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date: 23 September 2017

Gender and Cultural Diversity in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology

Summary and Keywords

Gender and cultural diversity are ever-present and powerful in sport, exercise, and performance settings. Our cultural identities affect our behaviors and interactions with others. As professionals, we must recognize and value cultural diversity. Gender and culture are best understood within a multicultural framework that recognizes multiple, intersecting identities; power relations; and the action for social justice. Physical activity participants are culturally diverse in many ways, but in other ways cultural groups are excluded from participation, and especially from power (e.g., leadership roles).

Sport, exercise, and performance psychology have barely begun to address cultural diversity, and the limited scholarship focuses on gender. Although the participation of girls and women has increased dramatically in recent years, stereotypes and media representations still convey the message that sport is a masculine activity. Stereotypes and social constraints are attached to other cultural groups, and those stereotypes affect behavior and opportunities. Race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and physical characteristics all limit opportunities in physical activity settings. People who are overweight or obese are particularly subject to bias and discrimination in sport and physical activity. Cultural competence, which refers to the ability to work effectively with people of a different culture, is essential for professionals in sport, exercise, and performance psychology. Not only is it important for individuals to develop their own cultural awareness, understanding, and skills, but we must advocate for inclusive excellence in our programs and organizations to expand our reach and promote physical activity for the health and well-being of all.

Keywords: gender, culture, race, ethnicity, cultural competence, stereotypes, weight bias


Cultural diversity is a hallmark of society and a powerful influence in sport, exercise, and performance psychology. Participants are diverse in many ways, and physical activity takes place in a culturally diverse world. People carry their gender and cultural identities everywhere. Importantly, culture affects our behaviors and interactions with others. Thus, it is essential that professionals recognize and value cultural diversity.

This article takes a broad view of culture, including gender and extending beyond race, ethnicity, and social class to include physicality (physical abilities and characteristics). The article begins with a guiding framework, then reviews scholarship on gender and culture, and concludes with guidelines for cultural competence.

Culture: Basics and a Guiding Framework

This first section draws from psychology and cultural studies to provide a guiding framework for understanding culture and moving toward cultural competence in professional practice. Culture, however, is complex and not easily defined. Narrow definitions emphasize ethnicity, but we will adopt the common practice and broaden the definition to shared values, beliefs, and practices of an identifiable group of people. Thus, culture includes gender as well as race and ethnicity, and extends to language, spirituality, sexuality, physicality, and so on. Multicultural psychology further emphasizes intersections of identities and the totality of cultural experiences and contexts, which leads to the guiding framework for this article.

Psychology, cultural studies, and related areas all emphasize multiple, intersecting cultural identities; highlight power relations; and call for social action and advocacy. First, we all have multiple, intersecting cultural identities. The mix of identities is unique to each person. For example, two young women may both identify as black, Christian women athletes. One may very strongly identify as a Christian athlete, whereas the other more strongly identifies as a black woman. Moreover, the salience of those identities may vary across contexts. For example, religious identity may be salient in family gatherings but not in athletics. Also, when you are the only person with your identity (e.g., the only girl on the youth baseball team, the only athlete in class), that aspect of your identity is more salient.

The second theme of our framework involves power relations. Culture is more than categories; culture is relational, and cultural relations involve power and privilege. That is, one group has privilege, and other groups are oppressed. Privilege refers to power or institutionalized advantage gained by virtue of valued social identities. Oppression refers to discrimination or systematic denial of resources to those with inferior or less valued identities. Given that we all have many cultural identities, most people have some identities that confer privilege and other identities that lead to oppression. If you are white, male, heterosexual, educated, or able-bodied, you have privilege in that identity; you are more likely to see people who look like you in positions of power and to see yourself in those roles. At the same time, you likely have other identities that lack privilege. Most of us find it easier to recognize our oppression and more difficult to recognize our own privilege.

