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This article is the second in a special series that explores how Canadian sport leaders are adapting and innovating to safeguard the wellbeing of athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and other Major Games during a global pandemic. Read the first article here.


The challenges facing Canada’s top summer athletes have never been more daunting or more complex.

For the first time in the modern Olympic era, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have been postponed. The alarming spread of COVID-19 and the withdrawal of several countries – starting with Canada – forced organizers to make the unprecedented decision in late March to push back the start of the Tokyo Games by one year.

Canada’s Olympians and Paralympians – and those aspiring to be part of Team Canada in Tokyo in 2021 – have felt the pandemic’s impact in countless ways: from the closure of training facilities, to isolation from coaches and teammates, to the same financial anxieties facing millions of other Canadians suffering through one of the worst economic downturns in the country’s history.

Surprisingly, in the midst of the disappointment, stress and uncertainty, Canadian athletes and sport leaders are also experiencing a slew of unexpected benefits that may actually improve Canada’s chances for success at the highest level of international sport.

Hygiene breakthrough

Antoine Atallah
Antoine Atallah, General Manager of Major Games Canada

“I’ve often described a Major Games environment as the world’s largest petri dish,” says Antoine Atallah, General Manager of Major Games Canada, who oversees the planning of health services for Team Canada at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. “If you think about it, the Athletes’ Village brings 10,000 people from around the world to live, eat and compete together. It’s like a quadrennial convention of the world’s active viruses and communicable diseases.”

What’s so challenging about the current situation is that COVID-19 is a new virus and the distribution of approved vaccines will take many months to complete.

Atallah says planning for international competition now involves new and ever-expanding medical considerations, such as stricter hygiene practices, regular virus testing, added protections for para athletes with compromised immune systems, and protocols for anyone who contracts the virus.

In an ironic twist, he notes the global pandemic is also likely to lead to some long-term benefits that have been stubbornly difficult to achieve.

“For years and years, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of hygiene, but up until now it’s been really difficult to get athletes to wash their hands for 20 seconds or frequent use of hand sanitizer,” he says. “COVID-19 is changing that, not just for Tokyo, but I think for all Major Games in the future.”

New perspectives on planning and preparation

In a much broader sense, postponement of the Tokyo Games created unexpected time and space for the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) to put a fresh lens on their traditional approaches to Games planning and preparation.

“We’re embracing this opportunity to challenge assumptions, shake up the status quo, and ask ourselves some fundamental questions,” says Catherine Gosselin-Després, Executive Director of Sport for the CPC. “What can be done differently or more efficiently? How can we innovate to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and set the table for a better way down the road? We’re becoming far more systematic about the way we plan and then execute those plans.”

Gosselin-Després maintains that Team Canada must become more self-reliant than ever to limit exposure to people or situations that could put them at risk of getting sick. This collective self-reliance, she insists, will serve as one of the core pillars for Games planning well beyond Tokyo.

Erica Wiebe. Photo: Team Canada

According to Céline DesLauriers, Senior Manager of Games at the COC, the master project plan for a competition like the Summer Olympics is 20,000 lines long. Similar to Gosselin-Després, she says the postponement of the Tokyo Games has provided the chance “…to stop, think and re-evaluate. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What’s the benefit to our athletes and to their performance? This kind of analysis is going to make us that much more purpose-driven and efficient.”

As an example, DesLaurier’s’ COC colleague, Brett Greene, points to the possibility of using local companies to manage many of the logistics for Team Canada while they are restricted from travelling. “They obviously know the local situation and the culture far better than we do, and it’ll cut back on the number of site visits we have to make. Obviously, there isn’t much appetite right now for international travel.”

Gosselin-Després says the learning curve has been both steep and rewarding. “We’ve learned a lot by experimenting with different approaches and by sharing experiences with counterparts in other countries. I’ve actually never seen this much collaboration between national Paralympic committees. I think it sets all of us up well for the future.”

Unprecedented collaboration

Web designer brainstorming for a strategy plan. Colorful sticky notes with things to do on office board. User experience (UX) concept.

Around key medical issues, there is also a strong spirit of collaboration amongst leading experts and sport organizations. Dr. Mike Wilkinson, the COC’s Chief Medical Officer, notes that colleagues – both domestically and internationally – have embraced the opportunity to share research, policies and lessons learned.

“We’re all looking for answers and solutions and we recognized early on that it was going to take a concerted international effort to try to get ahead of this health crisis,” he says.

Wilkinson’s counterpart at the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Dr. Andy Marshall, has also played an ongoing leadership role by bringing together medical leads from National Paralympic Committees around the world to share information and research, coordinate planning, and highlight best practices.

Domestically, Wilkinson says the level of collaboration across the sport system is better than he has ever seen it. “the way the COC, CPC and OTP work together has reached a whole new level,” he adds, “to the point where we’re making all the key medical decisions together.”

Wilkinson says that as a result of all this collaboration, he and Marshall often joke that they have been spending more time with each other than with their spouses.

He also points to the pivotal role of the Sport Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC), drawing on the collective knowledge of seasoned experts from the COC, CPC, l’Institut National du Sport du Québec, and three Canadian Sport Institutes (Pacific, Calgary and Ontario).

“The Committee has been around for a while, but really hit its stride early in the pandemic when the high performance sport community was desperate for up to date reliable scientific information, and up-to-date recommendations they could trust,” adds Wilkinson.

Since February, the Committee has distributed almost two dozen updates offering the latest research on the virus, practical resources and tools, and guidance on return to training and competition.

The Return to Play Task Force, chaired by Own the Podium’s Anne Merklinger, has received high praise for moving quickly to gather the sport system together. The Task Force is comprised of a diverse group of 20 sector representatives, including nine national summer and winter sport organizations, multisport service organizations (e.g., Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Coaching Association of Canada), Canadian Sport Institutes, and senior government officials. Together, they developed a comprehensive National Framework to guide a prudent and well-informed reintroduction of sport in Canada.

The CPC’s Dr. Andy Marshall says he has been pleasantly surprised to see cooperation from organizations that have traditionally kept to themselves, such as professional sport leagues.

“The NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball, they normally don’t share information to a great degree with us on the amateur sport side,” he says. “But they were first out of the gate in North America to return to sport. And having access to their approaches, research and lessons learned has been really helpful in developing our plans for Team Canada.”

Athletes getting creative

For many Canadian athletes, the initial shock and disappointment of postponement is slowly being replaced with the staunch determination that has carried them to the top of their respective sports. With the chance to work through the anger and disappointment, high performance athletes are showing remarkable resilience and creativity in responding to challenges posed by the pandemic.

Wilkinson says social media platforms have been full of inspiring examples. “Homemade obstacle courses and climbing walls, workout areas in the garage, basement or the parents’ dining room,” he says. “Athletes have found so many creative ways to get in meaningful training without access to their regular facilities. Being able to work out at home also brought with it a whole lot of other benefits – less time and hassle commuting, money saved, and more opportunities to train on personal gaps.”

Seyi Smith
Seyi Smith, Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission

Seyi Smith is one of those exceptional athletes to have competed in both Summer (London 2012, Athletics) and Winter Olympic Games (PyeongChang 2018, Bobsleigh). Now Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, he believes the pandemic has helped athletes become more resilient and self-sufficient.

“With some creative thought and some borrowed equipment, it’s been possible for many high performance athletes to do most of their training at home,” he says. “That realization has been quite powerful because it’s proven to some athletes that they don’t necessarily have to be dependent on other people or facilities to maintain their training regime.”

Rest as a competitive advantage

Wilkinson adds that several athletes have also embraced the chance to address longstanding issues like chronic injuries, biomechanics, technique corrections and strength deficits. “It’s an unanticipated gift of time and many Canadian athletes are using it wisely. On the mental side of things, putting the Tokyo Games on hold, the associated unknowns and rapidly changing scenarios are probably the best mental resilience training tool we could have ever designed.”

For slalom kayaker Michael Taylor, postponement has a “silver lining,” allowing him to recover from some nagging injuries sustained last winter. “Obviously it’s tough having things delayed,” he told CBC Radio in July. “But … I’ve been able to spend more time at home, more time with family which for athletes is so rare when we’re travelling on the road. So that part’s been really nice.”

Like so many of her Canadian Olympic teammates, swimmer Kylie Masse has been enjoying an extended stay with family through most of the pandemic. She believes many silver linings have emerged from the pandemic pause.

Manager In Huddle With Womens Football Team Giving Motivational Pep Talk Before Soccer Match

“Physically, the break gives you that much more time to recover (from injuries and fatigue), and mentally have a little bit of a reset and a break from the water and a chance to enjoy some other aspects of your life, and to really learn a little bit about yourself,” the Olympic and world championship medalist told The Canadian Press. “There’s so many things that I can look back on and say that I achieved during quarantine and they’re not huge things at all, but just little things like about myself or a new activity I tried. All those things are important to look at in the big picture.”

The sense of peace and perspective that Masse speaks about are indicative of the many unexpected benefits that have emerged during the pandemic.

For Olympic gold medalist Erica Wiebe, it’s all about perspective. “2020 is not normal,” she said on a CBC Radio interview this summer. “And it’s given us different opportunities and gifts and so I’m just trying to take it in stride.”

Back to basics

There is an existential element to the pandemic, according to the COC’s Wilkinson, as some athletes reflect on why they devote so much of themselves to the pursuit of the podium.

“As a high-performance athlete, you’re immersed in the grind, the thick of offseason training, and it can be hard sometimes to remind yourself of the ‘why,’” he adds. “This moment has also reminded many why they are in sport, about the power of sport to be a beacon of hope and how sport can be an incredible magnet to draw us all together.”

Stephanie Dixon is seeing evidence of the same mindset amongst many of Canada’s top summer Paralympians. As the Chef de Mission for Team Canada at next year’s Paralympic Games, she describes it as “a wonderful opportunity, for those who aren’t involved with the daily grind of the ever-changing logistics and planning. For many of us preparing for the Games, it’s a gift of time and space to take a breath, to reflect and to get ourselves into an even stronger position to succeed, both physically and mentally.”

