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Sport concussions have been a hot topic over the past few years, with the launch of the Canadian Guideline on Concussion in Sport in 2017 and SIRC’s associated We are Headstrong campaign, and the passing of Rowan’s Law (Concussion Safety) on March 7, 2018 in Ontario. Despite increased awareness, recognition and treatment pursuits, the role of nutrition is often overlooked as a supportive means for sport concussion recovery. Many treatment protocols do not include the integration of a qualified sport dietitian and their support around optimizing specific neuroprotective nutrients, nor are sport dietitians embedded in the interdisciplinary support teams within high concussion risk sports.

Although much of the research is still in its infancy, the integration of a safe and low risk nutritional approach may not only be protective, but have the potential to enhance recovery. Outlined below are some key interventions that should be considered in post-sport concussion treatment. This is the first of a two-part series in which the neuroprotective roles of specific nutrients will also be examined from a sub-concussion injury perspective.

Managing Appetite

Sport concussion symptoms such as nausea, headaches and fatigue often contribute to decreased appetite which can limit energy and key nutrient intake to support recovery. It is crucial throughout the recovery process that athletes regularly consume healthy meals and snacks. The injured athlete may consider enlisting family and friends for support with things like grocery shopping and cooking, or consider healthy meal delivery programs within their area that can save time and energy.

If athletes are experiencing low appetite, consider the following:

Looking for more recipes? Speak to a qualified sport dietitian for quick and easy snack and meal ideas.

Hydration

Headaches are a common symptom of post sport concussion syndrome (Institute of Medicine, 2011), and dehydration can worsen symptoms. A simple pee colour check can be the first step. Urine should be pale yellow in colour – if darker, work on drinking more fluids to rehydrate.

To improve hydration, consider the following:

Tip: When trying to improve your hydration, check how often you are waking in the night to use the toilet. If more than once or twice, reduce your fluid intake in the evening to support needed sleep recovery.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

The most researched nutrient relating sport concussions recovery are omega-3’s which is a type of fat known at polyunsaturated fat. There are three types of omega 3’s, and of these docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is most abundantly found in the brain. (Arterburn, Hall, & Oken 2006; Scrimgeour & Condlin 2014). DHA has been the focus of much research around sport concussion recovery and studies have shown promise in its role on reducing brain damage and cognitive decline after a concussion injury (Rawson, Miles & Larson-Meyer 2018).

Although there is no current dosing consensus, injured athletes should increase their dietary intake of omega 3 fatty acids, especially DHA. Fish is the richest source of DHA (see Table 1). If considering a supplement, speak to a qualified sport dietitian who can recommend an appropriate and safe option and dose. Table 2 shows Health Canada’s safe recommended doses of DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another omega-3 fatty acid.

Table 1: Food Sources of DHA (National Institute of Health, 2019).
FOOD PORTION EPA/DHA (MG)
Salmon, Atlantic, farmed, cooked 3oz. 1240
Salmon, Atlantic, wild, cooked 3oz. 1220
Herring, Atlantic, cooked 3oz. 940
Sardines, canned in tomato sauce drained 3oz. 590
Salmon, pink, canned, drained 3oz. 440
Oysters, eastern, wild, cooked 3oz. 230
Sardines, canned 3oz. 740-1050
Sea bass, cooked 3oz. 470
Tuna, light, canned in water, drained 3oz. 170
Cod, Pacific, cooked 3oz. 110
Table 2: Health Canada Recommendations for DHA and EPA (Health Canada, 2018).
SUBPOPULATION EPA + DHA (MG/DAY)
MINIMUM MAXIMUM
Children 1-8 years old 1001,500
Adolescents 9-13 years old

14-18 years old
100

100
2,000

2,500
Adults ≥19 years old 1005,000
Creatine

The brain uses approximately 20% of the body’s total energy (Institute of Medicine, 2011). Concussion causes an energy crisis where the brain’s energy requirement goes into overdrive and looks for alternative energy options to meet demands and support healing (Ainsley Dean, Arikan, Opitz & Sterr, 2017; Giza & Hovda, 2015). This is where creatine can comes into play. Creatine is a protein made in the body, but can also come from external sources such as animal proteins or a creatine supplement. After a sport concussion, creatine can cross the blood-brain barrier and provide an energy reserve to the brain, supporting the increased energy requirement to aid recovery (Institute of Medicine, 2011; Petraglia, Winkler & Bailes, 2011; Dolan, Gualano & Rawson, 2018). Sakellaris et al. (2006 & 2008) examined therapeutic creatine supplementation in children and adolescents with severe concussions. Not only did the treatment group’s length of stay in hospital decrease, they also showed improvements in cognitive function, communication, self-care, and a reduction of headaches, dizziness and fatigue symptoms. Although therapeutic dosing strategies have not yet been set, creatine is a highly promising area for both neuroprotection before and recovery after a sport concussion (Ainsley Dean, Arikan, Opitz & Sterr, 2017; Dolan, Gualao & Rawson, 2018).

Polyphenols 

Polyphenols are a category of plant-based compounds that can have health benefits. Resveratrol is a polyphenol found in foods such as grapes, blueberries and peanuts (HealthLinkBC, 2018), and curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric spice. Both have shown promising results in reducing inflammation after a sport concussion, along with improving motor performance, visual memory, the brain’s protective membrane and it’s ability to adapt and compensate after injury (Ashbaugh & McGrew, 2015; Zhu., et al 2014; Petraglia, Winkler & Bailes, 2011). Currently, no resveratrol or curcumin supplement doses have been set and so athletes should instead look to add food sources of resveratrol to their diet and consider adding turmeric powder to soups, stews, curries and stir-fries.

Tip: Curcumin is not absorbed well in the body. To improve its absorption, mix with black pepper, combine with healthy fats, or add heat. Adding turmeric powder to a meal like a soup or curry will do all three and help you better absorb the curcumin!

Vitamins

Animal and clinical studies have examined the antioxidants Vitamin E and C to help reduce cognitive declines after injury, as both are present in high concentrations in the brain (Petraglia, Winkler & Bailes, 2011). Research findings suggest that a combination of Vitamin E and C results in better improvements in brain functioning, compared to results when given separately (Petraglia, Winkler & Bailes, 2011; Ashbaugh & McGrew, 2016). Further research is needed, and at this time supplementation recommendations cannot be made. Both antioxidants are present in a variety of foods that can be added to meals and snacks. Full food list is shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Food Sources of Vitamin E and C
Best Food Sources of Vitamin E (Dietitians of Canada, 2016) Almonds and almond butter
Sunflower seeds
Hazelnuts
Wheat Germ
Eggs
Spinach, cooked
Avocados
Best Food Sources of Vitamin C (Dietitians of Canada, 2016)   Bell peppers
Broccoli
Red Cabbage
Brussels sprouts Guava
Papaya
Kiwifruit
Orange
Strawberries Pineapple
100% fruit juice with Vitamin C added
What to Limit

Just as there are many nutrition considerations to enhance recovery, there are also those that have been shown to hinder recovery. Alcohol and foods high in saturated fat and refined sugar are important to avoid throughout the recovery process. Especially after a sport concussion, the consumption of alcohol can lead to dehydration, memory concerns, poor concentration and poor judgement. Drinking may also put an athlete at an increased risk of experiencing another concussion while still recovering from the initial injury, prolonging the recovery timeline (Opreanu, Kuhn, & Basson, 2010).

