Cultural Safety

Over  the  course  of  the  past  10  years,  there  has been considerable discussion devoted to multicultural  competence  within  the  counseling  professions.  These  discussions  are  only  now  beginning to  surface  within  sport  and  exercise  psychology certification.  The  intent  through  multicultural training  is  to  provide  the  intended  clients  with health  services  that  more  closely  align  with  their specific cultural background. However, there is a distinction  between  garnering  multicultural  competencies and skills that pertain directly to a client in  relation  to  the  cultural  experience.  The  divide between cultural competencies and the uniqueness of each client determines whether the services are culturally safe.

Culturally Unsafe Practices

There  are  a  variety  of  culturally  unsafe  practices sometimes  committed  by  the  practitioner.  Within the  writing,  one  finds  reference  to  the  term  race blindness: an act committed by people in authority  who  attempt  to  view  and  treat  the  diversity of  their  clients  the  same—using  a  one-size-fits-all cultural approach. There is an obvious distinction between  sameness  and  equality,  with  the  latter term  conforming  more  closely  to  cultural  safety. A second unsafe practice is for the practitioner to engage  in  acts  of  stereotyping,  where  clients  are classified as part of larger groups, such as a nationality,  race,  gender,  or  religion.  From  overarching categories of classifications, the practitioner might move  forward,  employing  general  cultural  guidelines,  proposed  as  pertinent  across  the  group.  A third  example  of  unsafe  practice  is  for  the  sport and  exercise  psychology  consultant  to  approach all  consultation  opportunities  employing  a  mainstream  sport  psychology  approach,  mostly  built from Western academics. From this third misstep, the  consultant  might  entirely  overlook  the  practices of a client from a marginalized background, perpetuating the marginalization.

Possible Considerations

Cultural safety requires a close match of the specific  counseling  skills  and  proposed  motivational tools  of  the  sport  and  exercise  psychologist  with the customs and practices of the client. For example,  when  working  with  a  Canadian  Aboriginal athlete  in  northern  Canada,  socialized  with  traditional  indigenous  customs,  the  sport  psychology  consultant  might  work  in  consultation  with Aboriginal elders or enter into meetings that begin with the use of local Aboriginal sacred medicines, such as the burning of sweet grass. For each client that holds cultural values that differ from that of the sport psychology consultant, there are specific practices  that  need  to  be  accounted  for,  outlined within another section pertaining to cultural competence. Beyond more general cultural guidelines, there  must  also  be  a  closer  consideration  of  the client’s  socialization  and  identity.  The  possibility  of  offending  or  disempowering  a  client  exists within the diversity of exchanges encountered by sport  psychology  professionals.  To  offset  culturally unsuitable applications, the practitioner must engage  in  a  process  of  discovery  that  allows  for specific practices and general guidelines pertinent to the client.

Garnering a Culturally Safe Approach

There are various ways to develop a closer understanding  of  clients  in  terms  of  their  cultural  identity.  The  most  likely  strategy  is  to  meet  with  the client, and during an intake interview, learn more about  the  socialization  through  direct  questions and observation. Questions might bring to light the client’s religion and level of adherence, view of self in relation to family and community, value in terms of  formal  and  informal  education,  dietary  practices,  and  use  of  wording,  among  a  wider  range of  considerations  brought  forth  with  open-ended questions. Via observation, the astute practitioner can  learn  from  the  client’s  eye  contact  the  extent that sustaining or averting is suitable. In addition, the client will seat or re-seat at a specific distance from  the  practitioner,  suggesting  an  appropriate physical distance that in turn suggests formality or informality. Clothing would also provide some visible  indication  of  whether  the  client  is  traditional in relation to general cultural guidelines or assimilative  of  specific  subcultural  practices.  One  might learn  about  the  client’s  cultural  standpoint,  also by engaging in collateral meetings with coaches or people the practitioner is referred to as offering collateral  information,  by  the  client.  From  collateral interviews, the practitioner learns more about the client’s affiliations and motivational views.

Research Applications

Cultural safety is also relevant within research contexts. There are instances when the applied sport researcher interviews or observes participants from minority  or  oppressed  cultures  and  subcultures. When entering into these exchanges, the researcher can  seek  to  learn  the  specific  research  practices that  align  with  the  participant’s  standpoint.  One example  might  be  to  interview  participants  with a  collective  inclination  in  groups,  or  have  people threatened by personal interviews or cross-gender exchanges  via  research  accompanied  by  a  family  member  or  friend.  There  is  uniqueness  within small local groups of participants that refine more general  cultural  considerations,  such  as  among  a community’s  early  adolescents  as  contrasted  with its elders. These details become parts of a culturally  safe  methodological  approach,  building  trust and rapport with the intended participants.


Cultural  competence  is  often  gained  through courses  where  people,  including  sport  and  exercise  psychologists,  might  learn  about,  for  example, Hispanic, Indo-American, or American Indian (indigenous)   practices.   Cultural   competencies include  general  cultural  practices  within  a  larger cultural  group.  Cultural  safety  narrows  cultural understanding  to  the  local  level,  where  the  client  is  considered  more  closely  in  relation  to  his immediate  context,  peer  affiliations,  and  familial socialization.


  1. McGannon, K. R., & Johnson, C. R. (2009). Strategies for reflective cultural sport psychology research. In R. J. Schinke & S. J. Hanrahan (Eds.), Cultural sport psychology (pp. 57–75). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Parham, W. D. (2005) Raising the bar: Developing an understanding of culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse athletes. In M. Andersen (Ed.), Practicing sport psychology (pp. 211–219). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Schinke, R. J., Hanrahan, S. J., Eys, M. A., Blodgett, A., Peltier, D., Ritchie, S., et al. (2008). The development of cross-cultural relations with a Canadian Aboriginal community through sport research. Quest, 60, 357–369.
  4. Whaley, D. E. (2001). Feminist methods and methodologies in sport and exercise psychology: Issues of identity and difference. The Sport Psychologist, 15, 419–430.


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