Critical Pedagogy For Swim Coaches: Transforming Youth Through Swimming
“Oh my god, look, there’s a Black swimmer!”
-Shawn, African-American swimmer, age 7, at the University of California
Berkeley vs. Stanford University Men’s dual meet, 2008
This paper seeks to explain how insights from critical pedagogy can apply to a non-
classroom setting, like coaching athletics, especially in the swimming context. Critical pedagogy
centers on transforming the student, while coaching focuses on transforming the athlete.
Exploring the use of critical pedagogy in athletics will enhance the potential for transformation
for the sport, the youth, and the coaches involved.
This paper describes the theory of critical pedagogy and how it pertains to sports. The
high levels of socialization that occur in most team sports contradict the ideas of critical
pedagogy that value each individual child. The sport of swimming differs from typical after
school sports because the focus on both the team and individual simultaneously means that youth
do not experience pressure from the group that constitutes the team in the same way that occurs
in many ball sports. However, in spite of swimming’s different team environment, swimming
still excludes many athletes from participating because of the sport’s racist history. Critical
pedagogy can help counter this exclusion.
In the early 1900s in the United States, cities segregated municipal swimming pools by
gender and class, not by race, (Wiltse, 2007). Gender integration in the 1920s fostered familial
relationships in which husbands, wives, and children could play together and relax (Wiltse,
2007). Simultaneously, the new development of centrally located pools in cities sought to
diminish the social and physical distance between rich and poor (Wiltse, 2007). Finally, the
Great Black Migration between 1915 and 1930 heightened perceptions of racial difference in the
North. With an influx of Black people to traditionally more segregated urban areas, white people
developed a stronger attachment to their skin (Wiltse, 2007). People believed in the myth that
class differences reduced in importance, while society maintained class-based structures and
expanded the importance of racial difference. Whites of all social classes forged a common
identity out of their shared whiteness, without even realizing it.
As these central city pools became popular in the 1920s, swimsuits diminished in size.
Women no longer wore full pant-legs. Suits revealed legs and arms, leading to society’s
sexualization of women. Black men, who often held manual labor-type jobs, often had more
muscular physiques than white men. Thus, black men displaying their bodies implicitly
undermined white supremacy (Wiltse, 2007). City officials did not want Black men near the
white women, so pools became segregated.
Concepts from critical pedagogy, specifically cultural capital, naming, and
consciensization, illustrate the importance of critical pedagogy to the inclusion of
underprivileged youth of color in the sport of swimming.
Critical pedagogy has provided a progressive response to the traditional practices of
education (Giroux, 1988). The founder of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, labeled the current
schooling process as “the banking system of education” in which students are merely passive
consumers (hooks, 1994, p. 14). Students attend school and teachers tell them what to learn and
do. Most students in contemporary schooling cannot be in control of their own learning. Hans
Enzensberger explained the phenomena as well: hardly anyone had been aware of the
industrialization of the human mind (Giroux, 1988). He argued that schooling perpetuated the
pattern of “man’s” domination by man and trained our consciousness to be submissive in order
to exploit it (Giroux, 1988, p. xxix). Critical education theory uncovers how schooling produces
and reproduces domination and oppression, thus engaging the student in the possibility of
challenging societal norms (Giroux, 1988). Modern critical pedagogy focuses not only on
producing pedagogies of resistance, but also taking into account the interactions of race, class,
gender, history (McLarren, 1995), sexuality, and ability. Rather than isolating one of these
concepts, critical pedagogy seeks to explore their connections to each other. For example, how
do gender and sexuality assist in the societal reproduction of racism?
Prominent critical theorist bell hooks explains that the classroom often reproduces the
politics of domination (hooks, 1994). She focuses on solutions such as building community and
recognizing the value of each individual voice (hooks, 1994). She explains that studying
“whiteness” is critical so that everyone can understand the importance of multiculturalism
(hooks, 1994). Critically thinking about “color” is only part of the picture of race.
Understanding whiteness paints a full image of the power structures in play. Learning about
whiteness explains the societal and institutional factors involved in perpetuating racism and
privilege. An unbiased, inclusive perspective should exist whether or not people of color are in
the room (hooks, 1994). This focus on equity and inclusiveness is a central tenet to improving
Critical pedagogy not only applies to the classroom setting, but also to schooling outside
the classroom. One of the most popular after school activities for youth is sports participation.
Often sports teams socialize youth to be followers, repeating the cycles of domination that
critical pedagogy identifies as harmful. Coaches, parents, and society encourage boys, in
particular, to play basketball or football, sports that engage in some of the most well-known
socialization of youth. For example, in 1985 when Ronnie Lott severely injured his finger
making an NFL tackle, he chose to continue the season rather than have surgery. This decision
resulted in the amputation of his finger (Malcom, 2006). The norm of shaking off injuries and
playing with pain permeates down from professional sports to youth teams. However, most
athletes do not enter the sports world with this ethic; their callousness toward pain and
conformity to sports norms develops as they begin to compete (Malcom, 2006).
This socialization translates into racism, classism, and sexism. One ethnography of a
Texan town concluded that football socializes future generations of youth to repeat race, class,
and gender inequality (Foley, 1990). Sports socialize youth to become part of the ritualistic
culture that supports conformity. This culture of sports leads to repeating hierarchies of
This socialization into the world of sports also affects youth’s loyalty to their team, which
impacts their educational experiences as well. Sports team participation is a factor in school
performance. Sports serve two purposes for school: (1) to reinforce educational goals through a
network of social relations; and (2) to facilitate achieving goals through the development of
interpersonal skills and self-confidence (Eitle & Eitle, 2002). However, when youth believe they
do not need to excel in school because they see an alternative of becoming a professional athlete,
sports can be detrimental to academics.