Foods high in saturated fat and refined sugar include deep fried and battered foods, chips, store-bought baked goods, candy, cookies and pop. These types of foods have not only been linked to the brain’s inability to adapt or compensate after injury, but also impair memory and worsen overall injury results (Wu, Molteni, Ying, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2003; Wu, Ying, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2004; Gomez-Pinilla, & Kostenkova, 2008; Wu, Ying, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2014). Injured athltes should limit intake of food high in refined sugars, and plan to choose healthier fats each day including olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.

Implementing a Nutritional Approach to Concussion Recovery

With the knowledge of what nutrients may aid in sport concussion recovery, the following steps can help athletes, coaches and other members of the support team apply the above nutrition considerations.

Key Tips for Athletes:

In this day and age, everything is at our fingertips. However, the investigation of complex behaviours is still a process that takes time. The intricate nature of sport and physical activity behaviour, especially amongst children and adolescents, is an area that many Canadian policy makers, administrators and other sport system stakeholders are trying to better understand, whether to influence health outcomes or bolster club registration. Longitudinal research plays an important role in understanding the factors that influence these changes to inform policy and practice and provoke behavioural change.

Happy students walking together in campus, having breakLarge cross-sectional studies like the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study and the Canadian Health Measures Survey (Carson, Tremblay, Chaput, & Chastin, 2016; Haug, Torsheim, & Samdal, 2008) provide representative snap shots of the level of sport and physical activity participation for a population. This kind of research can measure many variables and compare different groups within a large population at a single point in time. However, they lack the ability to establish sequences of events.

In contrast, longitudinal studies allow us to observe behavioural changes and identify various patterns over time, in this case relating to sport and physical activity participation. They provide unique insight on how behaviours are affected by lifetime transitions such as changing schools, puberty and changes in social circles. Because longitudinal studies follow the same individuals over time, they are able to detect developments at both the group and individual level, as well as identify factors and outcomes linked to different sport and physical activity participation patterns. For example, children can be highly active for a few years and then suddenly drop-out as adolescents. Longitudinal studies enable us to precisely know when dropouts occur as well as explore why. Understanding what influences sport and physical activity behaviours supports the development of programming tailored to the needs of each community, school or sport club.

WHAT IS THE MATCH STUDY?

The Monitoring Activities of Teenagers to Comprehend their Habits (MATCH) study is unique in the world (Bélanger et al., 2013). It followed nearly 1,000 children for eight years, from ages 10 to 17. Participants completed questionnaires administered three times per year about their level of participation in specific sports and physical activities, associated motives, and key influences including screen time, sleep, barriers to participation, and life events.

MATCH recently completed its 24th and final survey cycle in June 2019. Since 2011, it has provided a foundation for insight into the determinants of sport and physical activity participation as well as factors that influence these behaviours. To date, MATCH results were the subject of six graduate student theses, 20 published or under review manuscripts, and 60 presentations at academic conferences. Analyses are still ongoing, but some of the key findings areas are summarized below:

SPORT AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY PARTICIPATION FROM CHILDHOOD TO LATE ADOLESCENCE

Côté’s Developmental Model of Sport Participation states that children as young as 10 years old can be categorized in three different sport participation profiles:

MATCH data has strengthened this model by developing operational definitions of sport participation profiles to allow documentation of the natural course of participants within these profiles from the age of 10 to 15 (Gallant, O’Loughlin, Brunet, Sabiston, & Bélanger, 2017). The results show that children who did not participate in sport before the age of 12 are almost 3 times more likely to be non-participants in sports later in adolescence. Also, children who participated in a wide variety of sports before the age of 12 (sport samplers) were more likely to pursue sport participation in their adolescent years. In contrast, those who specialized in one sport were at greater risk of dropping out of sport later on. These results are in line with growing evidence on the value of multi-sport participation for sustained physical activity practices, underscoring the pressing need for parents, coaches and other youth sport leaders to encourage participation in a variety of sports and physical activities. The evidence also support recent initiatives and programs promoting a multisport approach, such as the Play More Sports initiative.

Additionally, early analyses of MATCH data revealed that the order of importance of motives for taking part in sport and physical activity among study participants are as follows (Goguen Carpenter et al., 2017).

However, further analyses of MATCH data found that although enjoyment motives positively influence girls’ sport participation during childhood, it was not linked to the maintenance of sport participation into adolescence. In contrast, competence motives positively influence girls’ sport participation throughout childhood and adolescence. Among boys, fitness motives negatively influenced sport participation during childhood and adolescence, whereas enjoyment motives positively influenced their sport participation from childhood to adolescence (Abi Nader et al. paper under review). These findings confirm the importance of tailoring programs to retain specific population groups in sport. In particular, MATCH results suggest that coaches, teachers and program developers should prioritize making activities fun and stimulating, providing skill development opportunities, and offering realistic and attainable challenges.

INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL AND PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENTS ON PARTICIPATION

MATCH researchers found that active commuting environments (presence of sidewalks, bike racks, crossing guards, etc.) helped children be more active (Ward et al., 2015). This is consistent with another MATCH analysis, which documented that teenagers who commute actively to school (walking, biking, skateboarding, etc.) or commute using mixed methods (active and motorized transport) report higher physical activity levels than teenagers who get to school inactively (Larouche, Gunnell, & Bélanger, 2018). However, this same study revealed that actively commuting to school is affected by the seasons, with active commuting decreasing during the colder months. Initiatives such as a “Winter walk or bike to school week” aiming to increase active transportation during winter months would be beneficial in maintaining physical activity levels among teenagers.

With regards to the social environment, MATCH data indicates that when parents support and facilitate adolescents’ participation by registering them in sports, driving them to practices and encouraging them verbally, adolescents are more likely to enjoy physical activity (Wing, Bélanger, & Brunet, 2016). Other MATCH analyses also demonstrated that youth with at least one parent who participates in group-based sports are more likely to maintain long-term participation in group-based sports (Brunet, Gaudet, Wing, & Bélanger, 2017). Interestingly, teenagers’ sustained participation in individual-based sports was not associated with parents’ sport participation.

BARRIERS TO PARTICIPATION

Dropping out of sports and physical activities is an unfortunate characteristic of adolescence for most people. This period is also marked by emergence of life stressors.  MATCH findings revealed that the occurrence of life stressors often results in increases in levels of participation in unorganized sports and physical activities (home exercises, skipping rope, trampoline), suggesting that these activities may represent a coping strategy to deal with experiences such as breakups, grievance and low parental support. (Abi Nader, Ward, Eltonsy, & Bélanger, 2018). Given only about 1/3 of Canadian youth participate in unorganized sport regularly, many may be missing out on what appears to be a mechanism to deal with life stress (Barnes et al., 2016).

MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF PARTICIPATION

MATCH researchers found that at least two years of participation in sport sampling before the age of 12 is associated with better self-reported mental health during adolescence, and that those who did not participate in sport were less likely to experience positive mental health (Doré et al., 2019). Furthermore, participation in both recreational and performance sport during childhood and adolescence is positively associated with positive mental health in late adolescence. On a related topic, MATCH data helped clarify that spending time outdoors is beneficial to mental health because it represents a venue for participation in physical activity. Therefore, the mental health benefits associated with outdoor time appear largely attributable to physical activity (Bélanger et al. paper under review).

Aristotle said “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. Psychological theories suggest that humans need to satisfy psychological needs to live a happy life. Specifically, the Self-Determination Theory states that in order to be happy one needs to have positive social interactions as well as positive feelings of competence and finally, feelings of autonomy such as being able to do what you want when you want (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Results from the MATCH study support this by demonstrating that the more adolescents reported having positive social interactions during sports and physical activity as well as positive feelings of competence and autonomy, the more they were to be active. Furthermore, when physical activity increases as a result of better satisfaction of these psychological needs, quality of life improves (Brunet, Gunnell, Teixeira, Sabiston, & Bélanger, 2016; Gunnell, Bélanger, & Brunet, 2016; Gunnell, Brunet, Sabiston, & Bélanger, 2016).

HOW CAN RESEARCH HELP INFORM POLICY AND PRACTICE?

Longitudinal studies such as MATCH are uniquely designed to document long-term patterns of sport and physical activity participation. Understanding the correlations between childhood participation patterns and those in adolescence, and the impact of life transitions and stressors on participation, can inform policies and programs aimed at increasing and maintaining participation in sport. These range from promotion of a multisport approach in childhood sport programming, to promoting unorganized sport and physical activity as a way for adolescents to manage stress, to program design based on skill development in fun, social environments. Government departments, education institutions, parent groups, sport and physical activity organizations, and communities can all be potential users of the findings.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR MATCH?

Although the MATCH study completed its last survey cycle in June 2019, analysis of the data collected over the last eight years has only just begun. Completed theses, manuscripts and presentations have only scratched the surface of what the MATCH data can help us discover about the intricacies of sport and physical activity participation. This fall, MATCH is hosting a workshop event entitled: “How do we win the MATCH?” where MATCH researchers will meet with key partners and knowledge mobilizers. This event will serve as a springboard for the mobilization of MATCH findings as well as planning future sport and physical activity research.

 RESOURCES

For more information about the MATCH project, visit our website or check out these two videos  – one explaining the MATCH project, the other highlighting MATCH results.

The concept of “inclusion” is pervasive in the current sport environment, with organizations from the community to international levels considering how to ensure all individuals have access and opportunity to participate. Generally, inclusion means that all people, regardless of their abilities, disabilities, or specific needs, have the right to be respected and appreciated as valuable members of their communities. However, inclusion becomes a challenging concept in high performance sport which, by its very nature, is exclusive as it aims to restrict access based on specific performance standards.

In the context of mega-events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, “inclusion” becomes more complex. Historically, athletes with a disability (para athletes) have competed in separate competition events. Over time, the model of separate events has seemed counter-productive to respecting and valuing all athletes. Since 2001, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have in effect become a single mega-event, with the two Games separated by a 2-week window, and one Organizing Committee (OC) designing, developing, and delivering the entirety of the Games and any associated legacies. The principle of this model is followed by other large-scale Games such as the Pan American and Parapan American Games, and Commonwealth Games (which is an entirely integrated event).

From a hosting perspective, a single OC offers a number of organizational and functional efficiencies (e.g. a single organization liaising with stakeholders including governments, sport partners, broadcasters, and corporate partners). But it also presents some challenges. Molloy and Misener (2016) have written about the importance of “distinction” – the recognition of and respect for the excellence that sets athletes apart – in considering the management of large-scale Games where para sport is on the program. If the Games are not managed properly, there is a risk that this distinction, or the demonstration of respect and appreciation for all athletes, may be lost.

The purpose of this article is to consider the various aspects of managing a mega-event that includes para athletes, in relation to the concept of distinction. The aim is to highlight both the opportunities and challenges of ensuring that para sport athletes’ needs and desires are appreciated and valued in the same fashion as able-bodied athletes in the Games environment.

Sochi, RUSSIA – Mar 7 2014 – The Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee)
Management integration

Since the inception of the Paralympic Games in 1960, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have been held in the same year. In more recent history, as of the Seoul 1988 Summer Games and Albertville 1992 Winter Games, the events were held in the same city with just a few weeks separating the two. It was not until 2001 that a formal agreement was put in place between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee ensuring that Olympic host cities would also stage the Paralympics. The “One Bid, One City” concept was formed as a way to protect the hosting of the Paralympic Games, such that the staging of the Paralympics is automatically included in the bid for the Olympic Games. The agreement formally recognises that the host city has an obligation to stage both events, maximizing the use of venues, facilities and infrastructure. The 2002 Salt Lake City Games was the first time that one organizing committee managed both events.

Accessibility and inclusion during and after Major Multisport Games

I recently led a research team that undertook a longitudinal study examining how different types of events addressed the mandates of accessibility and inclusion in Games with one OC (Misener et al., 2018). In each case we examined, the OC had set a vision to increase access in and around the event venues, and to create more inclusive community sport opportunities. What we found was that venue and accessibility guidelines established by international sport governing bodies and local organizing committees do not necessarily result in sustained social change, greater inclusion, or increased local community accessibility. For example, in many cases physical infrastructure was built to minimal standards, used temporary methods, or, where changes did remain, failed to consider the intersection between new infrastructure and old (e.g. curbs, sidewalks, materials). Some might argue that it is not up to the event to change the spatial landscape of the city environment, yet it is important for committees to consider how the event structures interconnect with civic spaces if sustained social change is desired. For example, if a new sport venue is built with high accessibility standards but no accessible transportation is available or exterior connecting spaces lack the same level of accessibility, the inclusivity of the event and its legacies is reduced.

The risk of “able-bodied bias”

Within the games’ environment, our findings also show that an “able-bodied bias” often permeated decision-making by the OC. The needs, interests and experiences of para athletes were often overlooked because those making decisions lacked the embodied experience of disability. Examples of the impact on event scheduling, infrastructure, and marketing and communications are highlighted below, drawing on our research and the work of colleagues such as Byers et al. (2019) and Darcy (2017).

Scheduling: The scheduling and structure of events for athletes with specific access and/or support needs, or with different classifications, requires significant thought and consideration. For example, if a para sport event schedule is based on that for able-bodied athletes, an athlete that requires additional time to accommodate assistance in preparing for competition and entering the field of play (pool, court, field, etc.) could be considered to be disrupting the “normal” scheduling of events. Further, the field of competition within the specific sports and events needs to be carefully considered to ensure appropriate timing and level of integration of the para sports. During our observational research in Glasgow at the 2014 Commonwealth Games (Misener et al., 2019), I witnessed a swimming race for para athletes with mixed classification that seemed to be tagged on to the end of a long day of swimming competition. Not only did this demonstrate a lack of understanding of athlete needs, the event also felt like a charitable competition where some spectators cheered on the lone athlete finishing the race, while other spectators were rushing to exit the venue.

