How External Opinions and Biases Affect the Psyche of Asian Athletes
Updated: Feb 19
Dear Asian Youth,
Asian people are smart but not athletic. Unfortunately, no matter how well I perform in basketball, most of my teammates and my coach believe in the aforementioned stereotype. They view me as an Asian person who can only play mediocre basketball, while my Asian peers stereotype me as a “simple” athlete. I’m sure a lot of Asian athletes can relate. When we do play, we usually aren’t the main players. My teammates and coach question my abilities; when I play well, they think it’s a fluke rather than a reflection of my skills. Similarly, when one teammate makes mistakes, he stays on the court. When I make similar mistakes, I get sent straight to the bench.
First of all, why are Asian athletes stereotyped in this manner? There are many reasons and explanations but a large one is that Asian athletes don’t play a lot of sports. Because there is such a small population of Asians in the American sports world, humans tend to group them and implicitly rate them as inferior athletes and may perceive Asians as not good enough to make a team. In fact, Asians make up 5.6% of the American population, and being one of the smallest ethnic groups means that there are fewer Asian athletes who compete. Not only are there few Asian athletes, the ones that do play often don’t play a team sport. For those Asian athletes that do play, people don’t associate them with being skilled. In addition, many Asians have pressure from parents to prepare for the SAT at an early age, get good grades, and ultimately get into a prestigious college. This cultural set of norms can cause stress and many of these parents want their son/daughter to pursue a job with a high salary, rather than an athletic job, which discourages Asian youth to pursue sports. On the other hand, American culture can be described in the opposite manner: sports are fundamental to Americans and, at times, even encouraged. Some boarding schools in America make sports an obligatory component of students' lives and 75% of American families with children have at least one child who participates in organized sports.
The effects of this stereotype can be negative. To put this unconscious bias into perspective, consider this example. When most people see a white or black student, they may assume that person isn’t as smart as an Asian person, only because of their skin color. This is analogous to how non-Asians see Asian athletes; when they see an Asian athlete, they assume they aren’t naturally talented physically just because of our ethnicity. This can be very saddening and have a depressing effect on our mood. Confidence can plummet and in turn, affect performance both on an individual level or team level. It’s also easy for coaches to feel the same way about Asian athletes. Because of these experiences, Asians may start to develop learned helplessness, a psychological term that describes that no matter what you do, the outcome is not what you want it to be. In essence, this racial stereotype is a roadblock that never collapses and it feels like there is a limited way to push through. You start to feel hopeless, and therefore you don’t have the power to bounce back and try again after a rejection rather than being resilient and maintaining confidence. Asians may feel pushed out of these certain sport groups because they feel they are labeled and grouped as the “bad Asian athlete.” They are discouraged from playing certain sports that are dominated by a different race which may explain why certain sports like cricket, swimming, tennis are made up of Asians while basketball and many other team spots is made up predominantly of black and white players.
With this in mind, it forces Asian athletes to outperform and outshine their counterparts in order to prove a statement that they are competitive enough to be on the floor. One may argue that it is good that Asian athletes are pushed to their fullest capabilities. However, it can work to their disadvantage when the stakes are too high and they don’t make the team because of their race. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets confirmed in an interview that Jeremy Lin, an Asian NBA player, went undrafted back in 2010. This was because the people in the NBA didn’t believe Lin’s stats matched his race. Specifically, he was explosive and was able to change direction far more quickly than most NBA players. This example is harsh but the true reality. On the brighter side, Jeremey proved that he could be athletically capable, but race was one factor that stood in his way. I acknowledge that there may be other factors that stand in an athlete’s way of getting drafted or signed on a team but I’m sure race played a large one. Not only is there bias at an individual level but some alleged that it is also happening at an institutional level. Recently, Dartmouth University sports has cut lightweight rowing, swimming, and diving. Many Asians said that these were examples of “anti-Asian prejudices'' because this decision led to the removal of 30+ Asian student-athletes from the college’s roster. Even with this recent event, it shows that people are starting to speak up about it and the Asian community of athletes is objecting to this.