African American professional athletes provide role models for young boys, making the
sport appealing and visibly offering hopes of professional high-paying jobs (Eitle & Eitle, 2002).
School-age athletes see people who look like them succeeding and believe they can, too (Eitle &
Eitle, 2002). These sports icons are of course both a blessing and a curse. They offer
encouragement; however, kids think they can “be” Michael Jordan, when in reality, most cannot.
What about a sport like swimming? Swimming does not offer an illusion of high-paying
professional jobs, so swimmers know they need to study. Swimming has no professional
organization equivalent to the National Basketball Association. Swimmers are traditionally great
students. However, swimming is one of the so-called country club sports. Other traditionally
white sports have had breakthroughs from athletes of color. Tiger Woods’ presence as a golf icon
has begun to pave the way for African American and Asian American golfers; Venus and Serena
Williams have visibly broken racial barriers in tennis. However, swimming’s groundbreaking
African American athletes go virtually unnoticed. For example, 99% of readers have never
heard of Cullen Jones, Sabir Muhammad, Byron Davis, or Maritza Correia. Two reasons fuel the
invisibility of role models in the sport of swimming. Primarily, swimming only gets recognition
every four years for a few months before and after the summer Olympic Games. Also swimming
remains such a white-dominated sport at the youth level that swimming has yet to find its Tiger-
Today in USA Swimming, the officials are mostly white, mostly older, and mostly men.
Coaches in United States Swimming are also mostly white. And only 4-5% of athletes registered
in USA Swimming are swimmers of color (J. Cruzat, USA Swimming, personal communication,
May 12, 2008).
Critical pedagogy offers concepts that coaches can put into practice that will socialize
kids differently, not into sheep, but into unique individuals who value athletics and themselves.
Applying critical pedagogy to the sport of swimming would encourage participation from
underprivileged youth, making them feel included.
Both critical pedagogy and coaching transform youth. The themes of critical pedagogy,
including cultural capital, naming, and consciensization demonstrate this transformation. These
three important components of critical pedagogy can stand alone, but also intertwine. Cultural
capital involves learning the culture and system of swimming, in essence, being able to speak the
language. Next, naming involves identifying power and privilege, and speaking up. Third,
consciensization involves not only identifying problems, but also seeking solutions. Stories about
swimmers illustrate how each of these themes can operate in a swimming context and transform
an athlete. This paper utilizes the extraordinary power of stories to help people understand and
sympathize with different situations. Stories engage the reader in ways that sterile arguments do
not (Levitt & Rostron, 2007).
In critical pedagogy, the concept of cultural capital explains the dominant culture’s
common language and knowledge of the unlabeled customs of any group (Wink, 1997). Pierre
Bourdieu developed the theory of cultural capital in 1977 to explain the difference in educational
performance based on social origin of youth’s families (Wu, 2008). The greater cultural capital
of high-status parents helps children have greater competence in school (Wu, 2008).
Dominant culture values such as learning how to behave in a classroom, turn in
homework, push in your chair, and how to study are techniques that all students have to learn.
But concepts such as timeliness and respect mean very different things in certain cultures.
Students have to learn the importance of new ideas such as finishing homework by the due date,
or that it may be okay to call a teacher by his or her first name. Youth with English speaking,
well-educated parents have an easier time learning these techniques since their family cultural
capital paves the way for their learning. These parents can help with homework and implicitly
teach their children customs and expectations for school through their own stories and
The following story of resistance helps explain the theory of cultural capital. The town of
Wasco, California, a farmworker community of mostly Latinos and Blacks suffered from a lack
of potable water (Minow, 1996). The lawyer for the town worked with the people to brainstorm
approaches to deal with the water company. After an ongoing lack of response from the public
utilities commission, the commission finally agreed to a meeting with the townspeople. A
committee group organized the evidence with the help of their lawyer. During the meeting, each
person stood and placed a jar of the dirty water from their faucet in front of the commission
(Minow, 1996). Each person gave a testimonial about how, for fifteen years, they had boiled
their water because it was too dirty to give to their children (Minow, 1996).
After the meeting, the commission agreed to dig up the pipes. The story shows how the
community acquires cultural capital by working with others who had cultural capital. Their
lawyer helped them to create resistance that would impact the men in suits at the commission.
The community gained cultural capital when they learned how to be effective in a hearing
Cultural capital accounts for a number of issues in the sport of swimming: hair,
menstrual periods, male image, and parental involvement. The hardest two concepts in which
swimmers gain cultural capital in swimming are both for girls: hair and periods. African
American girls often do not swim because of their hair. Their mothers will not let their new
braids or perms get wet. Sometimes their braids will not fit in a swim cap (or they think they
will not). Speedo makes “long hair caps,” but they are still not very effective for some athletes.
African American boys sometimes dislike swimming because it does not evoke the macho
images of a sport like basketball. Yet in the opinion of many athletes, swimming is a harder
sport, with more intense and longer training. Getting parents with no experience in swimming
involved is an additional challenge that ties into cultural capital.
Coaches have to work with parents to demonstrate how some girls could wear their hair
differently, with knockers, or with bigger braids and can get it wet. Industry needs to develop
chlorine shampoo for African American hair. The sport of swimming needs to market to African
Americans, including boys, using successful athletes as role models. These steps toward change
(naming the problem and creating solutions) connect into the big picture of transformation. The
process for this change continues with naming and consciensization. The sport cannot isolate
any one individual issue.