Sporting Spaces: While accessible competition facilities, transportation, and housing are required by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC Accessibility Guide, 2015), other components of the Games can all too easily be overlooked. These include public festival spaces, sustained city transportation, and training venues (often existing recreation facilities). The temporary changes are often designed for efficiency and with the minimum level of accessibility required. This quote from a Games-related news article highlights the challenges that cities and OCs face in integrating the requirements of accessible sporting spaces and public spaces:

The brand new palaces of sport which I encounter are beautifully smooth…[but] the problem comes at the edges, where they join the old world. Tackling one new perfectly smooth bit of access, I am blocked abruptly by the lack of a dropped curb. Leaving the Velodrome, I descend a ramp to an existing road, where the join looks insignificant but stops me dead. Elsewhere, gravel scattered on paving jams my computerised push rims and my chair has a tantrum (Melanie Reid Quote from Sunday Times, UK 2014)

Mens wheelchair basketball competes against Columbia at the 2019 ParaPan American Games in Lima, Peru – Photo Scott Grant

Marketing and Communication: An integral part of any major event is the marketing and communications strategies employed to attract sponsors and spectators. Quality strategies are those that provide para athletes with a clear and distinct focus. OCs need to work closely with media as they are paramount for awareness raising, attitude formation, circulation of ideas, and framing the narratives about inclusive Games. The OC for the Toronto 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games did a remarkable job in ensuring equity of representation of para athletes in the marketing and communications surrounding the Games, offering them the clear and distinct focus so deserved. Unfortunately, Toronto was the exception to the norm – OCs too often provide minimal levels of visibility for para athletes. However, the Toronto Games did fall prey to one trap – the portraying of para athletes as “superheroes.” A quote from one member of the Toronto OC demonstrates how easily marketing and communications teams rely on narratives focused on superheroes, celebrities or pity. “It’s so easy to get the para athletes…they have such a great story that can really inspire people.”

Another critical element of event communication that can be overlooked from an inclusion perspective is the educational opportunity presented by the Games. While doing observation work at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, our research team, decked out in bright purple logoed research shirts, were regularly asked to explain the events and the field of play. Little information about the sports, athletes, rules or classification was available for spectators, or where it was available it was often not in alternative accessible formats. Given the unique nature of para sport, it is important for OCs to ensure ample information is available to engage spectators in the events. During the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Channel 4 developed the Lexi Classification System which was later used in Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. This system helped spectators understand classification and the rules of the sport, enriching the experience at the venue.

Legacies: The lexicon of legacy has been a part of the sport event agenda since the early 1990’s, but in recent years has become a cornerstone of event hosting. Cities and OC’s are expected to deliver positive outcomes for the local community in terms of physical infrastructure, and economic and social benefits. From the perspective of para sport, there has also been an emphasis on using events to influence social change to positively impact the lives of persons with disabilities in the local communities. As per the IPC agenda (IPC, 2017), the emphasis is typically on four areas: accessible infrastructure, sporting structures that support para sport (e.g. coaches, classifiers, para organizations), attitudes and perceptions of disability, and sporting opportunities. In our work around Games legacies, we found that OCs have a sincere desire for such sustained social change, but confront a number of challenges in delivering these legacies. In some situations, OCs are too overwhelmed with the task of hosting the Games that the social change legacies are victims of capacity issues. In other situations, the social change legacies are assumed to be an automatic result of the events, rather than requiring considerable planning, effort and collaboration.

Recommendations for maintaining a focus on para sport

Based on our research at multiple Games of different types, here are three key lessons for OCs and host cities.

These policy frameworks provide a backdrop for decision making around sport practices, accessible infrastructure, and marketing and communications to ensure all aspects of the event offer greater levels of accessibility. For Canadians, we are well on the path to considering diversity and inclusion in all aspects of sport. With the recent passing of Bill C-81 The Accessible Canada Act, national sport and multisport service organizations, provincial/territorial sport organizations, community sport clubs, and major events will be required to find ways to enhance the full and equal participation of all persons, especially persons with disabilities.

Looking ahead

Major multisport Games that have a clear focus on accessibility and inclusion in all organizational and management aspects of the Games are more likely to successfully support para sport and create sustained social change beyond the Games. As we look towards Tokyo 2020, which has the resources to realize an inclusive Games, the OC’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion is yet to be tested. With the recommendations above in mind, Canadians, and indeed the world, will be evaluating how the stated commitments to accessibility and inclusion are put into practice at the Games and in the event legacies.

Tennis Canada’s mission is to lead the growth of the sport in the country. That mission can only be accomplished with more individuals playing more tennis more frequently. However, to increase participation rates, one important barrier needs to be addressed – winter. Enter Tennis Canada’s Covered Courts Program. This article discusses how Tennis Canada leveraged insights from a national survey to inform the development and implementation of this key program.

NATIONAL SURVEY FINDINGS

In 2018, Tennis Canada commissioned a nationwide study to assess the growth of tennis and assist with planning and key decision making for the years to come. The results, revealed in November 2018, found that just under 6.6 million Canadians, 18% of the population, had played tennis in the previous 12 months, with 69% of those having played at least four times. Arguably more impressive, almost three million Canadians are considered “frequent players,” meaning they play at least once a week in-season. Encouragingly, 97% of past-year players said they definitely or probably will play tennis again in the next year, while 36% of lapsed players and 14% of non-players intend to join them. These results clearly indicate that interest and participation in tennis is growing.

The results also discovered that participation is driven, in part, by high fan interest. The success of the current crop of top-level Canadian players, including 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic, has contributed to that growth significantly. According to the 2018 study, tennis is ranked fifth of 14 sports in terms of fan interest (second in Quebec), but is first amongst individual sports. At the end of the 2018 season, Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic occupied positions in the top five tennis players recognized and followed by Canadians, and were ranked higher than men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, 17-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal and previous winner of all four Grand Slams Maria Sharapova. Given the success of Canadians during the 2019 season, fan interest has undoubtedly continued to grow.

Another factor driving interest is safety. Among the ten most popular sports in Canada, tennis has second fewest injuries after baseball. This makes it an attractive option, especially for parents looking for low-risk sports for their children.

CONVERTING INTEREST INTO MORE RACQUETS IN HANDS

The growth in tennis participation and spectatorship is clear. However, without being able to convert that interest into more racquets in hands and players on courts all year round, those impressive figures count for less. The 2018 study found that 61% of Canadians played tennis on outdoor, public courts. However, due to Canada’s harsh winters, those courts are out of action for 50-75% of the year, limiting participation opportunities. With an average temperature of -6 degrees Celsius and more than 150 days of precipitation, who can blame players for staying away from the courts during the winter months?