Recognizing privilege is a key to understanding cultural relations, and that understanding leads to the third theme—action and advocacy. Action and advocacy calls for professionals to develop their own cultural competencies and to work for social justice in our programs and institutions.

Understanding cultural diversity and developing cultural competence is not easy. As well as recognizing multiple, intersecting cultural identities, power relations and action for social justice, sport, exercise, and performance psychologists also must retain concern for the individual. The importance of individualizing professional practice is rightfully emphasized. Cultural competence involves contextualizing professional practice and specifically recognizing cultural context. The ability to simultaneously recognize and consider both the individual and the cultural context is the essence of cultural competence.

Gender and Cultural Diversity in Sport and Physical Activity

Physical activity participants are diverse, but not as diverse as the broader population. Competitive athletics are particularly limited in terms of cultural diversity. School physical education and community sport programs may come closer to reflecting community diversity, but all sport and physical activities reflect cultural restrictions. Gender is a particularly visible cultural influence, often leading to restrictions in sport, exercise and performance settings.

In the United States, the 1972 passage of Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions marked the beginning of a move away from the early women’s physical education model toward the competitive women’s sport programs of today. Participation of girls and women in youth and college sport has exploded in the last generation, particularly in the United States and western European nations. Still, the numbers of female and male participants are not equal. Sabo and Veliz (2012), in a nationwide study of U.S. high schools, found that overall boys have more sport opportunities than girls, and furthermore, progress toward gender equity, which had advanced prior to 2000, had reversed since then, resulting in a wider gender gap. Following a 2013 conference in Europe (, a group of experts developed the report: Gender Equality in Sport: Proposal for Strategic Actions 2014–2020 (

In considering cultural diversity, it is important to go beyond participation numbers to consider power and privilege. Richard Lapchick’s Racial and Gender Report Card shows racial and gender inequities with little progress. For example, the 2015 report card (Lapchick, 2015) indicates that African Americans are slightly overrepresented in U.S. Division I athletics, but other racial and ethnic minorities are very underrepresented (see more statistics and reports at the Institute for Diversity and Ethnics in Sport website: Reports also show clear power relations. Before Title IX (1972), more than 90 percent of women’s athletic teams in the United States were coached by women and had a woman athletic director. Today less than half of women’s teams are coached by women (Acosta & Carpenter, 2014). White men dominate coaching, even of women’s teams, and administration remains solidly white male. The 2015 racial report card indicated that whites hold 90 percent of the athletic director positions, and less than 10 percent are women.

Although data are limited, the international coaching trends are similar (Norman, 2008) and suggest even fewer women coaches at the youth level than at the collegiate and elite levels (Messner, 2009). The 2012 London Olympics showcased women athletes and also demonstrated intersecting cultural relations. The United States sent more female than male athletes to London, but women were vastly underrepresented in several delegations; coaching positions are heavily dominated by men, and Olympic officials are not as diverse as the athletes.

Considering exercise, recreation, and the wider range of activities, we see more diversity, but all physical activity is limited by gender, race, socioeconomic status, and especially physical attributes. Lox, Martin Ginis, and Petruzzello (2014) summarized research and large national surveys on physical activity trends from several countries, predominantly in North America and Europe, noting that evidence continues to show that physical activity decreases across the adult life span, with men more active than women, while racial and ethnic minorities and low-income groups are less active. Physical activity drops dramatically during adolescence, more so for girls than boys, and especially for racial or ethnic minorities and lower income girls (Kimm et al., 2002; Pate, Dowda, O’Neill, & Ward, 2007).

The World Health Organization (WHO, 2014) identifies physical inactivity as a global health problem, noting that about 31 percent of adults are insufficiently active. Inactivity rates are higher in the Americas and Eastern Mediterranean and lowest in Southeast Asia, and men are more active than women in all regions. Abrasi (2014) reviewed research on barriers to physical activity with women from unrepresented countries, as well as immigrants and underrepresented minorities in North America and Europe. Social responsibilities (e.g., childcare, household work), cultural beliefs, lack of social support, social isolation, lack of culturally appropriate facilities, and unsafe neighborhoods were leading sociocultural barriers to physical activity. Observing others in the family or neighborhood participating had a positive influence.