Another important piece of cultural capital is for girls to learn to wear tampons. To be a
serious and successful swimmer, athletes must train 5-6 days per week at a young age. Skipping
a week routinely when you are 12 years old will put you at a disadvantage. However, most
young girls who get their periods are uncomfortable with the idea of tampons. Society does not
teach girls, especially many girls of color, that it is okay to understand their bodies. It is taboo to
touch your body, even to insert a tampon. Learning to use tampons is necessary cultural capital
for pre-teen girls in the sport of swimming.
Additionally, parental enjoyment of the sport of swimming is an issue of cultural capital.
African-American parents are often accustomed to watching an hour-long basketball game with a
clear winning team. The sport of swimming involves two-day long meets when athletes compete
and then rest for up to an hour in between events. These meets usually take place in suburban
areas, with mostly white participants. Often African-American parents do not want to bring their
kids to competitions.
Coaches can create dual meets at their home pools that feel safer. At home meets,
families do not drive to the suburbs, surrounded by all white people. They do not have to leave
their comfort zone and face a dramatically different environment. These meets can also address
the issue of timing, hosting short meets that run faster, summer leagues, or other fun activities
where competition is shorter and more stimulating for the swimming outsider and more fun to
watch. In contrast, the cultural capital that many white, middle-class parents gained growing up
around pools as children provides them with a comfort level and enjoyment at meets.
A Story about Cultural Capital
At the Zone 3 Championships, a winter meet that youth qualify to enter, including
athletes from teams in San Francisco all the way north to Ukiah, Laura got her period for the first
time. Only seven swimmers on her team had qualified for the meet. She had been psyching
herself up to swim all week. She didn’t tell her coach, Lily, that she had her period, but Laura’s
mom did. Her mom pointed it out as a side note, “Laura’s in a bad mood because she just got
Laura trained at the Boys & Girls Club pool with orange walls of peeling paint, one
broken lane line, and showers that did not have hot water. Her pool was 25 yards, with starting
blocks, a blessing in the city of San Francisco with few standard size pools, but hardly a country
That day, Laura’s first event was the 100 IM (individual medley) where she would swim
one lap of each stroke in a pre-designated order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and
freestyle. Her coach stood behind her block, reminding her to streamline and work her turns fast.
She nodded absently. “You know that thing, when you are bleeding, it goes up your ass or
Luckily Lily had been clued in to her circumstance so she knew where she was going, “A
tampon?” she said. Oh, man this child had a lot of biology to learn.
“Yeah. Well, I’m not sure I did it right.”
Lily took a deep breath, “So a tampon goes into your vagina. You have to get it up high
enough, so you don’t feel it.” Lily made a fist with her hand, circling her thumb and index finger
to make a vagina and showed Laura how the tampon has to go higher than the equivalent of four
fingers, above the muscle.
“But isn’t that where you pee?” was Laura’s questioning response. Lily knew girls never
learned about their own bodies, but this was the first time she had experienced this ignorance
first hand. She masked her shock by shaking her head.
“You have three holes.”
Laura raised her eyebrows.
“Pee, Poo, and your vagina. It’s in the middle of the three and leads all the way up to
your uterus,” Lily explained.
Laura looked skeptical.
“You know what? Since you’re about to swim, don’t worry too much about it right now.
We’ll talk about it more later. Right now, it’s only four laps, you know what to do.”
A few minutes later Laura was in the water, her family and teammates cheering at both
ends of the pool. Laura was one of the fastest girls on the team and a team leader. They were
excited to watch her race.
She swam fly and back well, then pushed off for breaststroke. The cheering continued,
but to Lily’s coach’s eye, she knew something was wrong. Laura wasn’t swimming like she
usually did. At the wall, she touched with one hand, a disqualification in breaststroke. She hung
out on the wall for about 2 seconds, then swam freestyle back, touching last in her heat.
She climbed out crying.
Her younger sister ran over to her and gave her a hug, saying, “It’s okay Laura, you can’t
do great every time.” The Stroke and Turn judge who disqualifies (DQs) swimmers came over
and handed her the yellow slip. The judge thought she was crying because of the DQ, so she
sympathetically rubbed her back and said “Good swim, there’s always next time.”
No one had any idea what the real issue was. Lily didn’t either, but knew that an
experienced swimmer did not touch the wall overtly with one hand by accident. Laura was a
defiant and sassy 12-year-old on her good days. Lily was sure that Laura had disqualified herself
on purpose because she had thought she had been swimming slowly.
When the crowd around Laura cleared, Lily gave her a hug. “What happened?”
She put her head on her coach’s shoulder. “It felt like it came out on breaststroke,” she
said in between sobs.
“No problem. Do you have more tampons?”
Lily sent her off to the bathroom with a reminder of how to put it in. “You can always
use your finger and push it up.”
Lily would expect nothing less of a reaction from a 12-year-old, but it saddened her that
girls thought their bodies were gross. She had been the same way.
The hardest tampon teaching had been with Moesha. She had refused to use tampons and
didn’t swim for 1 week a month. Her swimming suffered. She had gotten her period at age 11.
During one of many talks with her mom, encouraging tampons yet again, her mom confided in
Lily. “I don’t use tampons. Only for very special occasions.”
“That’s okay, think of swimming like a special occasion,” Lily smiled.
“It’s hard for Moesha. She is very uncomfortable down there. She complains if even a
doctor has to look.”
Lily wanted to protest a grown woman’s use of “down there” and tell her that it’s okay to
use the word vagina.
“Moesha was abused as a child.”
Oh. Oh god. What do you say to that?