To address this gap and stay true to its commitment to help every Canadian play tennis in any community, at any time of year, Tennis Canada created the Covered Courts Program. For Tennis Canada, increasing the number of covered courts aligns with their commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, complementing programming designed for all abilities and ages, from progressive tennis to wheelchair tennis.

ADDRESSING THE GAP IN COVERED COURTS.

According to CEO Michael Downey, “Canada has a dire shortage of accessible covered courts, especially compared to other leading tennis nations”. Of the municipally-owned tennis courts in Canada, only 2% are covered, compared to 34% of ice rinks and 37% of pools. Across the nation, there are just 750 covered courts, translating to approximately one indoor court for every 50,000 Canadians. In comparison, the Czech Republic (one covered court per 4,000) and France and Belgium (both with one covered court per 8,000) lead the way on a per capita basis.

That is why Tennis Canada is focused on advocating for more affordable covered courts in municipalities across the country, ensuring Canadians have better access to these facilities throughout the entire calendar year. There is no doubt whether Canadians would buy-in. The 2018 study found that 90% of tennis players, those who play four or more times throughout the year, would play even more if there was a covered court nearby. What’s more, 51% of all Canadians, including those that haven’t picked up a racquet in over 12 months, agreed.

Covered courts can be part of an indoor facility or a domed facility (bubble courts). According to Tennis Canada research, for every six-court bubble, nearly 20,000 tennis matches are available to the community annually and four full-time coaching positions are created. Bubbles/Domes placed over pre-existing, no-cost, publicly owned, outdoor courts can be rented by residents during the winter for a reasonable $20 per hour but remain free to the public throughout the summer.

Results from the 2018 study showed high public support for the initiative: 90% of Canadians agree that municipalities should work with Tennis Canada on the Covered Court Strategy; 72% liked or loved the project; and 79% stated that partnering with Tennis Canada on the Covered Court Program would improve their opinion of a municipality. Tennis Canada has used these findings to inform decision-making and drive partnership development.

PARTNERSHIP FRAMEWORK

To increase the number of covered courts, a Municipal Tennis Facilities Strategy and Partnership Framework was developed by Tennis Canada over the last year to engage local governments and provide information on how they can help deliver more covered courts to their communities. The Framework is based on best practices and case studies of municipalities already working in partnership with external organizations to provide residents with access to more recreational activities. Covered court projects are excellent opportunities for municipalities to support their active living strategies and meet the growing demand for access to tennis, while ensuring a financial return on their investment. For several decades, tennis facilities across Canada have relied on air-supported structures—an effective solution to cover such open spaces.

The Municipal Tennis Facilities Strategy and Partnership Framework provides a step-by-step approach to ensure the municipal partnership development process is successful from a business standpoint and delivers relevant benefits to local residents. Tennis Canada understands that recreation service delivery objectives, initiatives and approaches vary from one municipality to the next, and the Framework has therefore outlined several capital and partnership options to help municipal organizations develop a covered court facility.

From youth team tennis to wheelchair tennis and senior leagues, the sport has a place in the lives of all Canadians, provided they have access to year-round facilities. Through strategic and operational partnerships, municipalities can bring more affordable and accessible year-round sport and recreation opportunities to their communities. Tennis serves to connect citizens and spark a passion for a life-long sport. Tennis Canada seeks to ensure that all participants across the nation can play tennis year-round, at any time of year. With the help and support of municipalities, this vision can become a reality.

RESOURCES

The study was conducted by Charlton Strategic Research Inc.

Sources: Canadian Tennis Participation & Interest Study (Charleton Insights, 2018), Covered Courts Program Partnership Assessment (Charleton Insights, 2018), College Sports-Related Injuries (Centres for Disease Control & Prevention, 2015), European Tennis report (International Tennis Federation, 2014)

For more stats, please consult our infographics on Tennis participation in Canada and on Tennis Facilities in Canada.

Once considered a fringe activity, weight training has grown in popularity in the last 20 years due to its benefits for improving health, physical fitness, and performance.  Weight training is often included in high school physical education classes and promoted for young athletes as a supplement to sport training.  However, various myths regarding weight training for children, including the risk of damaging growth plates resulting in stunted growth, leave parents and coaches with safety concerns. While a review of the research on weight training in children concluded that lifting weights has no detrimental effect on skeletal growth (Malina, 2006), many questions remain. This article provides insight on the appropriateness and effectiveness of weight training for children and youth to ensure coaches, parents and athletes are making informed decisions.

What is Weight Training?

Weight training is exercise performed using additional loads, such as barbells, dumbbells, or from various types of machines.  Physical fitness programs often incorporate a combination of both loaded and unloaded exercises.  However, unloaded exercises – which include running, jumping, and agility tasks – should not be confused with weight training as they have different effects on the body.  The primary benefit of weight training is increased muscle strength.  Additional benefits from weight training may include improved flexibility and bone health.  Combined, these adaptations improve the capacity and safety to perform physical activity.

The Physics of Weight Training

One reason why weight training is generally safe is that the forces placed on the body are often less than in commonly performed during physical education and sport tasks. Consider the forces regularly imposed on the body. When standing upright, the gravitational force acting on the body is equal to bodyweight.  During an exercise such as a squat or deadlift, the force increases by the amount of additional weight lifted.  For example, if squats were performed with a 45 lb barbell, the force acting on the body would be bodyweight plus 45 lbs.  In contrast, when performing a vertical jump, the force on the body when landing is more than three times bodyweight.

Another example is the comparison between a push up and a bench press.  Push ups are commonly included in physical education classes and physical fitness tests, including the now superseded Canada Fitness Award Program.  The average weight for a 12-year girl is approximately 92 lbs.  During a push up, the forces acting on the arms are about 70% of bodyweight, so for the 12-year old girl approximately 64 lbs.  However, many children (and adults) struggle to perform push ups. Replacing push-ups with a bench press or chest press, the forces acting on the arms could be reduced significantly. For example, an unloaded barbell weighs 45 lbs. Moreover, the forces can be gradually increased by adding small weights in proportion to the individual’s abilities.

Weight Training Adaptations

Weight training can increase muscle strength, bone density, and may have benefits for motor skill performance (Behm, Faigenbaum, Falk, & Klentrou, 2008).  Muscle strength can increase due to: 1) neurological adaptations – changing how muscles are activated, or 2) hypertrophy – increasing muscle size.  Neurological adaptations are reversible, meaning that strength gains are lost after training is stopped. Strength adaptations from hypertrophy are more persistent as it takes much longer to lose muscle size.  In pre-pubertal children muscle strength increases primarily due to neurological adaptations, whereas post-pubertal children and adults will experience both neurological adaptations and hypertrophy.

As bone formation and growth is a normal process in children, weight training has the potential to amplify bone development, including increasing bone mineral density.  These adaptations are important for long-term health.  However, bone adaptations may only occur for certain exercises, such as those performed standing, as opposed to those performed sitting or lying down.

