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The legalization of cannabis in Canada will have significant implications on the Canadian sport system, ranging from anti-doping policy, to athlete and staff safety and wellbeing, to risk management for organizations. In conjunction with its partners, SIRC will be providing insight and resources to support sport organizations in navigating the many issues. This SIRCuit article, in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), explores the compliance and health issues for athletes at all levels. A webinar on November 21, 2018 will discuss discuss the rights and responsibilities that sport organizations have with respect to Cannabis use by employees, staff and volunteers. Watch the SIRC NewsHub for additional offerings!

 On October 17, 2018, the Government of Canada’s Cannabis Act comes into effect, legalizing cannabis use in Canada for adults aged 18 and older in Alberta and Quebec, and 19 in all other provinces and territories. However, for athletes, the decision whether or not to use cannabis still stirs some debate. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the health effects and compliance issues confronting Canadian athletes, from recreational to elite levels.

The health effects of cannabis

Nationally, about 4.2 million (14%) of Canadians aged 15 years and older reported some use of cannabis products for medical or non-medical purposes in the previous three months. More than half (57%) of the users indicated that they used some form of cannabis daily or weekly (Statistics Canada, 2018).

Cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical that causes the mental and physical effects known as feeling “high.” When cannabis is smoked or vaporized, the effects begin right away and last for at least six hours. The effects of edible cannabis products may begin between 30 minutes and two hours after taking them, and can last 12 hours or longer (Government of Canada, n.d). Not all of the physical, mental and emotional effects of cannabis use are known, but evidence suggests there are both short- and long-term health risks associated with regular use. In particular, people aged 25 and under are more likely to experience harms from cannabis because their brains are still developing. The earlier in life cannabis use begins, the more harm it can do (Government of Canada, 2018a).

On and off the field of play (or in the pool, on the ice, etc.), research suggests cannabis can negatively impact sport performance, jeopardize athlete health and wellbeing, negatively impact relationships, and put the safety of others at risk.

In the short-term, every time cannabis is used it can:

Regular long-term cannabis use (daily or almost daily, for several months or years) can:

Cannabis and the Canadian Anti-Doping Program

For Canada’s elite athletes, the decision whether or not to use cannabis must also take anti-doping policy into consideration. Despite legalization, cannabis remains a banned substance for athletes who are subject to the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP). Legalization will not affect the status of cannabis in sport and a positive test can still result in a sanction. Despite being banned only in-competition, athletes should be wary of any use as THC is fat soluble which means that it leaves the body slowly and can be detected long after use.

Cannabis remains banned in sport in Canada because the CADP follows the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List, which stipulates which substances and methods are banned in sport. The Prohibited List is an independent international standard that is not affected by changes in domestic law – many substances on the Prohibited List are legal products but are banned in sport. In addition, the CCES, which manages the CADP, has a long-standing interest in harmonized and effective anti-doping programs worldwide and works hard to ensure Canadian sport remains compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code.

Supporting positive decision making

We all have a role to play to ensure Canadian athletes, at all levels, make informed decisions about cannabis use.


To help stakeholders make informed decisions, the CCES has several useful resources, two created specifically about cannabis.

Health Canada’s Cannabis in Canada information hub provides information about the law, the health effects of cannabis use, and cannabis impairment on the road and at work.

As researchers and educators who have been (and still are!) extensively involved in sport, back to school time also means back to school SPORT time! Through our personal experience and our research, we know firsthand the positive impact that participation in sports can have on child development. We are also acutely aware that many children and youth do not have the chance to attain these benefits as they are cut from teams, burnt out by single sport specialization or simply never provided an opportunity to play. For those in schools and communities involved with sports programs (coaches, parents, principals, teachers, rec leaders, etc.) it is important to be aware of both sides of the coin. Sports are good for kids BUT not all kids are able to play. Yet.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics, many people became familiar with the Norwegian approach to youth sport:

In Norway, children are encouraged to join local sport clubs to help with their social development but there are strict rules, which prevent anyone from keeping score — no one can be ranked first to last until they turn 13. “We want them to be in sports because they want to be,” Tore Øvrebø, head of the Norwegian team, explained to CNN Sport. The focus is on other aspects, he says, not the competitive side. “Instead (of winning) they want to have fun and they want to develop not only as athletes but as social people.”

“Our vision is sport for all. Before you are 12 you should have fun with sport. So we don’t focus on who the winner is before then. Instead we are very focused on getting children into our 11,000 local sports clubs.” Tom Tvedt, President of Norway’s Olympic Committee. (The Guardian)

In contrast to the Norwegian approach, in both our research and experiences as coaches and parents, we have seen something quite different. As an example, this quote is from a parent in response to a previous blog about cutting (de-selection):

I just read your blog and I wanted to tell you about my son’s experience in tryouts. My son is 8 (that’s right, only 8) he was on a Tier 1 team.  His team was really good and then after the season, they had tryouts for the next season.  The tryouts were two 1-hour tryout sessions.  At the end of the 2nd day, all of the players were called into a circle around the coaches.  If you made one of the teams, your name was called and you were given a piece of paper to give to your parents to register you for the team.  After all of the papers were given out, the rest were told they did not make a team. A couple of boys from his team did not make the roster of the new team.  They just sat there while the rest of their old teammates screamed with joy. This made me sick.

As professionals in physical education who have played and coached sport at a variety of levels, comments like this about Canadian sport make us cringe. The current problems with participation and engagement in youth sport (e.g., sport drop out [Crane & Temple, 2015]; decline in sport participation during adolescence [Zimmerman-Sloutskis, Zimmerman, & Martin, 2010]; sport specialization [Jayanthi et al., 2013]) led us to begin a program of research that includes to date: surveys of over 1,600 coaches and athletic directors (Junior and High Schools); 52 interviews with young athletes (ages 13-18 years old) who had been cut in the past and their parents; a case study of re-imagined sport at a junior high school and; research into alternative models of sport that endeavour to increase participation and keep kids playing as along as possible. This article will provide strategies to improve de-selection practices and offer alternative sport models to increase youth participation in sport.

Easing the Pain of Cutting

Findings from our research confirm that de-selection cuts deep (Gleddie, Sulz, Humbert & Zajdel, in press). There are negative emotional, social and physical consequences. Athletes lose friends and are forced to find new social circles. They question their own identities and can feel lost and adrift. Perhaps quite obviously, their self-esteem is shaken. Time spent being physically active is reduced – not being on the team means no more practices and games. Cutting also deterred athletes from future participation in the same sport, due to low perceptions of ability in that sport. As well, when no specific feedback was provided as to why athletes were cut there was a tendency to assume a low level of skill and a prediction of future failure. The same results happened when athletes were given feedback about things they can’t change like, “You’re too short”.