“I just wanted to let you know, so you don’t think she’s not trying. But it’s a little
“I had no idea. Of course. I clearly want her to do what’s comfortable, but can it be
helpful to learn your own body and make it really belong to you?
“I’m sure that’s a good idea.” Her mom looked serious, “But I don’t know if she’s
The next week, Moesha came into practice and quite loudly announced to Lily, “man,
tampons are uncomfortable.”
Good for her.
Lily’s job is “Coach.” However, her real job is mental health counselor/ tampon
Lessons from the Stories
Laura and Moesha’s discomfort with their bodies made swimming at a preteen age very
difficult. A swimmer must gain the cultural capital of body awareness, including the ability to
use tampons to succeed. Often parents do not teach their kids that bodies are not shameful.
Parents encounter barriers in parent-child interactions such as tension, embarrassment, and lack
of their own personal knowledge about the issues (Lin, Chu & Lin, 2006). Parents often do not
know how to talk with their children about tampons. American society links tampons with sex, a
culturally taboo subject. Often grown adults cannot say “vagina” without squirming. A coach
must fill in the missing knowledge. In particular, cultural capital impacts ethnic minority girls
who are at the greatest risk of low levels of physical activity. Fifty-six percent of Black middle
adolescent aged girls report no physical activity, in contrast with no activity by 31% of whites
(Pedersen & Seidman, 2004).
Sports team participation provides young people with the opportunity to engage with
adults and peers in positive light and set collective goals. This sense of belonging to a team
fosters both collaboration and responsibility, important adult life-skills that can be challenging to
learn during adolescence (Pedersen & Seidman, 2004). This population in particular needs
coaches and institutions to encourage athletics. Laura and Moesha need to stay in the pool and
can only do so if they achieve an understanding of this aspect of cultural capital.
Cultural capital is a step toward transformation. Once youth understand the culture of the
sport of swimming, the next step is naming. Youth learn to identify any issues that arise
regarding prejudice or oppression. The sport of swimming carries with it a racist history. That
history translates into modern racism when, for example, swim caps and shampoos do not work
as well for African American hair as for white hair. Learning the techniques not only to cope, but
also to excel involve gaining cultural capital, but naming takes this process one step further to
enhance understanding that the modern reality remains unfair.
Naming, or marking, takes apart complicated relationships between two social groups.
The minority groups talk about their experience without power in specific situations. “To name
is to call an ism an ism” when that particular dialogue does not usually happen (Wink, 1997,
p.53). As Wink (1997) explains, “When African Americans say that they hate it when blacks in
the public sector jobs earn 83.3 percent of the median income of whites, they are naming.”
Critical pedagogy necessarily deconstructs these race and class issues (hooks, 1994). Naming
means labeling injustices and recognizing supremacy. In the story about the Wasco farmworkers’
resistance, naming was one of the focal points to the story. The community marked the problem
of dirty water. They identified the injustice.
A specialist in multicultural education, Sonia Nieto addresses naming in education by
pointing out important injustices. She frames these issues in questions, marking the injustices:
How much are children worth? Who is teaching the children? She explains how school financing
is grossly unequal. Also, having the same race and gender role models has been significantly
associated with a greater investment in achievement (Nieto, 2002). Unfortunately, most youth of
color are not so lucky as to experience role models like themselves.
A 2006 study determined that discrimination was an overwhelming reason why African
Americans rarely serve in head coaching positions in basketball and football (Cunningham,
Bruening & Straub, 2006). The issue will not disappear by coaches and fans naming the
disparity (only 10% of NCAA Division I football coaches are Black, but 41% of athletes are
Black); however, naming is a step in the right direction. Cultural capital provides coaches with
the know-how to negotiate within the system; naming helps to identify the discrimination. The
next step is change.
Similarly, on the United States Swimming homepage’s “diversity” tab, (USA Swimming,
2008), the organization names the issue and discusses its creation of a task force on diversity.
The page quotes Splash magazine, “Combine swimming and diversity and two simple truths
emerge: the sport isn't diverse, and there are no quick fixes” (USA Swimming, 2008). The
organization thinks of diversity in terms of race and class and understands that swimming needs
to actively recruit more athletes of color. USA Swimming has begun to recognize the problem
and hired a Diversity Specialist in 2005.
Stories about Naming
Lily arrived at the Boys & Girls Club and Lisa walked up to her like a football player,
trying to do a chest-to-chest thrust in congratulations: shoulders back, ribs forward, but angry. “If
HE,” she pointed to DeAndre, an 8 year old boy shooting pool like all the others in the games
room, “bothers me again, I’m going to hit him.”
“Why would you hit him?”
“Because he’s bothering me.” If it had been 1990, she would have added “duh.”
“And hitting him will make him stop bothering you?” Lily asked.
“Well,” Lisa paused, knowing full well hitting would only stimulate more fourth grade
angst and hostility. But being right was more important to her than the truth, “If he bothers me, I
have to hit him.”
Lily looked at her, “Why?”
“Because he won’t listen”
“Have you even tried using words?” Lily sighed wishing she had a dollar for each time
she gave her ‘use your words’ speech.
“Lisa, let’s try that first.”
“Fine,” she crossed her arms.
Lily asked DeAndre to come over. He looked at her from behind the cue ball with a
bored expression, “Why? She’s bothering me,” he said when he saw Lisa next to Lily.
“Well since you both seem to think the other person is doing you wrong, how about
agreeing on taking a deep breath and not touching?”
They both looked at Lily for a split second with a complacent grin, but DeAndre’s eyes
sparkled with dissent first. “I can’t; she’s gay.”