There are as many definitions of leadership as there are people writing about it. To me, a leadership learning facilitator and teaching faculty member, leadership is a body of skills and behaviours which enable the positive holistic development of people and performance.

I have been told countless times that leadership is learned in sport, and I am always left wondering how the speaker knows this claim is true. Sport offers exceptional opportunities for learning leadership, but on its own does not always teach it. Being the most skilled athlete or possessing the most experience in a group does not make us good at leadership – we need to learn it.

My professional joys and challenges all link to teaching effective evidence-informed leadership in formal settings. The purpose of this article is to share what I have co-discovered, with undergraduate students in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and sport coaches completing their NCCP Advanced Coach Diploma at the Canadian Sport Institute, about effective strategies to support leadership learning. The article is designed to support sport leaders in considering how to facilitate leadership learning within their own organizations.

How do we learn leadership?

Most people associate learning with classrooms, grades, certificates, and degrees. I believe leadership learning is possible without parchment and PowerPoint; however, there are some essential features required to enable learning. group of graduates holding diploma First, informal leadership learning requires a backdrop of research-derived theory. To continuously improve our leadership behaviours, we need to compare our experiences and beliefs to credible research, whether through academic journals (e.g., Dugan, 2011) or popular press books written by researchers (e.g., Brown, 2018).

Second, we need to practice leadership to learn it. Exposure to good content or theory alone does not trigger learning. Learning becomes possible when learners can actively grapple with and construct changes to what they know and do. To learn leadership, we need a sound understanding of what effective leadership looks, sounds and feels like – then we need to put these new understandings into practice.

Third, we need to invest time and energy toward continual improvement. Leadership learning may begin with a book or a TED Talk, but it demands the learner truly buys into a process of growth. The learner needs to engage in specific goal setting, collect feedback regularly, and use it to refine their learning goals and practice. The learner needs to be an active agent at the centre of these things in the same way an athlete needs to seek development to improve a skill or tactic. 

Four leadership learning strategies that work

Sport leaders can facilitate leadership learning through a variety of intentional practices. My top four leadership learning activities are outlined next and expanded upon by coaches and undergraduates who have worked with me. The strategies which enable the most effective learning activity are:

  1. Effective questions,
  2. Discussion-based learning,
  3. Critical reflective practice, and
  4. Support people before challenging them.

These strategies can be harnessed for developing leadership skills outside the classroom, when learning is intentionally designed. For example, in a sport organization, using these strategies to mentor staff or volunteers could elicit rich learning and I recommend tailoring the classroom strategies I describe here to your out-of-classroom space.

Effective questions

A major tenet of adult learning is content must be relevant and something the learner can put to immediate practical use. Questions like: “How can we apply this in our work?”, “What are the barriers to doing this?” and “What are the conversations you need to have to support this outcome?” link learners to their specific choices and options for leadership. They act as learning accelerators because they invite us to apply and practice leadership.

Woman with hand on chin thinking at studio shot

One of the most important things we can do as learning facilitators and leaders ourselves is engage personally with effective questions. Answering questions and talking about our own leadership learning can contribute to creating a psychologically safe space for learning. Psychological safety is the feeling we will not be made fun of for asking questions, making mistakes, or being imperfect. For the recommended learning strategy I describe next to be authentic, psychological safety is paramount.

Effective questions promote curiosity. They ignite a learner-directed fusing of personal experience with content to be learned, whether in a classroom, boardroom or on the playing field.

Kohler-Evans (2016) encourages spending more time inviting learners to consider who they are, digging into their driving beliefs, core values, and ethics. She suggests that investing time in understanding learners’ aspirations and lives will lead to more authentic learning. This is consistent with my own experience in both university and coach education contexts.

Dave, a coach with extensive leadership experience, says my use of effective questions in leadership class allows him to “add another dimension to my learning.” Dave uses effective questions to link his leadership experiences to evidence-based best practice. His comments are echoed by an undergraduate kinesiologist, Alyssa, who feels my questions in class help her practice increasingly effective leadership outside of class. She says effective questions get her “remembering personal examples and making a meaningful connection to the topic” accelerating and personalizing her learning.

Undergraduate Lindsey says, “most times I actually think of a better answer after I’ve left class than when you immediately ask the question. Posing one or two questions to the class then giving us three minutes to write down some ideas is beneficial.” Lindsey’s comment is supported by McComas and Abraham’s (2004) advice for asking effective questions. Building intentional thinking time into learning deepens and widens student responses by supporting the quiet self-reflection Lindsey describes.

Coach Leslie tells me over the phone, “Your questions used to really frustrate me because I am more comfortable with a right and a wrong answer.” She shared that grappling with open-ended questions about her core values allowed her to refine her coaching philosophy. Effective leadership is informed by core values (Hill & Lineback, 2011). By spending time in the discomfort of questions aimed at scrutinizing her values, Leslie strengthens her capacity to articulate these values, which in turn clarifies and improves her leadership.

Generative questions are one type of effective question, quickly creating engagementby connecting key concepts to learners’ experiences.For example, asking “What is the role of mistakes in leadership?” at the beginning of a module where we look at mistakes and apologies connects learner’s ideas and the course content, keeping learning dynamic and relevant.

In an out-of-classroom context, for example during a team debrief after a major event, it would be effective for everyone’s leadership learning to reflect on and then discuss in small groups a similar question, such as, “How did we process mistakes at the recent event?” This massive open-ended question could generate a long response by one or two team members if posed in a large group. Instead, I recommend carefully creating diverse groups of colleagues who played different roles in the event and giving them a specific amount of time to brainstorm their responses to this question, then inviting each group to summarize their three most important points in plenary. I would translate technical and tactical learning from the debrief into leadership reflection and goal setting. I would have each team member vet their specific leadership goals with a trusted colleague, and then share their specific goals with their direct supervisor, once they were very clear.

In the example above, those in power would need to carve out the time and space to support this reflective debrief and model the translation of an event debrief into an opportunity to set new leadership goals for future practice and assessment. Finally, in some event debriefs I have participated in during my time as a sport volunteer, linking responses to values, strategy and specific leadership behaviours was not included. In the examples I share above, what we are striving for from a leadership perspective is crucial in creating opportunities for practice, feedback, and learning.  

Leadership skill-focused questions, a second type of effective question, invite learners to share what they know, think or believe.It is crucial in learning leadership to leverage individual experience and support learners in using it as a foundation for their learning. For example, following the presentation of material on the importance of trust in leadership, learners in many of my classes are asked, in groups of three, to generate a list of behaviours which build trust. Following this small group activity, I support the groups in comparing and contrasting their lists with what the research tells us about this essential leadership behaviour. 

Two businesswomen smiling happy and confident. Sitting with smile on face working together using laptop at the office

In an out-of-classroom setting, you could create a reading group where you meet regularly to discuss and work through applying specific leadership practices recommended by Dr. Brené Brown (2018) in her book Dare to Lead. I facilitated this in the leadership development component of a recent social learning initiative supporting 15 sport organizations in Alberta striving to increase gender equity and leadership growth. The leaders who opted in to this informal yet structured leadership learning experience met every three to four weeks to discuss the application of book’s theoretical content into their professional practice.

In your sport context, a reading group style of leadership learning could mean selecting a book, blog, or series of TED talks, creating a schedule for consuming the content, then discussing its integration into practice. Content could then be applied and discussed in the context of current projects through questions such as: “What do you need to practice or improve to enhance the process and the product?” or “What leadership skills do you feel you need to keep doing to meet the deadline?” When questions like this are posed by people in power, we stimulate and structure leadership learning. Imagine a sport club or organization, where taking time to reflect on and think about these questions particularly against the backdrop of best practice was normalized. I predict deep engagement, commitment, curiosity, and learning in these spaces.

Discussion-based learning

When we use discussion as a learning activity, individual learner’s experiences, points of view, and questions are foregrounded. Discussion is powerful when it is inclusive and allows us to see a situation from a different  or new perspective. Discussion-based learning holds the potential to:

  1. Improve learners’ self-determination;
  2. Enhance learners’ listening, speaking and reflection skills;
  3. Increase learner-to-learner empathy;
  4. Instill an experiential understanding of inclusion; and
  5. Provide practice in collaboration (Sibold, 2017).

Cheerful mixed race young business partners enjoying break time during brainstorming meeting at office. Happy diverse colleagues laughing, having fun during discussing working issues in boardroom.

For me, these outcomes are essential components of effective leadership; therefore, using discussion-based learning activities supports leadership learning. I believe students learn more when they feel part of and responsible for contributing to the group. This sense of belonging is something I work to create in every group learning activity I design by structuring features of the activity to be inclusive. For example, when a group is working on a problem, coming up with solutions and posting them on a whiteboard, I ask them to switch roles (e.g. note taker, voice includer, content infuser) each time one new idea is shared, this promotes inclusion of all voices in the task. When groups are reflecting on a question, I often ask them to use a thinking environment, adapted from Nancy Kline’s terrific book Time to Think (1999). Kline provides practical advice for creating and sustaining inclusive discussions in small groups through democratizing the time in a discussion. For example, in group of five, a thinking environment usually includes pulling out a timer and giving each person in the group 90 seconds to respond to the question at hand. In my experience, this promotes active listening and inclusion quite effectively when the questions are open-ended and relevant to learners.

Gurmeen, an undergraduate in my leadership class, says, “Having discussions in smaller groups allows us all to say the things we may be too shy to share with the whole class. This also helps us get to know one another better.” Empathy and inclusion between peers are captured in Gurmeen’s comments. Similarly, coach Carl says, “Discussion pushed me deeper and forced me to explore what I was actually doing.” The intersection of experience and leadership theory becomes a site of profound learning through small group discussion.

Coach Dave finds a discussion-rich learning environment helps his leadership development “by providing a dedicated time and space for me to grow, learn and focus.” Coaches, unlike undergraduates, are often looked to for constant leadership, the right answer, the best decision, and the most compelling vision. Dave says discussion-based learning “allows me a space to be a follower and grow my own leadership, while listening and thinking about others’ successes and failures. The environment provides motivation and excitement to continually grow my leadership style through information I can trust and people I can relate to. I can let my guard down and become a learner, in a trustworthy and comfortable learning environment.”