For coaches, there are four factors that can improve the experience for de-selected athletes:

As well, the athletes told us that the best way to help them cope with being cut is to provide clear reasons in a face-to-face meeting. Specifically, meetings should include:

Re-Imagining Sport for Children and Youth

Recently, Canada received a disappointing “D+” on physical activity levels (ParticipACTION Report Card 2018). Only 35% of 5-17 year-olds are meeting the recommended guidelines of a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Participation in organized sport did a bit better, a “B”, with 77% of 5-17 year olds participating in organized physical activity or sport. We feel that Canadian sport can do even better. Through our research, we’ve heard from teachers and coaches that are using a range of innovative approaches to shift the typical mindset from cutting and “riding the pine” towards an education-focused model of athlete development. Here are a few examples (some of which we are beginning to research):

Shifting the Culture

Our goal as coaches and researchers is to keep as many young people participating in sport as possible. To achieve this goal, it is important to consider alternative sport models that encourage participation and long-term involvement in sport. We need to work together at all levels (school, community, club and elite), with all stakeholders (parents, sport organizations, government, researchers, coaches and especially the kids) to take the following steps:

Together, we can ensure that Canada becomes the BEST place in the world to be a kid and play sport.

One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2018 Winter Olympics was the success of the Norwegian Team, who topped the overall medal count with 39 medals (7.33 medals/million population), compared to Canada’s third-place standing with 29 medals (0.81 medals/million population). In team rooms and in the media, everyone was asking “How did such a small country produce such a dominating performance at these Olympics?

While there are many reasons underlying Norway’s success, an interview with Tore Øvrebø, Director of Elite Sport for the Olympiatoppen, an organization of scientists, trainers and nutritionists who work with Olympic athletes across Norway’s sports federations, drew attention to significant differences in the way sport and physical activity is delivered in Norway compared to other Olympic countries. He describes an ethos of “participation” and focus on developmental outcomes.

Sport should be a human development program…They should learn social skills. Learn to take instructions, and think by themselves. Learn to know what the rules are. Learn why we are doing these things together. So there is a value system going through the [activity] that is actually about developing people. That’s the main goal of sport, to develop people.

In contrast, an ethos of “winning at all costs” has infiltrated youth sport in Canada, degrading the quality of the sport experience resulting in reduced participation (Brenner, 2016) and increased injury (Jayanthi et al., 2013). Building psychological, cognitive, social and emotional skills are largely ignored, yet these are essential ingredients for successful high performance athletes, particularly for our developing athletes (Bailey, 2012). Factors differentiating “super champions” from others include commitment, reaction to challenge, reflection and reward and the role of coaches and significant others (Collins et al., 2016).

This article aims to ignite reflection and dialogue about the ways we develop our younger athletes, particularly in the first three stages of Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development Pathway (Active Start, FUNdamentals and Learn to Train). It is during these stages that sport can play a role in developing athletes’ executive functions and social and emotional learning skills – the foundations for “human development.” Quality sport can provide outstanding learning environments and opportunities for our young athletes to but this requires deliberate planning and delivery. In the spirit of continuous improvement, this article also aims to cultivate conversations and relationships across the broader sport ecosystem, especially with schools, who make extraordinary contributions toward the development of our youth.

Executive functions – the basic building blocks for success

Success in school and in one’s career requires “creativity, flexibility, self-control and discipline” (Diamond 2016). Underlying these attributes are executive functions (EFs) – a family of mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions or rules, see things from a different perspective, respond to novel or unpredictable circumstances and juggle multiple tasks successfully (Diamond 2013).

The parts of the brain that develop these EFs are often referred to an air traffic control system.  Busy airports have a duty to safely manage arrivals and departures for many airplanes using many runways, all at the same time. Similarly, our brain needs to operate like an air traffic control tower, seeing and managing distractions, establishing priorities for tasks, setting and achieving goals, while controlling impulsive words and actions (Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University).

These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of EFs in real world situations requires them to properly orchestrate their operations with each other.  It is generally agreed that there are 3 core functions:

How are executive functions developed?

Children are not born with these skills. The figure below shows the results of tests measuring different forms of executive function skills. They begin to develop shortly after birth, with a window of dramatic development between the ages of three to five. Development continues throughout adolescence into early adulthood (CDC, Harvard University).

Parents, guardians and other caring adults are collectively responsible for providing “growth-promoting environments” to enable children to practice and develop these skills where they live, learn and play.

Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision. (CDC, Harvard University)

Developing executive functions through sport and physical activity

Diamond (2015) reviews the effects of physical exercise on EFs and identifies preferred types of activity that promote positive impact. These include cognitively-engaging exercise, activities requiring bimanual coordination and eye-hand coordination (e.g. social circus), and activities that require frequently crossing the midline and/or rhythmic movement, such as dance or drumming, particularly when moving with others. Our knowledge about the mechanisms that underlie improved executive functions is growing and includes both structural and functional changes to specific regions of the brain (Cotman et al 2007).  While our understanding advances, Diamond (2015) further postulates that executive functions are improved by activities promoting physical fitness, but also those that “(a) train and challenge diverse motor and EF skills, (b) bring joy, pride, and self-confidence, and (c) provide a sense of social belonging (e.g., group or team membership).”

Social and emotional learning – building on the foundation of EFs

Establishing a foundation of EFs permits the subsequent development of social and emotional learning skills (Diamond 2013). These include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness (see the table below).

“Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Are program interventions effective?

Since the mid 1990’s, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been using research, practice and policy to make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school. These programs have been tested in both the out-of-school and in-school settings.

When implemented as a system-wide approach, research has found statistically significant improvements in cognitive abilities, social cohesion and emotional agility (Durlak et al 2011).  Recent studies have demonstrated lasting positive effects around smart decision-making, forming healthy relationships, and goal setting while learning to apply those skills in other areas of their lives (Taylor et al., 2017).

For sustained impact, CASEL identifies three interconnected strategies that need to be tackled:

  1. Build student competencies and skills through an intentional approach. This should include free standing lessons designed to enhance student social and emotional competence, and the use of teaching practices that promote SEL, such as cooperative learning and project-based learning.
  2. Design an environment where all students thrive. We know that the environment in which students learn influences their social and emotional development, growth and success. Creating a sense of belonging within safe places accompanied by strong teacher-student relationships are necessary.
  3. Use organizational strategies to create a climate and culture conducive to SEL, and that develops and supports teacher capacity for advancing SEL.
Developing EFs and SEL through Sport

While much of the work on EFs and SEL has been led by the education sector, we could easily substitute “athlete” for “student” and “coach” for “teacher” and explore the possibilities for community recreation program and sport clubs.

Most coaches would agree that athletes demonstrating self-management, self-respect, respect of others, an emphasis on effort, decision-making and goal setting would be favourable attributes from a competitive sport perspective. Programs that cultivate these values would find their athletes enjoying sport and would likely remain in sport longer. Coaches are essential facilitators in bringing these attributes to life in sport and can provide clear connections to other aspects of the athlete’s life. “The coach must genuinely value the principles of respecting the players, empowering them to have a voice and also emphasizing respect of others and the ability to work independently and put forward effort regardless of who is watching” (Balague & Fink, 2016). Effective implementation of this approach requires: “prioritizing the athlete over wins and losses, emphasizing relationships, taking a holistic approach to developing athletes, and understanding that the model is a ‘way of being’, and not just a set of techniques to be followed” (Balague & Fink, 2016).