Increased muscle strength from weight training may allow motor skills, such as running, jumping, and throwing, to be performed better.  However, the effectiveness of weight training to enhance motor skill performance depends on the child’s motor skill ability and age.  In younger children, those who have poor or deficient motor skills benefit most from weight training as their muscle strength may be sub-optimal and limiting their ability to perform motor skills.  Younger children who have typical or above average motor skill abilities are not likely to benefit.  In contrast, weight training can have substantial effects on motor skill performance in older children (over 14-15 years) due to the capacity to increase muscle strength through hypertrophy.

Should Children Perform Weight Training?

Given that weight training is safe, has positive effects on muscle strength and bone health, and may positively impact performance of motor skills, it has been recommended that children participate in weight training programs (Zwolski, Quatman-Yates, & Paterno, 2017).  However, this recommendation needs to be viewed from the perspective of normal growth and development, including acquisition and refinement of fundamental motor skills.

For children and youth prior to puberty, the focus for physical activity should be on the acquisition of motor skills. Motor skills include basic skills (e.g. crawling, walking, and object manipulation, typically acquired between 0 and 4 years), fundamental movement skills (e.g. running, hopping, skipping, jumping, throwing, and kicking), and sport specific movement skills. Unlike basic motor skills, fundamental and activity specific motor skills are not inherently learned – they require targeted instruction and practice (Chiodera et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2011; Logan, Robinson, Wilson, & Lucas, 2011).

Three smiling kids with an assortment of sports equipmentAs children develop their fundamental and activity specific motor skills through practice, their strength will also increase  (Haga, 2009).  For example, in running and jumping, the lower extremity muscles would get stronger, whereas in climbing tasks, the upper extremity muscles would be trained.  Therefore, a multisport approach not only enhances fundamental and activity specific motor skills, it also contributes to physical fitness throughout the body.

The optimal ages to acquire and refine fundamental motor skills are believed to be between 4 and 10 years, prior to puberty.  Further refinement may be required during puberty as the child’s body grows to new proportions.  Considering the importance of practice to acquire and refine fundamental movement skills, a large proportion of physical activity time should be dedicated towards instruction and practice of a large variety of motor skills.  Consequently, weight training is not an ideal activity in this age range as it would limit the variety of activities a child could pursue.

Weight training is most effective in children following puberty.  Muscle strength and motor skill performance increase throughout puberty; however, they begin to plateau between 14 and 16 years in girls and 16 and 18 years in boys.  Further increases in motor skill performance post-puberty require increases in muscle size and strength.  Considering the earlier plateau in muscle strength and motor skill performances in girls, girls may benefit from starting weight training at an earlier age than boys.

Special Circumstances

Weight training may be important in younger children in certain situations.  For example, weight training appears to be beneficial in children with cerebral palsy who have below average strength.  Similarly, children who have delayed motor and/or physical development, which may be due in part to poor muscle strength, may improve function with weight training.  Weight training has also been incorporated in exercise programs for children with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.  In each of these scenarios, the training programs are designed to specifically target deficits – i.e. individual muscle weaknesses – rather than to improve general physical fitness.

The Bottom Line

Up to approximately 14 years in girls and 16 years in boys, physical activity programming should emphasize targeted instruction and practice to acquire and refine fundamental and activity specific motor skills.  A variety of motor skills should be performed, and their difficulty should be progressed to allow complementary physical fitness development.  This approach is consistent with current trends in the sport and physical activity sector promoting the value of developing children’s fundamental movements skills through multi-sport experiences supporting life-long physical activity.  After puberty, approximately 14 to 16 years in girls and 16 to 18 years in boys, weight training can be incorporated into athletic training programs or active living practices. Weight training, including use of heavy loads within the child’s capabilities, is safe, however, this assumes proper exercise technique and supervision by a qualified and experienced coach or trainer.

The gender makeup of sport, and sport leadership, is changing. In 2018, the Government of Canada made it clear that gender equity is a priority for all levels of sport, setting a target to achieve gender equality by 2035.

In February, as part of the Red Deer Declaration, the federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for sport committed in principle to developing a “strategy tailored to their own jurisdiction so that boards of directors of funded sport organizations reach [gender] parity by December 2024.” (Conference of Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation, 2019).

Gender diversity in sport leadership is a precondition for equity in other facets of sport. Studies in the corporate sphere have shown that organizations are more likely to understand target consumers when they have at least one member who represents their target’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or culture (Catalyst, Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter, 2018). It has also been demonstrated that without diverse leaders, women, people of colour, and LGBT employees are less likely to have their ideas endorsed (Catalyst, 2018).

A review conducted by Canadian Securities Administrators and supported by the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance demonstrated that boards of directors with a written policy on gender equity had a higher percentage of women than those without (Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, 2018).

Within the Canadian sport sector, Triathlon New Brunswick, Ontario Soccer, and Curling Canada are three organizations that have implemented board gender equity into their governance documents. As national and provincial/territorial sport organizations move forward in creating gender equity action plans, these organizations provide examples of practices that can be adapted and implemented to suit individual contexts.

Making a Commitment to Gender Equity

For Triathlon New Brunswick, gender equity bylaws were an example set at the international and national level. In 2017, the International Triathlon Union brought a gender equity statement to their board, and Triathlon Canada did the same.

When Althea Arsenault became the President of Triathlon New Brunswick in 2018 and started the process of updating the organization’s bylaws, she saw an opportunity to introduce gender equity into its governance documents.

“It was something to be proactive about. The timing was perfect; it was like ‘okay, let [us] add in these three sentences that say exactly what we want to do.’”

Arsenault, the first woman to hold the president position on the Triathlon NB board, says the permanence of including it in a bylaw was more appealing than making gender equity a policy or procedure.

That commitment was also appealing to Curling Canada’s CEO, Katherine Henderson. The Curling Canada membership voted to update a bylaw about board gender equity in 2018 – reaffirming a rule that had already been in place for decades. In Henderson’s view, bringing a vote to the members was a much more assertive stance than creating a policy that would only live in the boardroom.

“I think having the discussion again allowed us to remind ourselves of the sort of sport that we want to be,” says Henderson. “Really what we were trying to say as a sport is that this is something that we believe in from coast to coast to coast.”

In the case of Ontario Soccer, implementing a gender equity policy was part of a governance modernization process that focused on gender equity as one of the principles of good governance.

The gender composition of their membership was also an important consideration – 42% of their 400,000 players are girls and women, yet only 27% of their coaches are women. Before they changed their board policy and structure, the Ontario Soccer board was 25% women – now it’s at 33%.

“When it comes to a leadership perspective to support the participants, we needed to do some work,” says Johnny Misley, Ontario Soccer’s CEO. “Some people may look at those numbers and say, wow, you have 27% women coaches, that’s pretty good. But for us it’s not acceptable.”

Taking Action

For organizations looking to integrate board gender equity into their governance documents, there are many variables to consider. Here are three steps sport organizations can take to ensure their policies or bylaws are effective.

