn’t the solution. Doing so can make athletes feel less seen and less important. “Conversations around things like pronouns can feel tricky, but they need to be had,” says Kyba. “It’s important that we welcome these conversations about pronouns or appropriate terminology, even if that feels uncomfortable or you worry about getting something wrong.”
Shift how you think about potentially offending athletes
You may be reading this and feeling overwhelmed (or even potentially irritated) that you need to remember so many new terms and phrases. But while it’s easy to start thinking that young people today are ‘easily offended,’ focus instead on the fact that your words—or lack of acknowledgement—can truly wound the young people you care about.
Create an open-door policy
As a coach, you likely already have an open door policy in place for your athletes. But make sure that your door is open to discuss anything—and let students know that you appreciate their feedback. “Start the season by telling your athletes that you want to make sure you are saying the correct thing and asking students to call you out if you aren’t,” Kyba says. “That starts the conversation and lets athletes know that you’re open to making change. And it sets you up to learn: People are going to be more inclined to talk to you if they think you’re willing to be corrected. If you make that clear to your athletes, you’re creating safety for those athletes to be able to come to you.”
Ask, don’t assume
If you’re afraid of getting something wrong, the best way to avoid that happening is asking how to get it right. “From a preventative standpoint, what we always talk about with multiculturalism is the importance of asking, as opposed to assuming,” says Chapman. “Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘What is your preference? What should I say when I address you?’ It’s the single best thing someone can do to avoid stereotyping and micro-aggressing against people.”