Lily caught Lisa’s arm in midair as she lunged for the punch and sat them both down on
the time out bench. She braced herself for her second most-delivered speech: “So What If
You’re Gay?” Little kids, like much of the country, were unbelievably homophobic.
Lisa wasted no time, as soon as she caught her breath, she yelled across 4 chairs, “That’s
the dumbest insult ever because I can’t be gay, I’d be a lesbian.”
That was why Lily loved working with kids. She could no longer be mad at Lisa after
such a smart dig.
Once they all got in to the pool for practice, Moesha called Aaron a racist. Moesha was
12, loud, strong, intimidating, and Black. She embodied some of the stereotypes of Black
women. However she could intellectually identify and critique them too. Last year on the way
home from a swim meet, she was in the back seat of Lily’s car as they were parking in the
Haight-Ashbury. It was a crowded Saturday afternoon, so spaces were hard to find. Lily was
about to flip a U turn upon seeing a space.
Moesha said, “Go” and pointed the way backseat drivers do every time they think they
have the answer. Another car began to nudge Lily out. “Honk, go tell her it’s yours,” Moesha
said. Lily paused, thinking about how she might if she didn’t have kids in the car.
“Oh wait,” Moesha says. “Don’t do that, she’s Black.”
“Yeah, you don’t want to mess with a Black lady.”
“Yeah, they’re mean and loud,” Moesha was certain.
Moesha had said that over a year ago. She didn’t want to become her own stereotype, but
she was on her way. Aaron was small, 10 years old, clueless, white, and sometimes a brat. He
“What you splashing for?” She barked.
He told her to mind her own business.
“You’re a racist.” She yelled.
Woah. Lily pulled them both out of the water. “Do you even know what that word
“Yeah,” Moesha jumped, “He doesn’t like Black people.”
What Lily wanted to say was “If he doesn’t like you, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t
like black people.” Instead, she said, “’Racist’ is a powerful word. It’s not something we are
going to throw around on deck without fully understanding it. We’re going to talk about exactly
what the problems we’re having with each other are.”
“Well he’s messing with me.”
“There we go. You’re both angry. Why is it about race?
They didn’t respond.
Lily knew the answer. It was because of history. Any time a white person picks on a
black person, racism is the underlying issue. Institutional racism or unconscious racism often
plague children, but sometimes overt racism is at hand.
Of course the kids were right. But that would be a lecture for another day. Blaming
other people- ancestors, historians, neighbors, George Bush—would not make these kids better
people or better teammates. So for now, Lily was going to make them think about it.
As soon as they hopped back in the water, Lisa stopped swimming. She hung on the wall
for two 50s in a row. “Let’s go Lisa.” Lily yelled, feeling like a broken record.
“I don’t mean to be racist,” She began her sentence, “but have you noticed that all the
African American swimmers on the team don’t like swimming?” She named names: Moesha,
Jazmin, and Jordan. “ They all play in the locker room and come in late.”
First of all, that’s not all the African American Swimmers, that’s only a few. Second,
Lily didn’t know how to explain to a ten-year-old that the issue of “relative importance” as she
had come to call it was huge among the African American swimmers. How could swimming be
important when your car has bullets in it or you have to take the bus home to the projects after
practice? How can you worry about filling out a meet sheet as a parent if you are worried about
paying your bills? These swimmers don’t have parents encouraging them in the same ways that
some of the other kids do. These parents never learned to swim as kids. It wasn’t accessible.
Why would they encourage their kids to swim if they could play basketball—a game they
understand? It’s a competition that’s fun to watch.
Some days Lily didn’t even understand why anyone would bother staring at the bottom of
the pool for the hours, days, years it took to get good at swimming. All she knew was that these
kids had better focus, grades, and endurance that any other athletes. She wanted to expose more
underprivileged kids to the sport-- as many as possible, and pray they loved it.
After practice Lily closed down the pool and drove home twins Stephanie and Kiara who
were half Black, half Japanese. Their mom was Japanese with the worst eating habits. The girls
were obese 5th graders, with a wonderful work ethic, but no endurance because they ate Asian
crackers all the time. Stephanie spent the car ride down Oak Street telling Lily about her friend’s
cousin who “went down the wrong track.” The girl had a Mexican boyfriend.
Stephanie explained, “Her friend said never date a Mexican. She warned her.” She
paused, “I’m not racist, but the girl was raped. She ended up crazy in the head.”
The clear summary Stephanie had received from her cousin was that Mexican men are
rapists. So, of course Lily had to explain the difference between causation and correlation. That
dichotomy always reminded her of her undergrad political theory class. They read an article
about the Democratic Peace Theory that said two democratic nations were just as likely to go to
war against each other as two countries whose names began with the letter “K.”
The idea was that democratic nations do not go to war against each other in this day and
age. However, is the reason really because they are democratic? Or is it purely coincidence
because not many nations are democratic? There are a very small number of nations whose
names begin with the letter “K,” so it is probably that countries with “K” do not go to war
against each other purely by coincidence. The facts of their war records simply correlate. Their
name’s spelling does not cause their peaceful action.
Lily told Stephanie, “Just because he was a Mexican doesn’t mean Mexican men are
going to assault you.”
Lessons from the Stories
Lisa, Moesha, and Stephanie all involve themselves in naming in different ways. Lisa
first identifies homophobia and makes a joke to tell DeAndre his prejudice is not okay. She does
not label the situation with direct language, but makes a statement within her comfort zone. Lisa
later talks about race by naming the issue based on her observation, but she over-generalizes the
problem, which actually creates more of a stereotype about black people not wanting to swim.