Gender and Cultural Diversity in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology

Despite the clear influence of gender and culture on physical activity behavior, sport, exercise and performance psychology has been slow to recognize cultural diversity. Over 25 years ago, Duda and Allison (1990) called attention to the lack of research on race and ethnicity, reporting that less than 4 percent of published papers considered race or ethnicity, and most of those were sample descriptions. In an update, Ram, Starek, and Johnson (2004) reviewed sport and exercise psychology journal articles between 1987 and 2000 for both race and ethnicity and sexual orientation content. They confirmed the persistent void in the scholarly literature, finding only 20 percent of the articles referred to race/ethnicity and 1.2 percent to sexual orientation. Again, most were sample descriptions, and Ram et al. concluded that there is no systematic attempt to include the experiences of marginalized groups.

Considering that conference programs might be more inclusive than publications, Kamphoff, Gill, Araki, and Hammond (2010) surveyed the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) conference program abstracts from the first conference in 1986 to 2007. Only about 10 percent addressed cultural diversity, and most of those focused on gender differences. Almost no abstracts addressed race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, physical disabilities, or any other cultural diversity issue.

Just as publications and conference programs reflect little diversity, our journal editorial boards and professional organizations have been dominated by men, with few women leaders until very recently. The International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP), which was the first organization founded in 1965, had all men presidents for over 25 years. AASP began in 1985 with John Silva as president, followed by seven male presidents before Jean Williams became president in 1993. Similarly, APA Division 47 (Exercise & Sport Psychology) had all male presidents from 1986 until Diane Gill became president more than 10 years later. Nearly all of those presidents have been North American or European and white.

An additional consideration is that our major journals have little international reach. Papaioannou, Machaira, and Theano (2013) found that the vast majority (82 percent) of articles over 5 years in six major journals were from English-speaking countries, and the continents of Asia, Africa, and South America combined had less than 4 percent. Papaionnau et al. noted a high correlation between continents’ representation on editorial boards and publications, suggesting possible systematic errors or bias in the review process.

The International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (IJSEP) recently (Schinke, Papaioannou, & Schack, 2016) addressed this issue with a special issue on sport psychology in emerging countries. Sørensen, Maro, and Roberts (2016) reported on gender differences in an HIV/AIDS education intervention through soccer in Tanzania. The program is community-based and delivered by young peer coaches. Their findings highlight cultural intersections and the importance of considering gender along with local culture in programs. Other articles in that special issue report on Botswana’s active sport psychology in both educational programs and with national teams (Tshube & Hanrahan, 2016), and the established and continuing sport psychology in Brazil, which includes major research programs on physical activity and well-being as well as applied sport psychology (Serra de Queiroz, Fogaça, Hanrahan, & Zizzi, 2016).

Gender Scholarship in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology

In reviewing the scholarship on cultural diversity, we first focus on gender, which is especially prominent in sport and physical activity, and thus, particularly relevant for sport, exercise, and performance psychology. Gender scholarship in psychology has shifted from early research on sex differences to more current social perspectives emphasizing intersecting identities and cultural relations.

Sex Differences

In their classic review of the early psychology research on sex differences, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) concluded that few conclusions could be drawn from the literature on sex differences. Ashmore (1990) later concluded that average differences are elusive, and the evidence does not support biological dichotomous sex-linked connections. More recent reviews confirm those conclusions.

Hyde (2005) reviewed 46 meta-analyses of the extensive literature on sex differences and concluded that results support the gender similarities hypothesis. That is, males and females are more alike than different on psychological variables, and overstated claims of gender differences cause harm and limit opportunities. Zell, Krizan, and Teeter (2015) used metasynthesis to evaluate the many meta-analyses on sex differences. They found that the vast majority of differences were small and constant across age, culture, and generations, and concluded that the findings provide compelling support for the gender similarities hypothesis.

