When it comes to using sports to support social change, effective organizations understand that developing a culture of organizational and programmatic inclusion leads to better results for the community. Similarly, respect and inclusion are essential in creating athletic environments that offer early positive experiences. Racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, discrimination on the basis of physical ability, and other forms of prejudice undermine acceptance and belonging.
As documented by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, the benefits of youth participation in sport include better health, academic achievement, and self-esteem. At the same time, we know that in particular, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) youth, and or those perceived as LGBT are at a higher risk of being bullied at school or at play, which can hinder participation.
Sports can and should be inclusive, and when it comes to ensuring that all youth are included and welcome to participate in sports, coaches play an important role. Coaches provide critical leadership in setting expectations for respect and inclusion, and yet youth cannot assume that their coaches are allies because sexual orientation and gender identity often are not explicitly discussed, and homophobia and transphobia are not directly addressed.
At the recent Aspen Institute Sports & Society Project Play Summit in Washington, DC, Athlete Ally announced an initiative called the Athlete Ally Coaches P.L.A.Y. (Promote Leadership & Allyship for Youth) that will equip coaches with simple resources and tools to create a safe and supportive team environment for all participants. In addition, Athlete Ally will engage coaches across the U.S. in signing the Athlete Ally pledge as a platform for expressing their commitment to Allyship and inclusion, contributing to a broader momentum and cultivating a culture of inclusion that offers all youth safe spaces in which to play and experience the benefits of sport.
President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition Executive Director, Shellie Phohl moderated a panel at the summit on inclusion in sports and play. Olympic snowboarder and Athlete Ally Ambassador, Callan Chythlook-Sifsof shared her perspective as an athlete who is Yupik and Inupiak, was the first indigenous Alaskan to compete for a U.S. Olympic team, and who came out as a lesbian in 2014. "Having had the opportunity to train and compete at the highest levels in snowboarding, I know from experience that feelings of not belonging on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation or otherwise are a distraction," said Chythlook-Sifsof. "An environment of inclusion is important to athletes at all levels, and coaches can make a huge difference."
The impact of coaches actively and proactively cultivating inclusive team environments benefits LGBT and/or gender non-conforming youth, youth who are perceived to be LGBT and/or gender non-conforming, and youth whose parents or family members are LGBT and/or gender non-conforming. According to Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program executive director, ESPN correspondent, and youth coach, Tom Farrey, "Inclusion in youth sports means making room for all kids, including those with a direct LGBT connection. Make room for all kids, and all kids will benefit. Sport can be a great place to teach kids how to work with peers from different backgrounds or orientations."
Coaches are often teachers, mentors and guides. The impact of a good coach is not limited to the pitch, ice, court, or water, as what they teach us has the potential to shape how we see ourselves. They inspire and instruct, teaching us not only how to play better, but also how to be better. By engaging and supporting coaches as leaders when it comes to inclusion, we create a culture and environment in which all youth have the opportunity to explore their athletic potential and love of sports.