Racial equality is not considered a fun topic to think about let alone discuss, but in order to be a part of the solution of making the world a better place for future generations, we can choose to get comfortable with some of these uncomfortable conversations.
Michelle Erins, Ilini Elite 17U Coach created a curriculum for her athletes to educate themselves on the current issues and challenges facing Black America today, and to step outside of their comfort zone to see or hear someone else’s point of view. Michelle’s detailed curriculum is outlined below, along with resources and her personal inspiration for change. If you are a Club Director or Coach seeking actionable ways to have these discussions among your fellow coaches and athletes, here are potential steps to get started.
The Role of a Club Director and Coach in the Midst of a Social Crisis
Whether coaching is your hobby or profession, we all have unique reasons for pursing the challenging lifestyle of a coach. Coaching volleyball is my hobby and the method I’ve chosen to connect with the female youth in my community, but I also have the opportunity to coach others as a leader in corporate America. Each season we open by clearly defining success; none of our measures of success are related to volleyball outcomes and very few of my goals as a coach are tied directly to the sport. My primary goal is to equip players with life skills they need to be successful off the court, post-sports. I focus on topics such as learning to love the painful process of becoming great, how to have honest conversations to build relationships that will last a lifetime, and giving our very best effort towards every opportunity we are given.
As a female leader in a technical field, I am frequently the only woman in the room. These experiences have pushed me to broaden the scope of what I teach my female athletes. I want them to learn how to passionately articulate their opinions in a group setting, how to be creative in solving problems, how to be confident inspiring leaders, and above all else, to be motivated by the fact that in some professions the cards may still be stacked against them, but that they can rise to the challenge. Although women are sometimes faced with subtle barriers; they pale in comparison to the obstacles facing people of color.
Coaches, our job is to influence our future leaders so they are equipped to build a better tomorrow; to accomplish this, we need to step out of our comfort zones and broaden the scope of what we teach our athletes. As our country experiences unrest due to the clear demonstration of societal injustice, we must find ways to integrate learning about the challenges facing Black America into our dialogue.
I am not an expert. I’ve had the privilege to learn about racism rather than live it; but my heart and perspective have been forever changed by hearing first hand, the experiences my Black athletes have lived through. There is no perfect approach to teaching these topics; but here I stand – motivated to share what I’m doing at the grassroots level to bring change the only way I know how: by inspiring the individual hearts of our children.
We have a higher calling, and current events have raised the bar for what is needed from us as coaches. So … how do we begin?
What follows is a white coach’s perspective on what I considered as I began. If you are a person of color or have studied these issues deeply, I imagine these conversations will look very different.
- Start by having players ask for consent from parents to explore these topics.
- Reflect on where you (and your team) are coming from:
- Think about the diversity (race, sexual orientation, economic background) of your players and how these topics may impact them differently at an individual level.
- If you have players that identify as a person of color, consider talking to them first; ensure they are comfortable with your planned approach, ask them to be your ally, but don’t force them to be the educator.
- Reflect on what will be most effective based on the age of your players and the time you have to allocate to these discussions.
- Explain to your team why this is important, and consider sharing a personal story of how racism has impacted you or someone you know. If you do not typically discuss non-sport/development topics with your team, acknowledge why you are prioritizing this topic.
- If you aren’t already well informed on these topics, do some homework. Leverage the resources provided here to broaden your knowledge. Consider other resources; as an example, nearly all universities and large organizations have Diversity & Inclusions Specialist – connect with others in your community.
- Establish conversation ground rules. Commit to having a conversation that matters; but set the stage that it is a dialogue – not a debate.
Potential Meeting Structure & Discussion Topics
On a typical day, I meet with my team for 15-20 minutes post-practice to reflect and discuss our development. Over the last three weeks, I have repurposed this time to discuss current events. I provide my players videos to watch or articles to read 24 hours before each practice. There are countless ways to approach these lessons (and countless videos/articles to use), but below is a list of topics I covered to help my players understand the depth of these issues.
- Meeting 1: Privilege – Understand what privilege is (and isn’t), discuss how privilege can provide advantage over time, and openly share one privilege we each have.
- Meeting 2: Unconscious Bias – We each have biases we are unaware of, discuss how these influence our actions and reflect on how this can negatively impact Black America.
- Meeting 3: Systemic Racism – Exploring the lingering economic deficit created by slavery, segregation and criminalization.
- Meeting 4: Understanding Historical Context – Understand events before the death of George Floyd that have influenced current events and study how protest plays a role in our progression as a society.
- Meeting 5: Understanding Current Events & Avoiding Judgment – Talk specifically about four of the recent events that have sparked nationwide protest and encourage players to empathize and think differently.
- Meeting 6: The Power of Sport to Influence Change – High profile athletes are using their voices to influence change, discuss how these issues impact your sport and how we can better support each other.
- Meeting 7: Action – Encourage your athletes to carry these conversations forward, don’t let the dialogue end with your team.
- Find a safe space (friends/family) to share what you’ve learned.
- Check your peer group; intentionally bring diversity into your life. Surround yourself with people that think differently from you who are willing to challenge you to grow & learn.
- If you see something say something; in every setting, in every conversation, speak up for anyone not being treated fairly.
- Keep learning & listening.
- Ongoing Meetings: Self-Study – To help them keep learning, assign each player topics to research and share with the team; consider having them explore:
- Stories of racism, police brutality and/or use of lethal force to better understand the prevalence of these issues.
- Historical peaceful protests to understand that protest is a tool we have used across ages to bring change.
- Historical riots to understand that the unrest we see today is not unprecedented.
- For detailed suggestions on recommendations for study, refer to the Additional Resources.
If you are not able to keep your players for 20 minutes post-practice, consider other options such as pre-practice meetings or meetings via Zoom. Although I think the dialogue is critical, if you cannot have meetings for discussion; consider providing players resources to learn, and ask them to reflect by journaling.
As I think about how we best proceed, I have more questions than answers; but great questions are the basis of progress. It’s time to break down the walls of competition that divide us, and unite to become a part of the change our world needs so desperately. My questions:
- Will we as coaches find value in having this dialogue and have the courage to engage our players?
- Can we become the influencers our players need during these challenging times?
- Will we come together to help educate each other?
- What action can we take as individual coaches, collective programs, and within our local communities?
- Will this be the moment in time where we leverage the momentum behind a cause to unite as a coaching community?
Please, please … keep asking even better questions. This process will not be effortless; but, as every good coach knows, greatness never is.
I’ve hung the following quotes on my wall, to inspire me as I continue trying to find my voice:
“Courage has a ripple effect. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.” – Brene Brown
“WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.” – Glennon Doyle
What will inspire you?
- Unconscious Bias/Systemic Racism
- Understanding Historical Context, Current Events & Avoiding Judgment
- The Power of Sport to Influence
- Talk to your children: Tolerance.org, RaceConcious.org, EmbraceRace.org, TeachingForChange.org
- Let your voice be heard: 5Calls.org
- Donate (there are SO many options): The Bail Project, NAACP Legal Defense Fund
- Campaign: #8CantWait.org
About the Author
Michelle Erins is the Head Coach for Illini Elite 17 Cardinal. Erins played at Valparaiso University and began coaching at Illini Elite in 2004. Her coaching career includes a 2007 AAU 17U Club National Championship, 2014 AAU 17U Open National Runner-Up, 2015 AAU 17U Open National Runner-Up, 2017 AAU 17U Open National Championship, and 2017 AVCA 17U Club Coach of the Year.