What is Cultural Competence?

Sport  and  exercise  psychology  has  traditionally been  understood  to  consist  of  a  set  of  skills  and theoretical  underpinnings  distanced  from  culture. These  skills  have  been  taught  in  postsecondary educational  settings  and  presented  in  authoritative textbooks. Although readers might not at first recognize  what  rests  beneath  the  surface  of  these writings, a closer look suggests that they are in fact culturally informed and in relation to one culture, suggestive  of  a  very  specific  cultural  competence, loosely  referred  to  as  European  in  origin.  Thus, the  practitioner  or  researcher  who  works  within a  group  that  conforms  to  mainstream  cultural practices is engaged in culturally competent work, intended only for that population.

Culturally Competent Practice

Sport  and  exercise  psychologists  are  becoming increasingly  open  to  cultural  sport  psychologies whose  approaches  account  for  cultural  uniqueness, in place of a single monolithic cross-cultural approach.  There  is  now  a  greater  understanding among a growing number of scholars in sport science  that  what  motivates  athletes  and  exercisers, in  part,  pertains  to  their  cultural  socialization. Underpinning  much  of  the  discussion  of  cultural sport  psychology  is  the  search  for  culturally  relevant  strategies  for  practitioners  and  researchers, targeting discrete groups and better understanding each group’s uniqueness.

Cultural   competence   involves   a   narrower approach  than  multicultural  competence,  with one’s focus placed upon what defines a given culture in terms of conventional practices. One might seek  to  become  culturally  competent  in  terms  of the  general  practices  of  American  Indians,  Latin Americans,  Indo-Canadians,  Muslims  in  Kuwait, or another general grouping of people, residing in a geographic region at a specific moment in time (current  practices).  One  might  also  seek  to  learn the current religious practices of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism,  or  Buddhism,  generally,  in  advance  of working with athletes who actively practice any of the above sets of beliefs.

Within   sport   and   exercise   psychology,   the onus is on the practitioner and researcher to seek an  understanding  of  the  cultural  other,  partly  in advance  of  consultation,  and  partly  through  an open  exchange  with  the  client  and  astute  observation  for  confirmation  of  what  ought  to  be appropriate  cultural  practices.  There  are  several general  dimensions  that  are  found  within  cultural  competency  training.  Included  among  these criteria  are  (a)  what  constitutes  appropriate  use of  physical  space  between  people  during  formal and  informal  conversations;  (b)  whether  time  is regarded in terms of a clock (clock-based time) or an event (event-based time); (c) whether university education,  life  education,  or  both  types  of  learning are regarded as creditable; (d) eating practices; (e)  appropriate  dress;  (f)  views  of  gender  definition, and on a continuum; (g) the practice of sustained  or  averted  eye  contact;  (h)  where  a  group resides  in  terms  of  individualism  to  collectivism; and (i) how often one should speak or listen within a conversation—contingent upon the nature of the discussion and one’s place within.

Courses are often provided for professionals to inform them what constitutes culturally competent behavior.  A  common  belief  is  that  after  one  has completed  a  formal  cultural  competence  education module, one has gained the necessary cultural skills  to  conduct  appropriate  cultural  practices with  competence.  However,  taking  a  course  to learn the tenets of cultural competence is only the start of a larger educational process in which one seeks  to  hone  the  necessary  skills  and  then  correctly  support  the  cultural  identity  of  one’s  client base. Hence, application of the educational module and the successful integration of the teachings determine  whether  one  is  effectively  skilled  and thus culturally competent.

Research Applications

Within  sport  and  exercise  psychology  research, there  are  also  important  cultural  practices  that must  inform  a  culturally  competent  exchange, building  on  the  aforementioned  dimensions.  Specific  methodologies  might  lend  themselves  more closely  to  the  general  tenets  of  a  given  culture. For  example,  within  a  collectively  minded  culture, the use of participatory action research might feature  appropriate  consultation  processes  and engaged  group  discussion.  Research  protocols might also require a feast in advance of data collection. One’s methods might also vary depending on  the  cultural  group  in  question.  For  example, the researcher might use talking circles in place of conventional  focus  groups  when  engaging  with select  indigenous  populations.  Writing  practices might also vary from a conventional presentation of data to storied writings and teachings, reflecting the cultural practices of the participants and their cultural  community.  Cultural  competence  within research contexts, then, must permit opportunities to feature participant-relevant practices, leading to the featuring of diverse perspectives and voices as opposed to cultural silencing.


Cultural  competence  denotes  a  general  approach intended  to  provide  researchers  and  practitioners with a set of useful rules in advance of work with a population unfamiliar to them. The understanding  and  honing  of  these  skills  is  meant  to undergird approaches to communication, the selection  of  appropriate  motivational  skills,  and  also investigative techniques. These general strategies are intended as a platform upon which specific culturally safe practices are negotiated with the intended audience.  The  dialectic  between  cultural  competence and cultural safety fosters what becomes the meaningful  approach,  developed  to  centralize  the identity of the client or the participant.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2002). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Kontos, A. P., & Breland-Noble, A. M. (2002). Racial/ ethnic diversity in applied sport psychology: A multicultural introduction to working with athletes of color. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 296–315.
  3. Martens, M. P., Mobley, M., & Zizzi, S. J. (2000). Multicultural training in applied sport psychology. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 81–97.
  4. Riggs, D. W. (2004). Challenging the monoculturalism of psychology: Towards a more socially accountable pedagogy and practice. Australian Psychologist, 39, 118–126.

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