Moesha has a similar experience when she calls her teammate racist. Moesha mis-names the
issue. She knows racism is a problem, so she clings to it as a rationale, instead of exploring how
two individual kids taunt and tease each other.
Stephanie used words in a reciprocal way, falsely naming her own personal racism. She
said she was not being racist, not understanding that she in fact was engaging in stereotyping and
offensiveness. The different ways youth internalize these issues and repeat them for an audience
impacts their everyday thoughts. When youth bond with a mentor, such as a coach, youth not
only develop a stronger sense of community, but also a desire to live by the standards and norms
of that community (O’Donnell, Michalak, Ames, 1997). If a coach bonds with her swimmers and
sets clear social norms and behaviors of respect, swimmers will acquire the same value set. If
adults such as Lily can show compassion and a drive for equality, youth will begin to understand
the messages and repeat them. Coaches are not exempt from this duty of mentoring, but rather
central to it, since youth look up to their coaches in a manifest way.
This story centers on the complexities of naming for children. Children understand
meanings and also hear words tossed around on the playground. The confusion about the
definitions of words is part of the difficulty of naming. These stories suggest that naming is not
enough because of the layers of complexity in meaning of each word or lack of words in each
The stories apply to swimming as well as other sports because racism in sports runs
rampant, yet the media ignores the issue. The common idea that Blacks are well suited for sports
“legitimizes the racist notion” that they are not as well-suited for other professions (Hardin,
Chance & Walsdorf, 2000, p. 212). The modern day media-infused culture paves the way in
terms of how society thinks about sports and race. A 2000 study on the media representation of
race during the 2000 Sydney Olympics depicts the hegemony involved in sports. Black athletes
were overrepresented in photographs in five major newspapers compared to their actual medal
count (Hardin et al., 2000). Hardin et al. hypothesized that this overrepresentation preserves
power relations and the “enlightened racist” view that sports is the sole arena where blacks can
excel (Hardin et al., 2000).
At the same time, the media jumps to criticize Black athletes quickly (Evans, 2007).
When Michael Vick harbored fighting dogs on his property in 2007, he was suspended from the
National Football League before facts surfaced and before he met with the commissioner (Evans,
2007). Whereas, when Wayne Gretsky’s assistant coach and wife were both involved in sports
betting, he denied any knowledge of it and the headlines disappeared (Evans, 2007). The media
does not identify the contradictory messages it sends to youth. Youth understand the racism in
play, but often to not have the skills or consciousness to name it. Naming is step two of the
critical transformation process; next is consciensization.
Paulo Freire’s term consciensization explains the process of learning and “becoming” the
politics involved in the world around you as a necessity to developing a critical consciousness
and thus creating freedom (Freire, 1998). In an article about the Muncie Boys & Girls Club,
serving youth whose homes fall below the federal poverty line, Jayne R. Beilke (1995) asserts,
“According to Freire, then, this agency allows people not only to critically name the world, but
also to change it.” The organization of the Boys & Girls Club gives resources to underprivileged
youth. These youth can name their poverty as an injustice, and with the help of the tools they
learn at the Club and the staff who care, youth develop consciensization, understanding they can
create change. Youth gain a critical consciousness of the world around them and learn that they
are not locked in to perpetuating racism, classism, sexism, and violence (Beilke, 1995).
Consciensization means that these youth now have freedom in their own lives.
To achieve this freedom, people must find a sense of themselves and empowerment.
Consciensization is multidimensional and complex. Questions about the story involving
Wasco’s fight for clean water, explain consciensization. At what point did transformation occur?
When the community realized the water was dirty? When they understood they did not have to
be complacent? When they began to organize? Or only after the public utilities commission
vowed to replace the pipes and pay reparations for the last fifteen years of dirty water? No single
question alone represents consciensization. Consciensization explains this whole process of
understanding the cultural context, naming, and creating change.
In athletics, youth swimmers at the Boys & Girls Club learn the cultural context of their
sport, seeing that they are breaking racial barriers, particularly when they attend swim meets
away from the club. The youth also gain consciensization through the process of empowering
themselves and gaining confidence. The result is that the youth can act on their own and
experience freedom. In swimming, kids learn the language of the sport. For example 4 x 50 on
the 1:15 means nothing to most people, but to a swimmer, these words describe a workout set
that contains 4 repetitions of a 50-yard (or meter) lap swim, with the start of each rep beginning
after a minute and 15 second interval. They also know that an interval is the rest period in
between each lap and how to read analog clocks in order to time their starts.
They learn to wear their team suit and team cap, to wait behind the blocks before they
race, and to ask if they have achieved their personal best time after a race. Often coaches do not
emphasize the TEAM “uniform” but being part of a team is a crucial component to developing a
sense of belonging and not feeling lost. Waiting behind the blocks is part of the culture of
swimming and being on time to a race provides a swimmer with the best opportunity to race
well. Additionally, striving for a personal best means the swimmer has set a goal. Developing a
focus, or purpose, means that each athlete feels accomplished, successful, and wonderful when
he or she achieves that goal. These techniques prepare them for each race and they become
better athletes. These ideas are also deeply connected to critical pedagogy. Learning how to
swim on intervals is one aspect of cultural capital, but swimming on intervals and feeling the
power you have because you can do that is part of consciensization.
Consciensization also ties into the history of swimming. Often suburban youth grow up
around pools. Hanging out poolside is ingrained as a fun activity and many in their community
may have private pools. They have friends who discuss “best times” and they understand that
language. However, for youth and parents without any swimming background, the phrases do not
make sense. The sport isolates them from others in their community who do not understand it
and this lack of community interest diminishes their own desire to participate. Teaching all youth
about the historic barriers to equality within the sport of swimming will help them understand
their own privilege and the societal context of the sport. For example, if swimmers learn the
history of segregation of swimming pools and see an African American swimmer at a meet, they
will understand how far that athlete has come, and not judge her only for her speed, but also
accept her accomplishment in the political context. This knowledge is a building block toward
consciensization. Learning this political context along with empowerment will create stronger
athletes and more inclusive people.