Coach Leslie says discussion has not been her favourite thing because she likes to prepare what she will say and to think in advance about what she truly believes. “The honesty in those discussions sure makes me feel vulnerable; but the leadership work sure reveals what I stand for.”

Seeing a leadership behaviour from multiple perspectives is foundational to growing it. The undergraduates who contributed to this article all agree inclusive discussion is perhaps the most important learning strategy in our classroom. Lindsey says, “Everyone thinks and learns differently so when we come together for discussions, we end up learning so much more!” This diversity of perspective is echoed by Coach Dave who finds the small group conversations help him develop perspective and fresh ideas.

Outside of the classroom, discussion designed to support leadership learning should not be left to chance. Structuring discussions which enable leadership learning is crucial and links explicitly with the third practice required to learn leadership in any context: critical reflective practice.

Critical Reflective Practice

The lifelong learning skill I strive to develop in leadership students is critical reflection. To be critical means to see from more than one perspective, and carefully designed reflection insists we step outside ourselves do this. To make connections between what we know, need to understand, and are working toward, takes careful reflective thinking. Critical reflection is the intentional processing of what we observe, think, feel, and know. Through surfacing and scrutinizing leadership from more than one perspective, we critically reflect on it. This practice is  the cornerstone of authentic leadership development. It enables integration of experience with knowledge and lets us grapple with applying theory in our real world.

Leadership learning depends upon one’s ability to critically reflect and turn reflections into practice. Coach Carldescribes the integration of critical reflection into his leadership practice, saying, “I evaluate situations now through a much broader lens. I think great leaders have a methodical approach. I’ve set goals for my leadership and this means stepping forward into uncomfortable situations at times.”

close up of woman writing her journal

The students and coaches I have worked with who experience the most growth practice rigorous critical reflection, well beyond the confines of class sessions. Coach Leslie tells me, “I realize many things later – after the class, after the discussions, after some time reflecting for myself.” She uses a building metaphor to describe her view of leadership learning and how self-reflection helps her identify learnings that build the foundation of her leadership practice. “Every struggle adds a Lego piece to the confidence pile – I know this, I am experiencing this.” I believe confidence is developed through effective leadership learning when theory is linked by the learner to their real-world and integrated with their beliefs about leadership and their driving purpose. This kind of confidence is very different from bravado; it is one of the signatures of knowing oneself and understanding how one practices leadership in an authentic way.

Coach Dave believes, “Self-reflection on leadership caused me to look in the rear-view mirror and think about the roads I used to get to where I am. This was the most powerful tool for me, as it caused me to honestly assess styles, approaches and decisions I have made in the past. To my surprise, it also caused me to celebrate successes I may not have otherwise seen. [Critical] reflection has also caused me to be more mindful in the moment, in situations where I’m leading, by raising my self-awareness.” These comments reinforce the value of reflection as the bridge linking experience with theory and consolidating our personal leadership practice.  

One of my favourite things to ask learners is about what is affirmed for them in a leadership theory, and what is new or surprising. I find both questions quickly link learners to their own practice while helping them dig deep into leadership course content. These questions could be used in out-of-classroom leadership learning settings to facilitate learning. This kind of reflective space could be created during quarterly check-ins or staff reviews, or structured into regular one-on-one check-ins or mentorship meetings. A group of officials could share what they found affirming or in alignment with what they know, and what they were unfamiliar with or surprised by, in a specific game or performance. This kind of discussion needs to be framed by what we are collectively striving for and make explicit links to best practices while engaging people on an individual level.

Rolfe et al.’s (2001) “What, So What, Now What” model, has been used as a foundation for learning in the Coaching Association of Canada’s National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). It provides a simple framework for moving learners through a systematic examination of what they have observed and felt (the “what”), interpreting what this may mean (the “so what”), and what they plan to do moving forward based on their reflective work (the “now what”).

There are numerous frameworks for reflection you can access on-line which will help people make sense of their leadership skills and goals. The work of Jenny Moon and David Kolb is particularly useful in learning about the role of reflection and metacognition in practical learning. Graham Gibb’s reflective model helps us develop action plans as a result of comprehensive reflective practice. Click here for additional reflective models I have found helpful in leadership learning.

Support people before challenging them

In writing this article, I elected to place this exceptionally important call to action last, hoping if you were skimming the other paragraphs and made it here, you would be searching for answers and support to enable learning for those you are leading right now.

high five

The cornerstone of the best work I do is supporting individual learners in a meaningful way – full stop. The people who have learned with me accessed my support. I think in any context, when someone reports to you, offering support and building mutual trust accelerates learning. My support looks like active listening, sounds like encouragement, feels like vulnerability. It creates a safe environment for engagement. By supporting people, I earn the opportunity to challenge them with questions that enable learning; questions such as: What is your driving purpose? How does what we are reading/watching/discussing show up in your world? Where does it challenge your default settings? or What about this aligns with your beliefs? To enable leadership learning, in any context, figuring out what your people value and find supportive is crucial, and in my experience is the required first step for enabling any true leadership learning.

Final thoughts

Believing we learn leadership on the fly, without context or connection to our colleagues, is common – it is sold to us. We are one click away from a leadership guru, book, or slick on-line offering guaranteeing our success as leaders after payment. However, my experiences suggest learning leadership outside of a classroom requires time and practices we cannot buy.

My aim in this article was to describe practices you could use as a mentor, a manager, a volunteer in a sport org to support your group’s leadership learning. When we see ourselves at the centre of the process, rather than as a recipient of knowledge, we increase our motivation and connection to developing and growing our leadership skills. An undergraduate, Mathieu, says, “I feel the overall learning environment is very collaborative and student-driven. Instead of focusing on taking notes and following a PowerPoint, the activities allowed us to be engaged and learn in a more authentic way that is unique to each student. During structured discussions, we related leadership theory to personal examples, and this helped us apply what we learned in a ‘real life’ setting.” This begs the question: Are you creating and sustaining a culture which supports leadership learning?

Where to start

In sport organizations, developing our leadership behaviours without the financial commitment of a corporate professional learning program can be done through thoughtful planning and low-cost high-commitment structure. This is not a task we can scratch off our list in one morning. To facilitate true leadership growth, you will need to invest time, creativity, curiosity and patience in developing yourself and those you lead. The learning journey of you and your people could create a social learning space for folks who buy-in to improving their leadership through intentional practice, reflection, feedback and planning.

If I was a mentor or manager interested in supporting leadership learning, I would begin by asking the people I supervise or mentor to read this article to create a discussion about the core elements of leadership learning and link our experiences to the tenets shared in this piece. I would use the practices I wrote about here to design a structured discussion after reading the article.

Next, I would facilitate a brainstorming session with the group (or an individual mentee if you are doing this work one-on-one), focused on generating ideas about how we could structure our informal leadership learning journey. I would sift through all of the ideas and come up with a plan and share it at our second meeting.

Finally, I would curate a list of articles, TED talks, or perhaps a book, and build a schedule of meet-ups at intervals that are predictable and stable. I would celebrate small successes as we progressed. Professional learning is often something we do off the side of our desks and to achieve deep engagement, the learners need to lead the way with us – that would be at top of mind for me throughout the process. 

Recommended Resources

This article is the first in a special series that explores how Canadian sport leaders are adapting and innovating to safeguard the well-being of athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and other major games during a global pandemic. Read the second article here.


Following the previously unthinkable decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Host Organizing Committee to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games, Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the 2020 Olympic Games, Marnie McBean, penned an open letter to Canadian high performance athletes. While acknowledging the devastation and disappointment, she encouraged them to do what they have always done: “… figure things out and thrive.”

“Your plan was thrown in the garbage, but your goal was not.”

– Marnie McBean, Olympic Chef de Mission

The 3-time Olympic gold medalist knows firsthand the kind of dedication and sacrifice it takes to succeed at the highest levels of international sport. She battled through her fair share of setbacks and disappointments, including a back injury that forced an early retirement just ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But she would also be the first to admit that she never had to face anything as daunting and complex as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Growing unrest

In the weeks leading up to the March 24th announcement, athletes from many countries had become increasingly vocal with concerns about the risks of continued training and competition in the midst of a rapidly spreading health crisis, the likes of which the world had never seen.

Among the most prominent advocates was five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission and a practicing Canadian physician. The former captain of the National Women’s Hockey Team called it “insensitive and irresponsible” to continue to push for delivery of the Olympics and Paralympics as scheduled, while cases of COVID-19 escalated at an alarming rate across Canada and around the world.

Working actively behind the scenes and in front of the media microphones, determined Canadian athletes made it clear that there was only one decision to be made: Withdraw from Tokyo 2020.

Canada the first to withdraw

Late on the evening of March 22nd, Canada stepped forward as the first country to declare it would not send athletes to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

summer olympic game. tokyo 2020, white background

“In hindsight, it was a no-brainer, but we actually took a lot of flack in the first few days,” according to Dr. Mike Wilkinson, Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). “If we were truly committed to putting the health and well-being of our athletes first, then ethically there was no way we could ask them to continue to train and compete in a world consumed by COVID-19.”

On March 24th, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started his morning with a call from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – reportedly one of many world leaders to make the case for a delay. The decision to postpone the Games for one year was announced later that evening. It is the first time in the modern Olympic era that the world’s biggest and most expensive sporting event has been postponed.

Considering the massive economic and public health impact of the pandemic, Canadian officials believed it was the only prudent decision to make. Nonetheless, the ripple effects have been widespread and as unique as the athletes who have been so deeply affected: from pressing reset on meticulous training plans, to adapting to a new reality where familiar facilities were suddenly and completely off limits. On a personal level, a new and unexpected paradigm had some athletes saying it was time for an internal “gut check” to gauge whether the competitive fire still burned. There was also the very real and pragmatic question of whether they could afford to finance another full year of intensive training in pursuit of their athletic dreams.

