Ethnicity in Sport

Ethnicity  refers  to  shared  cultural  traditions  and history of a group or population. The collection of people who share an ethnicity is often called an ethnic group. An ethnic group shares a common culture that is reflected in language or dialect, religion, customs,  clothing,  food,  and  music,  literature,  or art. Ethnic groups are often associated with nationality, geographic region, or country of origin. For example, in the United States, African Americans, Italian  Americans,  and  Mexican  Americans  are examples of ethnic groups. Other countries would have  different  ethnic  groups,  based  on  different cultural traditions, such as religion or language.

The term race and ethnicity are often confused, but these terms are not identical. Race is based on meanings given to biological features, particularly skin color, as well as other physical traits as hair and  eyes.  Ethnicity  is  based  on  a  shared  culture and  claimed  identity  associated  with  a  sense  of belonging and pride. As scholars have noted, ethnicity  and  race  are  dynamic,  historically  derived and institutionalized ideas and practices.

Economic power tends to be unequally distributed  among  ethnic  groups.  The  dominant  ethnic groups have power, also termed privilege, whereas nondominant  groups  often  experience  oppression or  discrimination.  Power—or  the  ability  to  get what  one  wants—is  held  by  the  majority  group when  they  establish  a  system  based  on  their  own cultural  values.  Less  powerful  groups,  such  as ethnic minorities, occupy a lower status in society because of power relations.

Ethnicity is important in sport and exercise psychology because it impacts sport and physical activity patterns. Sport participation among ethnic groups varies  by  group,  tradition,  and  rituals.  In  general, ethnic  minorities  have  experienced  a  long  history of  being  excluded  from  participation  and  leadership from organized sport, competition, and physical activity programs. Today, a few popular sports have a higher percentage of ethnic minorities, but in many sports, ethnic minorities are almost completely absent. Even when participation rates are high, ethnic minorities have been excluded from positions of power in sport, including coaching and management at the youth, collegiate, and professional levels.

Research within sport psychology indicates that negative stereotypes related to ethnicity and other social  categorizations  are  common  in  sport  and lead to performance decrements. Stereotype threat, which has been found to occur in sport, refers to being at risk for confirming a negative stereotype of  one’s  group.  Stereotype  threat  has  been  found to  lower  the  performance  of  African  Americans in academic situations because of the negative stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent then  other  groups.  For  example,  members  of  a racial or ethnic group believed to be academically inferior score much lower on tests when reminded of their race or ethnicity beforehand.

Scholars  have  suggested  that  sport  psychology professionals  are  often  oblivious  to  their  own beliefs about athletes from different ethnic groups. In  fact,  sport  psychology  professionals’  beliefs often are based on a Eurocentric worldview due to the lack of research and discussion related to cultural  diversity  in  sport  psychology.  Furthermore, cultural  diversity  training  in  sport  psychology  is almost completely absent, which likely contributes to  many  professionals’  lack  of  understanding  of ethnicity.  To  expand  our  worldview,  sport  and exercise psychology professionals need to conduct more  research  on  ethnicity.  Those  practicing  in sport  psychology  are  encouraged  to  be  aware  of their own biases related to ethnicity and to develop appropriate skills to work with members of ethnic minorities.


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  3. Lapchick, R. E., Bartter, J., Diaz-Calderon, A., Hanson, J., Harless, C. Johnson, W., et al. (2009). 2009 racial and gender report card. Retrieved from Final_rev.pdf
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  1. Schinke, R. J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (Eds.). (2009). Cultural sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613–629.


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