Transgression, Inclusion & Diversity in the Outdoors

Collie in a Covert

Is there just something about the inherent messiness of living in the real world that gets us feeling uncomfortable, or even keen to kick back, when we encounter a mindset of “we’re listening… so long as you’re willing to be more like us?” Does any such instinct grow where we see ourselves as part of diverse and inclusive communities who’ve stood outside of the mainstream?  

With well-meaning people everywhere committing to ever more impressive projects, what do we make of Lucy Moore’s Where are all the female coaches? or Marianne Davies’ Who Else is Missing? Are we really looking at a landscape where we need to reconsider the stories-we-play-by?  If so, where might we start?

This piece does not strive to give answers, but it does try to open up some of the messiness. It’s also an invitation to dig into whether some of the rebellious spirit that’s been part and parcel of so much in the outdoors for so long might actually give us a basis for taking our pastimes forward from where they are right now.

Day in, day out, we allow trite arguments to pass unchallenged. We might roll our eyes, or bite our tongue… but we don’t do more as life is quite genuinely too short to challenge each and every instance. Does it matter? We’d hopefully say “yes” over Black Lives Matter – but what about when the issue is the landscape of opportunity for would-be outdoor-enthusiasts?

Greg Spencer – Living With Uncertainty – 2020

Whilst we mostly operate a step removed from the tensions documented in Misao Dean’s work on Inheriting a Canoe Paddle, British canoeists remain at the forefront of an increasingly global embrace of Bill Mason’s romantic association of the canoe with “wilderness” and “journeying” – and by association, with ongoing efforts to embed a distinctive vision of Canadian national identity. In parallel with this, our adventure sport world sits at the forefront of global marketing trends where “extreme” gets used in relation to the commercial provision of what is ultimately just safe, enjoyable recreation. In both instances, we’re in ethically questionable territory: not engaging with any ill-intent, but abdicating from caring about the consequences of our actions. In doing so, we continue to legitimate a callous numbness and indifference in relation to the perceptions and experiences of others.

For outdoor enthusiasts of the post-war generation, such callous numbness and indifference was not really an option. Establishment hostility to our practice of navigating rivers gave us a bruising induction in the world of exclusion. Mick Hopkinson reflected one dominant sense of the time when he noted “our parents had fought in the world wars for this new system of freedom, but we still weren’t allowed to go out and enjoy the country or enjoy the rivers because the class system prevailed.” Within the outdoor word, awareness of internal divisions was also rife. The dust eventually started to settle on a generation of working class pioneers shaking things up (especially in rock climbing & mountaineering), but universities were starting to emerge as the hotbed of a new-style of outdoor pioneers and clashes of cultures became intense as the great and good of reforming National Governing Bodies clashed (endlessly) with those who got labelled “the great unwashed” for being different and for being “off-message” in relation to strategy and initiatives.

From the inside of any sport, recreation, hobby or pastime, unresolved issues around these sensitive subjects can easily start dominating perception. Once we’ve started seeing behaviour as reflection misogyny or racism, we may become hyper-sensitised to every sign of it, especially as we start identifying patterns which suggest links between behaviour which others see as quite distinct. For onlookers, the state of play can appear even worse. Looking in on outdoor and adventure sport worlds, such observers might pay attention to crude measures which suggest problems closely aligned with what’s seen in other places. Exploring the more obvious measures (or even just at breakdown of participation figures), anyone might assume commonality with mainstream sport – especially when noting the domination of white, middle-aged males everywhere from NGBs and clubs to coaching and coach development. Our first temptation might be to see society’s wider issues showing up in familiar ways. We might conclude that our realm can, and should, be treated just like everywhere else.

Transgression and Identity in the Outdoors   

On the flip side to all this potential negativity, one seemingly significant pattern we might want to explain involves young people who get active in the outdoors. We’ve long known that they tend to stay active in the outdoors for life, but that’s running completely counter to the trends we see in mainstream sport. The pattern might mean we have been in some way, shape or form shaping opportunities for a sense of belonging on the part of many who already identify as being at odds with the mainstream of society. Is that a part of what’s distinctive about so many traditions in the outdoors? Have successive generations engaged, at least in part, around a sense that they’re socially transgressive (breaking with established norms)? That’s certainly recognisable in the life of working class figures like Don Whillans, but compare Myrtle Simpson in Breathing Space. It’s certainly a label embraced everywhere from mountain biking to caving and from wild camping to wild swimming. If it’s a key to identity, to what extent is that part of the appeal and where (if anywhere) does that become a barrier?

