You are a soccer coach at a rural university.  The community is largely white, middle- to upper class.  Recently you were told you need to increase the racial diversity of your team.  Although there is some diversity amongst the student-athletes on the football and basketball teams there is little diversity on campus, in the community or on the coaching staff.  Being a white coach you feel uncomfortable about how best to recruit racial minorities to your team.  You ask a few of the other coaches on staff, all of whom are white, and they are struggling with the same issue.  Over the next couple of years you have limited success bringing racial minority soccer players to your team.  You manage to get several international students and a few racial minorities from the US but you have not been able to retain any more than 1-2 years.  The more the university pushes forward with their diversity plan, the more pressure you are getting to recruit and retain diverse student-athletes.  You, and many of the other coaches, are at a loss.

Dr. Withycombe:  This is a common story at colleges/universities all over the US.  Every institution has a diversity plan.  Of course, exactly what that means varies wildly from school to school.  Most just have the word “diversity” stamped somewhere in their mission statement with no idea how to achieve diversity let alone inclusion on their campuses.  OFten athletics represents the most diversity at any given college/university.  From the President to the Athletic Director the message trickles down that the coaches need to increase racial diversity (because often every other kind of diversity is forgotten) on their teams.  With little to no support or suggestions as to how to do this, many coaches flounder.  It is especially difficult for coaches at rural institutions and/or coaching sports that have a history lacking in diverse representation.  So?  What do we do?

For this post let me advice two best practices:

1)  The biggest problem with increasing diversity within athletics is not usually recruiting (although this can be a huge issue too) but retention.  Like the coach above, we recruit minorities student-athletes to our teams only to have them quite or transfer without having any idea why.  The fact is that when we are mandated to increase diversity by those above us (president, athletic director, etc.) we end up doing it blindly.  What matters is checking the box that says “I have acquired 3 racial minorities on my team.”  It is as if we are purchasing equipment.  Once those athletes come to campus they realize they were merely a check box.  They realize they are place holders for meeting a quota.  No matter how much you care for them and genuinely want them on your team, they know exactly why they are there.  Not only that but because we often bring people from various cultures to our own and forget to (or purposefully don’t) change anything about our own culture–they leave.  If you drop someone in and say “Peace out, hope it works for ya.”  Guess what?  They are not going to stay.  It is not going to “work” because you (nor the AD, campus, community, president) have not taken the time to learn anything about the culture from which they came, how this new culture is different, and what you can do to support their transition as well as modify your own culture to meet their needs.  Recruiting means very little if we cannot retain.  Quantity is not the same thing as quality.  Focus on providing a quality experience and you will see a big change.  That means COMMUNICATING with your athlete and seeing what they need to feel comfortable, supported, and successful.  For those of you who have a hard time recruiting because your numbers of racial minorities are already low…take heart.  Focus on the quality experience.  ONce you are known for providing a quality experience, an ethic of care, you won’t have to work so hard to recruit.

2) A follow-up to this…the coach above told me how uncomfortable he felt trying to recruit racial minorities to his team.  The came from different cultures (both within the US and abroad), they had different expectations and values as did their parents, and he wondered just how successful he could be at it given that he was white.  I remember talking about this as a whole staff and many of the other coaches nodded along that this was an issue they faced.  There was only one coach who did not…the only racial minority in the room, an African American basketball coach.  I looked over at him and I asked if he ever had trouble recruiting minority student-athletes.  He laughed and said no.  I asked him why not.  He said, “because I am Black.”  There was now a collective hush over the room because apparently everyone was convinced that if no one mentioned that he was African American no one would know?  I responded, “That’s true.  Do you feel that being Black gives you an advantage when recruiting racial minorities?”  “Absolutely”, he responded.  “Would you be willing to share your thoughts on what these coaches, all of whom are white, could do to better recruit and retain minority athletes?”  “Sure.”

Thereafter ensued one of the most productive conversations I have ever had in a workshop.  Let me be clear that just because this coach was African American does not mean he represents ALL African Americans.  He is a unique individual just like any other person.  However, he IS African American and he DOES know what it is like to BE African American.  And when we ask from a place of honest respect and a desire to learn, we can LEARN a lot.  Everyone in the room was afraid to say that he was Black and yet, he KNOWS he’s Black.  It was as if it might be impolite to mention it.  But by not mentioning it we are also silencing a part of his identity.  Not only that we are missing out on an opportunity to learn something.  Even if he has not been African American, any coach who works with a high number of minority student-athletes could give us insight as to how to work with the athletes and their families.  We are so worried about asking that we don’t ask and we learning NOTHING.  It is ok to be different.  It is ok to recognize difference.  It is ok to ask questions.  This coach’s biggest take away message was that if you are going to recruit a minority student-athlete to your team you should bring someone with you, or put that athlete in contact with someone on campus (athlete or coach or professor) who looks like them.  Someone they can relate to.  This puts the athlete and his/her family at ease.  It is hard to understand the importance of seeing others like yourself when you are white.  When you are white you have the privilege of almost always being in the majority in every situation.  The next time you have a chance–walk into a place where you are the distinct minority whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability.  Soak up the experience.  What is it like?  Use those observations to better your understanding of helping create a quality experience for others.

On April 30th, 2016, posted in: BEST PRACTICES

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