Assimilation in Sport

Assimilation  refers  to  the  integration  of  one  culture  into  another.  This  integration  may  include changes  in  cultural  characteristics  such  as  language,  appearance,  food,  music,  and  religion among   other   customs.   Cultural   values   and beliefs  also  influence  this  integration  of  cultures. Assimilation  is  relevant  to  sport  performance  in that  sports  occur  in  the  context  of  culture,  society,  and  politics.  In  addition,  each  sport  has  its own  culture  and  characteristics  that  may  reflect or  be  in  contrast  with  the  values  and  beliefs  of society and the individual athletes that play a particular sport. As such, an athlete’s cultural milieu may interact with that of the sport and society in which the sport occurs to influence performance. For  instance,  a  sport  that  focuses  on  individual performance and recognition may not fit well for an  athlete  from  a  culture  that  emphasizes  teamwork and humility.

Assimilation may influence the type of sport an athlete selects and the roles assumed within sports and  may  also  manifest  in  interactions  and  relationships  with  teammates  and  coaches.  Typically, cultural assimilation involves an underrepresented (minority)  group  integrating  into  a  dominant group’s  culture.  An  athlete  from  rural  American Samoa playing American football at an urban college in the United States, for example, might integrate into the dominant cultural group of the city in  which  he  plays  by  adopting  the  cultural  practices of that region. However, the preceding example and description represent a unidirectional and oversimplified  version  of  the  concept  of  assimilation,  as  they  suggest  that  assimilation  necessarily occurs in the direction of the dominant group and that  it  is  a  linear  process  of  change.  Assimilation can also occur from the direction of the dominant to the underrepresented group, though this is less common.  For  example,  a  White  athlete  playing American  football  at  a  predominantly  Black  college  may  assimilate  toward  the  culture  of  his  fellow students, campus, and teammates, which may not reflect the dominant culture per se. Moreover, assimilation  is  not  a  process  that  is  linear  with  a finite  endpoint  of  being  assimilated;  rather  it  is a  process  that  is  constantly  evolving.  Individual athletes  may  assimilate  to  varying  degrees  based on situational, historical, and other factors. Thus, a  Cuban  immigrant  playing  professional  baseball may  be  less  assimilated  around  other  Cuban  or Latin  American  teammates  or  coaches,  whereas he  may  be  more  assimilated  around  teammates and coaches from other cultures. In other words, assimilation  is  an  evolving  process  that  may  be state dependent and also reflect the evolution of an athlete’s assimilation.

The  way  in  which  assimilation  is  initiated  may also  affect  how  it  is  perceived,  thereby  influencing the  athlete  in  negative  or  positive  aspects  or  both. Assimilation may occur voluntarily or involuntarily: A  soccer  player  from  North  Africa  may  be  traded to  a  team  in  Russia,  with  little  control  over  the decision. In contrast, another athlete may decide to immerse  himself  or  herself  in  a  culturally  different environment  to  expand  life  experience.  The  perceived level of control over assimilation may affect how an athlete responds to it.

Enculturation and Acculturation

Regardless  of  the  mechanism  for  assimilation, there are two primary components to assimilation: (1)  enculturation,  or  the  level  to  which  someone adheres to primary cultural beliefs, values, and customs, and (2) acculturation, or the level to which someone adopts dominant or other cultural beliefs, values, and customs. One might think of complete enculturation  and  acculturation  as  extreme  endpoints  on  a  balancing  continuum  (see  Figure  1). Most  athletes’  assimilation  will  balance  between some  percentage  of  acculturation  and  enculturation that together equals 100%; for example, 75% enculturated,  25%  acculturated.  This  percentage is based on which side the cultural characteristics discussed  earlier  reside.  An  athlete’s  assimilation balance may shift based on the situation and may change over time to reflect life experiences.

Effects of Assimilation

Assimilation can sometimes result in acculturative stress (stress related to adapting to another culture) and may adversely affect performance in sport. In extreme cases, if not addressed, acculturative stress may  develop  into  depression,  anxiety,  or  hostility.  These  negative  effects  of  assimilation  may  be more salient for athletes who are highly acculturated  and  then  return  to  their  own  culture.  When athletes  return  to  their  own  culture,  they  may  be perceived  as  having  sold  out  their  own  culture for  the  dominant  culture.  In  contrast,  a  recently immigrated athlete or one who is highly enculturated  may  struggle  to  adapt  to  a  new  culture  and the athletes from that culture. As a result, such an athlete  may  be  isolated  in  the  new  cultural  environment. However, for some athletes assimilation may  not  play  any  role  at  all  in  creating  stress  or adversely  affecting  sport  performance.  For  these athletes, assimilation may even help alleviate stress and anxiety by allowing them to fit in better and feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar culture.


 Figure 1    Balancing the Assimilation Continuum


Assimilation  is  nonlinear  and  constantly  evolving through both direct and indirect experiences with one’s own and other cultures. An athlete’s level of enculturation  and  acculturation  occurs  on  a  balanced  continuum  that  may  shift  back  and  forth based on the situation and cultural context, as well as  the  evolution  of  the  athlete’s  assimilation  process. It is important to point out that assimilation does not typically involve a purposeful integration of another culture. In fact, assimilation may simply occur  as  a  product  of  direct  or  indirect  exposure to and familiarity with another culture over time. As such, many athletes are unaware of how assimilated  they  are  or  of  assimilation’s  potential  role on performance and sport. Therefore, assimilation should be viewed as neither positive nor negative but  rather  as  an  evolving  process  that  is  highly individualized for each athlete.


  1. Kontos, A. P., & Arguello, E. (2009). Sport psychology consulting with Latin American athletes. In R. Schinke (Ed.), Contemporary sport psychology (pp. 181–196). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
  2. Kontos, A. P., & Breland-Noble, A. (2002). Racial/ethnic diversity in applied sport psychology: A multicultural introduction to working with athletes of color. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 296–315.
  3. Ryba, T. V., Schinke, R. J., & Tenenbaum, G. (2010). The cultural turn in sport psychology. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  4. Schinke, R. J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2009). Cultural sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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