Social Perspectives and Stereotypes

Today, most psychologists look beyond the male–female dichotomy to social-cognitive models and cultural relations. As sociologist Bernard (1981) proposed over 30 years ago, the social worlds for females and males are different even when they appear similar. Today, the social worlds are still not the same for girls and boys in youth sport, male and female elite athletes, or women and men in exercise programs.

Gender stereotypes are particularly pervasive in sport and physical activity. Metheny (1965) identified gender stereotypes in her classic analysis, concluding that it was not appropriate for women to engage in activities involving bodily contact, force, or endurance. Despite women’s increased participation, those gender stereotypes persist 50 years later. Continuing research (e.g., Hardin & Greer, 2009; Riemer & Visio, 2003) confirms that expressive activities (e.g., dancing, gymnastics) are seen as feminine; combative, contact sports as masculine; and other activities (e.g., tennis, swimming) as neutral.

Sport studies scholars have continued that research, with emphasis on sport media. Early research (e.g., Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993) showed that female athletes receive much less and different coverage, with the emphasis on athletic ability and accomplishments for men and on femininity and physical attractiveness for women. Despite the increased participation of girls and women at all levels, the media coverage has not changed much. In the most recent update of a 25-year longitudinal study, Cooky, Messner, and Musto (2015) found televised coverage of women’s sport “dismally low” with no progress. Media representations are a major source of stereotypes, and evidence indicates that all forms of the media send the message that sport is for men.

Stereotypes are a concern because we act on them, restricting opportunities for everyone. Fredericks and Eccles (2004, 2005) found that parents held gender-stereotyped beliefs and provided more opportunities and encouragement for sons than for daughters. Chalabaev, Sarrazin, and Fontayne (2009) found that stereotype endorsement (girls perform poorly in soccer) negatively predicted girls’ performance, with perceived ability mediating the relationship.

Chalabaev, Sarrazin, Fontayne, Boiche, and Clément-Guillotin (2013) reviewed the literature on gender stereotypes and physical activity, confirming the persistent gender stereotypes in sport and the influence of stereotypes on participation and performance. They further suggested that stereotypes may influence participation and behavior even if they are not internalized and believed. We know the stereotypes, and when situations call attention to the stereotype (e.g., there are only three girls on the co-ed team), it is especially likely to affect us. Beilock, Jellison, Rydell, McConnell, and Carr (2006) showed that telling male golfers the females performance better on a golf-putting task decreased their performance, and a follow-up study (Stone & McWhinnie, 2008) found females similarly susceptible to stereotype threat.

Gender and Physical Self-Perceptions. As part of Eccles’s continuing developmental research on gender and achievement, Eccles and Harrold (1991) confirmed that gender influences children’s sport achievement perceptions and behaviors and that these gender differences reflect gender-role socialization. Gender differences are larger in sport than in other domains, and as Eccles and Harold noted, even in sport the perceived gender differences are much larger than actual gender differences in sport-related skills.

Considerable research also shows that self-perceptions affect sport and physical activity behavior. For example, Jensen and Steele (2009) found that girls who experienced weight criticism and body dissatisfaction engaged in less vigorous physical activity. No similar results were found for boys, and so the researchers concluded that body dissatisfaction is important in girls’ physical activity. Slater and Tiggemann (2011) looked at gender differences in teasing, body self-perceptions, and physical activity with a large sample of adolescents and concluded that teasing and body image concerns may contribute to girls’ lower rates of participation in physical activity.

Physical activity also has the potential to enhance girls’ and women’s physical self-perceptions and activity. Several studies (e.g., Craft, Pfeiffer, & Pivarnik, 2003) confirm that exercise programs can enhance self-perceptions, and Hausenblas and Fallon’s (2006) meta-analysis found that physical activity leads to improved body image. Greenleaf, Boyer, and Petrie (2009) looked at the relationship of high school sport participation to psychological well-being and physical activity in college women. They found that body image, physical competence, and instrumentality mediated the relationship for both activity and well-being, suggesting that benefits accrue as a result of more positive self-perceptions.

