Cultural Sensitivity

Diversity training will make your staff more effective in an increasingly multi-racial, multicultural sports environment.

By Dr. Shannon Whalen

Shannon Whalen, EdD, ATC, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Studies, Physical Education, and Human Performance Science at Adelphi University. Dr. Whalen is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Director of Student Teaching in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Columbia University, Teachers College.

Training & Conditioning, 11.6, September 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1106/sensitivity.htm


Diversity is more than a catch word, it is a reality in American sports. The NCAA reported that in 2000, approximately 25 percent of student-athletes were either ethnic minorities, biracial, or foreign born. Athletic trainers who fail to understand the implications of increasing diversity among their athletes will not effectively communicate with the people they are supposed to be helping, and will ultimately be less effective in their jobs.

Unfortunately, not every athletic trainer has the ability to work well in an ethnically and racially diverse environment. This article discusses how you can help your staff and student athletic trainers become more effective in a demographic climate of change.

Before athletic trainers can effectively work with diverse populations of athletes, they must identify and examine their own attitudes about people. One way to foster this self examination is by hosting a diversity education course as part of your program. The importance of the diversity issue, coupled with the relative lack of knowledge about the topic, may tempt you to bring in outside experts to give lectures and run workshops on the topic. Outside experts certainly are a viable option. But if your institution does not have the funds to hire outside speakers, or if you would like to approach diversity training on an internal level, you can fashion your own course by incorporating the following concepts into exercises that are specifically designed to help you and your staff examine, understand, and overcome any preconceived attitudes you may have about different races and ethnicities.

Concept One: Respecting Differences
Athletic trainers who are uncomfortable around people from different races, cultures, and ethnic groups should explore these anxieties. Recognizing, understanding, and working through any biases will enable athletic trainers to approach their jobs professionally and become more effective in working with athletes and student athletic trainers. Hence, a key component of diversity education is recognizing that all people have numerous similarities and differences. This may be an elementary concept, but it is an important one. People who fail to grasp this concept can hold prejudices simply because other people look different from them, or because another person's attitudes, values, and lifestyles are unfamiliar.

One activity that can help people recognize and respect these similarities and differences is called the "Personal Map."This activity allows participants to identify conceptual groups or communities that they belong to, compare their communities with those of others, and then discuss similarities and differences. This activity is also a good icebreaker to use any time people are trying to get to know each other.

The facilitator of a personal map activity gives each participant a large piece of paper and a marker. Participants are asked to create their own personal map by writing their names on top of their paper and then identifying and listing all the "communities"that they identify with. For example, some may identify themselves as certified athletic trainers, and others as Irish Americans, women, ex-Catholics, step-mothers, college professors, pet owners, environmentalists, Democrats, runners, and so on. It often helps if the facilitator shows a pre-written example of his or her own map, so the participants understand what is expected of them.

Once participants finish their maps, students should be provided with time to walk around and view other participants' maps. Once all participants have had time to examine all the maps, the following questions can help to facilitate the discussion:

What did you learn about others that you didn't already know?
Did you find that you were similar to others in ways that surprised you?
Did you find that you were different from people that you thought were the same as you?
How many of the listed characteristics about a person would you have been able to tell by merely looking at them?
What are the implications of this activity when working with multicultural populations?

The ensuing discussion of the above questions will compel people to engage in a face-to-face discussion of their preconceived feelings about other groups of people. Bringing these feelings out in the open can defuse anxieties that one person may have about others, and hopefully will increase his or her comfort level with people from different backgrounds.

Concept Two: Stereotypes
Stereotypes create a second important concept that must be addressed in a multicultural education program. A stereotype is a preconceived judgment about an entire group of people, where all are believed to have the same characteristics.

A stereotype often clouds the judgment of the athletic trainer, preventing him or her from seeing the athlete as an person with individual characteristics. For example, if a person is perceived as being an alcoholic, one might believe he or she is less trustworthy, less ambitious, or good for nothing.

But what about stereotypes that appear to be positive, such as the stereotype that all African Americans are good athletes? If one assumes that all African Americans are naturally athletic, then the athletic trainer may overlook the possibility that an extra flexibility or strength training program would improve the performance of an African American athlete. The bottom line is that all stereotypes are negative, even if they have a positive connotation.

Stereotyping is also dangerous because if often leads to prejudice. Prejudice is an attitude, feeling, or pre-judgment that often results in negative action against members of a group. To help debunk the merit of stereotypes, an analogy of a beach often clears things up. Think of the number of grains of sand on a beach. There are billions of grains. Stereotypes may have a grain of truth to them, but one grain is nothing compared to the billions of grains of sand that make up a beach.

Another effective exercise that increases understanding of stereotypes is called a "Round Robin."In the round robin exercise, participants identify stereotypes people hold about different populations. Then they discuss how all populations suffer from stereotypes.

When preparing the round robin activity, the facilitator should pre-label large pieces of paper with names of populations. For example, populations can be identified as people who are gay, straight, thin, obese, disabled, or people who are Hispanic, Jewish, Native American, Italian, Irish, Muslim, Asian, African American, or Caucasian. These large pieces of paper should be taped to blackboards or walls around a room so participants can rotate from station to station.

When the activity starts, the facilitator hands out markers and instructs each participant (or small groups of participants) to go to a piece of pre-titled paper. Participants will have 30 seconds to write down the stereotypes that come to mind when reading the heading on the paper in front of them. They will then rotate to the next piece of paper and add a stereotype that was not already written on the paper by another person.

