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Motivation is Not Always Black and White: Attending to African American Athletes' Psychological Needs for Sport Involvement

Adam D. Ahrens and Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu

Strategies Cover March April 2021

Athletics and organized sports have become an ever-increasing field of inclusion of individuals from every walk of life. Team diversity in every level of performance has gone from the aspect of being all Caucasian athletes to that of primarily ethnic minorities in sports and athletics (Duda & Gano-Overway, 2001). Specifically, the proportion of the African American population in athletics is much larger than that in the overall U.S. population; African Americans constitute nearly 70 to 80% of the National Football League and National Basketball Association/Women’s National Basketball Association athlete population but only 12% of the total population (Shakib & Veliz, 2013). With sport involvement not being limited to the participation of only Caucasians, the overall team dynamic changes with the incorporation of diverse athletes of differing cultural backgrounds.

African American athletes experience motivational factors differently due to cultural barriers or promoters (Abshire et al., 2019; Stodolska et al., 2014). These barriers included stereotypes and monetary costs (e.g., equipment, transportation) in regard to lower-income and some middle-class African American families (Stodolska et  al., 2014). This can lead to restrictions in accessing training facilities to improve skills or even compete. Additionally, African Americans, both male and female, report a decrease in motivation toward physical activities due to a lack of social support and access to certain resources (i.e., density of recreation resources, facility access, and sport equipment) in terms of being engaged in physical activities (Abshire et  al., 2019; Sweeney et  al., 2019). Although African American athletes are influenced by cultural promoters that may lead them to be active in athletics, these promoters can be understood as historic myths of African American athletes being naturally gifted for sports (Shakib & Veliz, 2013). The athletic community has internalized historic myths and misconceptions, which are propagated by the extensive media coverage of African American athletes in major professional leagues (Shakib & Veliz, 2013). Younger African American athletes are then more likely to pursue involvement in sports and hopes of achieving a higher level of competition. Thus, it becomes crucial to understand how culture and race/ethnicity may influence motivation for sport involvement (Duda & GanoOverway, 2001). In a qualitative study on African American college athletes’ view on race and athlete activism, participants stated that “race will always matter,” and “It’s been a big impact [race] on everybody because that’s what everybody really judge you off ” (Agyemang et al., 2010, p. 425). Therefore, coaches should take into account race in coaching practices, such as diversifying the overall team composition and small-group interactions intentionally to reduce racial biases in coaches and athletes (Oosting & Chu, 2020). These repeated interactions can foster familiarity and deeper connections between racial groups based on personality, attitude, and values instead of surface-level traits, such as skin color and associated presumptions (Zhang, 2017).

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