There are many different ways that this approach can be integrated into the sport environment; one recommended process is described below:

  1. A pre-season discussion with athletes about the kind of culture the team wishes to create. Some questions to help guide this discussion include “What are the things that define us?” or “How do we want to be seen by others?”  This can also include season goals for individuals as well as the entire team.
  2. Allow the team to create their own means by which they gather and decide on consequences for players that do not meet the agreed upon standards.
  3. An awareness talk begins each training session to identify the personal and group goals that target the SEL components. For example, the focus might be on Relationship Skills – during the awareness talk, ask the athletes to describe what this looks like in both sport and non-sport situations.  This helps to establish ownership and accountability for the practice session.
  4. At the end of each training session, there is a rapid check in with players to reflect on their contributions and how this might look in other parts of their life. Using the Relationship Skills from point #3, athletes can identify how they managed these skills during the training session, what did they do or say to promote relationship building or what might they do differently next time.
  5. While coaches will facilitate the above, they need to honour and respect the athlete voices by supporting their choices. For example, during training, the coach must integrate athlete ideas from the opening awareness talk.
The future has promise

Our youth sport system must find ways to keep children and adolescents engaged in sport.  By making sport a more inclusive and appealing choice, more youth will be attracted and retained.  Many coaches recognize the importance of an athlete’s social and emotional skillset yet they are uncertain about how to develop, train and progress these skills in their training environments. Implementation of most new ideas is challenging yet can begin with dialogues and learning more about this approach.  Recent work by Jean Côté in the area of transformational leadership (Turnnidge, 2017) provides exciting opportunities to explore ways in which coaches can be supported to provide quality sport experiences for their athletes.  A focus on developing EFs and SEL skill through their early sporting years may lead to a more developmentally appropriate environment for children and deepen the capability and expertise of our Canadian athlete pool.

Recommended Resources


Check out this 6-minute video from Edutopia for an overview of the “5 keys to social and emotional learning success” – as you watch the video, think of the ways that this approach in your sport environment might make it a better place for your athletes, their parents and coaches.

Education-based websites

Centre on the Developing Child (Harvard University;

Coalition for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL;

Despite some important ethical and developmental concerns, early identification and selection is the modus operandi of high performance sport. Most sport systems internationally have limited resources for high performance athlete development and, as a result, have to make predictions about who has the greatest likelihood of future success. Notions of talent also play critical roles in most athlete development models, and despite any strong evidence either for or against the role of genetic factors in predicting long-term performance, the concept isn’t going anywhere. The purpose of this article is to highlight a number of issues related to the identification and selection of athletes and discuss what they mean for coaches and sport administrators.

0.1  Early talent selection assumes talent is a fixed capacity that can be identified early

In most sports, selection decisions happen on a fairly regular basis across an athlete’s development (e.g. ice hockey programs choosing athletes to play on representative-level teams or provincial teams choosing junior athletes to participate in the Canada Games). However, high performance sport is increasingly focusing on the identification of athletes at earlier and earlier phases of development; perhaps the most extreme example we are aware of is the signing of an 18-month old child to a 10 year “symbolic” contract with a Dutch professional soccer club. This is done in an attempt to provide athletes with the optimal developmental environment to achieve future success. However, there are considerable consequences associated with this approach (e.g. overemphasis on winning at the cost of fundamental motor skill development, greater likelihood of burnout and dropout from sport). Furthermore, selecting athletes early in development assumes that the factors associated with early success (e.g. superior physical skills) are stable indicators of what performance will look like in the future, an assumption that does not have good research support (Baker & Wattie, 2018). Key performance capacities like the ability to read patterns of play (e.g., in sports like soccer and football), anticipate the forthcoming actions of opponents (e.g., in sports like tennis and squash) and make good decisions about the best options in specific situations (e.g., in decision-making sports like volleyball and baseball) only emerge after considerable time spent practicing. As a result, they are currently impossible to identify in early development because there are no good early indicators.

0.2  Talent identification is not done on a level playing field

 The reality is that the identification and development of athletes is not a meritocracy. A number of constraints influence who gets labelled as “talented”, and whether or not athletes have opportunities to progress through a high performance developmental pathway. In some cases policies can influence selection: the relative age effect sees older youth in their age groups more likely to be selected to competitive teams likely because they’re simply physically larger, more psychologically mature, and developmentally advanced (Wattie, Schorer, & Baker, 2015). Aspects of youths’ immediate developmental environment also influence their experiences in sport. For example, there is some research suggesting obvious factors like socioeconomic resources as well as less obvious factors such as broad, geographic variables (e.g., population) limit opportunities for athlete development (Woolcock & Burke, 2013). These factors, and others, can compromise the accuracy of selection decisions, as well as influence the size of the talent pool from which to select and develop athletes.

0.3  Multivariate approaches to talent selection may be problematic

 A significant advancement in sport science has been the increased use of “big data” among high performance coaches and administrators to understand the complexities of play at the highest levels of competition. On the one hand, the trickle down of these big data strategies to talent identification and athlete selection seems reasonable – if big data can improve our understanding at the elite level, surely it can have some utility at lower levels to identify athletes with the greatest potential. However, these approaches tend to be multivariate (i.e., considering the relationships between a combination of different skills and outcomes), which may not be appropriate for identifying a coach or a team’s specific need (e.g., does a team need the best well-rounded player or a player with strengths in one key area?). In many sports, the performer with the best potential for success is not the one with the greatest combination of all-round skill. Furthermore, because multivariate approaches require larger than normal datasets, they typically have to rely on data from players who may not have played in recent years. This is problematic because it assumes that the variables that predict player selection do not change over time (see #4 below for more on this). However, in many sports, particularly team sports, athlete selection is based on who is on the team at this specific point in time, how the team’s needs will change in the future, and what players are available to maintain or expand the team’s repertoire of capabilities.

0.4  Athlete selection requires predicting the future of sport

A related point to the one made above involves the need for high performance coaches to predict how their sport will change over time. In essence, when coaches make decisions about athlete selection, they should be making predictions about what performance in their sport will look like in the X number of years left between an athlete’s current age and their age of peak performance, and whether the athlete has the skills and capabilities to reach that level of performance. Predicting what could win today in a developing athlete ignores the reality that their sport will evolve during their window of development (e.g., due to rule changes, advances in equipment and technology, etc.); the longer the window of development, the greater the potential for change. One prominent example is Usain bolt, who in younger years was considered to be too tall to be a world class 100m-sprinter because coaches believed that only smaller sprinters could reach the step frequency needed to be quick enough.