The ripple effects

The IOC has indicated that the Tokyo Games will go ahead, with or without COVID-19. Vice-president, John Coates, has declared that the event will start on July 23rd, 2021, although many details remain unknown, such as whether or not spectators will be allowed into the sport venues.

Canadian officials continue to work diligently through contingency plans for every conceivable scenario. “We have to expect that the Games will look and feel different,” notes Dr. Wilkinson, “and that major multi-sport events are going to be different from now on.”

Moreover, he cautions that Tokyo is only the first event on a jam-packed international sport calendar that will see more major games in a shorter period of time than ever before. Over the next quadrennial, that list includes the 2020 Tokyo Games in 2021; the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, followed that summer by both the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, and Les Jeux de la Francophonie in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo; the 2023 Pan and Parapan Am Games in Santiago, Chile; and the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Understandably, everybody is focused on preparations for Tokyo, but our winter athletes are actually facing the biggest issues right now as they look to qualify this winter for Beijing,” he adds. “A lot of those events are supposed to take place in China which will require a ton of contingency planning and detailed logistics.”

Game changer

Dr. Andy Marshall, Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“It’s been a tremendously difficult time for the athletes,” says Dr. Andy Marshall, the Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC).  “But the reality is that the vast majority of our high performance athletes have been affected by the very same issues as millions of other Canadians. They feel isolated and stressed out, unable to be with family and friends, and frustrated by all the uncertainty. And when you realize that most athletes don’t make a living through sport, they’re also worried about making ends meet.”

Beyond these factors, Dr. Marshall points out that the health impact is potentially life-changing for these finely-tuned athletes. “For the average 20-year-old Canadian, they might equate COVID with getting the flu,” he explains. “But if I’m an elite athlete, and I’m suffering with symptoms for weeks or months, or the virus causes even a five percent decrease in my lung or cardiac capacity, what does that mean for my chances of competing against the best athletes in the world?”

Besides being cut off from training facilities, coaches and teammates, Canadian athletes are mourning the loss of competition – the one activity that defines them more than anything else. The global pandemic has forced these uber-competitive, type A personalities to practice something that may not come naturally – patience.

“It’s probably the longest I’ve ever gone in my athletic career without having a race,” slalom kayaker Michael Taylor told CBC Radio. “But I’ve enjoyed working out in my parents’ dining room,” he says with a laugh, “which I’ve turned into a makeshift gym.”

Cam Smedley and Michael Tayler in training at the Whitewater Stadium, Deodoro Park, Rio De Janeiro. David Jackson/ COC
Photo: Team Canada.

The recent postponement of the Niagara 2021 Canada Summer Games 2020 serves as yet another reminder of the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian sport system. “All of our athletes, coaches and volunteers are top of mind for us in deciding to postpone the Games. No doubt this decision will be disappointing for those who have been training and preparing for the 2021 Games, but we hope to find their understanding and support,” said Evan Johnston, Chair of the Canada Games Council Board in a press release. “We made this difficult decision now, after careful consideration, to protect the health of Canadians and give all stakeholders more time to adjust their preparations. We will be reviewing options for new dates for the Canada Summer Games to take place during the summer of 2022 in the Niagara Region.”

At Canada’s universities and colleges, varsity programs have been scrapped for the fall season. And for athletes who had their sights set on international competition at the Winter World University Games in Lucerne, Switzerland, it’s a cruel double-whammy.

The Games, organized by the Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU), are the largest winter multi-sport event after the Olympics. The winter edition had been scheduled to run from January 21st to 31st, 2021, with student athletes from 50 countries, including Canada, invited to compete. But growing fears of a second wave of coronavirus cases across Europe forced organizers to shelve the event for at least a year.

“After more than four years of preparation it is a painful decision, but in the end an easy one,” Organizing Committee President, Guido Graf, said in a statement. “The health of all the participants has always been the top priority in our evaluations.”

The Winter Universiade were to be the first opportunity for Canadian medical and technical experts to assess protocols and practices in a multi-sport environment. “We were hoping to put in practice a series of contingencies to deal with every possible scenario we could think of,” says Antoine Atallah, General Manager of Major Games Canada, who oversees the planning of health services for Team Canada. “Even with the postponement of the Games, we are still planning for different scenarios while learning from sports organizations and competitions worldwide where protocols in place are working to keep athletes and their support staff safe. Such benchmarking and best practices will help us in our planning for all Games in 2021, including the Olympics and Paralympics.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

Despite the devastating disappointment for Canada’s best summer athletes, many have taken Marnie McBean’s advice to heart and “figured things out.”

Erica Wiebe, wrestler and Olympic gold medalist. Photo: Team Canada.

For Erica Wiebe, a gold medalist in wrestling at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it all boils down to one question: “What can I do today and what can I control today?” Cut off from training facilities, Wiebe told CBC Radio she accepted an offer to work out in a friend’s garage with equipment on loan from Canadian Sport Institute (CSI) Calgary. 

“It’s tough to not know anything really, but for me it’s always been about taking back control of the process and really empowering myself,” says Wiebe who has qualified for Tokyo. “As athletes, we’re empowered with the gift to always try to be present in the moment.”

Canadian athletes embraced Plato’s contention that “necessity is the mother of invention,” as access to facilities was cut off almost overnight.

“YouTube was full of examples of athlete ingenuity,” notes Dr. Wilkinson of the COC. “They built their own squat racks out of used lumber, installed tether lines in backyard swimming pools, built homemade obstacle courses and climbing gyms. It’s been really inspiring.”

Compounding the many physical challenges have been the less visible and often more difficult mental aspects of a global pandemic and the associated lockdown.

“I think mental performance issues have become far more prominent because athletes need skills and tools to deal with the anxiety, disappointment and, most of all, the unknown,” says the CPC’s Dr. Marshall. “Like never before, we’ve seen athletes take advantage of mental health services through their national sport organizations and the network of sport institutes across the country. Nobody wants to see them suffering, but this experience will build resilience and develop new coping skills that will help them in competition and in life.”

For Stephanie Dixon, Chef de Mission for Canada’s 2020 Paralympic Team, athletes have been riding a roller coaster of emotions as they come to terms with the impact of the pandemic. “We face such high expectations,” says the 19-time Paralympic medallist. “Athletes can feel that they are supposed to be laser-focused on training and performance goals 24/7. But at a time like this, athletes need to know that it’s okay to be feeling what they’re feeling: disappointed, disconnected, angry, grateful. Whatever it is, it’s all okay.”

For the athletes hoping to join Dixon on Team Canada’s Paralympic Team in Tokyo, the challenges can be even more daunting while, at the same time, oddly familiar.

Lima, Peru -  23/August/2019 -  Eric Rodrigues (#41) in action as Canada takes on Argentina in wheelchair rugby at the Parapan Am Games in Lima, Peru. Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee.
Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee

“For Paralympic athletes, coaches and support staff, preparing for a major international competition during a pandemic is basically ‘more of the same,’” suggests Andy Van Neutegem, PhD, Director, Performance Sciences, Research and Innovation at Own the Podium. “I’ve been working closely with para athletes for more than 15 years. Planning and preparation are always more complicated – pandemic or not – and full of contingencies.”

Van Neutegem says there are unique considerations when putting together training and travelling plans for athletes with disabilities. Many have compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to illnesses and infections.

“In some ways, para athletes may be better equipped to cope with all of the twists and turns,” adds the CPC’s Dr. Marshall. “They have to think about these things all the time – hygiene protocols, access to transport and facilities, assessing risk – it’s all part of life for a high performance para sport athlete. In a way, you could say that some of our athletes have been preparing their whole lives for the pandemic.”

What’s not so familiar, he adds, is the burning frustration of watching competitors in other countries who have far greater access to training and competition than Canadians do.

“When you’re so totally focused on achieving a goal and you see your competitors enjoying what feels like an unfair advantage, it can put you in a pretty negative head space,” he explains. “But the valuable part in all this is learning to concentrate on those things within your control and worrying less about what you can’t. It’s a great mental skill that’ll help the athletes in competition and in every other aspect of their lives.”

Return to training and competition

The disparity between pandemic restrictions in different parts of the world has also surfaced some complex ethical issues. If athletes in another country have more opportunity to train and compete, explains Van Neutegem, it’s tempting for Canada’s high performance athletes and coaches to consider travelling to these other locations so they don’t end up falling behind their international rivals.

Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“You have to understand the kind of internal pressure these athletes are feeling, and the years and years they’ve invested in preparing for an Olympic or Paralympic Games,” he says. “But at the same time, if an athlete decides to leave for another country with lax public health restrictions, how does that jive with Canada’s commitment to ethical sport and to ensuring the health and well-being of our athletes? It’s a real dilemma.”

One of Canada’s leading athlete advocates has observed a growing concern that the playing field is tilting in some sports because of unequal access to training and competition in different parts of the world. Seyi Smith, Chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, says it is a valid concern, but there is nothing that athletes can do about it. “Sure, there may be competitors in your sport who are back to a full training schedule and maybe even competing while you’re struggling to find ways to keep up,” he says. “But there’s nothing we can do about what’s happening in other countries. As athletes, we have to focus on what we can control and make smart decisions that don’t put our health at risk.”

Even in the middle of a global health crisis, Smith doesn’t think athlete preparations will change all that much. “Canadian athletes have faith in themselves and in the process that will get them ready for Tokyo. I don’t think the coronavirus is going to knock them too far off course.”

Medal hopefuls like diver Jennifer Abel echo that sentiment. “Instead of pushing back on what life has brought on all of us, I made the commitment to accept what is and cherish what lies ahead. Training is what keeps me focused and what makes me feel alive. I have found a way to stay in shape at a slower pace in the comfort of my home. Right now, that’s all I need.”

In an ironic twist, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually been a blessing for some athletes. With all competition sidelined, it’s an opportunity to take a step back, evaluate and invest time in areas that don’t normally get enough attention.

