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Rebecca Wildman-Tobriner.doc


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									Rebecca Wildman-Tobriner


HED 845

      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-

caliber athlete.

        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).

Cultural Capital

       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

her period.”

       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/ Marking

       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

splashed Moesha.

       “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.”

       “She’s mean.”

       “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

swimming community.

       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.


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