Culture refers to the context in which people develop their perspective on, and approach to, life. Numerous cultures exist, representing the multiple geographic regions and racial, class, ethnic, and gender groups across the world. Multiculturalism refers to an approach that integrates these varied perspectives into society and an awareness of how an individual’s cultural background may impact personal and professional interactions with others.
In sport and exercise psychology (SEP), until recently, the idea of multiculturalism has received little attention in the literature. However, pioneers in the fields of sport sociology, counseling psychology, and community psychology have highlighted the importance of cultural variables in research and practice settings. Early work involving multiculturalism and sport focused exclusively on racial or ethnic variables as the indicators of a person’s cultural background. These efforts focused on identifying and discussing the relevant social issues within each racial or ethnic subgroup, such as lack of economic resources, limited access to training or employment, restricted opportunities for sport participation, and lower power equality relative to the dominant group.
Much of the multicultural literature in the counseling field has focused on training professionals to become culturally competent providers of services. These localized trainings, often within the context of graduate programs in psychology, provide educational modules or practical experiences aimed at exposing trainees to the cultural practices of specific client populations. This narrow approach to training can be contrasted against the broader goals of multiculturalism within psychology, which instead focuses on awareness of one’s own cultural heritage and the diversity of social and political factors within society that can contribute to a person’s cultural and personal identity. Many graduate programs have evolved to include both localized and broader approaches in their curricula and applied experiences. Within sport psychology (SP), professionals using this lens in their practice will understand the biases and limitations of their own cultural identity as well as the potential issues affecting their work with clients or within particular settings. Thus, multicultural practices de-emphasize the biological determinants of behavior, while prioritizing environmental factors. Using these guidelines, practitioners may seek out (through interview, assessment, or observation) how each client’s cultural identity will impact the therapeutic relationship.
Multicultural competencies are becoming more important every year in a world where information and perspectives can be shared through various technologies with relative ease. The Internet age has dramatically increased our exposure to multiple cultures through access to images and videos, language translation, and news reports from around the world. The many factors that determine one’s cultural reference point have contributed to the rise in popularity of phenomenology and other qualitative approaches in SEP research. The expansion in our exposure to, and appreciation of, multiple cultures has led sport psychologists to consider many additional aspects beyond racial and ethnic background including socioeconomic status (SES), religion, sexual orientation, and gender, among others. The inclusion of different aspects of culture in research methodologies may help the field move forward toward an approach that does not use Western models as the default frame of reference but instead chooses a perspective and lens appropriate to the question at hand.
Culture has become an important frame of reference for designing research projects and applied interventions. From single-case designs to larger-scale randomized trials, evidence has been accumulated in support of the idea that culturally targeted approaches are more effective than standardized interventions. These cultural adaptations can range from simple adjustments in language or terminology to more radical reconceptualizations of popular concepts or methodologies. A simple example of this adaptation is when academic professionals collaborate across borders to translate and reverse translate a research instrument for use in cross-cultural research. Another methodology growing in popularity in health and exercise research is called community-based participatory research. This approach to data collection, intervention, and evaluation allows flexibility in the methods and means of data collection so that researchers can adapt to contextual differences present in various cultural regions or among sub groups once the project has started. This flexibility may include changing who delivers the assessments and intervention to include local partners; the language used; or the timing, length, and depth of contact.
Each new generation of students and professionals in SEP is more exposed to, and more educated about, cultures beyond their own. Professionals who desire to conduct ethical research and practice must learn and account for the biases of their own worldview while continuing to ask good questions about the importance of someone else’s views. These developments in our field are but one small part of the growing multicultural nature of our global society, but they are reflective of the whole.
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