Perspectives on transgression (doing things differently) clearly vary, but to take one topical issue, those of us who have spent our lives in the outdoors have all had extensive exposure to enthusiasts who report having detested pretty much all their experiences of mainstream sport and PE at school. Yes, we also find individuals who excelled in mainstream sport have also excelled in adventure sport, but that is to be expected. What’s more distinctive is the way so many of us who offer activity on and around the water have been approached by schools searching for ways to connect with those pupils who get labelled “hard to reach” by those who mostly deliver sessions on school playing fields. We might need to be wary of claims to the outdoors being so “exceptional” that “normal” expectations should be completely suspended, but genuine inclusion at least has to start with respecting difference!

Fortunately, once routinely out in the hills or on the water, a significant proportion of pupils who have never connected with a pastime in a sports hall or on a sports field tend to start finding activity-centred ways to connect with each other and with their environment. Insight into how this works, and for whom, tends to be impressionistic, but anecdotal evidence suggests many cases where individuals see themselves as stepping outside of “norms” associated with sport. Sometimes, though not necessarily, that’s stepping outside of associations with effort, striving, sweat, discomfort and competition. Even those who do embrace the visceral physicality of “mainstream” approaches commonly associated with sport can have a sense of being transgressive. That’s particularly true for those who take to our rivers, against a long backdrop of disputes around access. The histories of entire pastimes (famously on and around the water, but also from caving and climbing to horse riding and mountain biking) are awash with stories of confrontation and with “right to roam” tensions with landowners and those holding “sporting” rights!

Belonging (with Others) in the Outdoors

As we might expect, a welcome diversity of outlook among those who get active in the outdoors has led to a complex landscape of contested values. This is easily overlooked, but the diversity certainly encompasses very different ways of experiencing “nature” or “landscape” and of conceiving of everything from “wilderness” to “adventure.”  It manifests in different responses to initiatives around environmental protection and conservation, and even to sharing the space with other communities in the outdoors. On the flip side, as those of us who have worked in the outdoors will note, this diversity does hit certain functional limits. It’s hard to see an ethical way to engage anyone in the outdoors without some sort of buy-in to some tradition or another of positively valuing either the experience that’s possible or the environment in which the activity is taking place! Promoting activities in ways which get around such barriers (e.g. indoor kayak racing on ergos, activity in pools) is not really a meaningful response. A more promising avenue would be exploring traditions of transgression which are pretty much everywhere. Everyone has access to some sort of personally-relevant tradition which could be used as a resource in framing a way of accessing the outdoors.

Of course, many have, for whatever reason, become habituated to acting in ways which we might struggle to see as good for inclusion. Sadly, that even includes those who are consciously making well-meaning efforts to address issues of equality, inclusion and diversity! For instance, whilst exemplary on so many fronts and for many women, the #ThisGirlCan campaign and British Canoeing’s #ShePaddles campaigns actually generated a sense of alienation for women and girls who felt patronised or who struggled to recognise themselves in the way they were being addressed. On this front, even basic, everyday language use makes such a difference, especially for any who can’t recognise themselves in the language use. For example, and getting away from more contentious areas, many within “sport” tend to talk glibly of “paddlers” and of “paddlesports” as if those are neutral terms. That works for those who embrace the connected identities, but also screams “not welcome here” to those whose life in and around the water is about so much more than how they propel their craft. That’s true even where paddles are used, but is even more true where they are not. As ever, being told that “we mean you as well” doesn’t help. That’s like saying we use “he/his/him” to mean “anyone of any gender” or using phrases which are “blind” to race or sexuality. Our positive intentions can only ever have a limited impact on how our words are experienced by those on the receiving end!

As if life were not already complex enough, we have, in recent years, seen massive growth in entire industries which either intentionally or inadvertently amplify quite challenging trends. That’s across all domains, everywhere from stereotypes around a cool, alternative “surf” culture through casual reinforcement of prejudice around sit-on-tops, folding canoes and inflatables to the institutionalising of “industry” understandings of white water kayaking, sea kayaking and open canoeing. Where do you sit if the industry (and your NGB) insists on talking about “whitewater” when referring to what you experience as “touring”? Or if your take on open canoeing involves making the boat dance upon the surface of the water but everyone else talks as if the “discipline” is about “journeying” using “traditional” skills? What perceptual cues do newcomers and innovators pick up when we appear so certain of what makes each activity meaningful and give quite established alternatives no recognised place?

Pressure to become “more like us” in the Outdoors

None of this is easy, and when we get to coaching and coach development, the challenges around inclusion and diversity get even greater. Are we seeing initiatives to change the look of these worlds? Yes, of course. We are seeing well intentioned, properly resourced initiatives addressing real issues and having a genuine impact. Some established hands are, quite rightly, feeling uncomfortable. New faces, new language and new approaches are certainly changing perceptions of who might feel comfortable in both coaching and coach development spaces. At their best, as with Eilidh Gibson’s Slalom Inspires programmes, these initiatives are beyond reproach, and we should not let exasperation with how other initiatives have been handled distract us where they have nonetheless made a significant contribution.