0.5  Short-term priorities undermine talent selection and development

 One of the challenges to developing elite athletes is the conflict that exists between short-term and long-term goals. Identifying talent begins at young ages in many of our sport systems, and the process of developing talent into expertise (i.e., performance at the highest levels of a sport) usually occurs over many years, through many different training environments. During this process coaches and selectors often prioritize short-term goals: winning this year’s games, tournaments and championships. This can result in “performance identification” – the selection of athletes that serve immediate performance goals rather than athletes that have talent and tremendous long-term potential. Furthermore, when short term priorities dominate (e.g., when linked to financial incentives), the risk that training and recovery practices fail to serve the long-term interest of individual athletes increases. We can see this in youth leagues where teams are stacked with a large proportion of top players instead of spreading them around the league. This results in the team having a high likelihood of success that year, but a sub-optimal environment for development since challenge may be low. It also compromises the learning opportunities for athletes on other teams. In circumstances where such short-term priorities undermine talent selection, organizations may need shifts in culture and incentives that align with long-term athlete development priorities.

0.6  Increased competition for talent between sports undermines athlete development

 Most athlete development models advocate a broad and diverse foundation of movement experiences during early phases of development (e.g., while, paradoxically, the early experiences of high performance athletes have become more and more specialized. One factor driving this effect relates to the protectionist and isolationist approaches many sports have to talent identification and development. In many high performance systems, sports compete against each other for the highest quality youth samples from which to identify and develop athletes. For instance, we have heard of several examples of elite coaches who do not want their athletes to participate in other sports in the off season out of concerns that they get an injury that would affect performance in their main sport. As a result, they design a 12-month training program to keep their athlete focused in one sport. This inter- and intra-organization competition constrains opportunities for athlete development across the system. Isolationist approaches lead to an emphasis on what is best for the sport (e.g., 12-month training) instead of what might be best for the athlete (e.g., a diversified involvement where athletes play different sports during an off season). While we often see this happen in sports like ice-hockey, it may be particularly relevant in less popular sports that have a need to maintain minimum numbers to allow systems to run efficiently.

Due to the limited resources available in most high performance systems around the world, identification and selection will remain parts of an athlete’s journey from grassroots to greatness. That said, frank and honest discussions with stakeholders regarding the realities of working in high performance systems are necessary. While researchers may squabble philosophically about whether talent exists, those working within the athlete development system understand the rationale for selection quite simply. To them, it reflects a decision about the most effective use of available (and often very limited) resources. Better alignment between sports would facilitate greater opportunities for athletes to experience success through practices such as “talent transfer” between sports, and potentially allow sports to maximize the pool of talented athletes and the use of limited resources.

In summary, several issues compromise effective talent identification and development in sport. Moreover, these issues are not always mutually exclusive, further complicating the already challenging practice of developing high performance athletes. The challenge for researchers and practitioners alike is to test and implement creative strategies to mitigate the factors that negatively impact the efficacy of athlete development initiatives.

Increasing attention in research and practice has focused on the physical and psychological impacts of trauma and violence, for example from living in conflict zones or experiencing family violence. In North America, such work has led to an increased understanding of the prevalence and impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These include childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse; neglect; and childhood experiences of household disruption such as parental separation or divorce, exposure to family violence, living with someone with mental illness, substance misuse within the household, and having a family member incarcerated (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014). Research has found that between 50 and 60 percent of the population report at least one adverse child experience, with approximately 30 to 40 percent reporting two or more ACEs (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2010; Dube, 2003; Felitti et al.,1998). As the number of ACEs an individual as experienced increases, so does the risk for negative health and social outcomes.

The impacts of trauma and violence can manifest in a range of physical, psychological, emotional and social symptoms (Anda et al 2006; Felitti, 1998; Irish, Kobayashi, & Delahanty, 2010). These include but are not limited to:

Based on the prevalence of ACEs within the general population, sport organizations, coaches and program leaders are recognizing that a substantial proportion of athletes have ACEs. Within sport and physical activity, the impacts of these experiences can result in difficulty building positive relationships with teammates and coaches, inability to focus, difficulty abiding by the rules of play, aggressive behavior with opponents and teammates, lack of self-awareness, violent outbursts, and difficulty dealing with the pressure of competition (Bergholz et al., 2016).

What is a Trauma-Informed Sport Program?

When coaches and program leaders are trauma-informed it means that they recognize that anyone they interact with may have been impacted by trauma at some point in their lives, and understand that a variety of emotional (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger) and behavioral (e.g., substance use, self-harm, isolation) challenges may present themselves as a result of the traumatic experience(s) (Gutierres & Van Puymbroeck 2006; Nadew 2012; Schäfer & Fisher, 2011;).

The overall purpose of trauma-informed programming is to provide individuals experiencing such challenges with the opportunity to develop skills that will help them improve their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Bergholz and colleagues identified a number of principles that are critical in the development of a trauma-informed sport program. The sport program must:

  1. Place an emphasis on creating a physically and emotionally safe environment;
  2. Be designed for long-term engagement, rather than short, one-off programs;
  3. Create opportunities for the development of meaningful relationships with others;
  4. Have a supportive structure (e.g., rules of play, planned predictable activities/schedule, reasonable ratio between coaches and athletes); and
  5. Integrate local cultural practices (e.g. local practices for healing from trauma).

Trauma-informed sport programs are important given that a significant percentage of youth will be exposed to some form of trauma; sport is the most popular extra-curricular activity amongst youth in Canada and hence a great opportunity to reach large numbers of youth; and evidence suggests that physical movement is an important component of the healing process (Bergholz et al., 2016; D’Andrea, Bergholz, Fortunato & Spinazzola, 2013).

Bounce Back League

In Canada, these principles are being put into practice through a new project funded by the Government of Canada and being led by Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada. Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada is a national non-profit organization that serves over 200,000 youth annually in more than 700 small and large cities, rural and Indigenous communities across Canada. More than 70% of families served are living on low-incomes and are at higher risk of having or being exposed to trauma. The mission of the organization is “to provide a safe, supportive place where children and youth can experience new opportunities, overcome barriers, build positive relationships and develop confidence and skills for life.”

Bounce Back League (BBL) is a trauma-informed sport program that was designed by Edgework Consulting in collaboration with Boys and Girls Club of Canada. At the core of the program is a new curriculum that has been developed and piloted in three locations. Youth engage in a variety of sports and active games over the course of the year during three seasons of play (Fall, Winter and Spring).

Although aspects of the program delivery vary depending on the needs and interests of each location, there are three main foci of BBL:

  1. Leaders help youth Come to Play, focused on developing self-awareness and being able to prepare oneself to make the most out of the challenges and opportunities that present themselves. Leaders focus on creating a welcoming, inclusive and safe space where youth feel they can fully participate. Each BBL sessions starts off with a welcome and a warm–up, and the youth learn how to check their pulse so they become aware of their body and how it responds to physical activity.
  2. Leaders help youth Build My Team, which is all about learning the importance of and how to invest in people to help youth develop their own support system, and to help one another build skills together. After the warm-up, leaders engage the youth in drills related to the sport or activity of the day and then have the youth play. The drills and rules of play are specifically designed to emphasize teamwork and support the development of relationships.
  3. Leaders help youth Play On, supporting youth in adapting to new situations and being able to persist and stay on a positive path when faced with adversity. A unique design feature of the BBL is a space called “The Zone” that is always available in any program session. Youth are encouraged to use The Zone to take breaks when needed – if they feel overwhelmed they can opt-out of play and then opt back in when they feel ready to play again.