Related research suggests that sport and physical activity programs can foster positive youth development, particularly for girls. A report for the Women’s Sports Foundation—Her Life Depends on It III (Staurowsky et al., 2015)—updated previous reports and confirmed that physical activity helps girls and women lead healthy, strong, and fulfilled lives. That report, which reviewed over 1500 studies, documented the important role of physical activity in reducing the risk of major health issues (e.g., cancer, coronary heart disease, dementias) as well as depression, substance abuse, and sexual victimization. The report further concluded that all girls and women are shortchanged in realizing the benefits of physical activity and that females of color or with disabilities face even greater barriers.

Sexuality and Sexual Prejudice

Sexuality and sexual orientation are often linked with gender, but biological sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation are not necessarily related. Furthermore, male–female biological sex and homosexual–heterosexual orientations are not the clear, dichotomous categories that we often assume them to be. Individuals’ gender identities and sexual orientations are varied and not necessarily linked. Gender identity is one’s internal sense of being male or female. For transgender people, gender identity is not consistent with their biological sex (Krane & Mann, 2014).

Sexual orientation refers to one’s sexual or emotional attraction to others and is typically classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Herek (2000) suggests that sexual prejudice is the more appropriate term for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but related scholarship typically refers to homophobia. As Krane and Mann (2014) point out, heterosexism, which refers to privilege of heterosexual people, is common in sport—we assume people are heterosexual, and we discriminate against those who do not fit heterosexist stereotypes. Also, we clearly discriminate on the basis of gender identity against transgender people.

Messner (2002) argues that homophobia leads boys and men to conform to a narrow definition of masculinity and bonds men together as superior to women. We expect to see men, but not women, take active, dominant roles expected of athletes. Despite the visibility of a few prominent gay and lesbian athletes and the very recent expansion of civil rights, sexual prejudice persists. Anderson (2011) suggests that men, and particularly gay men, have more latitude in sports today, but sport is still a space of restricted masculinity and sexual prejudice.

The limited data-based research confirms that sport is a hostile climate for lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. In one of the few empirical studies, Morrow and Gill (2003) reported that both physical education teachers and students witnessed high levels of homophobic and heterosexist behaviors in public schools. Gill, Morrow, Collins, Lucey, and Schultz (2006) subsequently examined attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities, older adults, people with disabilities, and sexual minorities. Overall, attitudes were markedly more negative for both gay men and lesbians than for other minority groups, with males especially negative toward gay men. Vikki Krane (2001) (Barber & Krane, 2005; Krane & Barber, 2003; Krane & Mann, 2014; Krane & Symons, 2014) have done much of the related work in sport and exercise psychology, and that research indicates that sexual prejudice is common in sport at all levels. Most of that research is from North America and Europe, but hostile climates have been reported around the world. For example, Shang and Gill (2012) found the climate in Taiwan athletics hostile for those with nonconventional gender identity or sexual orientation, particularly for male athletes.