“Early on, we chose to focus on gaps and issues that might have been on the back burner for a long time for some athletes,” says Dr. Wilkinson. “For some, it was treating a nagging injury. For others, it was a biomechanics issue, a strength deficit, or a gap in mental preparation. In my work with Canada’s national rowing team, I’ve seen athletes make significant progress in areas we’ve been trying to address for years.”

Dixon says that she’s aware of athletes drawing on a wide variety of practices and resources, from meditation to yoga, music, poetry and mindfulness. “I’m encouraging our para athletes to befriend what they’re facing, to accept and acknowledge the anxiety and to be okay with those feelings. It becomes easier, then, to move past it and focus on preparations for Tokyo.”

Shot putter Brittany Crew is another Canadian athlete choosing a “glass-half-full” perspective on the delay caused by the pandemic. Featured on Athletics Canada’s People Behind the Performances podcast, she described news of the delay as “devastating” because she was on track to throw really well in Tokyo. “So, to be delayed another year, it was kind of like a kick in the face.” Upon reflection, Crew now believes that having more time to prepare is in her best interests. “This is just going to give me another year to get stronger, to get faster, and to refine my technique a little bit more and maybe work on some mental performance. So, I think it’s a blessing in disguise and I think it’s going to work to my advantage.”

Figuring things out and thriving

For Canada’s best summer athletes, the coronavirus pandemic has turned their lives upside down, forcing a re-write of detailed training and competition plans, and piling on layers of unsettling stress. While some athletes continue to wrestle with the anxiety and uncertainty, others are heeding the advice in Marnie McBean’s open letter to “figure things out and thrive.”

“Your (story) … includes all the work and competition that led up to the global COVID-19 shutdown, it includes everything that you’ve been doing since February and it will include everything that will come in the next year,” McBean wrote. “No matter what happens, continue to figure out a story that you’ll be proud to share. Continue to believe that you are capable of more. Continue to build a better, stronger and healthier you.”

The Adapted Physical Exercise (APEX) Research Group at the University of Windsor leverages the transformative power of sport and physical activity through inclusive, barrier-free programming for adults with intellectual and developmental disability (IDD). In collaboration with Community Living Essex County, APEX delivers volunteer-led, one-on-one fitness training at the University of Windsor’s fitness facility. The purpose of this article is to summarize our key findings and recommendations from nearly a decade of delivering APEX programs in our community. 

Sport and physical activity in the IDD community 

Adults with IDD (including autism spectrum disorder, developmental delay) tend to engage in lower levels of physical activity compared to the typically developing population, and thus experience poor health and physical fitness (Hsieh et al., 2015; Li et al., 2018). Fortunately, evidence indicates that increasing active leisure in this population can enhance their physical, social, and emotional wellbeing (Anderson et al., 2013; Peterson et al., 2008; van Schrojenstein Lantman-de Valk, 2005). Beyond benefits at the individual level, participation may also challenge prejudicial beliefs about the abilities of people with IDD, stimulating social change toward greater inclusion.  

However, there are many barriers to physical activity for these individuals, including physiological factors, lack of self-confidence, transportation issues, financial limitationslack of awareness of optionsnegative supports from caregivers and decision-makers, and the absence of clear policies for engaging in regular activity in residential and day service programs (Bodde & Seo, 2009; van Schijndel-Speet et al., 2014). Key facilitators to physical activity may include enjoyment, support from others, social contact and friendship, familiarity, and a consistent routine of daily activities (van Schijndel-Speet et al., 2014).  

Through APEX programs, we have facilitated sport and physical activity participation for more than 200 individuals with IDD. In doing so, we have started to address these barriers and capitalize on facilitators (e.g., transportation arrangements, discounted gym memberships, a fun workout environment, consistent programming routine, volunteers trained to be supportive and positive). Our participants have improved their health and wellbeing, which has translated into improvements in many aspects of their lives such as increased engagement in activities of daily living, general fitness preparation for the Special Olympics, and enhanced navigation of everyday social situations. In fact, after participation in an APEX program, one of our participants developed the skills and confidence to dine at a restaurant with her family for the first time in her life.  

APEX participant outcomes 

Participants in APEX programs are typically adults with IDD who receive services from Community Living Essex County. Student volunteers are trained and matched with these participants. APEX Group 2017_1 Volunteers lead participants through a 12-week program involving individualized exercise sessions that consist of a warm-up, cardiovascular training (e.g., stationary bike), whole-body strength training using weight machines and free weights, a sports and games component that provides an opportunity for unstructured play in a group setting, and a cool-down that includes static stretching. Sessions are 90 minutes long, and occur twice per week. In order to evaluate the efficacy of APEX programming for improving health in this population, we have collected and analyzed several fitness measures over the last decade. Data for progress tracking and research purposes were collected at the beginning, middle, and end of the program (e.g., strength, flexibility, heart rate, blood pressure). Several participants, support staff, volunteers, family members, and bystanders have also participated in research interviews to help us better understand their subjective experiences with our APEX programming. We have made many observations of participants showcasing the power of sport and physical activity for social change.  

Strength & conditioning 

In a previous APEX cohort (Carr et al., 2015, May), we observed meaningful increases in upper body strength (isometric elbow flexion), lower body strength (isometric knee extension), and flexibility (sit-and-reach test) among participants from pre- to post-program testing. Upper body strength increased by approximately 39%, lower body strength increased by approximately 13%, and flexibility increased by 55%. Resting heart rate and blood pressure did not demonstrate significant changes. Overall, it was apparent that an adapted strength and conditioning program for individuals with IDD has potential to yield practical health benefits for participants and is a worthwhile service option. 

Energy expenditure 

In another study (Tillich et al., 2018, April), data from our participants’ BodyMedia® SenseWear Armbands showed that more energy was used during unstructured sports and games and cardiovascular training than during strength training. Cardiovascular training was typically done on a stationary bike and sports and games included activities such as basketball, badminton, and Frisbee. These components of the program usually took place for 20-30 minutes, and proved to be accessible exercise options to achieve sufficient energy expenditure that may elicit health benefits. Unstructured sports and games, specifically, required minimal equipment, facilities, and expertise. Anecdotally, they were a fun and enjoyable social experience that supported free play, autonomy, and choice, which may increase physical activity adherence in this population. 

Motor skills 

Problems with movement skills, coordination, and dexterity are common in individuals with IDD. Such impairments may make it difficult to engage in activities of daily living, recreation, and employment. APEX Group 2017_3 In a previous APEX program (Azar et al., 2016), we incorporated fine motor dexterity training in a game-like atmosphere for a total of 20 minutes each session, in addition to the sports and games component that challenges gross motor skills and reaction time. Fine motor training was set up within an “obstacle course” which involved manipulating a variety of small objects such as picking up and sorting paper clips of different colours and threading a nut and bolt (e.g., run to a hula hoop and do 10 repetitions, then hop to a table with the nut and bolt apparatus). We used modified versions of the 25 Grooved Pegboard and Box and Block to measure fine and gross motor skills, and a Stick Catching Test to measure reaction time. Participants improved their fine and gross motor dexterity at retention testing compared to baseline. It is important to consider that there may have been practice effects (i.e., influences on test results when a test is taken more than once); however, we did design our study to try and limit such effects. We also noticed that participants had trouble executing the Stick Catching Test for reaction time, such that they did not react to the metre stick dropping, resulting in the stick falling through their hands to the floor. After the program, we tried using a foam cylinder as a more comfortable substitute to the metal metre stick, which participants seemed to prefer. We suggested that future research measuring reaction time among people with IDD try this approach or consider alternative means such as computerized testing (see Bested et al., in press). Overall, we concluded that policy and programs that encourage sport participation and motor skill development in IDD are worthwhile and may contribute to improved community integration and independence. 

APEX community outcomes 

Members of the community surrounding individuals with IDD are key players in participants’ physical activity experiences. This community is also an important target for social change with respect to attitudes and behaviours that are more inclusive to individuals with disability. We have conducted several interviews with bystanders, volunteers, and support workers associated with APEX programs to assess the capacity of our program for social change. 

Bystanders 

Since people with disabilities are less likely to partake in recreational activities if they perceive negative attitudes from others in the community (Choi, Johnson, & Kriewitz, 2013), we examined the impact of the APEX program on gym members (i.e., program bystanders). We found the APEX program positively influenced the attitudes of several bystanders regarding the integration of individuals with a disability in a fitness environment (McAllister et al., 2018). One participant emphasized the importance of exposure: 

“I think it would be great if more students could be exposed to it [the APEX program]… Not just people being involved in the research, but just being a bystander around it… The more people are exposed to those with disabilities, the more they’ll understand, the less likely they are to discriminate.” 

Another participant highlighted how exposure to APEX programs can serve as a source of motivation for bystanders during workouts: 

“When they [a gym bystander] would get a smile from one of your participants [with IDD] they would be in a better mood, so it was great. It was almost like a contagious thing.” 

Not only do participants benefit from exercise, but their participation is also providing a positive impact on other gym users. 

Volunteers 

APEX Participant & Volunteer

Participation in physical activity by individuals with IDD may challenge popular misconceptions about the abilities of individuals with IDD. We assessed the impact of volunteering as a personal fitness trainer for APEX programs and found the experience challenged volunteers’ pre-existing understandings of IDD. Volunteers also recognized the capacity of participants to learn new skills and complete activities that are typically set outside imaginable possibilities. For example, one volunteer stated: 

“We started on weight machines and that was cool to see that they could do that, another surprise too, that they could do free weights. They can do most things that people without autism can do.” 

We also found that volunteers felt the skills they acquired through the APEX program (e.g., patience, humility) would help foster an inclusive mindset in future career and volunteer endeavours, potentially creating a ripple effect in which reduced stigma toward IDD could shape a more inclusive community.  