These three foci are also reinforced at the end of every session during “Team Time” where the leaders debrief with the youth on the successes and challenges of the day.

BBL Results to Date

The BBL project also has a robust intervention research design that uses a combination of quantitative (e.g., surveys and observations involving both youth and leaders) and qualitative methods (interviews with youth and leaders as well as art-based activities with the youth) to evaluate the impact of both the curriculum and associated staff training. The findings from the pilot year are promising. Leaders have reported improvements in their knowledge of trauma-informed principles and confidence in utilizing a trauma-informed approach. From analysis of the weekly logbooks completed by the leaders it was evident they were able to successfully implement the program structure and activities as planned in a progressive manner (Shaikh, Bean, Forneris, 2018). The youth who participated in the program also showed positive outcomes including increased wellbeing from pre-season to post-season; improvements in physical literacy; the development of friendships; as well as learning a number of life skills such as teamwork, respectful listening, perseverance, and putting forth your best effort (Shaikh, Bean, Forneris, 2018).

Getting started with a trauma-informed approach

The use of a trauma-informed approach will enhance outcomes for any team or program. A trauma-informed approach can help your athletes improve their ability to regulate their emotions and behavior, enhance their focus and teamwork, and thus improve their performance both on and off the field. Below are seven principles developed by Bergholz et al. (2016) that you can start with:

Moving Beyond the Few to the Many

Research has shown the many benefits of using a trauma-informed approach, and as a result the number of programs and coaches adopting such an approach is growing. However, for long-lasting impact to occur in the lives of athletes who have experienced trauma and the associated emotional and behavioral challenges, changes in policy and practice are needed. Coach education programs should increase awareness about trauma and incorporate training to enhance capacity for integrating a trauma-informed approach. In addition, sport organizations should develop guidelines and policies to support their coaches in using a trauma-informed approach. These actions will go a long way to improve the environment and enhance support for athletes from the community to elite level.

Recommended Resources

Creating trauma-informed sports programming for traumatized youth: Core principles for an adjunctive therapeutic approach. By Bergholtz, L., Stafford, E. & D’Andrea, W. (2016). Journal of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 15(3), 244-253.

Vital Connections: Harnessing the Power of Relationship to Impact the Lives of Young People. By Bergholtz, L. (2018). Lioncrest Publishing

Re-designing Youth Sport: Change the Game. By McCarthy, J., Bergholz, L., & Bartlett, M. (2016).Routledge.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing. By Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2017). Basic Books.

When FINA, the international body that governs aquatics, changed the name of the synchronized swimming discipline to artistic swimming, it sent more than a wave across the sport in Canada. It unleashed a tsunami of activity that has resulted in a new name, a new brand, and a unified vision for the organization now known as Canada Artistic Swimming.

The decision at the FINA Congress, in July 2017, provided the catalyst to take an in-depth look at where the sport was going, both internationally and nationally. “At the staff and the board levels, we knew we had an opportunity to make some significant changes to remain relevant and to take advantage of what was happening globally in the sport world,” said Jackie Buckingham, CEO of Canada Artistic Swimming. “With the introduction of mixed duets as a competitive event right up to the world championship level, and discussion starting around the inclusion of men in the Olympic Games, we knew we needed a strong campaign and platform to recruit and retain boys and men in the sport. And in Canada, we also saw the opportunity, through a complete re-brand, to draw new registrants from a much more diverse population than ever before.”

Charting a New Course

Realizing that this shift represented more than a simple change in the name for the organization formerly known as Synchro Canada, Buckingham began investigating the steps that were needed. First came the name change, with accompanying legal procedures. Selecting a new name involved a Nuans search to avoid similarities to any existing corporate names and trademarks (conducted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada). The originally proposed “Artistic Swimming Canada”, was deemed to be too close to Swimming Canada and potentially confusing. Repositioning the words slightly, Canada Artistic Swimming, and in French, Natation Artistique Canada, passed the Nuans test.

Under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act, a name change is considered a fundamental change in an organization’s bylaws, requiring approval of two-thirds of the membership. A special meeting was called with the singular purpose of changing the name. Canada Artistic Swimming was unanimously approved on May 15, 2018.

Creating a New Brand

Concurrent with the work on the new name, the rebrand project was initiated. This is a daunting task for any organization, but for a small National Sport Organization, with limited staff and financial resources, it was a huge undertaking. A grant from the Canadian Olympic Committee’s National Sport Federation Enhancement Fund allowed Synchro Canada to engage the services of both a branding firm, Torque Strategies, and a graphic design firm, Will Creative, who partnered to create the new brand. Their work commenced in the latter part of January 2018. Their task? Design the brand elements for Synchro Canada’s new image including new logos for the NSO and its Member provinces, and companion branding for its new entry-level aquatic literacy program – AquaGO!

Torque Strategies kick-started the process by bringing together a small group of staff members, board members and a technical sport resource for a discovery session. They asked the group probing questions to get to the heart of what the sport was all about. They also held a series of focus groups with provincial representatives, athletes, coaches and officials. As people used various words to describe the sport, Torque captured the essence, and tracked the commonalities.

At the end of the process, five key words emerged. They became the Brand Attributes:

Brand Attributes: Powerful, Creative, Collaborative, Dynamic, Inclusive

These attributes, along with the Vision and Promise, became the three outcomes supporting the new Brand Essence:

Vision: To be a world leading nation in artistic swimming

Promise: To move and Inspire through our performances and always strive to be Champions

Brand Essence: Forging unity through diversity

With this fundamental language in place, the team at Will Creative was tasked to develop the graphic material to visually represent the brand.

Before the visual work began, the Synchro Canada board approved the brand essence. Wanting to avoid the perils of “design by committee”, Buckingham and Director of Communications and Events, Stéphane Côté, worked directly with the Will Creative team, using the Marketing and Sponsorship Committee, staff and the Board as touchpoints at critical times.

Bringing the Logo to Life

In developing a distinct, Canadian identity for Canada Artistic Swimming, the Will Creative team designed a logo that proudly includes the classic Canadian maple leaf in red, with one third of the leaf representing the watery splash effect that is now part of the sport’s visual language. The wordmark also uses the water in motion theme, incorporated as a powerful splash through the word “Artistic”. Along with the graphic elements came a whole new vocabulary and tone of voice. It’s more powerful, inclusive and respects the diversity of Canada. Examples can be found on the brand page on the Canada Artistic Swimming website.

Canada is a welcoming nation. An inclusive nation…As individuals, we represent the diversity of many nations. As a country, we have embraced the differences between one another…We will unite our teams by embracing what makes each person different, unique and special. Together we will transform what is expected, what is possible, and what people around the world think about artistic swimming.

We are more than the sum of our parts. Together, we are better…Together, we are Canada.

