Beyond Cultural Competence

Published October 14, 2020

By Dina Bell-Laroche

Over the past several decades societies have endeavored, some more than others, to challenge and address injustices including racism, inequity, and exclusionary practices, primarily through legal action and awareness-raising activities. The idea of ‘cultural competence’ enhances this work because it takes conscious action to the next level.

As a company, our primary focus at the Sport Law & Strategy Group (SLSG) is on the health and wellness of the sport sector. We activate this commitment by companioning our clients in the development of sound policy, comprehensive implementation plans, inspired communications and training, and rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Throughout our nearly three decades of serving in the sport sector, we believe we have brought an open mind and open heart to our work. This blog is meant to share what we are learning about more inclusive and welcoming environments.

What is Cultural Competence?

According to authors Selig, Tropiano, and Green-Moton, who in 2006 wrote about cultural competence and health disparities, the term comprises “behaviours, attitudes and policies that come together on a continuum that will ensure that a system, program or individual can function effectively and appropriately in diverse cultural interactions and settings.” Furthermore, the term describes an understanding, appreciation and respect of cultural differences and similarities within, among and between groups.

Generally, we are becoming more aware and mindful of the inherent and unconscious biases that inform our assumptive world. Things like ‘group think’ can easily set in when you surround yourself with people who are ‘like you’.  In the health care industry, practitioners are especially sensitive to ensuring a patient-centric approach. But what lives beyond competence? Is it sufficient to be competent when it comes to matters dealing with equity, diversity and inclusion? What more is worth embodying?

Continuum of Culture Consciousness

Imagine a continuum (as demonstrated on the right and referenced from Indigenous Cultural Competency Primer) where on one end lives awareness and on the other end lives humility. In between are important levels of consciousness that invite the individual to become increasingly aware as they move towards developing the necessary systemic rules and frameworks to support increased appreciation for different cultures. The most embodied level is described as ‘cultural humility’ and was coined by public health physician Melanie Tervalon and health educator Jane Murray Garcia over 30 years ago as they looked to better define the approach that would be more effective with patients. Their definition of cultural humility is “a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique, to redressing power imbalances … and to developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic partnership with communities on behalf of individual and defined populations.”

While this concept caught fire in the field of medicine, nursing, psychology, and social work, not surprisingly, the focus in North American was on becoming competent. This competence lens dictated the practices adopted within the health care system, many of which remain today. We suggest it does not go far enough.

The term ‘competent’ comes from the old French word competent which means “sufficient, appropriate, suitable.” We believe this approach is necessary but insufficient to support a more holistic, values-based, and principle-driven heartset (as opposed to mindset) to the delivery of sport.

The term ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word humilis which means “on the ground”. When we approach ‘others’ from a place of humbleness, we adopt a learning mindset that invites them to lead as we learn about their needs, their fears, and their longings. A humble approach reminds us also that we can never really know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

Culture Humility in Sport

So what does this mean for sport?  In what ways does cultural humility support our desire to mitigate a number of current risks related to safe sport, unnecessary conflict, and biased decision making? In what ways does this more humanistic approach support a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment that fuels performance and creates a healthier, holistic sport experience from grassroots to podium?

As we look beyond merely having policies in place, sport is moving towards inspired action. We are seeing more athletes, coaches and leaders asking the right questions and making intentional efforts to recruit and welcome ‘others’. In our humble opinion, leaders must intentionally map out their commitment to equitable, diverse, and inclusive sport experiences at all levels and across all systems. To do this in isolation is not sustainable. To not do it, is to become irrelevant.

We offer the following five commitments that we can all undertake together in order to develop a more equitable way of competing, playing, and working together.

Commitment 1: Increase our understanding. Research and become informed about the histories, cultures, languages, and traditions of those you are working with, coaching or leading. Commit to learning about new culturally inclusive ways to integrate within your sport.  As one practical example, you can start by learning about the traditional territory or territories of the Indigenous peoples whose land upon which you live, work, and gather and by acknowledging those territories at the beginning of your gatherings. For more information, please review this helpful guide:

Commitment 2: Welcome difference. Intentionally value and express your appreciation for people’s different capacities and abilities through words, images, and other cultural expressions.  Leverage these diverse talents and experiences by involving a diverse cross section of the people in your organization in the decision-making processes whenever possible. As one practical example, ensure your hiring and recruitment efforts include people who represent more than one gender identity. Here is one helpful guide:

Commitment 3: Audit your existing practices. Have your existing policies, practices, and communications reviewed with an equity lens so that you can identify and potentially eliminate barriers that are currently preventing full inclusion in your organization. As one practical example, review the composition of your committees and consider how you might welcome more people of colour. For more information on how you can accomplish this, please contact

Commitment 4: Share your views and support others in doing the same. Recognize and make it explicit that you welcome diversity of perspective as you believe it enriches your culture and increases the effectiveness of your decision-making.  When called for, speak up and support the right of others to equally share their views even when different from your own.  As one practical example, include your values on your meeting agenda and review to ensure your commitment to a more equitable, diverse and inclusive system is clearly expressed. For one helpful guide:

Commitment 5: Apologize when you get it wrong. Acknowledge that cultural humility is a lifelong journey. When we ‘get it wrong’, we apologize, and then we commit to making it right. As one practical example, there are various ways in which you can invite your staff, coaches, volunteers, athletes and broader sport stakeholders to share ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ as we make concerted efforts to right previous wrongs. The more courageous we can be in sharing our insecurities and fears, the better we are able to mitigate the risk that we will fail to act equitably. For support on how to develop and strengthen your leadership capacities, read Start with Heart or connect with one of our Integral Sport Coaches.

We would love to hear from you and support you in your pursuit of cultural competence and cultural humility.  Please send us a note to let us know your thoughts and feelings on this blog at or

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