We use cookies to give you the best experience and to help improve our website. By using our website you are accepting our cookies.  Learn More

UK Coaching Team
Organising and Planning

What is Inclusion? Your Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a More Inclusive Coach

Blake Richardson clears up some common misconceptions around the word ‘inclusion’, details the tremendous benefits of inclusive practice and, with advice from UK Coaching’s Sarah Milner and Esther Jones, gives some everyday examples of inclusive coaching

Mention the word ‘inclusion’ to a random group of coaches and you will likely be met with a few fearful stares and some nervous sideways glances: tell-tale signs of a lack of understanding around this important topic. 

The apprehension some coaches feel can be exacerbated by a long-standing misconception around the meaning of the word, the language and terminology that accompany this subject-area, and a lack of confidence in running inclusive sessions – related to uncertainty around how to adapt and modify activities appropriately.

The concern is that this melting-pot of confusion and hesitancy is having a restrictive effect on coaches’ educational practice.

So, what is inclusion? 

Inclusion is the idea that everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences. 

Inclusion can also be defined as a person’s universal human right to the same access and choices as everyone else, with everyone being made to feel that they belong and are valued, so that they can all develop equally.

Ultimately, we want to create a safe space to give people the opportunity to get involved, be who they are and excel at their level,” says UK Coaching Workforce Development Officer Esther Jones.

The value of inclusion stretches beyond the participant, with immense benefits too for the coach. 

By being inclusive, a coach will:

  • develop new coaching skills
  • attract more people to their sessions
  • increase retention rates by getting people to come back week after week
  • help individuals be the best version of themselves and achieve their potential.

Is this not what all coaches aim to achieve?

What inclusion isn’t

Coaches often confuse diversity with inclusion and use the words interchangeably. But inclusion and diversity are not the same thing.

There are lots of explanations out there – diversity is the ‘what’; inclusion is the ‘how’, for example – but the one which resonates with Esther is from Vernā Myers:

Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Another one of coaching’s great misnomers is that the term inclusion refers especially, or even exclusively, to including disabled people.

As Esther explains: “Be honest, when you think about the term inclusion and different abilities, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? I believe most coaches’ minds will focus on how to include disabled people in their sessions. 

We need to address our biases. It is important we are truthful and acknowledge what the word inclusion is synonymous with in terms of coaching, before rethinking our ideas on inclusion and considering what it really means, and how it can benefit everyone involved.”

Another thing that inclusion isn’t is running a drill at a level which includes those with the least ability, thereby spotlighting them (or an individual) and disengaging the rest of the group.

“I for one don’t want to have to stand still for three weeks while everybody catches up,” says Esther. “Sessions should be planned in a way where everyone can shine and be challenged to develop further when ready by working at a level and a pace to suit them.”

UK Coaching Workshop Products Manager Sarah Milner echoes Esther’s thinking as she explains the key thought processes behind delivering inclusive sessions. 

Inclusion isn’t about disabled people any more than it is about people’s gender, race or ethnicity. It’s about including that person who is in front of you at your session at that moment in time.

“In their session plan a coach will address skills they want to develop. The group in front of them are all going to have had different experiences, will have different abilities, levels of fitness and will have different ways of achieving the intended outcome of that exercise or drill. 

Now, it doesn’t matter who that person is, what matters is that they feel confident to try, and that you can support that individual to achieve their desired outcome.”

There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. There is only us


Attributing labels to individuals or groups has the potential to provoke prejudice as it separates the ‘us’ into two sides.

As Sarah explains, it is wrong to label people and put them into boxes. 

“The box may help the coach deliver solutions, but it isn’t recognising the individual and may even alienate: ‘They’ are not part of ‘our’ group, because they are ‘different.’ 

“Referring to ‘difference’ can lead to feelings of privilege or superiority over another person.” 

This usually happens on a subconscious level. For example, jumping to conclusions about the ability of someone with a physical impairment, through to snap judgements we make about people based on the way they dress, speak or look. 

These unconscious biases deflect us sharply from the ethos of inclusion, which is to treat people as individuals, and ensure that everyone can take part and enjoy the same experiences, together.

“Let’s use impairment as an example,” explains Sarah. “You are coaching Jane, who is a lower-arm amputee and wants your coaching support to beat her PB.

“You also coach Safia, who has no limb loss and also wants to beat her PB. Jane is a gifted athlete and already runs a great deal faster than Safia. The impairment is not the focus: to support your athlete to achieve their goals you need to focus on what they can do, and how they can do it better.

The coach should be asking, ‘what can I do at this moment to ensure both people get the most out of this session, by treating them as individuals with a common need, and not a disabled person and a non-disabled person.”

Delving deeper into unconscious bias

Social conditioning is an inescapable part of being human. It is human nature to make quick assumptions about the person walking towards you based on your own hidden biases. 

They are unconscious as they happen without you knowing. Back in cave-days, they helped to ‘protect’ us from our predators. 

Cultural norms, our own personal experiences and background and societal stereotypes lead to associations being formed, which generate attitudes, which in turn influence our behaviours.

It’s involuntary and we all do it,” says Sarah. “But it’s how you recognise and react to your biases that matters. We must firstly be aware that they exist in us all, check our response and then get to know who that person in front of us is, and what makes them tick. Only then as a coach can you understand how to deliver your sessions to suit your people’s ever-changing needs.”

