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A powerful new tool for coaches to help support their racialized players

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed who writes opinions for CBC Sports. For more information about Opinion Department of CBCPlease take a look… FAQ.

The first time I was ever racially abused was on a soccer field. An opposing player called me a bow and I responded by hitting her. I was 11 years old.

The referee immediately threw me out of the game, but because he hadn’t heard the comments directly, nothing happened to the player who racially abused me. She smiled smugly as I walked off the seat with angry tears in my eyes. The experience was humbling and incredibly isolating. I’ve talked about it before and talk about it because the way I felt abandoned by my coach still haunts me.

Racialized athletes need support and protection on everything from racist attacks to cultural understanding. Yes, we lost the tournament, but I lost all faith in my coach that day. Had he had some understanding of how to handle the situation instead of directing his ignorance and frustration at me, the situation would not have made me feel so alone. But now, decades later, coaches and athletes are getting the education and training they need and deserve.

That Coaching Association of Canada (CAC) has just released a special online module Learning against racism. The impetus for this online learning tool came from the CAC, which oversees 65 amateur sports federations. Sports Canada requires the CAC to offer coaching education to coaches nationwide.

I spoke to Isabelle Cayer, CAC Director of Sports Safety, who explained why there was a shift towards EDI – equity, diversity and inclusion – in the internal organization. The CAC’s strategic plan, drafted in 2018, emphasized gender balance but did not pay as much attention to issues of race and discrimination.

Lee Anna Osei founded the Black Canadian Coaches Association in 2020. (Courtesy of Lee Anna Osei)

“We took our time [ask] What do we intend to do to support our staff, our partnership and the larger coaching community not just now but well into the future,” said Cayer.

The CAC applied for funding from Sport Canada and was awarded a stipend. They also set up an anti-racism task force made up of staff dedicated to this initiative.

Cayer knew that the lived experience of racialized experts would be required. It may seem like this would be easy to understand, but the Canadian sports world lacks a basic understanding of these simple steps.

In 2020 the Black Canadian Coaches Association (BCCA) was founded by Lee Anna Osei. The current director of BCCA is a former college basketball player and variety-level basketball coach. The BCCA’s work highlighted the gaps in support for Black coaches and Black athletes in Canadian sports. The CAC turned to the BCCA for advice and guidance and this is how this project began.

How can coaches support raced athletes?

dr Janelle Joseph is Assistant Professor of Critical Studies of Race & Indigeneity and Founder and Director of the IDEAS (Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-Racism in Sport) Research Laboratory at the University of Toronto. She is also Research Director of the BCCA. Her work includes research into anti-racism in sporting initiatives in University athletics.

Before creating the module itself, Dr. Joseph and her team were given the task of reporting on the state of knowledge on the subject of anti-racism in coaching in Canada. Within two months they had produced a report that included a literature review and gap analysis. She notes that there is very little literature on racing in sports in Canada, and even less on racing and coaching in Canada. Her team drew on existing grants in the UK, Australia and the US

The research team examined how coaches can support raced athletes, the barriers and challenges of black women and how they are unappreciated, but also explored the intersectionality of discrimination.

“We looked at how racism manifests itself in nuances,” said Dr. Joseph. The intersections of race, class and gender are very complicated and need to be understood with more context of the sport.

dr Joseph explained how the relationship between athletes and their coaches can also contribute to a problematic system, especially when the current system assumes the coaches know everything.

There are also obstacles and instances where trainers try to mobilize their peers to take anti-racism seriously or need to access guidelines that don’t exist.– dr Janelle Joseph

“Athletes look at the coaches as if they know everything and can solve any problem,” she said. “There are also obstacles and instances where coaches are trying to mobilize their peers to take anti-racism seriously or needing to access policies that don’t exist.”

The first report noted that not all trainers may feel trained and/or supported to work against racism. One of the things that surprised her was the way some trainers were “helpless”, which became an essential requirement for the module. Additionally, the report found that racialized trainers progress despite the system in which they are embedded. The online educational model was ready and fully developed last March in French and English.

The module addresses intersectionality and drew heavily on the conversational power and ideas from these spaces. The online training lasts between 60 and 75 minutes. It includes reading, quiz and discussion questions for reflection. The module includes case studies covering issues such as race, gender identity, class and how they may intersect. It provides guidance on how coaches can recognize and intervene in micro-aggressions, how to support athletes and how to dismantle racist, sexist or homophobic systems.

The dominant sporting culture in Canada is white, male and heteronormative, but this does not represent what sport actually is in Canada.

According to Cayer, some of the project’s goals would be to obtain a grant for EDI work and to create coaching development opportunities for racialized coaches, coaches with disabilities, and other coaches on the fringes. A secondary part is developing a blended learning approach and then engaging in dialogues about anti-racism, which Cayer says reflects reality.

for dr Joseph would be the best outcome of the module to bring some of these language and resources of truth and reconciliation and anti-racism into the mainstream.

“That we don’t have to discuss whether touching a black person’s hair is a problem,” said Dr. Joseph. “In some communities we’re still at a point where we’re explaining racism and explaining the lived experience of microaggression where it impacts me and my communities.”

Systemic Alignment

She hopes coaches can share this information with their athletes so they can take action. dr Joseph insists that sport is such a rich resource for transforming broader cultures.

Cayer hopes this will be shared widely with partners and the language and terminology will be understood and create a systemic alignment between sports that results from the flow of information.

“The sports sector needs that. We are a sporting nation,” Cayer said. “Sport has to be a place where people come, have positive experiences and feel safe. It just has to be a place where people show up and have fun.”

dr Joseph says there is a predominance of white men in positions of power and care should be taken to ensure that they are leading culture change. Empowering those who are being racially treated and ensuring everyone has the same information across the board is vital.

The Anti-Racism-in-Coaching training course costs $15 and is available on the CAC website.

I can’t think of a better way to integrate anti-racism into sport than with this powerful tool for coaches. As a lifelong soccer player who turned to her coaches and coaches for support and guidance during the formative years of my life, this is an immensely helpful toolkit that can help shape the sport in Canada for the better.

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