In a review of research on LGBT issues in sport psychology, Krane, Waldron, Kauer, and Semerjian (2010) found no articles focused on transgender athletes. Lucas-Carr and Krane (2011) noted that transgender athletes are largely hidden. Hargie, Mitchell, and Somerville (2015) interviewed 10 transgender athletes and found common themes of intimidation, alienation, fear of public spaces, and overall effects of being deprived of the social, health, and well-being aspects of sport. As Lucas-Carr and Krane concluded, creation of safe and compassionate sport settings for all athletes, including trans athletes, is an ethical responsibility. On a promising note, Krane and Symons (2014) described several programs that promote inclusive sport climates, including Fair go, sport! an Australian social inclusion project focusing on gender and sexual diversity.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, which has clear gender and sexuality connotations, has received considerable attention in psychology (e.g., Koss, 1990). Kari Fasting and Celia Brackenridge have led much of the related research and programs on sexual harassment in sport. The related scholarship indicates that the sport climate fosters sexual harassment and abuse; that young, elite female athletes are particularly vulnerable; that neither athletes nor coaches have education or training about the issues; and that both research and professional development are needed in sport and exercise psychology to address the issues (Brackenridge, 2001; Brackenridge & Fasting, 2002; Fasting, Brackenridge, & Sundgot-Borgen, 2004; Fasting, Brackenridge, & Walseth, 2007). That research comes from several European countries and Australia. Rodriguez and Gill (2011) subsequently reported similar findings with former Puerto Rican women athletes.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC, 2007) recognizes the problem and defines sexual harassment as “behavior towards an individual or group that involves sexualized verbal, non-verbal or physical behavior, whether intended or unintended, legal or illegal, that is based on an abuse of power and trust and that is considered by the victim or a bystander to be unwanted or coerced” (p. 3). Fasting (2015) recently reviewed the research and suggested building on the recent policies of major organizations such as the IOC to curb harassment, as well as continued research to advance systematic knowledge.

Race, Ethnicity, and Social Class

Race and ethnicity are just as salient as gender in sport and physical activity but have largely been ignored in our literature. As noted in the earlier section on gender and cultural diversity in sport and exercise psychology, there is a striking void in our journals on race and ethnicity, and virtually no research has been published on social class in sport, exercise, and performance psychology.

Although race and ethnicity are often conflated, they are not the same, and race is not a clear, biologically determined category. As Markus (2008) argued, race and ethnicity are not objective, identifying characteristics, but the meanings that we associate with those characteristics carry power or privilege. The psychology scholarship on race and ethnicity most relevant to sport, exercise, and performance psychology involves health disparities and stereotypes.

Race, Ethnicity, and Health Disparities

Health disparities are well documented, showing that racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people receive suboptimal health care (see 2011 National Health Quality and Disparities Reports; available at Health disparities are relevant to sport, exercise, and performance psychology in that physical activity is a key health behavior.

Few studies have looked at race and ethnicity or social class disparities in relation to sport and physical activity. Heesch, Brown, and Blanton (2000) examined exercise barriers with a large sample of women over age 40, including African American, Hispanic, Native American, and white women. They found several common barriers, but they also reported variations by racial and ethnic group, and cautioned that their results and specific community needs precluded definitive guidelines for interventions. Crespo (2005) outlined the cultural barriers to physical activity for minority populations, including those with lower socioeconomic status, and called for professionals to consider unique needs and cultural constraints when giving advice on exercise. Ethnicity and social class are particularly relevant when considering migrant and refugee populations in Western countries. For example, Frisby (2011) interviewed Chinese immigrant women in Canada to better understand barriers and guidance for promising inclusion practices in sport and recreation. Promising practices included promoting citizen engagement, working from a broader social ecological framework, improving access policies, and fostering community partnerships to facilitate cross-cultural connections.

Stereotypes and Stereotype Threat

Steele’s (1997; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002) extensive research on stereotype threat, which is the fear of confirming negative stereotypes, has been extended to sport. Steele’s research indicates that stereotype threat particularly affects those minority group members who have abilities and are motivated to succeed. Steele also suggests that simple manipulations (e.g., telling students test scores are not related to race) can negate the effects. Beilock and McConnell (2004) reviewed the stereotype threat in sport literature, concluding that negative stereotypes are common in sport and lead to performance decrements, especially when the performers are capable and motivated.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are well documented. For example, Devine and Baker (1991) found that the terms unintelligent and ostentatious were associated with black athlete, and Krueger (1996) found that both black and white participants perceived black men to be more athletic than white men. Johnson, Hallinan, and Westerfield (1999) asked participants to rate attributes of success in photos of black, white, Hispanic, and composite male athletes. Success for the black athlete was attributed to innate abilities, but the white athlete’s success was reported to come from hard work and leadership ability. Interestingly, no stereotyping was evident for the Hispanic athlete.