Stories about Consciensization
A new swimmer, Jesse, age 8, began attending practice every day. Jesse often pulled on
girl’s feet in the water, or jumped up to dive off the blocks in the middle of a set when he should
not be stopping. He yelled across the pool to get his friend’s attention, or talked when Coach
Lily was explaining new information.
After practice, one day, his mom told Lily that he was going to become committed to the
sport. What she meant was that she would make an effort to drive him to the pool every day.
Her car had broken down last month, resulting in Jesse’s spotty attendance. A few weeks later,
Jesse asked, can I do 8 x 25s of breaststroke on the minute? He knew to leave every ‘60’ on the
clock. He wanted to do the set on his own, without Lily saying go. He was ready.
Jesse was learning the process of independence in the water at the same time that he was
negotiating the outside world. His father lived in East Oakland and he showed up to practice one
day with three bullet shells in his hand, telling his coach he found them on the ground in the
pool. “Look!” He was excited to show Lily, hoping for an equivalent reaction on her part. She
would have known if bullet shells were in the Boys & girls Club, no less, the pool. Lily asked
him where he got them; he remained insistent that he had found them in the pool.
When Lily told his mom about the incident, his mom worried that maybe he picked them
up on the streets in Oakland. “After New Years, there’s a lot of shells just lying around.” She
Lily worried about Jesse, a kid who acted like bullet shells were gold. She vowed to keep
him going in the water, knowing that kids who have a purpose and goals often end up well in the
A few weeks later, his mom came up to her at practice. “Thank you” She said.
“You run such a wonderful program here. Jesse is waking up in the morning and packing
his school stuff and swim stuff. He’s ready to go. He’s finishing all his homework and he’s
doing extra work from his teacher. He’s focused. He’s a whole new person. It’s because of
Lily just wished all the parents understood like she did. One of her favorite parent
moments had involved another swimmer, Vanesa. It began when Lily spoke to their dad,
Martín, on the phone to set up the time she would pick up his two girls, Maria and Vanesa for the
swim meet the next day. The girls were coming to the meet, he confirmed, but they would be
distracted because their mom was in town, visiting from Washington, D.C. They had not talked
to their mom in five years.
“Zero contact,” Martín had said over the phone. He had confessed that he called his ex-
wife because he felt like Maria needed a mom. She had entered middle school in September and
was lashing out at him. If he’d given Lily a chance, she’d have told him that he was doing very
well as a single parent in a big city. He knew his girls’ whereabouts, signed them up for
activities, and watched their swim meets. She thought they were growing up quite impressively,
especially knowing that they were both in therapy because their mom had been physically and
verbally abusive to them.
Lily sighed. An almost-13 year old acting angry with the one parent who provided
unconditional support-- how much more normal could one be? Lily’s mother still told her how
to be a parent, you have to have strong self-esteem because your kids surely will not give you
So Maria and Vanesa’s mom came for a weekend with presents and kisses. She hung out
with the girls at the El Cerrito swim meet, sitting in the corner away from the action. Vanesa
complained that she didn’t want to swim butterfly. Of course she didn’t, no kid wants to swim
fly, it’s hard. But usually, Vanesa was very good at that stroke. She would swim, often win, and
come out all smiles. She knew how to streamline, touch with two hands, and was even
beginning to remember to ask the timers what time she swam. She was gaining autonomy and
learning how she fit into the world of swimming.
So her mom told her, “That’s okay, you don’t have to swim.” She wanted them to love
her so badly. She clearly didn’t know how to parent. Gently pushing a child helps them to
achieve goals. You can push with love. Why not, “I know you don’t want to swim fly, but think
about how great you’ll feel when you go a best time. You have nothing to lose. Just try.”
Lily felt sad for this woman.
Then their mom left. Her presents, and sweet-talking useless, because a necklace is not
going to make you feel better when you wake up in the middle of the night, crying because you
don’t have a mom, like everyone else, to ask about your period.
Lessons from the Stories
Both these stories tell opposite tales of youth’s experience with consciensization. Jesse
goes through the process of consciensization because of his commitment to swimming. Jesse has
become proud of himself in practice. He wakes up in the morning with a purpose, feeling good
about himself. He has gone through the initial individual process of consciensization to
understand his own strength and power. He is now able to create change for himself.
Vanesa, on the other hand, has a limited experience with consciensization. Her
competition is inhibited by her well-meaning, but ill-informed mother. Vanesa wants to be a
little girl at her mother’s side, whining, and basking in attention. Her emotional connection to
her mother’s visit takes over her consciousness. Vanesa cannot overcome this huge change in
her life to understand her remarkable capability to swim butterfly. She does not fully engage in
the experience of consciensization.
Vanesa’s experience is one example of those of many urban youth. These youth do not
have the privilege to go to a competition with both their parents cheering for them and giving
high fives. Environmental risk, including split families, poverty, stress, poor health care, crime,
and other factors get in the way (Annunziata, Hogue, Faw & Liddle, 2006). Both Jesse’s story
and Vanesa’s are important to paint a complete picture of consciensization. Jesse succeeds in
achieving an 8-year old version of consciensization, whereas Vanesa does not. Vanesa
experiences inhibiting factors because of her complicated relationship with her mother. One of
the key reasons Jesse was able to transform was because of his mother’s commitment. Coaches
are often stretched thin by the demands of their jobs, but if they can offer transportation options,
love, and constant reinforcement, that support will slowly have an impact. This impact can be
even more effective with a partnership from parents.