People tend to become what others expect them to be. But by challenging the stereotypes that each community has, Asian athletes empower the community and act as a bridge. One notable example would be Jeremy Lin. These stereotypes diminish Asian athletes’ skills in most people’s eyes, and also make them underestimate our passion. People might think: "He's Asian so he's not built for our sport." It’s easy for people to be shaped by popular opinions. However, the frustration of being judged based on ethnicity rather than on performance makes Asian athletes, like Jeremy Lin, strive to counter the belief that being Asian and good at sports are mutually exclusive. Rather than second-guessing themselves in light of such opinions, these athletic Asians are motivated to stay true to themselves. They want people to know that they are confident and capable. I hope other Asians out there adopt the same mindset. Top Asian athletes have been showing their potential and speaking up through their great performances. Again, Jeremy Lin showed the whole world of sports that he could perform in the highest basketball league in the world, in spite of being Asian. Moreover, Yao Ming, a former Houston Rockets NBA player, and now Hall-of-Famer, defied the stereotypes and showed that he could perform optimally. In essence, Jeremy, Yao, and I (as well as many Asian athletes out there) show that we don’t have to be pigeon-holed into societal beliefs. In fact, there has been some hope, and society in general has been getting better. With more Asian athletes defying the odds and rising above expectations, it shows that Asians can belong in American sports. Currently, in the NFL, there are two Asian players, Younghoe Koo and Taylor Rapp. In the NBA, two new Asian rookies include Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe. More Asian representation in sports allows the stereotypes and biases to be broken and encourages Asians to pursue sports without feeling disrespected and discouraged.
Even with this progress, there is still much to be done. There are ways to combat this so that Asian athletes can be treated as equals to other races. Arguably, the best way to go about this long-going situation is to be yourself and to be confident in whatever sport you enjoy playing. Block out the stereotype of being the certain Asian stereotype that only plays x sport because it’s “normal”. Prove to yourself that you can handle any sport or competition and that will make a big statement to Asian athletes. Once many Asian athletes understand this and participate and succeed more in sports, the race bias will hopefully start to level out. A quote that can guide you can be explained by Samuel Adams as he once said: “It does not take a majority to prevail... but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”
I understand how important the mental game is in sports. Race and ethnicity is just one component though. There are many psychological factors involved in playing well in sports. As someone who personally understands the importance of having confidence and training the mind to perform at its best, my organization aims to promote psychology and mental health in the context of sports for teens and kids. I started Mind-Design Sports (https://www.mind-designsports.org/) to help athletes perform optimally through the use of blogs, podcasts with guest speakers, and social media infographics addressing many topics in sports and psychology.For those fellow athletes, Asian or not, I encourage you to check out Mind-Design Sports. Sport psychology delves into topics such as breathing techniques, focus, and visualization as well as how race can play a large role in athletes’ mental functioning. In summary, even though race and your visual appearance are exterior factors that should not affect performance, it definitely can affect an athlete's psyche and internal state. We plan to write about and address further issues on how to deal with race as a minority, for instance, so stay tuned and sign up for our mailing list for monthly updates on new content :)
- Brandon Shintani
This article discussed the mental component and effects of being an Asian athlete. Race plays a large role in how athletes process and perceive themselves in the sports world and it's important to acknowledge that. Read Brandon's article if you are interested and see if you can relate!
Brandon Shintani is a student at Ridgewood High School. He loves psychology and sports and in fact, runs his own sport psychology organization, Mind-Design Sports. Mind-Design Sports provides content on how to improve sports performance through mental techniques through blogs, podcasts, and social media posts. Check it the website at https://www.mind-designsports.org/
Cover Photo Source: https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/02/02/jeremy-lin-looks-to-show-that-he-still-has-nba-game-with-g-league-return/