As set out in the introduction, ambiguity around the word ‘inclusion’ often places limitations on learning. Some coaches are being put off enrolling on online courses, taking face-to-face workshops, booking on break-out sessions at conferences, following links to recommended reading and engaging in community of practice-style debates, whenever they see the word ‘inclusion’ or ‘inclusive’ mentioned.

Too many coaches are missing out on learning valuable and essential coaching skills and techniques, and this can have a detrimental knock-on effect on their participants’ personal achievements and, ultimately, their drive to stay active.

Sarah agrees coaches need help to widen their lenses. 

“‘Tech and tac’ are important, but so too are the generic ‘how to’ coaching skills, including what is often regarded as the ‘soft’ skills."

The thought that, ‘I can’t coach you because of x, y or z’, illustrates a closed mindset. All the great coaches have open mindsets, which is an interest and willingness to listen to and accept different ideas and to recognise this is intrinsic to their development as a coach and will positively influence and impact upon their coaching practice.

Sarah adds: “Do you, as a coach, want to develop and thrive through having greater connectivity with your participants, your ‘people,’ and listen to them in order to coach to the best of your ability? Or is success measured by all the ‘ticks’ on your session plan, against everything you planned for your people to do during those two hours with you?

Essentially, do you just want to keep on delivering the same session plan and the same activities using the same approach day in, day out?”

An inclusive coach will be able to tailor their delivery to all their people to help them thrive and to ensure they keep them involved.

The language barrier

The barriers to change highlighted above are compounded by a lack of confidence in using appropriate terminology. 

A fear of being judged or causing upset and offence by the words and phrases we use can often lead to people just avoiding a situation altogether.

Undoubtedly, a fear-factor exists around ‘inclusive language’, and at times it can feel like negotiating a linguistic maze.

Using the word ‘different’, for example, which is commonly used in conversations around inclusion, can itself have negative connotations.

What you are insinuating by using the word ‘difference’ is that there is a ‘norm’ – for example, “you are different to me”. It can lead to feelings of hierarchy or privilege. No one person is better than another. Respect is the fundamental rule,” says Sarah.

The language we use to refer to people and groups of people is really important, therefore.

Esther suggests that, while in order to change coaches’ perception of inclusion we must make them aware of the power of language to reinforce stigma and negative stereotypes, we should be careful to not get “too hung up” on the terminology or the theory.

“I think it’s a good idea to strip out the theory and make it more about human interaction. Get it back to basics,” says Esther.

People worry that they might say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing but, actually, the most important thing to remember is to put people first. People come because they want to get involved in your sport or activity, so be confident what you do and why you are doing it – which is to help people develop through great coaching.”

Person-centred coaching 

Adopting a person-centred approach and developing your ‘soft skills' is fundamental to becoming a more inclusive coach.

It is imperative that coaches make a concerted effort to get to know every person they interact with and to notice and understand what drives them to want to come back week after week. This will help coaches respond appropriately to the needs of all their people and give them the best possible support.

Knowing your people will equip coaches with the tools needed to be able to manage a range of abilities and personalities – from wallflowers to more extrovert personalities – and a range of motivations and backgrounds – from people who have been physically active for years to those who are new to your sport or activity.

This is the secret of making sessions truly unmissable,” says Sarah. “And it enables you to engage and connect with that person, right down to a micro level, in terms of how they are feeling right now, on that day – which will be different to how they felt even in the last session.”

Esther provides an example of what this may look like:

“Let’s say you have a regular group of young people that you coach, and then all of a sudden you get three new youngsters come (friends of the children in your group) who are completely new to the sport/activity but want to get involved.

“As a coach you need to ensure they are included in the session with the others, but at the same time given time to become familiar with activities/skills etc.” 

A good coach will be able to adapt the session accordingly, to: 

  • ensure everyone is included and can socialise/get to know each other/work together
  • those that need it get the opportunity to be introduced to new skills/activities
  • everyone gets to continue to develop and feels a sense of achievement by the end of the session.

For example, the coach may look to split the session into groups at certain points, where people take part in activities based on their current skills and level of ability, or their personal goals. 

People have different experiences, levels of skills or abilities and wants, and it is important as coaches that we acknowledge that, and adapt what we do to ensure that everyone is included,” adds Esther.

Duty to Care Hub and Digital Badge

Learn about the importance of Duty to Care and earn our free Digital Badge by demonstrating your knowledge of the six pillars of Duty to Care (Diversity, Inclusion, Physical Well-being, Mental Health and Well-being, Safeguarding, Safe to Practice).

Find out more

Inclusive Activity Programme eLearning Course

This online training module will help you learn about making physical activity inclusive and accessible to everyone. Learn in your own time and at your own pace.

Enrol for Free

Related Learning

  • A Guide to Inclusion

  • How to: Plan, Coach, Reflect

  • Inclusive Activity Programme face-to-face workshop


Related Resources

  • How to Create an Inclusive Environment

  • Understanding Unconscious Bias

  • The STEP Model Explained


Power Your Coaching with Premium Membership


Transform your coaching with unlimited access to 1000+ resources and 24/7 support, including hundreds of money-saving discounts

UK Coaching Team