Support workers 

APEX program participants were often accompanied by a personal support worker during programming. We were curious to solicit personal support workers’ perspectives of APEX programming (Carr et al., 2014, April). Support workers emphasized the importance of ensuring a consistent program structure and access to resources that are typically unavailable in the community (i.e., undergraduate student volunteers, facilities). Regarding consistency, support workers felt that physical activity would be most engaging for individuals with IDD when the order and type of activities provided is predictable and when consistent volunteers are available to provide familiarity for participants. Support workers also noted that APEX programming was successful for facilitating social interactions, building confidence, and providing unique and novel opportunities: 

“He’s definitely more social in all aspects of life now… We can definitely see that only happened since having this program… a lot of those skills were encouraged and developed [at the program]” 

Support workers perceived benefits as being derived through both participant-volunteer and participant-participant relationships. Ultimately, support workers recognized that APEX programs provided participant benefits that extended well beyond physical outcomes. 

Adapted sport policy implications 

Adapting exercise programming for individuals with IDD is a rewarding and worthwhile endeavor that is beneficial to participants, their community, and society. We strongly encourage policy to support adapted exercise programs for persons with IDD in community-based settings. These programs provide a wide range of benefits to both participants and broader community members. Participation in APEX programs bestows individuals with skills that are transferrable to social engagement and the workforce. Moreover, when community members are exposed to persons with disabilities, there tends to be a greater appreciation for their capabilities, thus resulting in greater acceptance (e.g., hiring practices) and a more inclusive society.  

APEX Group 2017_2

The APEX programs have also demonstrated the strength in community-academic partnerships and their opportunity for leveraging widespread benefits through cooperation. For a program the size and extent of ours to operate, we needed the services of support workers and administrators at Community Living Essex County, as well as cooperation from the University’s Recreation Department, particularly The Forge fitness staff and management (e.g., scheduling assistance and providing discounted memberships). From Community Living Essex County’s perspective, we were able to contribute a large number of student volunteers with education in human anatomy and exercise science. Funding allocated to similar collaborations in other locations could provide meaningful opportunities for both students and participants. 

We believe that tailoring adapted sport and physical activity will be particularly important in post-pandemic programming, especially given the difficulties this community has experienced during pandemic times, to the point of receiving national attention in major news outlets (e.g., Brown, May 9, 2020). Disruptions in routine along with a lack of programming necessitates both the rapid and safe return to sport and physical activity for individuals with IDD. 

Final note for persons with IDD 

Participating in an exercise program may improve your mental and physical health. When you exercise in a community gym, you may also have a positive impact on others around you by helping them better understand your capabilities. There are many ways to do exercise that is good for you, such as sports, lifting weights, and riding a bike. Support workers and volunteers will help start your fitness journey by helping you select safe and enjoyable activities.  

Recommended resources 

For support implementing a physical activity program for adults with IDD in your community, check out the APEX Exercise Manual for Adults with Developmental Disabilities and the accompanying exercise video catalogue

For a top 10 list of recommendations for creating a successful exercise program for individuals with IDD, check out this SIRC blog


Acknowledgement 

The APEX Research Group is very appreciative of Community Living Essex County and our funding sources for their partnership and support in facilitating the APEX program: Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion, Southern Network of Specialized Care, Kinesiology Research Seed Grant, UWindsor 2013 Strategic Priorities Fund, Developmental Disabilities Division Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, the Communities in Action Fund – Local Poverty Reduction Fund, Ontario Trillium Foundation Grow Grant, and Windsor Lancers Athletics and Recreation Department. The APEX Research Group is currently pursuing additional sources of funding to continue programming. Most importantly, we would like to thank participants, support staff, and families for their dedication and efforts. 

Community sport organizations (CSOs) occupy an important place in our communities by providing sport and recreation opportunities for all ages, as well as serving a wider social role within our communities (see, for example, Taking Action: Community Sport Organizations and Social Responsibility by Misener, 2018). Previous research has pointed to the challenges these organizations face, including growing demands for services, competition for resources, and greater accountability to stakeholders and funding partners (Musso et al., 2016; Nichols et al., 2015). These challenges are not unique to CSOs but are perhaps accentuated in Canadian sport context given the reliance on a volunteer workforce, modest budgets, and the relatively informal nature of their organizational structures (Doherty et al., 2014). Perhaps now, more than ever, with unique challenges and uncertainty introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a strategic approach to capacity building may be particularly useful (see recent “Return to Community Sport” commentary). This article introduces a model of capacity building, providing an approach for CSOs to address challenges and leverage strengths in order to achieve program and service delivery goals.

What’s involved in a strategic approach to capacity building?

Capacity building refers to developing an organization’s resources (e.g., human, financial, infrastructure, planning, external relationships) and improving its ability to use those resources to successfully respond to new or changing situations (Aref, 2011). Based on learnings from two case studies and 144 cases of capacity building in CSOs, and existing research in this area, we developed, and subsequently examined, a process model that provides a step-by-step roadmap for organizations engaging in capacity building (see figure below; Millar & Doherty, 2016). Within the Canadian sport context, we believe the use of a targeted approach to capacity building that addresses the unique strengths and challenges of individual organizations will be most effective.

Step 1 – Identify the reason for engaging in capacity building

Our findings revealed that successful capacity building begins when a stimulus is placed on an organization. Therefore, in order to begin the capacity building process with a clear vision and a strategic focus, CSOs should pay particular attention to the forces within their internal and external environments. These forces trigger the organization to determine an appropriate response – one that will address the nature of the specific force and that is reasonable for the organization to pursue. Together, the force and associated response represent the stimulus for capacity building. Capacity building in the CSOs involved in our research was most often triggered by decreasing club membership, new programming demands, or conflict with club partners. In response to these forces, CSOs chose a range of strategic responses, such as introducing new programs or initiatives to attract members, targeting recruitment efforts, altering registration fees, and introducing recruitment and training initiatives for volunteers, coaches, and board members. Clearly understanding the stimulus that drives capacity building will ensure CSOs invest their time and energy effectively.

Tip: Organizations do not (and should not) engage in capacity building efforts simply for the sake of doing so – there should be some external or internal force that requires a response from the organization.

Step 2 – Conduct a thorough capacity assessment and identify capacity building objectives

Whether or not an organization responds to an environmental force depends on its capacity to do so. The particular capacity needs associated with a given stimulus will vary depending on the current state of the organization. For instance, a CSO experiencing decreasing membership may choose to respond by introducing a membership development program. The organization would then assess its current capacity to move forward with this initiative, identifying any capacity needs or assets that may hinder or facilitate that action. Capacity needs or assets may be related to the organization’s human resources (e.g., number of volunteers, certified coaches, level of expertise among executive members), financial resources (e.g., available funds, stability of revenue sources), existing relationships (e.g., quality of partnerships), planning (e.g., alignment with strategic plan), or existing infrastructure (e.g., access to facility space, equipment) (Doherty et al., 2014; Hall et al., 2003). If no capacity gaps exist, then the club moves forward with the proposed response (in this case, the membership development program). However, if gaps are present, the extent and nature of those capacity needs become the basis for the organization’s capacity building objectives. This is a critical step in ensuring that the capacity building process will address the specific needs of the organization – if the objectives are not clear and specific, capacity building efforts are likely to lack focus and, ultimately, be unsuccessful.

Step 3 – Select strategies that align with capacity building objectives

It is important for organizations to choose capacity building strategies that align with their specific capacity needs. An organization may identify a number of potential strategies to address its capacity building objectives, whether those strategies are internal (e.g., re-allocating existing funds, recruiting coaches from existing membership) or external (e.g., applying for government funding, recruiting new volunteers, enrolling in workforce training) to the organization. Young afro american businessman pointing at white blackboard and explaining new project to his colleagues while working together in the creative office. Teamwork. Presentation Our findings revealed that a key difference between the successful and unsuccessful cases of capacity building were the specific strategies chosen by each organization. Successful capacity building efforts often considered new and untried alternatives that were supported by members, aligned with the organization’s priorities, and were inline with what the CSOs had the capacity to pursue. In contrast, unsuccessful efforts often relied on those strategies that were “easiest and cheapest to do” and, as a result, failed to effectively address the identified capacity gaps. Capacity building strategies are only as strong as the planning that precedes their implementation (Cornforth & Mordaunt, 2011).

Step 4 – Consider whether your organization is ready to engage in capacity building

Effective capacity building relies on overall readiness to engage in those efforts. Our research showed that readiness is based on three factors;

  1. Organizational readiness – the degree to which board members and volunteers are willing, able, and motivated to support capacity building;
  2. Congruence – the alignment of capacity building objectives and strategies with existing organizational processes, systems, and day-to-day operations; and
  3. Existing capacity – the availability of existing capacity that can be leveraged to support and sustain capacity building efforts.

We found that the willingness and commitment of individuals within the successful case study was a key factor leading to that success; while animosity, lack of commitment from organizational members, and general disinterest in the capacity building efforts were key factors in the capacity building “failure” witnessed in the unsuccessful case study. Our findings also showed that congruence in the context of capacity building can be understood in two ways – at the micro-level, where day-to-day operations align with the workload involved with capacity building; and at the macro-level, where the club’s objectives, values, and mandates align with the capacity building efforts undertaken.

Our study of 144 cases of capacity building in CSOs across Ontario examined how ready they were for capacity building, and whether that level of readiness had an impact on the outcomes of those efforts (Millar & Doherty, 2020). Three key findings emerged:

Organizational context logoCSOs were most ready for capacity building in terms of the alignment of those efforts with existing club objectives, mandates, and values. Clubs are engaging in capacity building efforts that are congruent with their unique organizational contexts.

Capacity building logoCSOs were ready for capacity building in terms of having willing, committed, and motivated organizational members to drive the efforts forward. Clubs are relying on the willingness and commitment of their members (volunteers and board members) to drive capacity building efforts forward.

Organizational resources logoCSOs were least ready for capacity building in terms of having existing resources and assets that could be used to facilitate those efforts. Existing capacity also had a unique impact on capacity building outcomes, meaning that the resources an organization possesses are particularly critical in ensuring successful capacity building.