Making it Official

After receiving word from Corporations Canada that the name change was final, official notification was sent in early August to members and clubs, with a public media release on August 9, 2018. Once the visual identity was finalized, another notification was sent to members and clubs just prior to the official public launch of the brand on August 21st. After a year of work, the new name, new brand and renewed commitment to a collective vision for the organization was in place.

Sharing Lessons Learned

Reflecting on the tremendous amount of work to re-engineer a sport organization, Buckingham offers three suggestions to anyone else going down this road:

  1. Talk to others who have been in the process. “We had advice from other sports who had rebranded but couldn’t find anyone in sport who had gone through a name change and major rebrand at the same time. So we forged some new territory on our own.”
  2. Work with the right people. “Make sure your legal firm understands the Canadian sport system and its uniqueness. That will make the pathway easier. And carry that through to finding a design/branding firm or firms who will work with you to find the right image for your sport.”
  3. Change is difficult. “We respect those who worked so tirelessly on behalf of synchronized swimming, to see it recognized as a sport, to get it into the Olympic Games, for whom the term had historical and sentimental meaning. But with such a significant change happening at the international level, we want Canada to continue to be seen as a progressive leader, so must accept the current realities of promoting the sport both within Canada and worldwide.”
What’s Next?

There is still more work to come. Incorporating the new brand into every element of an organization is no small task. The website is currently being redesigned, athlete clothing to allow the Canadian teams to wear the new look with pride is in design, the materials for Canada Artistic Swimming’s Annual Meeting and Convention in September are also integrating the visual identity, and AquaGo! / ALLEZ à L’eau! is in the final design phase as well.

Buckingham is pleased that provincial/territorial sport organizations are changing their names as well. “We are assisting the provinces and territory through their own processes. Some will soon be ready to make the change as well, and we’re thrilled to provide a uniform brand adapted to each individual provincial name as part of our brand standards.”

Buckingham concludes, “It was a major under-taking, but to see the excitement that the brand announcement has generated in the community, and to know we’ve redefined the identity and future path for an organization moving forward together is truly gratifying.”

An overview of the new Canada Artistic Swimming’s new branding is available here.

2018 has already been an exciting year, with four major international games – the Arctic Winter Games hosted in the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories, Canada (March 18-24, 2018); the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games hosted in PyeongChang, South Korea (February 9-25 and March 9-18, 2018); and Commonwealth Games hosted in Gold Coast, Australia (April 4-15, 2018). SIRC sat down individually with four Chefs de Mission to talk about all things leadership. This SIRCuit article presents a compilation of those conversations.

SIRC: The role of the Chef de Mission is typically as the figurehead of the delegation of athletes, coaches and staff. What did that position look like in practice?

Todd Nicholson, Team Canada Chef de Mission, 2018 Paralympic Winter Games: For the bigger Games, the Chef has some freedom to create their own vision for the team. For me, it was a platform to promote and celebrate Canada’s amazing Paralympic athletes to Canadians. Athletes’ families and friends in PyeongChang took this message to heart – the “team” atmosphere at Canada Paralympic House was amazing, with everyone rooting for all Team Canada athletes. I regularly challenged our sponsors to become more familiar with the athletes and their stories, and to think about how they could support the athletes during competition and after, for example through employment and profile. I also had an opportunity to connect with 25-30 Canadian schools during the Paralympic Games, increasing their knowledge of the athletes (and challenging my own knowledge too!).

Isabelle Charest
Team Canada Chef de Mission
2018 Olympic Winter Games
Real Job : Communications Coordinator, Commission scolaire du Val-des-Cerfs
Primary sport: Short-track speed skating
Leadership style in one word: “Reliable”

Isabelle Charest, Team Canada Chef de Mission, 2018 Olympic Winter Games: As the Chef at the Olympic Games, I was the face of the team, the spokesperson for media and partners. But also mentor and advocate for the athletes and coaches, ensuring they had what they needed to succeed. Beyond the focus on Team Canada, I also used the role as a platform to raise awareness about an issue important to me – engaging more girls in sport. While Team Canada athletes provide great role models to inspire Canadians to be active and achieve their goals, girls need people in their daily life to be sport mentors and role models.

Claire Carver-Dias, Team Canada Chef de Mission, 2018 Commonwealth Games: For me, the vision for Team Canada at the Commonwealth Games was all around “connection” – to help athletes connect with their optimal performance, help them connect with the broader commonwealth community, and help them connect with each other.

Doug Rentmeister, Team NWT Chef de Mission, 2018 Artic Winter Games: The role of Chef at smaller Games, such as the Arctic Winter Games, is much more operational. I was involved in final Northwest Territories team selection, and managed the team at the Games. As the host community, myself and team staff and volunteers also worked closely with the Host Society, taking on tasks such as coordinating Canadian customs processes for the international delegations. The Games were split over two sites (Hay River and Fort Smith), so during the Games I travelled back and forth and worked closely with Assistant Chefs at each location.

 SIRC: How did you prepare for the role?

Claire: There is definitely a risk of becoming overwhelmed leading up to any major games – there are so many emails and information crossing your desk. Stepping into this role, it’s essential to be able to lean on and trust the expertise and experience of the operations team and mission staff. Regular status updates, progress calls, and specific conversations when needed, ensured we felt on top of things.

Doug Rentmeister
Team NWT Chef de Mission
2018 Arctic Winter Games
“Real” Job: Executive Director, Sport North
Primary sport: Hockey
Leadership style in one word: “Transparent”

Doug: The community focus of the Arctic Winter Games required the development of strong partnerships and collaboration. I attended a lot of local events to build support for and engagement in the Games.

Todd: Having competed in five previous games, I had some amazing role models, and took their advice and insights to heart. I remembered the impact they had on me as an athlete, and was very intentional about how I wanted to support the team. Athletes, coaches and staff new I was available for anyone, anytime, with advice, guidance and support.

Isabelle: I think I started preparing for this role in 2012 when I worked as the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athlete Services Coordinator. Gearing up for 2018 it was really important to understand the roles and responsibilities of the volunteers, staff and organizations involved, and create strong working relationships so we could focus on the athletes.

SIRC: Describe your overall leadership approach.

Isabelle: I try to lead by example, and walk the talk. I work to really understand key situations and keep the bigger picture in mind when considering strategy and related outcomes. On a working level, having that shared understanding about everyone’s roles and responsibilities, especially when collaborating with so many individuals and organizations, means communication and action can be much more efficient.

Doug: I use a bottom-up approach to leadership. With a good team, you can rely on them to use their strengths to get the job done. Given the high stress environment of the Games, we need communication, consistency and transparency to ensure the climate is as pleasant and supportive as possible.

Todd: I am definitely a team player! I work to surround myself with the right people to help me accomplish my goals. The Games is an interesting environment, because you’re working with both staff and volunteers. Navigating the politics between various groups can be difficult. Understanding that landscape, knowing peoples’ roles and responsibilities, and most importantly their priorities, helps everyone work well together.

