10 Words Athletes And Coaches Should Never Say

We’ve heard them before… those words that make you cringe. The words we know are wrong, we know they offend others. We know they hurt, and are divisive.

Some of them are racist. Some of them are homophobic or transphobic. Some of them make fun of women, or are used to signify weakness in our opponents. Some are ableist. Some of them are profanity, what we were taught when we were little to call “swear words.”

Many studies have shown how common the use of homophobic language in sports are, and the same can be said for racist words.

And while leagues and clubs are putting policy into place, it is common that this policy is free-standing, existing without the implementation of change in the day-to-day operations of a team or organization that would actually foster inclusion. Similarly, in an age of performative activism, organizations including sports clubs often invoke the appearance of inclusivity and change, without actually enforcing policy related to diversity.

So what are the 10 words no athlete or coach should say to promote diversity and inclusion?

This is the spot where you expected me to tell you the 10 words.

In a conversation I recently had with members of the Ontario Hockey Association and Provincial Junior Hockey League, the problem was raised that teams don’t know where to start in anti-oppressive action. Coaches, athletes, and staff know they’re supposed to combat racism, homophobia, misogyny, ableism, transphobia, sexism, and more…but most aren’t educated as to what that means.

The policy and suspensions are in place, but those layout what happens after an incident has already occurred, and little else is being done to create actual change. Some teams just don’t know where to start. There is an education gap, and this teaching and guidance can’t (and shouldn’t) come from hockey people alone.

So what did I tell the OHA and PJHL? I assured them it isn’t rocket science, and told them to take one small idea, and complete it. No more grand, empty, performative statements. Real action. And it could be simple.

This is where the 10 words come in.

I posed the idea of starting with combatting inappropriate language. I told them it is as simple as choosing 10 words. Having coaching staff, and management sit down before the season, and choose words they will not tolerate in their dressing room, by athletes on social media, on the bus, on the bench, or on the ice. Then communicating those words with players, allowing athlete involvement in the process (whether it’s captains or the entire team), discussing the importance of language, and setting consequences for infractions. These consequences would be upheld at practice, on the bench, and even in the final seconds of a championship game, without question.

When we choose to act, change can occur.

I was baffled at how innovative the members I was speaking to felt this idea was. Sometimes we need simple ideas to start a cascading effect of change.

Inclusive language is the perfect place to start. And for our language to be inclusive, that means removing derogatory and discriminatory words from use. Because words matter.

It’s not just the words we say to show support and inclusion, it’s the words we don’t say that show support and inclusion.

We’ve heard this about bullying – see it, stop it.

Now it’s time to hear it, address it. Coach not just the athlete, but the person. After all, every coach gets into the role to make a positive impact. We need to normalize the expectation of inclusive language. It may not immediately change the hearts and minds of every athlete, but it creates the expectation of a safe space. And if you think it will be difficult to get teenagers to buy in, athletes will do anything for their coaches, and it’s time we leverage this for good.

If you’re a coach or team, here are 5 simple steps your team, league, or organization can take. Take this 10 word challenge for change.

5 Steps To Create Inclusive Sports Teams Through The 10 Word Challenge

  1. As a coaching/management staff choose 6 words to start with. Try to select two that relate to transphobia/homophobia, two that relate to racism, one that relates to women, and one ableist term, or any other word you want to target. If your athletes are younger, this might impact your choices, so choose words you’ve heard used by your athletes or their peers. These are your starting six. Six words, your team will no longer use. Period. Not ever. This plan will take less than the time it takes you to drink a coffee, and far less time than planning a practice.
  2. Meet with your team. This can be done at any practice early in the season. Explain to them why you’re doing this… because words hurt people, they make people feel unwelcomed, and because your team is inclusive for all, and safe for all. Tell them you want them to be good people first, and then good athletes. Share with them the 6 words your staff will not tolerate (Note, there are words you should not say…for example, you can communicate to your team that the N-word is not acceptable, without using the word).
  3. Now it’s time to engage your team. In consultation with your athletes, seek feedback, and ask if there are other terms they think need to be addressed. From this discussion, select 2 additional words. You’ll be suprised, your team will already know these words aren’t right, and this will give them ownership of the process. The other part of the team you should engage, is the parents. Hold a parent meeting, inform them of this initiative, and involve them. And demand their language in the stands meets your team expectations.
  4. Set the rules of enforcement. These consequences need to be formally laid out. When the word is used, everything needs to stop and it needs to be addressed. This doesn’t mean centering out the athlete, yelling, or reacting with anger, it involves stopping, identifying it occurred, expressing why it’s inappropriate, educating, and implementing your follow up action. It’s a teachable moment, just like if an athlete makes a skill or tactical mistake on the field, court, or ice. This should start with removal from the game/practice as a clear message the words are not tolerated, and that human dignity and respect are more important than the game, followed by a private conference/meeting with the player to discuss. This needs to be enforced all the time, every time, including in the last seconds of the biggest game of the year, without question.
  5. Finally, as the season progresses, meet a month later to assess your team progress, and add your final 2 words. Perhaps there are words that your players have been using that you’ve heard, or that have been used against athletes. Ask the players about the process. Discuss again why you’re doing this. If you’ve seen success, praise it. If your team has greatly struggled, find a community volunteer who can speak to them about these words and the communities they impact.

That’s it. Done. You’re doing something. You’ve moved from nice posts online, policy, and performance, to anti-oppressive education and action.

It’s that simple. 10 words.

When leadership, coaches and athletes, show these words are unacceptable, can provide an explanation of why a word is harmful and offensive, and shows consistency in addressing these words, culture will change.

There can be no exceptions, and no ‘special circumstances.’ Research shows that white coaches are more likely to address racism informally. This can’t happen. We need to challenge these words, ideas, and the commonality of their use in sport.

Because these words are common. One study showed that over 50% of hockey players surveyed self-reported using homophobic slurs. In our own research conducted with local athletes, over 40% of athletes reported witnessing racism in sports, and most stated this came in the form of slurs.

If you’re a coach, or an organization, it’s time to take meaningful action to support diversity and inclusion, and to remove racism, homophobia, misogyny, ableism, sexism, transphobia, and to build a safe space for all athletes in sport. Let’s start with our words, and support it through action.

Are you willing to take the 10 word challenge?

By Ian Kennedy

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