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On the desperate need for diversity in S&C

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

I've always fancied the idea of being able to do the splits. In fact, Thomas Kurz's Stretching Scientifically was one of the first training books I ever bought. However, it is only in the last six months, at the age of 45, that I have been getting close to my goal. The difference? I have been following the stretching programmes on the STRETCHIT app. It has been a fascinating and humbling journey, and I have learned more about mobility and flexibility training from this app than from any other source during my career in the S&C industry. What is the source of this wizardry? Well, STRETCHIT describes itself as 'the best of yoga, pilates and dance', and certainly the main instructors seem to have an extensive dance background. I dunno, and bear with me as I go out on a limb here, but maybe we can learn something from these other disciplines.

In S&C, we often behave like we are the ultimate authority when it comes to the most effective ways to train. In doing so, we discount the wealth of effective training and therapeutic systems that have been developed throughout the world. We think that our insights about the the importance of posture for health and performance are the fruits of scientific research from the last 50 years while being oblivious to Chinese writings on the subject that predate this research by centuries. Are you an advocate for the critical importance of intent when training? Yup, so are practitioners of ancient martial arts. Soft tissue release? Try a traditional Thai massage and then come and tell me that trigger point therapy was developed in the West (as suggested by Wikipedia). Thomas DeLorme did not discover progressive overload (nor, I am sure, did Milo of Croton) - the first Western scientist to popularize an ancient wisdom is not its progenitor.

People overwhelmingly miss a critical point when it comes to discussions about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). They think that calls for diversity are solely driven by a desire for social justice. Of course, social justice is important (and I struggle to understand why so many people accept the unequal distribution of wealth and resources in our society). However, diversity is also critical to our development as a profession. We can't be doing the best for our athletes and clients if we are only using ideas and perspectives that come from a small proportion of the world's population, and in S&C our pool of perspectives is very white, very male, and very meat head.

As Emma Dabiri emphasises in her amazing book What White People Can Do Next contributing to a diversity agenda serves our own interests. Diversifying our profession will make us all better practitioners. There are plenty of examples that illustrate this. For instance, both Charlie Francis and Louie Simmons had great success in importing Russian training 'secrets' into their programmes. (Why is Russian sport science so popular in S&C circles? It couldn't possibly be because the work is different enough to be exotic but retains credibility because it is produced by people who look like us...)

We venerate our (Western) scientific evidence while at the same time debating whether coaching is a science or an art. In doing so, we remain blind to the fact that our ways of thinking and knowing are profoundly influenced by the thoughts of long dead Renaissance philosophers. Whether you consider yourself a scientist or a coach, an artist or an evidence based practitioner, there is very little diversity in the way we perceive and relate to the world. S&C is the worst type of echo chamber and our community has a very narrow set of interests - every conference programme is a parade of the same speakers talking about the same topics.

We consider ourselves a caring profession that can help a wide range of people yet we see no problem with the uniformity within our ranks. I think most of us would recognise how fundamental their personal experiences of training have been in informing the way they practise. However, we also believe that our understanding of training is objective and our methods can be universally applied across a diverse population of athletes and clients. These two positions are contradictory. We are largely ignorant of the lived experience of the majority of the people we coach, and the lack of representation within our numbers means that we are not even trying to understand. If you think representation isn't important, just look at the gender bias in sport science research.

When it comes to diversifying our conference speakers or our hiring strategies we hide behind our 'objective' assessment of 'qualifications'. We spectacularly fail to recognise that our ideas about what qualifies someone as a good coach are a product of our narrow group-think. We are the Director of Football who will only appoint someone who knows football, and who thinks an S&C coach who has spent 20 years working in rugby has nothing to offer. Positive discrimination is not about passing over a more 'qualified' candidate in favour of a diverse hire, it is about understanding that a fresh way of thinking might bring more to the organisation than the appointment of another coach in the same mould as everyone who has gone before. And this is before we consider the barriers that coaches from minority groups have overcome to even be in the conversation and the skills and qualities developed and demonstrated during their more arduous professional journeys.

We flatter ourselves that we are a modern, open minded and deep thinking profession. We aren't. Our lack of diversity impoverishes our knowledge and skills. At the same time, we largely fail to cater to the people we work with (unless they are white, male and without disability) because we don't understand them. We need to do better.

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