The round robin can be painful to participate in, especially because people are often reluctant to offend others by identifying stereotypes that they hold about them. Consequently, it is important to preface this activity by expressing that everyone knows these stereotypes are held by some people.

Not talking about stereotypes doesn't make them disappear. It actually strengthens them. Until stereotypes are out in the open, they cannot be refuted. The facilitator should also emphasize that the stereotype can be something participants have heard about a population and not something that they necessarily believe.

Once all of the participants have had a chance to rotate to each station, they should read each completed piece of paper out loud. The discussion that comes next is where the learning and change of attitude takes place. Participants should be asked the following questions:

What was it like sharing stereotypes?
What was it like hearing the stereotypes?
Did you hear any about yourself?
Where do stereotypes come from?
Which populations that we talked about today do you belong to?
How have stereotypes affected your life?
How do stereotypes like the ones we discussed affect relationships in a multicultural environment?
What did you learn about yourself while participating in this activity?

An important point for the facilitator to make during the question period and the ensuing discussion is that everyone is damaged in some way by stereotypes. All populations have stereotypes about them, whether they are based on race, religion, sex, age, or any other characteristic. If everyone recognizes that stereotypes are damaging, and if everyone recognizes all populations are stereotyped, then all people should see the benefit of trying to eliminate stereotypes.

Concept Three: Experiencing Discrimination
Another important component of diversity training is the issue of discrimination. Most people acknowledge that there are certain populations of people who have been historically discriminated against. What most people fail to recognize is that every person, at one point in their life, has been discriminated against in one way or another. Discussing the fact that everyone has been discriminated against will create a common ground among your participants.

One activity that will help your participants "walk a mile in each other's shoes"is a "Story Time"activity. This activity encourages participants to write an account of a personal experience with discrimination, and then discuss how everyone is a victim of discrimination at least once in their life. Finally, the group should discuss how empathy can prevent individuals from perpetuating stereotypes.

This activity can be done as a homework assignment or as an activity during a workshop or class. If the activity is done in class, the facilitator should hand out identical paper and pens. Participants should be given time to think and then write an anonymous story about when they felt different, felt like they didn't belong, or felt discriminated against. If participants cannot think of an incident of discrimination in their own lives, permit them to write about an incident that happened to someone else. Participants should be instructed not to write their names or any other identifying factors in their stories. The anonymity of the stories allow people to be completely honest with their feelings. This activity is even more meaningful when participants are given the opportunity to complete the story at home and bring it in the next day.

When the participants are finished, the stories are collected, shuffled, and passed back around the group. Participants then read someone else's story out loud to the rest of the group. After the stories are read back to the group, the following discussion questions can be posed:

What were the similarities and differences among the stories?
How did these experiences shape your life?
What could have been done differently at the time and why?

This activity reminds participants that even those in the majority have, at one time or another, experienced feelings of being different from others. Emphasizing a common experience will bring your group together. The facilitator should also remind participants that being perceived as different is a constant in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities, and it may account for misunderstood behavior brought on by these emotions. Additionally, the facilitator should encourage participants to remember their feelings during this activity the next time they are in a group situation involving someone who may be perceived as different.


Concept Four: Communication

Communication skills are an important part of diversity training that translates directly into an ATC's daily job routine. Athletic trainers who can't effectively communicate with their athletes can't properly treat their athletes. Thus, athletic trainers become much better at dealing with their athletes when they understand differences in communication styles and how people from different backgrounds may communicate and interpret communication in different ways.

For example, an athlete from one ethnic background may not complain about an injury because stoicism is valued in that person's community. If the athletic trainer does not specifically ask this athlete about an injury, this athlete may never mention it. If the athletic trainer is aware that the athlete's body language and tone of voice are indicating pain, then the athletic trainer will know to specifically ask the athlete if he or she is injured.

Communication training builds upon the first three concepts mentioned in this article. Mastering the first three concepts increases an ATCs sensitivity to diversity and also raises the comfort level that an ATC has with people from differing backgrounds. As a result, the athletic trainer can better "read"how a particular athlete is feeling and more effectively communicate any treatment protocols to that athlete.

Typically, communication training includes discussion, analysis, and practice of verbal and non-verbal language, including body language and tone of voice. A good exercise is to have athletes from different backgrounds do some role playing: Have an athlete pretend he or she has an injury and let the participating ATCs attempt to communicate, understand, and treat that injury.

Other communication training can include passive listening, active listening, and paraphrasing. These listening skills can be sharpened by role playing. For example, have one athlete play the role of a stoic and have another participant play the role of an ATC who is trying to treat the athlete. Then, discuss the communication barriers and how the ATC approached the communication problem. These are all skills that can be practiced. The better the communication skills athletic trainers possess, the more effective they will be at helping the athletes maintain optimal health.

Expected Outcomes
Once you and your athletic trainers have been through a diversity education program, what kinds of results can you realistically expect? The answer depends on the individual. These exercises simply provide tools one can use to better understand, and to become more comfortable working with, people of different backgrounds, values, attitudes, and lifestyles.

In most cases, instituting multicultural and diversity education programs helps athletic trainers learn to respect differences among athletes and staff, whether it is in a meeting room, in the athletic training room, or on the field. An added benefit is that diversity training creates an atmosphere of mutual respect that builds morale and fosters a team-oriented work environment.

Understand that there is no quick fix to diversity education. It takes people a long time to develop stereotypes and biases, and it may take a long time for you to undo them. One thing is certain. Nothing will change unless you try. But once that understanding and respect is attained, your staff will not only be better at communicating with the athletes, they will also command greater respect from them.