Claire Carver-Dias
Team Canada Chef de Mission
2018 Commonwealth Games
Real Job: Communications Coach & Consultant
Primary sport: Synchronized swimming
Leadership style in one word: “Collaborative”

Claire: Leadership is not about authority, it’s about effectively influencing others to obtain a vision. Good leadership requires strong observational and listening skills so you can optimize the interests and skills of others to achieve the shared goals. It’s also important to understand your own limitations – this is why having a great team you trust is important, so you don’t feel like everything rests on your own shoulders.

SIRC: How did you develop your understanding of leadership? What role did sport play in your development as a leader?

Todd: I feed my brain with as much information as possible, tapping into the information highway and the ability to connect with anyone in the world at any time. I keep up to date with the news and social media, and be sure to review press releases from key organizations in Canada and internationally. I also maintain my network to learn from mentors and colleagues. Sport has played an important role in developing not only my leadership style, but also me as a person. Before my accident at age 18, I was a strong athlete but super shy. After my accident, I was often cast into the role of expert, initially by doctors and residents during my recovery and rehabilitation. This gave me confidence and taught me the value of collaboration.

Claire: As a communications consultant for corporate leaders, my job is to observe leaders around me, how they motivate and push others out of their comfort zone. I also read a lot about leadership and communication. In developing my own leadership style, I have been able to borrow and learn from what I’ve witnessed and read. My experiences in sport have been equally instructive. As an athlete I had amazing leaders, typically coaches. These leaders taught me about the art and science of setting objectives, building buy-in, and motivating others.

Doug: I learned a lot about leadership through my involvement in cadets, and participation in a wide variety of sports. I also coached a number of sports, where I learned what it takes to inspire and build commitment amongst athletes. I’ve been a leader for a number of years in my community, and within sport. I’ve been able to watch and learn from other leaders. These types of experiences have really informed my leadership style.

Isabelle: For me, the confidence and skills to communicate with others and earn their respect came naturally – I was always the team captain. However, through sport and other volunteer opportunities I watch other leaders in action, reflect on the outcomes, and integrate learnings into my own approach. What’s always worked well for me is taking time to build relationships to best support the team – whether that team is on the field or in the boardroom.

SIRC: What specific strategies did you use to build and support the Team at the Games?

Isabelle: Amongst the Mission staff, it again goes back to the roles and responsibilities, ensuring everyone knows the expectations and end goals. We had a competent and reliable group that respected and trusted each other, and took care of each other. When mistakes inevitably happened, everyone shared responsibility for making things right. Amongst the athletes, I valued in-person gatherings to build those bonds so that in Korea they wouldn’t feel like they were with a bunch of strangers. Social media really helped build the relationships.

Doug: We invested time and financial resources to bring coaches and mission staff together. Getting to know each other prior to the stress of the Games enabled any situations to be addressed quickly. At the Games I was conscious to not make people stretch too far. We made time for dinner or breakfast meetings, and I ensured I was honest and upfront, and quick to respond to any requests.

Claire: We assembled a stellar team of support staff at the Games. Their role was to bring their knowledge and passion for the Games to life. My job was helping them achieve their optimal performance, as this would ultimately support the athletes.

Todd Nicholson
Team Canada Chef de Mission
2018 Paralympic Winter Games
Real Job: Program Officer, Canadian Border Services Agency
Primary sport: Para ice hockey
Leadership style in one word: “Team”

Todd: I wanted every athlete and coach to remember me as a positive force at the games. As part of the “Team Canada” culture, I had a Don Cherry-inspired suit I said I’d wear every time we won a medal. I had to wear that suit every day.

SIRC: How did you help athletes navigate the highs and lows of competition?

Claire: Active listening was again important for this. I had a meal with every sport where I was able to listen, ask questions, and create space for athletes to talk and process their experiences. Depending on the situation, some individuals and teams need comfort and reassurance, others need encouragement

Isabelle: We had a team of four Olympians at the villages in the lounge every day for the athletes. I also tried to have a high profile at competition sites where I could interact with athletes, whether they were there that day as competitors or spectators. Certainly support was needed for athletes with specific roles (e.g., the flag bearer), or those with high medal expectations. With all athletes, I worked to assure them that Canada would support them regardless of the outcome, and also remind them that the success of their career would not be measured in a single day.

Todd: The athletes lounge at the Paralympic Village was a great spot to connect with athletes. I was able to share my own successes and challenges dealing with the stress and anxiety of competition, managing the demands of training, working and family, and bringing perspective to the whole experience. We also paired athletes with mentors from other sports to ask questions and talk about their struggles with some level of privacy and objectivity.

Doug: At the Arctic Winter Games the coaches were the main source of support for athletes. However, I occasionally stepped in to help an athlete reframe a negative experience, and also, unfortunately, to deal with disciplinary issues. The Team NWT core values served to remind all team members why we were there, and to put our best foot forward.

SIRC: What’s one key learning that will impact your leadership approach moving forward?

Doug: A serious disciplinary incident required one athlete to be sent home from the Arctic Winter Games. This took a lot of time and effort, and was a distraction for athletes and other team members. However, we rallied to address the issue, and it provided an opportunity for the mission team to tweak our processes and hopefully avoid similar situations in the future. It was a reminder that there is always a risk of crises; how they’re managed is an indicator of the strength of the team.

Claire: Major Games are stressful situations – lots pressure, demanding hours, and high stakes. I’ve seen first-hand the impact of stress and fatigue, especially on interpersonal interactions. At the Commonwealth Games I constantly had my eyes open for extreme fatigue, and created opportunities for rest and recovery.

Isabelle: The Olympics provided some difficult situations, in particular supporting short-track speed skater Kim Boutin who was the target of backlash and death threats on social media. A core group essentially created a bubble around her to deflect the attention and allow her to focus on her preparation. Even without these types of extreme situations, athletes are under an immense amount of psychological stress. We need to keep in mind that they’re people and use an athlete-centred approach to help them cope with the pressure.

Todd: There was certainly lots of stress and challenging situations to learn from. But just as valuable are the inspirational stories from the Games. During one race, a veteran athlete who realized they were not going to medal sacrificed their own overall time to wait for and motivate a rookie to the finishing line, ultimately supporting a podium performance. This happened in an individual sport. It was amazing to see how even in times of competition our Canadian team pulled together for each other. I could not have been more proud of all the athletes that competed during the 2018 Games. It’s these types of stories that demonstrate the value of sport, and what drives many of us give up our time and comfort of our own beds to be involved.

The “aggregation of marginal gains” has become such a catchphrase that people have stopped questioning what it means. Science is meant to question, not to follow, and to look for the truth where it otherwise might be missed. What are “marginal gains”, really? Why have we been trained to look for them? How do they apply practically in high performance sport, if it all?

Marginal gains were originally discussed within the science and medicine staff at British Cycling in the early 2000’s as a way to try to be competitive with athletes who were consistently and substantially faster. How do you work towards a 10% improvement legally, safely and ethically? The strategy was to pursue multiple smaller gains that would accumulate to an equivalent gain.