  1. Be specific

Specifying a 50/50 gender split ensures true parity, while a 40/60 split of either gender enables organizations to accommodate fluctuations in board make-up. Either allows organizations to choose candidates with a variety of skills to tackle the complex issues facing their organization.

Critics of a 40/60 split argue that 40% can quickly become the ceiling for women—the most they will achieve—unless a genuine commitment to valuing diversity and inclusion is in place.

Content from Curling Canada, Triathlon New Brunswick, and Ontario Soccer is included below. Organizations may need to adjust content based on their election procedures.

Curling Canada (Bylaw)
3. GENDER STANDARD FOR BOARD OF GOVERNORS – In advancement of gender balance for women and men on the Board of Governors, while ensuring the prevailing criterion for election is eligibility, ability and professional performance, the Board shall be constituted in a manner such that no gender accounts for more than 60% or less than 40% of the total number of Governors.
Triathlon New Brunswick (Bylaw)
Of the filled Board positions (maximum 12), in advancement of gender balance on the Board, while ensuring the prevailing criterion for election is eligibility, ability and professional performance, the Board shall be constituted in a manner such that no gender accounts for more than 60% or less than 40% of the total number of Directors.
Ontario Soccer (Policy Manual)
10.0 GENDER EQUITY 10.1 Ontario Soccer Board sets a target of at least 40% female representation for the Ontario Soccer Board and all Ontario Soccer Committees and establish plans to work towards achieving this target by 2020; and Recommending that all Governing Organizations within Ontario Soccer consider similar plans for moving towards greater female representation on their Boards and Committees where necessary.
  1. Set a deadline

According to the Canadian Council for Good Governance, incorporating a target with a meaningful timeline is a best practice when it comes to gender diversity policies (Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, 2018).

If your board has not yet achieved gender parity, consider setting a timeline for when you will accomplish this goal. For example, in 2017 Ontario Soccer set a goal of achieving 40% women on their board by 2020.

  1. Build a supportive environment 

A threshold of 30% women is typically recognized as a critical mass that enhances the likelihood that the perspectives of women are heard (Catalyst, 2018). This helps to avoid tokenism, ensuring women’s voices carry the same weight as those of other group members (Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, 2018).

A focus on inclusion helps ensure the benefits of diversity are realized. Sport boards must do more than just appoint women; true inclusion happens when women and people of all diverse backgrounds feel welcome and like they belong.  Consider exploring resources from Catalyst or CAAWS to find out more about how to ensure your focus on diversity moves beyond just numbers.

Changing Culture, Shifting Attitudes

As of January 2019, 4 in 10 NSO and MSO boards in Canada have not reached the critical threshold of 30% women – and two have no women at all (CAAWS, 2019). To meet Sport Canada’s target of 2024, sport organizations with a gap to close will need to develop an action plan.

For Arsenault and Triathlon NB, including gender equity in their bylaws was an opportunity to follow a path set by national and international leaders, and to create a commitment that would live beyond her tenure.

“I’m always of the mind frame that you don’t need to recreate the wheel; you only need to find what is already out there,” says Arsenault. “We’re all in this together.”

Henderson has seen the benefits of gender equity first hand through Curling and through her position as a member of Rugby Canada’s board. She observed that experiencing gender equity at the board level created an awareness in board members that wasn’t necessarily there before.

“[They] start to realize the richness of it and they themselves become ambassadors and advocates for [gender equity],” says Henderson. “They start to actually realize inequalities in other areas of the sport, and they’re able to point them out.”

For Misley and Ontario Soccer, modernizing their governance documents kick-started the process of developing a gender equity strategy that affects all areas of the organization and holds them accountable. Misley’s one piece of advice to other organizations: stick with the process.

“Our strategy is long term. You’re always evolving, not just this area but other areas as well. Don’t think it’s going to happen overnight.”

Ultimately, implementing steps to achieve gender diversity at the board level is a tangible action that can be integrated across the sport sector to achieve real change, and create stronger futures for sport organizations. In Henderson’s words: “We can have philosophical arguments until the cows come home, but this is going to work better.”

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About CAAWS

CAAWS is dedicated to creating an equitable and inclusive Canadian sport and physical activity system that empowers girls and women—as active participants and leaders—within and through sport. With a focus on systemic change, we partner with governments, organizations and leaders to challenge the status quo and to advance solutions that result in measurable change.

Community sport organizations or clubs are the cornerstone of sport in Canada. A vast majority of these community sport clubs rely almost exclusively on volunteers for their management and program delivery (Cuskelly, Hoye, & Auld, 2006; Doherty, 2005).

A threat to these organizations and their sustainability is acquiring and retaining volunteer coaches to deliver the sport programming. In recent years there has been a noted decline in volunteerism (Statistics Canada, 2015) and sport has been no exception to this trend (Breuer et al., 2012; Cuskelly, 2005; Cuskelly et al., 2006). A proposed strategy to support a positive coaching environment that may promote volunteer retention is the consideration of volunteer coaches’ psychological contract.

Psychological Contract

A psychological contract refers to the unwritten set of expectations that govern a volunteer/organization relationship. It is what a volunteer expects to provide, and what they expect the organization to provide in return.  Psychological contracts have been examined extensively in the paid workforce, recognizing that employees have expectations beyond their written contract. Whether these expectations are fulfilled or not may impact an employees’ commitment and satisfaction, and ultimately their intent to continue working for their employer. In the volunteer coaching context, where there generally are not written contracts, volunteers rely almost exclusively on their psychological contract to represent what they perceive their role to entail, and what they expect of their club in return. Given the important role that psychological contracts play in the paid workforce, our research sought to explore the psychological contract within the volunteer coaching environment (see Harman & Doherty, 2014; 2017).

Components of Volunteer Coaches’ Psychological Contract

Interviews (n = 22) and surveys (n = 187) were completed by volunteer sport coaches engaged with community sport clubs who identified several expectations they have of themselves and of their club:

Coaches’ expectations of themselves (listed in order of importance):

Coaches’ expectations of their sport club (listed in order of importance):

Impact of Fulfilling Expectations

We further examined how the fulfillment, or not, of coaches’ expectations of their sport club impacted coach satisfaction and commitment to the organization. The results indicated that:

Development of Coaches’ Psychological Contract

We also uncovered who or what was influencing coaches’ psychological contract. Most of the coaches interviewed set expectations of themselves and their clubs based on insights from sources external to the club. Key influences include the coaches’ previous experience as a player, knowledge acquired from attending a coach education course, and previous experience as a volunteer coach at another organization.

Implications for Community Sport Organizations

Our research reveals that the psychological contract is an important element of the relationship between community sport organizations and their volunteer coaches. While the concept of the psychological contract sounds simple – what do coaches expect of themselves? and what do they expect their club to provide in return? – the reality is that without acknowledging the psychological contract of volunteers, and effectively managing the coaching environment so that expectations align, it may seem like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Two-way communication of expectations may lead to more effective relationships with current volunteers, leading to increased retention, and reduced role uncertainty. This more positive environment may also help with coach recruitment.

