Leading: Defining Inclusion in High Performance Sport

In my first blog post, I shared my coaching philosophy. One of the six key behaviours through which I express my philosophy is that my coaching is inclusive. The importance of this behaviour is underpinned by my overall core value that the ultimate purpose of sport is to contribute to the mental and physical well-being and the ultimate success of the individual on their chosen path. There is nothing is more important in sport than the person within the athlete. Sport, in and of itself, has no value. Moreover, as I work closely with individual athletes, I do not believe that an athlete can perform successfully if they do not understand that they are safe in my coaching environment. Therefore, I prioritize the creation of a coaching environment is inclusive for athletes, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender identity. That’s a lovely sentiment but what does it mean, particularly in a “high performance” context?


I exist with a foot in both the sporting and educational spheres and so, I am intimately familiar with how “inclusion” has become a buzzword. It’s a term that educators, coaches, administrators, technical leaders, or charlatans are eager to insert into policy documents and coaching philosophies to “score points”, so to speak, and appear more sensitive to the issues of our time. Whether one does this out of self interest, moral fortitude, or something in between those two poles, that is the reality. With that in mind, it is not unreasonable to question someone’s use of the term “inclusion” in order to gauge their understanding of the term and how it might apply to their coaching. Therefore, I was was both un-surprised and pleased when Dave posted the following comment on my blog:

My last thought… is whether sport at the highest levels becomes more exclusive than inclusive.  I too champion the need for inclusion and diversity in sport, and believe that both are required for “performance participation”.  However, is the nature of sport not a paradox to a fully inclusive approach?

The short answer is that I agree with Dave and the meaning of inclusion is highly relative. While that sounds like an evasive, “both sides” type of answer, I simply mean that the practice of inclusion is dependent on the context in which we are operating. I’m sure I could write an M.A. thesis on the subject (Dr. Van Neutegem would be thrilled) but for the purposes of this post, I’ll speak to three very broad categories: grassroots, governance, and high performance.

Grassroots sport

At the grassroots level, the goal should be to be “truly” inclusive and remove many, if not all, barriers to entry. Those barriers tend to be sport-specific but I’ll speak to examples of what I know, which is hockey. Over the last five years, amateur (minor) hockey organizations have been focused on the financial barriers of hockey and how those can be mitigated. Some of those adaptations include “Try Hockey” events, equipment libraries, and bursaries for registration fees. Unfortunately, these are still viewed as specialty programs and the bulk of participants are expected to shoulder the increasing financial burdens of participation.

Even in the case of an individual with a physical challenge or a developmental delay, we should make every effort to include them at the grassroots and Active for Life levels. I have observed success with integrating individuals with physical disabilities, developmental delays, and autism spectrum disorders in grassroots sport in the last several years. These people were certainly not welcome when I was a participant in grassroots hockey in the late 90s and early 00s. However, persons who are differently-abled are still viewed as special circumstances to be accommodated on a case-by-case basis if there is impetus to do so. We can do better; we can and should aim for true inclusion at the grassroots level.

Governance of sport

One issue that is glaringly obvious is the fact that participation in hockey is increasingly racially/culturally/gender-diverse at the grassroots level but the upper echelons continue to be homogenous. The senior staff and directors of sport organizations continue to be overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cis-gender men of a certain age. This type of homogeneity is self-perpetuating. The insularity of the community is maintained and the result is that diverse individuals (I hate that term, I’m sorry) are out of the sport long before they are eligible for positions of leadership.

We need urgent research, backed by decisive action from our Provincial and National Sport Organizations, and robust external oversight to address the root causes of why these individuals are self-selecting out or being selected out of the sport. Broadly-speaking, our culture is a purported meritocracy; there is an ethos of “putting your time in” to “earn” opportunities. Without diving into a sociological analysis of whether or not that is even true, I will simply assert that an individual can not and will not spend decades “earning” their opportunities in an environment that is not inclusive. Moreover, this issue is a perfect storm because the actions that are taken today likely won’t pay dividends until ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the road. So governing bodies can make statements and form committees but the longer they wait to take action, the longer we wait to see meaningful change.

High performance sport

So, I clearly feel quite strongly about the need to improve access and inclusion in sport. Having said that, I recognize that at a high performance level, there will be more natural barriers to access. Some of these can be overcome but others cannot. An example that applies across the board is that every sport has an ideal physical profile for their high performance athletes. If an individual falls too far outside of that profile, they not a viable high performance athlete. A lot of those physical traits are determined by genetics; that is a major barrier to entry right off the bat and there is nothing we can do about that. However, I don’t believe that 81.5% of USPORT athletes are visibly identifiable as “white” simply based on a superior genetic profile. As I alluded to in the previous section, there is no question that certain athletes are self-selecting or being selected out of competitive sport long before they arrive on a USPORT team.

There are also barriers that can be mitigated but not erased: for example, elite athletic training costs both money and time. Every sport in the world is becoming more competitive, meaning athletes who can access training at an earlier age are at an advantage. Additionally, athletes who have the ability to live at home into their twenties are able to dedicate more of their time to optimizing their training as compared to athletes who have to keep a steady income to pay their living expenses. So, although having affluent parents is not a requirement, stated or otherwise, in order to compete at an elite level, there is no question that it helps. Unfortunately, as we live in a capitalist society, as much as we may mitigate those types of inequalities, we will never erase them entirely. Nonetheless, we should endeavour to do so.


High performance sport is, by it’s nature, exclusionary. By using the designation of  “high performance” we are excluding those who cannot train and compete at a certain level. Therefore, when I think about inclusion as a core behaviour within my philosophy, as a coach and technical leader in a high performance context, I am thinking that if a barrier to access exists, one of two things must be true: either I should have a plan to remove or mitigate said barrier or I should have an irrefutable explanation as to why removal or mitigation is not feasible at this time.

As I think about my own experience in sport, I can think of countless viable participants and athletes at different levels who “didn’t fit the culture” (subtext: was uncomfortable with hazing-type behaviour) or “didn’t gel tactically” (subtext: didn’t get on with the star of the team) or even individuals who didn’t fit in socially with most of the group and, instead of viewing that as a challenge to address, was viewed by coaches as a problem to be removed. Every person who grew up in sport can recall examples of wholly unjustifiable exclusion and unfortunately, I’m sure some of us were those examples.

We must work urgently to create environments that allow for heterogeneity. That means educating our athletes on inclusive behaviour and constructing a team culture reflects those values. While I feel somewhat equipped to do that, I am not an expert by any means and so we as coaches and technical leaders must also work to educate ourselves. We should allow our athletes from marginalized populations to set terms of engagement but not rely on them to lead or educate others. We must allow our athletes to flourish both within sport and outside of it; because sport has no value if it does not contribute to the nourishment of the whole person. This requires us to do the work in advance and commit to building trusting relationships that will allow those athletes to succeed or fail on their own merits. There is enough natural exclusivity in high performance sport and our mission should be to ensure our environments are as inclusive as possible and to always strive for better.

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