Given the difference so many now identify in the “feel” of coaching and coach development landscapes, talk of us having simply “changed the sign on the door” could be viewed as inappropriate. Yes, it’s true that much which lies behind the door remains unchanged. Yes, rather more seriously, those who are being invited in are, in some sense, merely being supported to be more like those already in place. What’s more challenging for those wanting to remain positive is the sense that despite the real progress, we have never witnessed so much pressure for conformity. Yes, that’s largely around things which those in place see as essential and would defend, but the message is still clear enough: we are shaping inclusive and supportive pathways to promote diversity… ensuring anyone, anywhere, can see a pathway to become more like us!

Of course, within formal systems in our words (e.g. within talent pathways and performance departments, among those working in coach development and among providers) we might expect some level of respect for agreed directions of travel and aspirations for a bit of coherence in efforts to move in given directions. That said, to have perceptual cues which foster meaningful inclusion and diversity, those formal systems need to be open to the messiness which comes with commitments to focusing on the present and to allowing systems to evolve. To be inclusive, and to promote diversity, those on the inside of the tent need to be unpicking the pressures towards clarity, conformity, consensus and alignment, all of which communicate a lack of openness and suggest an inhospitable domain for anyone who might see or think differently!

Entanglement and Openness to Difference in the Outdoors

Ultimately, those who focus on strong clear narratives will always (of necessity) close off other possible pathways. Assimilating like minded souls from different groups which are all internally diverse may do a little to pave the way for change. A more meaningful focus on inclusion and diversity might require a loosening of the ties around the past so that interpretations which don’t “fit” can be forged. That doesn’t need to mean casting out those with a passion for “establishment” values, coaching philosophies, attitudes to professionalism and so on. It might mean an openness to the idea that our values are things which will be revealed to us through our actions, or to the idea that a mature approach to coaching and professionalism might leave open the question of how relationships should be approached and what they might look like in the emerging context.

Questioning things: do club volunteers have to see coaching as a “career”? Can’t we leave open the question of whether (or for whom) coaching is, or is not, a Profession? Must we embrace notions of club activity which revolve around what is provided for members, or can we leave space for notions club activity as what emerges from the interactions of members? Can we accept we’re signalling exclusion by saying we “know” what a good performance coaching environment looks like, what behaviours we “need” to see or what an optimal pathway might be for developing an elite athlete? What is the place in our system for those who will challenge our reverence of data science, our incorporation into “the church of marginal gains” and our conviction that it makes sense to talk about what it takes to win?

As we begin mapping the outlines of the complex terrain of diversity and inclusion, we might want to start with mapping those whose aspirations include changing the behaviour of individuals. Is that aspiration compatible with an openness to difference? Finding ways to dampen such ardour might help make any organisation, sport, recreation, hobby or pastime more open – and that wariness need not be limiting. For example, we could still work to encourage interactions between people: to entangle lives. That’s not working to change people, and it’s not saying what the endpoint should be, but it might be stacking the odds on patterns emerging which work better for those trying to find space to innovate or to do things differently. Such an approach might even lead to higher levels of empathy!

Where Next With Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in the Outdoors?

In the end, what’s being suggested here is that our everyday stories of how our pastimes have played a key, stabilising influence in our lives are what will do most to shape how future opportunities are perceived. It’s the stories-we-play-by (day in, day out, up and down the country) which provide the perceptual cues which attract or repel others. A meaningful agenda around inclusion and diversity needs to start by recognising this, and in particular with a respectful look at the way meaning and significance features in those stories. Yes, we’ll end up mapping bewildering levels of complexity, but if we can make the patterns visible, and reflect back any trends within vibrant social learning spaces (owned and shaped by those who are creating the stories), we can start to have those who are involved taking ownership of issues around inclusion and diversity. It’s messy, it’s not dramatic, and doesn’t guarantee any particular outcome… but it does offer hope, especially given that a history replete with transgression is always going to be brimming with potential for those keen to explore alternative pathways!

Care to read more?

What to do next?

It’s not my place, or anyone else’s, to spell out “next steps” – but I’d certainly be delighted if one thing that came of this call-to-arms was the invigoration of conversations about what a more ecological approach would look like for us in the space of equality, diversity & inclusion.

The theme of transgression has landed well with many who have read early drafts of this page, and I’m keen to gather stories which give insight into this phenomena in other people’s voices. Please signpost them to me or share them with me be any available channel. E.g. Facebook, Twitter.

Beyond that, I’d just like to tie everything here to my Living With Uncertainty piece!

Ps. Anyone seeking insight into the traditions of the outdoors might want to start with Part II of Sid Perou’s Remembering Pete Livesey and with Wil Treasure’s Factor Two Podcast. Other recommendations to add to a reading list would be much appreciated!