Ask the Coach: "How Do I Deal with My Team Shutting Me Out?"
He's their only Asian player—and his teammates aren't exactly inclusive. Coach Courtney Banghart wants to help.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
I'm on a baseball team. But I feel like I'm not really part of the team, if that makes sense? I'm the only Asian player. It seems like the white kids don't see me unless I'm driving in runs. I sit by myself on the bus to games. They have inside jokes and group chats and they hang out at weekends without me—and I know because they talk about it during training. They even make some pretty insensitive jokes. Not about me personally, but still. It's eating away at my confidence and my performance. I want to be included (and win a championship together, because I think we can!), but how can I find my place when I don't feel welcome?
Only Unwelcome Teammate
17-year-old baseball player
I have so much I want to say, OUT.
But we have to start with the insensitive jokes, right? Because that's just not OK. It's not OK for plenty of ethical reasons. But since I'm a coach and you're a player asking for help, I'm mostly going to talk about why it's not OK for your team.
The best teams are connected teams. They create a culture where every individual cares about the whole and the whole cares about every individual. Mockery or sarcasm about race, gender identity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background is going to detract from that culture, even if its target isn't in the room.
That's true at every level, in every sport. I coach NCAA basketball, and I can tell you first-hand that if someone in my changing room feels undervalued or disrespected, the team becomes less cohesive and cracks show up in our play. Pretty soon, opponents start to spot those cracks and exploit them.
On the other hand, if we really understand the value of connection, we understand that being part of a team is a sacred responsibility and the changing room is a sacred space. No matter what goes on out there, when we're in the changing room with our teammates, we can be honest and vulnerable. This trust makes it possible for all kinds of different people to work together as a whole. That's truly powerful—and truly unique to team sports. I'm sorry that your team hasn't figured this out yet, but I want to tell you that it's possible. I know from experience.
Now, I'm as white as white can be. I mean, I'm not only white, I'm from New Hampshire. And almost my entire team is Black. I can't pretend to know what it's like to be Black—or Asian—in our society.
But that's one of the big reasons inclusivity has always been a top priority for me. Since I coach women living under racial injustice, it's my job to have conversations that, frankly, are sometimes outside of my comfort zone. I have these conversations with my team at the beginning of every season. And I address any exclusion that comes up throughout the season, no excuses.
I can tell you about one example: I was coaching at Princeton when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem before the NFL kick-off. When it became time to decide how my team would react, I knew it was important to make sure everyone was seen and heard.
The best teams are connected teams. They create a culture where every individual cares about the whole and the whole cares about every individual.
"When you're part of a team", I told them, "you have to do two things. You have to speak thoughtfully and you have to listen thoughtfully". So we went around the circle and shared what we were thinking and feeling. Everyone used "I" language, like "I feel this" or "I've experienced that". And no one was a bystander. We all shared with each other, one by one.
At the next game, almost half the team ended up kneeling. And here's the thing: We all still felt connected even though we had different views. We'd all been part of that hard conversation. We'd been vulnerable with each other. We knew where each of us was coming from and we didn't let our differences divide us. A difficult conversation can bring a team closer together rather than drive them apart. I've seen it happen time and time again. I wish I could share more stories, but like I said, changing room = sacred space.
Back to your situation. It's obvious that a tough conversation needs to happen. But I'm not going to ask you to start it, OUT. Asking a 17-year-old to navigate this just isn't fair. Asking someone who's being excluded along racial lines to fix the problem is a whole other world of not fair.
I am going to ask you to get your coaches involved. They're there to support you, especially in a situation like yours. You'll have to take the courageous first step of letting them know what's going on and how you're feeling. But after that, if they're worth their salt, they'll jump into action. I know that if anyone on my team were excluding other players, I'd want to address it ASAP.
Of course, there's always the chance your coaches won't rise to the occasion. If that's the case, I can at least remind you of this: There are teams out there that celebrate differences. There are teams out there where the players love and trust each other. And I believe that sooner or later, you'll be part of a team like that. You deserve it.
Courtney Banghart is the Head Women's Basketball Coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Previously Head Coach at Princeton, she was named the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year and served as an assistant coach for the 2017 USA Basketball Women's U23 National Team. A leading player at Dartmouth, Banghart set the as-yet unbroken Ivy League record for career three-pointers. Banghart serves on the Board of Directors for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and on the NCAA Women's Basketball Oversight Committee.
Photography: Jayson Palacio