More important, these stereotypes affect behavior. When Stone, Perry, and Darley (1997) had people listen to a college basketball game and evaluate players, they found that both white and black students rated black players as more athletic and white players as having more basketball intelligence. Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, and Darley (1999) found that black participants performed worse on a golf task when told the test was of sport intelligence, whereas white participants performed worse when told the test was of natural ability.

Although much of the work on stereotype threat involves race and ethnicity, gender and athlete stereotype threat effects have also been found. Heidrich and Chiviacowsky (2015) found that female participants in the stereotype threat condition (they were told women do worse than men) had lower self-efficacy and performed worse on a soccer task than those in the nonstereotype threat condition. Feltz, Schneider, Hwang, and Skogsberg (2013) found that student-athletes perceive stereotype threat in the classroom, and those with higher athletic identity perceived more threat. They also found that perceived coach’s regard for their academic ability affected athletes’ susceptibility and could serve as a buffer to stereotype threat.

Physicality and Weight Bias

Sport, exercise, and performance are physical activities, and thus physical characteristics are prominent. Moreover, opportunity is limited by physical abilities, skills, size, fitness, and appearance. Exclusion on the basis of physicality is nearly universal in sport and physical activity, and this exclusion is a public health and social justice issue.

Physical Abilities and Disabilities. Rimmer (2005) notes that people with physical disabilities are one of the most inactive segments of the population, and argues that organizational policies, discrimination, and social attitudes are the real barriers. Gill, Morrow, Collins, Lucey, and Schultz (2010) examined the climate for minority groups (racial and ethnic minorities, LGB people, older adults, and people with disabilities) in organized sport, exercise, and recreational settings. Notably, the climate was rated as most exclusionary for people with disabilities.

Semerjian (2010), one of the few scholars who has addressed disability issues in sport and exercise psychology, highlights the larger cultural context as well as the intersections of race, gender, and class with physicality. Physical skill, strength, and fitness, or more correctly, the lack of skill, strength, and fitness, are key sources of restrictions and overt discrimination in sport and exercise. Physical size, particularly obesity, is a prominent source of social stigma, and weight bias is a particular concern.

Obesity and Weight Bias

Considerable research (e.g., Brownell, 2010; Puhl & Heuer, 2011) has documented clear and consistent stigmatization and discrimination of the obese in employment, education, and health care. Obese individuals are targets for teasing, more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors, and less likely to engage in physical activity (Faith, Leone, Ayers, Heo, & Pietrobelli, 2002; Puhl & Wharton, 2007; Storch et al., 2007). Check the Rudd Center website ( for resources and information on weight bias in health and educational settings.

Weight discrimination is associated with stress and negative health outcomes. Sutin, Stephan, and Terracciano (2015), using data from two large U.S. national studies, found that weight discrimination was associated with increased mortality risk and that the association was stronger than that between mortality and other forms of discrimination. Vartanian and Novak (2011) found experiences with weight stigma had negative impact on body satisfaction and self-esteem, and importantly, weight stigma was related to avoidance of exercise.

Exercise and sport science students and professionals are just as likely as others to hold negative stereotypes. Chambliss, Finley, and Blair (2004) found a strong anti-fat bias among exercise science students, and Greenleaf and Weiller (2005) found that physical education teachers held anti-fat bias and believed obese people were responsible for their obesity. O’Brien, Hunter, and Banks (2007) found that physical education students had greater anti-fat bias than students in other health areas, and also had higher bias at year 3 than at year 1; this finding suggests that their bias was not countered in their pre-professional programs. Robertson and Vohora (2008) found a strong anti-fat bias among fitness professionals and regular exercisers in England. Donaghue and Allen (2016) found that personal trainers recognized that their clients had unrealistic weight goals but still focused on diet and exercise to reach goals.