Recommendations for Sport Managers

Parents who dream of their children becoming professional athletes, and coaches who believe that single-minded dedication is the only way to reach the top of their sport, have contributed to an increase in early sport specialization. However, there are many researchers, coaches, and athletes who have been pushing back on this trend, citing a range of negative repercussions relating to skill development and the risk of physical and psychological harm.

What is early specialization?

Experts in sport psychology, talent development, and sport medicine have recently reached consensus on a definition for early specialization (LaPrade et al., 2016). This definition includes three criteria:

  1. Involvement of prepubertal children
  2. Participation in one sport, to the exclusion of others
  3. Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sport for more than 8 months per year
What are people saying about early specialization and burnout?

The same experts who defined early specialization also stated, “…there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports. They are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity” (Laprade et al., 2016, p. 1).

The most widely accepted definition of athlete burnout describes it as a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment in sport, and sport devaluation—not valuing or caring as much about sport as they used to (Raedeke, 1997).

There are several reasons why we might see a relationship between early specialization and burnout:

However, a careful review of the literature reveals that many of the warnings about the association between early specialization and burnout are based more on theory than on actual evidence. Most research on early specialization comes from a talent development or injury prevention perspective. Less is known about the relationship between early specialization and psychosocial or behavioural outcomes, like burnout and dropout from sport.

We set out to conduct a study that would add empirical evidence to the literature on early specialization and burnout (Larson, Young, McHugh, & Rodgers, 2019).

Research Design

The research project involved surveys with 137 youth swimmers (ages 12-13) from across Canada and measured their levels of enjoyment, commitment, burnout, and their intentions to continue swimming next season. A check-in at the start of the following season was used to confirm if the athletes were still swimming or if they had dropped out. Parents provided detailed information about each swimmer’s sport background, supporting an assessment of levels of early specialization.

Early specialization was measured in several different ways, using a variety of markers. For example, we looked at the age at which swimmers first reached certain milestones associated with intensive training, such as beginning dryland training or attending training camps. We also looked at the number of years from ages 6-12 that swimmers trained and competed in only swimming for more than 8 months per year.

Research Findings

To the surprise of the research team, results revealed that the relationships between these markers of early specialization and burnout were minimal or non-existent, and in some cases early specialization was associated with greater intentions to continue swimming competitively, and a decreased likelihood of dropout. These results ran contrary to much of the theorizing in the literature, as well as some past empirical studies.

Interpreting the Results

There are a few potential explanations for these unexpected findings:

Key Takeaways

Training contexts are largely shaped by coaches and parents. Regardless of whether or not your athlete is an early specializer, you should keep these things in mind:

Canada’s Olympic history is a decorated one. There have been so many moments of note that we sometimes need reminding of what has transpired as the years pass as the medals pile up. For instance, February 2018 marked twenty years since Ross Rebagliati won Olympic gold in snowboarding. His win was notable not only for his gold medal, but also for the conversation it sparked about cannabis in sport.

February 2018 was an important date for me as well – it was when I was appointed to the Senate of Canada.  Like Mr. Rebagliati, the controversies surrounding cannabis were about to become front and center in my life as well. At the time, Parliament was embroiled in a debate over Bill C-45, “The Cannabis Act,” and as a voting member of the Senate I had a decision to make – would I support cannabis remaining an illicit substance, or should I vote in favor of Canadians being free to purchase and consume the substance as they see fit?

Considering the Pros and Cons of Cannabis Legalization

Initially, my main concern was that legalization would normalize cannabis use in our young people. Yet as we began studying the bill, it became clear to me that that horse had left the barn. A 2013 UNICEF report revealed that over a quarter (28%) of Canadians aged 11, 12 and 15 had reported using cannabis in the last year, the highest consumption rate in the world for those ages.

Those in favor of C-45 argued that legalization would allow governments at all levels to control messaging around the substance through packaging and other health warnings, as well as undercut the illicit market. Swayed by arguments made by medical and legal experts, I voted in favor of the legislation. Time will tell if this is the right approach, but for now there are a number of things Canadians must keep in mind as we move forward. This is especially true for Canadian athletes and coaches, who must navigate the new laws as they compete.

Cannabis in Sport

The first consideration is the most obvious – despite being legal in Canada, cannabis is still technically a banned substance according the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the Canadian Anti-Doping Program. I say “technically” because WADA, to their credit, has kept pace with changing societal views on the substance. Currently, a tested athlete would need more than 150 nanograms per milliliter of blood (ng/ml) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to run afoul of WADA rules. To put this in perspective, Canada’s new impaired driving laws put the limit at 5 ng/ml. Twenty one years ago, Mr. Rebagliati tested at 17.8 ng/ml.

While the WADA limit is comparatively higher, it is still better for athletes to err on the side of caution, especially before a major competition. Cannabis stays in the system longer than alcohol. Its metabolites are fat soluble, which means they bind to fat molecules, taking longer to leave your system. How long they stay there can vary greatly depending on individual physiology. Whereas one person could be THC free within days of consuming, another could take weeks.

Understanding the Implications – Abroad and at Home

Our athletes must also keep in mind that Canada is one of only two countries (the other being Uruguay) to legalize cannabis. This means that it is prohibited to travel with the substance, and being caught could have severe consequences. This includes travel to the United States where the substance remains illegal at the federal level, despite being permitted in some states. Many of our athletes, staff and volunteers travel to the U.S. for training camps and competitions. Being caught with any amount of cannabis by American customs officials could lead to a ban from entering the country. It remains unclear if even admitting to consuming the substance could get you denied at the border. My recent return from travels in Asia have strongly reminded me of the very unforgiving non-negotiable laws related to possession of any illegal drug.

Even in Canada it can be easy to run afoul of the new law.  While the government made cannabis legal in some instances, it actually increased the consequences for a number of infractions. For instance, there was a great deal of debate in the Senate centered on the idea of “social sharing” – providing a family member or friend with any amount of cannabis. While it would not be right for someone who is 45 to share with someone who is 13, the ethical boundary becomes murkier when two individuals are close in age. The Senate tried to pass an amendment that would have lessened the penalties should someone over 18 share with a minor who was born within two years of them. The government did not accept this amendment, and as it stands now, any adult providing cannabis to a minor could face jail time. This would include an 18 year old passing a joint to a 17 year old, even if they were born just days apart.

This is important to remember. The majority of our athletes are young. They train together, go to school together, and often socialize together. They grow up together, and like most of us will be exposed in social settings to substances like cannabis or alcohol during this time. It is essential that our young athletes are aware that while Canada legalized cannabis, it only did so in a strict set of circumstances. This is not a free for all.

Looking Ahead

Legalization is not without its pitfalls, and the laws around it will no doubt be altered and improved as time goes on. While I reject the framing of legalization as some kind of grand experiment, it is undeniable that we are heading into unknown territory. It is incumbent on the individual to remain aware of the laws as they are written and to decide for themselves if they wish to legally obtain and consume cannabis. Every Canadian will do so based on their circumstances, including our athletes.

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