Capacity building efforts should only be undertaken when they align with the organization’s mission and existing operations, and when the organization can rely on existing resources to support those efforts. Any incongruence or overstretching of organizational resources will likely result in unsuccessful attempts at building capacity or will leave the organization in a less desirable position in the end. Our results showed that the more ready an organization is to engage in capacity building (across all three factors), the more likely they are to achieve their desired capacity building outcomes. In other words, organizations with willing and motivated people, who embark on capacity building initiatives that fit with how the organization operates, and who have resources that they can lean on, are more likely to be successful in their efforts to build capacity and to successfully address the needs of their organization.

Step 5 – Evaluate the short and long-term outcomes of capacity building

Successful capacity building results in both immediate and long-term changes to an organization’s capacity that ultimately contribute to program and service delivery. Whether an organization experiences the desired short and long-term outcomes depends on whether the above steps are followed in a strategic manner. In addition to assessing the impact of capacity building efforts, the attainment of capacity building goals, and addressing the initial environmental force, evaluation of capacity building outcomes is also likely to uncover additional capacity needs and may trigger a reassessment of the organization’s readiness to engage in the capacity building efforts, as depicted by the feedback loop in Figure A (above).  

Capacity building during times of change

This articles summarizes our research findings to provide a step-by-step process for CSOs as they engage in capacity building, which may be particularly timely as sport organizations across the country navigate the new sport realities that we are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As sport resumes across the country, and with the risk of future lockdowns, organizations will be facing new challenges and pressures from their environment that require capacity building in one way or another. The approach and insights outlined here provide a framework for organizations as they work to balance, address, and prioritize capacity building efforts, and to determine whether they are ready to engage in those efforts prior to doing so.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

For any organization, the ability to demonstrate impact — to funders, board members, and other stakeholders — is crucial. Demonstrating the value of an organization, project, or service is important to access financial support, engage stakeholders, and achieve organizational objectives (Fedorciow, 2012). Within the Canadian sport system, sport administrators are increasingly required to design and evaluate initiatives (e.g. new resources, programs and policies) in a way that determines if the right people know about them, if they work, and if they are being used in an appropriate manner — all while advancing the organization’s mission and objectives (Lawrason et al., 2020).

One tool that offers insight into the processes and outcomes that contribute to long-term impact is the RE-AIM Framework (Glasgow, Voigt & Boles, 1999). To help sport administrators develop an evaluation plan to assess the impact of new or ongoing initiatives, this article introduces the Framework, and provides two “real-world” examples of how it has been used to evaluate impact in the Canadian sport sector.

The RE-AIM Framework

RE-AIM was originally developed to evaluate public health interventions, such as community-based physical activity programs (e.g., Estabrooks, Bradshaw, Dzewaltowski, & Smith-Ray, 2008). More recently, it has attracted the attention of sport-related researchers because it provides a systematic approach for capturing and organizing the information needed to evaluate an initiative’s impact across multiple levels of the sport system.

For an initiative to have impact, it needs to be implemented and sustained in a way that produces the desired outcomes for its target population in the long-term (Glasgow et al., 1999). RE-AIM is an acronym for five key dimensions of impact — reach, effectiveness, adoption, implementation, and maintenance. As a sport administrator, consideration of these five dimensions can provide you with a starting point for WHAT to evaluate when assessing impact.

RE-AIM Dimension Definition Example
Reach The number, proportion and representativeness of people in the target population who engage in, receive or are affected by the initiative. The number of NSO administrators that have registered for a workshop on concussion policy, and the percentage of all NSOs represented.
Effectiveness The positive and negative outcomes that result from the initiative. Participants in a communications webinar complete an audience poll before and after the webinar to assess changes in their level of confidence when engaging in stakeholder communications.
Adoption The number, proportion and representativeness of possible settings and staff that are participating in the initiative. The total number and percentage of all community sport organizations (in a particular sport) that have developed LTAD plans based on guidance from their NSO.
Implementation The cost and extent to which the initiative was delivered as planned. The number of planned versus actual workshops delivered as part of a regional coach engagement strategy.
Maintenance The extent to which the initiative is sustained over time, which includes an assessment of participant outcomes and organizational delivery beyond six months. An annual survey sent to current and past participants of a sport for development program to assess participation in and outcomes of the program over time.

Developing an Evaluation Plan using RE-AIM

While the RE-AIM dimensions offer a tool for identifying WHAT you need to evaluate to assess impact, your RE-AIM evaluation plan should also consider WHO you need to engage in the evaluation (e.g., which stakeholders and/or levels of the sport system are implicated in or affected by your initiative?) and HOW the evaluation will be conducted (e.g., What capacity does your organization have for evaluation? What information/data exists or what data do you need to generate?).

WHO? RE-AIM is a practical tool for the sport system because of its ability to accommodate evaluation across multiple levels of administration and stakeholder groups (Evans, McGuckin, Gainforth, Bruner, & Côté, 2015; Finch & Donaldson, 2010; Lawrason et al., 2020) — from athletes, parents, coaches and administrators at the grassroots level to national and international sport organizations. For example, if a national sport organization is interested in evaluating the impact of a new gender equity policy that would affect the coaching staff of clubs and teams at all levels of the sport, the evaluation should likely include the national team, provincial/territorial teams, and community sport clubs or teams. Alternatively, if a community sport club is interested in evaluating its new youth program, the perspectives of program participants, their parents, and their coaches are needed. 

HOW? Another important consideration is the extent to which an organization can leverage existing data to inform the design and evaluation of an initiative (e.g., registration information, feedback forms, social media analytics), and whether or not new data needs to be collected (Evans et al., 2015). Capacity for evaluation can be limited by a number of factors, including the availability and expertise of partners and staff, time, and financial resources (e.g., Millar & Doherty, 2018). For this reason, access to existing data may be the most pragmatic option for some organizations (Lawrason et al., 2020).

What follows are two examples of how the RE-AIM Framework was used to evaluate two initiatives: (1) The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) True Sport initiative, and (2) Ringette Canada’s guidelines for structuring Children’s Ringette. Knowing that capacity is a significant consideration for many sport organizations, these two examples were chosen, in part, because of their difference in HOW the evaluation was conducted.

Leveraging existing data: A RE-AIM evaluation of True Sport

The CCES is a registered charity and multisport service organization that runs the True Sport initiative through truesportpur.ca to promote value-based sport for Canadians. True Sport relies on its website as the primary delivery mechanism for achieving its objective of promoting values-based sport, which is conceptualized through seven principles for positive sport participation (see truesportpur.ca/true-sport-principles). Canadians interested in the promotion of positive sport can register as a True Sport Member through various member-types (e.g., communities, teams, citizens) free of charge, giving them access to resources and updates via email distribution.

To evaluate the impact of the website through which True Sport is administered, True Sport staff worked collaboratively with a group of researchers at Queen’s University. The decision to use the RE-AIM Framework was based on two main factors: (1) RE-AIM can be adapted to assess multiple end-user outcomes (e.g., athlete, coach, administrator; Finch & Donaldson, 2010), and (2) the RE-AIM dimensions provide administrators with an understanding of how and where to intervene in the initiative to improve end-user outcomes. Of note, a detailed description of this project is published in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action (see Lawrason et al., 2020).

The first step of the evaluation involved a comprehensive review of the True Sport website to map the objectives of the True Sport initiative onto the RE-AIM dimensions. The types of data that were either publicly available (e.g., Canadian population statistics) or internally collected (e.g., number of visitors to the True Sport website) were then identified. Through discussions between True Sport staff and the research team, a template was developed to categorize and analyze existing data relative to the RE-AIM dimensions. Based on the available data, it was decided to focus the impact evaluation on reach and adoption as sufficient data were not available for the effectiveness, implementation, and maintenance dimensions.

Based primarily on website analytics, several indicators of reach were available. These included the number and demographics (e.g. age, gender) of visitors to the True Sport website, and the type and number of resources downloaded from the website. Website analytics were also the dominant source of data for adoption, which included the total number of True Sport members in Canada. Adoption was further broken down based on member type (e.g., citizen, organization, facility, community) and geographic location (i.e., province or territory). When possible, Canadian population statistics were used to calculate reach and adoption indicators as a proportion of the broader target population (e.g., the number of True Sport members as a proportion of all possible members in the Canadian population).

Takeaway: The fact that data was readily available only for indicators of reach and adoption shows that while existing data can be leveraged for evaluations, there are likely to be gaps. A focus on these gaps, however, provides an important place to start if opportunities (and resources) for new data collection arise.

Collecting new data: A RE-AIM evaluation of small-area games in children’s ringette

In 2019, Ringette Canada introduced guidelines for structuring its new children’s ringette program. The guidelines recommend a shift toward small-area games — such as half-ice or cross-ice — for children in the FUNdamentals and early Learn to Train stages of development (e.g. under the age of 10). Although evidence from other sports suggest that small-area games provide benefits for player development (e.g., Aguiar, Botelho, Lago, Maças, & Sampaio, 2012; USA Hockey, 2019), the guidelines were met with pushback from some members of the ringette community.

With funding from a SIRC Researcher-Practitioner Match Grant and a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant, Ringette Canada is partnering with researchers at York University and Queen’s University to evaluate the impact of the guidelines and the practice of small-area games at the provincial, community and participant levels. A young Ringette player throws the ring. The goal of this research is to provide the first ringette-specific evidence for the benefits of small-area games, while also assessing the uptake of Ringette Canada’s new guidelines across Canada. The RE-AIM Framework was selected for this project because it provides a comprehensive assessment of process- and outcome-related indicators of impact across multiple levels of the sport system that will allow for evidence-informed updates to the content and dissemination of the guidelines in the future.

Phases 1 and 2 of the evaluation targeted the provincial and community levels. In Phase 1, technical directors in all provincial ringette associations were interviewed. In Phase 2, administrators in community ringette associations across Canada were asked to complete an online survey. Although different methods were used to collect the data, the questions asked in the interviews and surveys corresponded to the same set of RE-AIM indicators. Examples of the questions include:

While Phases 1 and 2 are complete, Phase 3 is currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Phase 3 will evaluate the effectiveness of small-area games with respect to player’s physical (e.g., passing, shooting, skating) and psychosocial (e.g., enjoyment, quality of peer interactions) development. To do so, games from two matched samples of children’s ringette participants — one group playing small-area games and one group playing full-ice games — will be video-recorded, analyzed and compared on measures of player development.