Driving Innovation

Over the past decade, the concept has caused teams to chase every tiny gain available relating to nutrition, physiology, psychology, aerodynamics, and strength and conditioning. Olympic sports have looked to outside organizations and industries for things like data collection and analysis, aerodynamics, and even team management. For example, BAE Systems partnered with UK Sport to develop a high-tech ergometer for British Cycling. British Cycling has implemented a number of advances that built on knowledge and experience from Formula 1 racing, including a data collection “burger van” that sits permanently in the track centre at the Manchester Velodrome. Another area of substantial development across many sports has been with the analysis and interpretation of training data using specific software. Team Sky, for instance, partnered with Today’s Plan to develop their own customized version of the training software. This past decade sports have taken a huge step forward through innovation, much of it driven by partnerships with external experts with world-leading expertise in related areas that had never before been applied to sport.

In some cases, this drive for innovation has led to a perception that some teams are functioning almost robotically, with formulas and processes underlying every decision. In truth, sport is still about people and how to get the best out of them, so no algorithm or protocol will ever win a race. Regardless, the exploration of how and what to optimize within a sport is a fascinating approach to improving performance.

Debunking the Myths

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of marginal gains, teams have often ignored the costs with respect to time, energy, and resources. The leading teams have vast budgets not available to most amateur national sport organizations (NSOs) or even most professional teams, and yet there is still a pressure to replicate their level of innovation.

The teams that are being funded at the highest level can afford to pursue every possible improvement, but the rest of us need to be very selective with where resources are allocated; both financial and human resources. There is an opportunity cost to any potential innovation, and it is important examine that in detail before committing to a project. The likely gains should be large enough that they have a real-life effect on performance, and therefore need to be substantially larger than the measurement error of the instrument(s) being used to collect the data.

“Marginal” gains imply gains of 1-2%, however this magnitude of improvement is often within the margin of error, such as with commercially available cycling power meters that are accurate to within +/- 2.5%. Coaches and athletes can become frustrated with these kinds of interventions because they don’t see any impact on performance times in training or competition, despite the investment of time and money. Interventions such as altitude training have been extensively researched (Ploszczyca, Langfort, & Czuba, 2018), but it is unclear to some coaches whether the performance effect comes from the intended physiological alterations or from a highly focused training environment…or more likely a combination of the two. The value of getting a team together in a location where there is very little to do other than quality training and recovery, where people are monitoring training load and response to it with extra care, cannot be underestimated.

Marginal gains based on physiology depend on a number of assumptions that are very rarely true in sport. To realize these gains, athletes need to be optimally healthy, uninjured, eating an ideal diet, hydrating perfectly, coping ideally with the climate, recovering as fast as they can, and sleeping perfectly. This is uncommon in high performance sport, especially in the phase prior to competition when athletes are under stress and often have to travel.

If the current approach to marginal gains isn’t the answer, what is? As practitioners, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. What makes a difference to performance at the highest level? Having your best athletes at the start line in great shape, instead of home injured or ill. Having a team of athletes who all want to be there and are in good mental health so they can give it their all. Having coaches and support staff who aren’t burnt out from trying to get all of the athletes to the competition in one piece while juggling their home life. Having a strong and efficient administrative system that provides the necessary logistical support to the team.

Investing in Real Gains

To improve performance, sport organizations, coaches and athletes need to look beyond the athlete and adopt a whole systems approach.

  1. Athlete Travel

Many NSOs in Canada have worked extensively with sleep specialists to ensure their athletes are sleeping optimally and have high quality plans for travelling across time zones to minimize jet lag. In addition to this, NSOs could implement travel booking guidelines to ensure athletes can fly at times that allow them to have a full night’s rest prior to the trip and fly the most direct route. Often this is not the cheapest option, and with limited budgets flights are often an area where organizations try to make savings. In some cases this may be fine, but when an athlete is targeting a top performance at an event the travel arrangements can have an impact (Reilly, 1990; Thun, Bjorvatn, Flo, Harris, & Pallesen, 2015).

One of the most frequently mentioned “marginal gains” to have come out of Team Sky and British Cycling is that they travel with their own mattresses. This is often ridiculed, however sleep quality is extremely important if an athlete is going to race hard every day for three weeks (Watson, 2017). Sleep quantity and quality play a role in preventing illness as well as in athletic performance and staying healthy through an entire three-week Grand Tour is a challenge. Team Sky’s approach is to not let chance determine if the bed is comfortable enough, if the hotel room is air conditioned, if the hotel food is adequate. They take these areas into their own hands, and while they may talk about them as “marginal gains” they are, in fact, quite significant.

  1. Mental Health

Mental health of athletes and staff is another area where the benefits are potentially quite large. Staff set the tone of the training and competition environment, and when they struggle it is often felt by everyone. Athletes who are struggling aren’t able to perform at their best, and it has been reported that the prevalence of mental health disorders in athletes is similar to that in the broader population (Gulliver, Griffiths, Mackinnon, Batterham, & Stanimirovic, 2015; Foskett & Longstaff, 2018). If an athlete is injured, teams know what to do and step in with interventions, but when someone is struggling mentally this is much harder to address. Canada has been lucky to have some well-known athletes speak up on this issue, however there is still much to be done in this area.

Organizations can address this area by having a comprehensive mental health strategy that establishes a consistent and positive approach to mental health issues in athletes and staff, and by providing mental health education to their coaches, support staff, and management. Morneau Shepell partnered with Cycling Canada in 2013 to develop and deliver sport-specific mental health education to their staff through an in-person workshop and a webinar, and participants reported a substantial improvement in their perception of awareness of mental health issues and treatment (unpublished data).

The Canadian sport system is making advances in mental health support for athletes with services such as Game Plan/Plan de Match as well as in-house services provided by National Teams. By having a strategy and providing education, NSOs can reduce the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding that may hinder people from reaching out to these services for the support they need.

  1. Bureaucracy

The importance of simple and efficient processes within the organization can’t be underestimated when it comes to optimizing race performance. Ensuring that people have all the information they need well in advance, that athletes have enough clothing for training and competition, that expenses are easy to file and people are reimbursed quickly, that communication between team members is easy and doesn’t overwhelm people with flooded inboxes, and many other areas of how the organization functions all have an effect on race day. This aspect of marginal gains has started to be studied in a scientific context (McGuire & Halliday, 2018), with studies examining how changing processes can have an effect on people rather than just looking at new types of interventions. This shows that the concept of marginal gains is valuable as a construct, in that it enables people to look at the entire system they work within and look for potential efficiencies and improvements.

Key Messages

The concept of “marginal gains” has been the catalyst for some substantial and positive innovations, as teams and organizations search for new areas of improvement that were not considered before. However, it is tempting to look for those gains only in terms of direct interventions with athletes, rather than turning that lens on the organization and systems that support the athletes. As a sport system, Canada needs to stay focused on all types of gains and resist the urge to search only for scientific interventions aimed at improving the performance of the athletes.