Weight Stigma and Health Promotion

Anti-fat bias and weight discrimination among professionals has important implications for physical activity and health promotion programs. Thomas, Lewis, Hyde, Castle, and Komesaroff (2010) conducted in-depth interviews with 142 obese adults in Australia about interventions for obesity. Participants supported interventions that were nonjudgmental and empowering, whereas interventions that were stigmatizing or blamed and shamed individuals for being overweight were not viewed as effective. They called for interventions that supported and empowered individuals to improve their lifestyle. Hoyt, Burnette, and Auster-Gussman (2014) reported that the “obesity as disease” message may help people feel more positive about their bodies, but they are less likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors. More positive approaches that take the emphasis off weight and highlight health gains are more promising.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence, which refers to the ability to work effectively with people who are of a different culture, takes cultural diversity directly into professional practice. Culturally competent professionals act to empower participants, challenge restrictions, and advocate for social justice.

Cultural Sport and Exercise Psychology

A few dedicated scholars have called for a cultural sport psychology in line with our guiding framework (e.g., Fisher, Butryn, & Roper, 2003; Ryba & Wright, 2005). Schinke and Hanrahan’s (2009) Cultural Sport Psychology, and Ryba, Schinke, and Tenenbaum’s (2010) The Cultural Turn in Sport Psychology, brought together much of the initial scholarship. Special issues devoted to cultural sport psychology were published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (Ryba & Schinke, 2009) and the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology special issue (Schinke & Moore, 2011). These works provide a base and call for cultural competence and social justice.

Cultural Competence for Professionals

Cultural competence is a required professional competency in psychology and many health professions, and is essential for anyone working with others, including sport, exercise, and performance psychology professionals. Cultural competence includes understanding and action, at both the individual and organizational level.

Most psychology resources follow Sue’s (2006) model of cultural competence with three key components: awareness of one’s own cultural values and biases, understanding of other worldviews, and development of culturally appropriate skills. In line with Sue’s model, the American Psychological Association (APA) developed the APA (2003) multicultural guidelines that call for psychologists to develop awareness of their own cultural attitudes and beliefs, understanding of other cultural perspectives, and culturally relevant skills. Furthermore, the guidelines call for action at the organizational level for social justice.

The ISSP developed a position stand (Ryba, Stambulova, Si, & Schinke, 2013) that describes three major areas of cultural competence: cultural awareness and reflexivity, culturally competent communication, and culturally competent interventions. Awareness and reflectivity refers to recognition of between- and within-culture variations as well as reflection on both the client and one’s own cultural background. Culturally competent communication involves meaningful dialogue and shared language. Culturally competent interventions recognize culture while avoiding stereotyping, take an idiosyncratic approach, and stand for social justice.

Cultural Competence and Inclusive Excellence

Cultural competence extends beyond individual competencies to all levels, including instruction, program development, hiring practices, and organizational policies and procedures. The APA multicultural guidelines call for professionals to recognize and value cultural diversity, continually seek to develop their multicultural knowledge and skills, translate those understandings into practice, and extend their efforts to advocacy by promoting organizational change and social justice. Cultural competence at the individual level is a professional responsibility. Inclusive excellence moves cultural competence to the institutional level. That is, we work for changes in organizations and policies that make our programs accessible and welcoming for diverse people. Taking inclusive excellence into sport, exercise, and performance psychology calls for recognizing and valuing diversity and social justice as goals that will enhance our programs and institutions, as well as bring the benefits of physical activity to participants. Therefore, we work not only to develop our individual cultural competencies, but also to effect change at the institutional level to ensure that our programs are inclusive and excellent.


Gender and culture are highly visible and influential in sport, exercise, and performance settings. Gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and physical characteristics often limit opportunities, sometimes through segregation and discrimination, but often through perceptions and stereotype influence. Sport, exercise, and performance psychology research confirms the influence of culture and offers explanations, but sport, exercise and performance psychology has made little progress in promoting cultural competence and social justice.


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