Connecting the Themes
Cultural capital, naming, and consciensization are separate concepts important to critical
pedagogy and to coaching. However, the process of an individual understanding each of these
three concepts leads to full consciousness and transformation. First, a swimmer gains cultural
capital through wearing a cap, or a tampon, learning how to become a swimmer and talk the talk
and walk the walk. Cultural capital involves navigating the sport, being comfortable, and
learning how to participate fully. Gaining cultural capital is the first part of becoming part of the
The logical step that follows gaining cultural capital is naming. The internal struggle to
gain cultural capital often goes unnamed by both the athlete and the coach. During this struggle,
the athlete often experiences teasing, or worse. When a swimmer encounters racism, sexism,
classism, or any other unjust treatment, he or she will be able to identify the feeling,
acknowledge the injustice, and thus mobilize him or herself to fight for change. At this point, this
swimmer realizes consciensization, gaining personal confidence through asking questions about
his or her involvement in the world. For example, what is my role as an African American
swimmer? How am I important to swimming? How is swimming important to me? As a result
of these questions, the swimmer gains a positive sense of self and realization of the societal
structures impacting his or her life. These three concepts are interconnected. The process of
gaining cultural capital, naming, and consciensization transforms an individual student or athlete.
Overall, common ideas in critical pedagogy apply to sports as well as to education. The
sport of swimming, in particular, can benefit from an increased understanding of the concepts of
cultural capital, consciensization, and naming. The benefits are twofold. First, including and
encouraging a more diverse group of athletes will allow the sport to see its full potential and find
not only on icon of great skill, but many talented athletes. Also, each individual youth who
becomes a swimmer will benefit from the positive aspects that participation in the sport can
bring to their lives.
Annunziata, D., Hogue, A., Faw, L., & Liddle, H. A. (2006). Family functioning and school
success in at-risk, inner-city adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(1), 105-
Banks, C. A. M. & Banks, J. (1995). Equity pedagogy: an essential component of multicultural
education. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 152-158.
Beilke, J. R. (2005). Whose world is this? Multicultural Education, 2-7.
Cunningham, G. B., Bruening, J. E., Straub, T. (2006). The underrepresentation of african
americans in NCAA division 1-A head coaching positions. Journal of Sport
Management, 20, 387-413.
Eitle, T. M. & Eitle, D. (2002). Race, cultural capital, and the educational effects of participation
in sports. Sociology of Education, 75(2), 123-146.
Evans, H. (2007, May 24-May 30). Sports media perspectives in a black and white society. New
York Amsterdam Sports News, pp. 47.
Foley, D. E. (1990). The great american football ritual: reproducing race, class, and gender
inequality. Sociology of Sport Journal, 7(2), 111-135.
Freire, P. (1998). Cultural action and conscientization. Harvard Educational Review, 68(4), 499-
Mahoney, M., Calmore, J., Wildman, S. (2003), Cases and materials on social justice:
Professionals, communities, and law. St. Paul, MN: Thompson West.
Minow, M. (1996). Political lawyering: An introduction. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties
Law Review 31, 287-288. In M. Mahoney, J. Calmore, S. Wildman (Eds.), Cases and
materials on social justice: Professionals, communities, and law (pp. 768-805). St. Paul,
MN: Thompson West.
Giroux, H. A. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: toward a critical pedagogy of learning.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Hardin, M., Dodd, J. E., Chance, J., & Walsdorf, K. (2004). Sporting images in black and white:
race in newspaper coverage of the 2000 Olympic Games. The Howard Journal of
Communications, 15, 211-227.
Hood, E. (2005). Sharing Solutions For Childhood Obesity. Environmental health perspectives,
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York:
Levitt, N. & Rostron, A. K. (2007). Calling for stories. University of Missouri at Kansas City
Law Review, 75, 1127-1137.
Lin, Y-C., Chu, Y-H., & Lin, H. H. (2006). A study of the effectiveness on parental sexuality
education. Parental Sexuality Education, 127(1), 16-30.
Malcom, N. L., (2006). “Shaking it off” and “toughing it out” socialization to pain and injury in
girls’ softball. Journal of Contemportary Ethnography, 35, 495-525.
McLarren, P. (1995). Critical pedagogy and predatory culture: oppositional politics in a
postmodern era. New York: Routledge.
Monkman, K., Ronald, M., & Théramene, F. D. (2005). Social and cultural capital in an urban
Latino school community. Urban Education, 40, 4-33.
Nieto, S. (2002). Profoundly multicultural questions. Educational Leadership, Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development, 6-10.
O’Donnell, J., Michalak, E.A., & Ames, E.B., (1997). Inner-city youths helping children after-
school programs to promote bonding and reduce risk. Social Work in Education, 19(4),
Pedersen, S. & Seidman, E. (2004). Team sports achievement and self-esteem development
among urban adolescent girls. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 412-422.
Shor, I. & Freire, P. (1987). A pedagogy for liberation. Connecticut: Bergin & Harvey.
Usaswimming.org. Swim clubs diversity information and articles.
Retrieved March 1, 2008, from
Wiltse, J. (2007). Contested waters: A social history of swimming pools in america. North
Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Wink, J. (1997). Critical pedagogy: notes from the real world. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Wu, Y. (2008). Cultural capital, the state, and educational inequality in China, 1949-1996.
Sociological Perspectives, 51(1), 201-227.