Tips to Help Sport Leaders Build Inclusive Environments

soccer coach giving direction to players on sideline

To get the best out of your team or organization, you should create a dynamic that helps every athlete feel safe, supported, and strengthened.

Saying it is easy, but it’s no slam dunk for sports leaders to do it. 

Every athlete under your leadership likely faces a major on-field or off-field challenge. A broken leg in a hard cast may clearly suggest a personal challenge. But most challenges your athletes face can’t easily be seen on the surface. Often, they have origins in how we treat each other—including the impact our words and actions have on those who don’t look, move, or act like we do. 

In inclusive environments, no one has to change to fit in. Coaches and administrators play a lead role in creating this environment to support athletes of all abilities, races, backgrounds, and identities. These tips will help you do so. 

  1. Promote athletes’ agency and autonomy: Encourage them to set physical and emotional boundaries and respect those boundaries. Give every athlete what they need to be individually successful, rather than assuming they all have the same circumstances or motivators. Give athletes with disabilities the help they request, not the help you assume they need.
  2. Communicate openly and respectfully: Talk intentionally with your team at the start of a season to set expectations about culture, engagement, and respect for others. Communicate using simple, clear language, and ensure policies, schedules, rules, and other important information are easy to access and absorb. Check to be sure you are understood by athletes whose intellectual and developmental abilities may differ from yours.
  3. Model respect, equity, and integrity: Let your athletes know you value them as people, not solely as a means to winning. Help them learn and grow through open, age-appropriate conversations on topics of fairness and oppression such as racism, homophobia, and ableism. Be aware of natural imbalances of power between coaches and athletes, and do not manipulate or exploit them.  
  4. Be sensitive to stress or trauma: Check in with your athletes regularly to understand any unusual or chronic stress and trauma they may be facing. If an athlete is acting inappropriately, consider what factors may be affecting their behavior before you decide on consequences.
  5. Don’t let harmful behavior linger: Address inappropriate behavior promptly. Develop processes for addressing disagreements, conflicts, and incidents of misconduct, and publicize them during the season. Be alert to any team rules you may set (such as on personal grooming, behavior, or schedule) that may reflect cultural bias.

On top of these actionable tips, the U.S. Center for SafeSport produces tools and online trainings to help coaches and administrators recognize and learn techniques for preventing abuse and misconduct on your team. Visit our SafeSport Courses for All webpage, and learn how you can Champion Respect and End Abuse in your sport.