Takeaway: Collecting data from multiple sources helps to improve the quality of the dataset and provides insight into areas of alignment or disconnect from the perspectives of stakeholders. New data also allows for an evaluation to be tailored and expanded in line with the needs and objectives of the organization. The trade-off is that new data often requires time and resources (e.g., human, financial) to collect. Nonetheless, a number of simple and easy-to-use tools exist to help collect meaningful data — ranging from online surveys, feedback forms, and interactive software (e.g., mentimeter) to in-person or phone check-ins with relevant staff members or stakeholders. Partnerships between researchers and practitioners can leverage resources, skills and expertise that benefit everyone involved.

Tips for implementing the RE-AIM Framework

RE-AIM provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the benefits, challenges, and complexities of implementing programs, policies, and other initiatives in the “real world” context of the Canadian sport system. It also provides a useful tool for the design and evalution of initatives with impact. Nonetheless, for a RE-AIM evaluation to produce meaningful and impactful data, careful planning and forethought are necessary. To increase the likelihood of a successful evaluation, consider the following questions before getting started: 

Answering these questions will contribute to a well-designed evaluation that demonstrates the impact of organizational initiatives, while capturing valuable information for future plans and improvements.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and McLaren Global Sport Solutions Inc. (MGSS) hosted the first-ever Symposium in Canada addressing the issues of match manipulation and gambling in sport in 2019. Following the Symposium, a White Paper was produced by CCES and MGSS titled “Match Manipulation and Gambling: A Growing Threat to Canadian Sport Integrity.” This article presents key highlights of the White Paper. Download the full version here.

If you had to guess, how much money do you think is wagered on sporting events globally over a one-year period? How much do you think is wagered yearly on sporting events in Canada? How much do you think is wagered on a single Canadian Football League game? You may find the answers surprising, if not staggering.

An estimated $2 trillion dollars is wagered each year around the world (The Economist, 2018). On events held in Canada, an estimated $20 billion (Hartman et al., 2016). According to Sportradar, a leading sports data, betting and integrity service provider, a single CFL game can generate $4 million in wagers worldwide..

Sports gambling is a massive global industry attracting trillions of dollars annually, and permeating essentially every sport at all levels, from the Super Bowl to the former Canadian Soccer League. Given technological developments in the tracking of sport analytics, opportunities for new revenue sources associated with selling this data for gambling purposes, and the opening up of legal betting markets around the world, particularly in the United States, the volume of sport gambling is likely to continue to rise.

Of the trillions of dollars wagered worldwide, 85% is currently in the form of illegal betting in unregulated markets, so it should come as no surprise that criminal networks are taking advantage of the opportunity (The Economist, 2018). Match manipulation, or match fixing, often goes hand in hand with gambling. Match manipulation is a deliberate and coordinated effort to influence elements of a sporting contest – which may include the outcome of an event or specific elements within it. What better way to stack the odds in your favour when there are potentially thousands of dollars – or more – on the line? There are, however, serious repercussions to match manipulation.

In Canada, match manipulation has garnered very little attention. So why should the Canadian sport community be concerned? What are other countries and sport federations doing? What should Canada do?

2019 International Symposium on Match Manipulation and Gambling

The questions above were the focus of the Symposium on Match Manipulation and Gambling in Sport hosted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and McLaren Global Sport Solutions Inc. (MGSS) in April 2019 in Toronto. The Symposium brought together industry experts from gambling and sport to raise awareness of the issue amongst key stakeholders, including amateur and professional sport organizations, athletes, government agencies, law enforcement, gambling industry representatives, researchers, and the legal community.

The White Paper produced in the wake of the Symposium summarizes the growing issue of match manipulation and gambling and its relevance to sport in Canada at both the amateur and professional levels; provides an overview of what other countries are doing in response to the growing threat of match manipulation; and summarizes the recommendations to mitigate the potential for match manipulation in Canada proposed by experts and delegates at the close of the Symposium.

Why should the Canadian sport community be concerned? Sport gambling poses a very real and very serious threat to the integrity of Canadian sport and the safety of Canadian sport participants. And we’re not taking it seriously.

The threat of match manipulation

The main threat to both sport integrity, and athlete and sport participant safety, posed by sport gambling is match manipulation.

As defined above, match fixing involves the deliberate and coordinated effort to influence the outcome of or elements within a sporting contest. This typically involves a player, game official, coach or other staff official who has been compromised through the influence of another party. This influence comes in the form of financial bribes, as well as physical or other threats from those who knowingly bet on fixed matches and benefit financially, or other legal bettors who may suffer financial losses. Manipulation of elements within sporting events can facilitate proposition (“prop”) bets, whereby the bet is whether or not something will happen within the event. For example, will a sports team score more or less than 100 points in a game, or will a certain athlete rush for more or less than 100 yards in a football game?

In the case of a manipulated competition, certain individuals will typically wager unusually large sums on a particular outcome of or within the event in question with prior knowledge of corrupt actions taken to ensure the desired outcome.

Canada is not immune. Canada Soccer cut ties with the Canadian Soccer League in 2013 after rampant match fixing was discovered. In May 2019 CCES commissioned Sportradar to undertake an analysis of sports in Canada in order to assess risks related to match manipulation. Of the 15 sports examined, several were identified as being at high risk for match manipulation.

Amateur athletes, as well as professional athletes who earn low incomes, are particularly vulnerable to the threat of match fixing. And these threats extend to athletes in Canada. In the majority of cases, athletes are the victims of match fixers who study their habits and vulnerabilities and then attempt to develop relationships in order to exploit these vulnerabilities (The Economist, 2018). The issue is most acute amongst lower tier leagues and events where athletes earn less money and are more vulnerable to bribes. In such cases, “match fixers are most successful when the chances arise to gamble on one of the world’s fringe leagues away from the spotlight” (Rainbow, 2012).

For example, an athlete may be targeted by a fixer – someone who develops a relationship and “helps” them – through different types of influences or exchanges. These might include paying for dinner at a restaurant; providing gifts like an upgraded cell phone; offering a certain lifestyle through VIP access to clubs; quicker access to a medical service such as an MRI appointment; procuring illicit drugs; or providing financial assistance by paying a bill. Over time, the fixer may ask an athlete for a seemingly innocuous favour such as information about a team’s strategy or team injuries. Eventually, the fixer uses this as leverage to compel an athlete to go along with a fix for fear of otherwise being exposed for doing something wrong. And once the athlete is compromised, the fixer has them in their grasp.

Athletes in such a situation face risks to their mental well-being; reputational damage if their involvement is discovered; intimidation or retaliation, through physical threats to themselves or family members; and loss of career which could lead to financial hardships.

What are other countries and sport federations doing? Much more than Canada.

International action to address match manipulation

Rapid changes in technology, growing popularity of on-line gambling platforms, and ground-breaking legislative changes regarding gambling in the United States underscore the real and growing threat of match manipulation in Canada. Canada, however, is ill equipped to deal with this issue due to a combination of antiquated policies, non-specific legal frameworks, and low priority for government. While Canada is lagging far behind in this area, there are many examples of governmental and international sport federations who are actively addressing match manipulation and for which information is in the public domain. Canada can learn and benefit from the following approaches and best practices:

The Council of Europe Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions (the Macolin Convention): The Macolin Convention is a multi-lateral treaty that aims to prevent, detect and punish match fixing in sport. The Macolin Convention is a legal instrument and the only rule of international law on the manipulation of sports competitions. The Convention is open for signature and ratification by members States and Observers of the Council of Europe, by non-member States which have participated in its elaboration, and by any other State upon invitation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. As of June 2020, it has 38 state signatories and has been ratified by seven countries (click here for the list). Canada is not a signatory.

The Review of Australia’s Sports Integrity Arrangements (Wood Review): The Wood Review was undertaken as part of the Government of Australia’s National Sport Plan. The purpose of the Review was to “examine national and international integrity threats and future challenges, including the rise of illegal offshore wagering, match fixing and doping in sport.” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2018). The Review also was tasked to consider “the merits of establishing a dedicated national sports integrity commission.”

Growing threats to the integrity of sport in Australia from doping, illegal wagering, match fixing and the influence of organized crime was the impetus for the Wood Review. According to the Report of the Review of Australia’s Sports Integrity Arrangements, “Without the presence of a comprehensive, effective and nationally coordinated response capability, the hard-earned reputation of sport in this country risks being tarnished, along with a potential reduction in participation rates and a diminution in the social, cultural and economic value of Australia’s significant investment in sport.” 

Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU): Established in 2008, the TIU is widely regarded as one of the best models of anti-corruption governance in a sport. It was established following the acceptance of recommendations from the Environmental Review of Tennis. An independent anti-corruption body responsible for the enforcement of rules related to betting-related corruption in professional tennis, the TIU has three priorities: preventing corruption from occurring; investigating and prosecuting offenders; and delivering anti-corruption education for players and stakeholders focused on the recognition and reporting of corrupt activity.

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF): Match fixing is governed by the IIHF Code of Conduct, which states: “Rule 3 (Manipulation of Competitions) is adopted as a means of safeguarding the integrity of ice/inline hockey by (i) prohibiting any conduct that may impact improperly on the outcome of ice/inline hockey events and competitions and (ii) establishing a mechanism of enforcement and sanction for those who, through their prohibited conduct, place the integrity of ice/inline hockey at risk” (IIHF, 2018). In 2014 the IIHF entered into a partnership arrangement with Sportradar to monitor three of the IIHF’s flagship tournaments and deliver education and training to players, officials, administrators and coaches. The IIHF now has an expansive monitoring program that covers 18 championships and events organized in three tiers.

What can Canada do? Proactively establish a Federal Commission to examine the issue.

Addressing match manipulation in Canada

Declan Hill, one of the world’s foremost experts on match-fixing and corruption in international sports, asserted in 2013 that “a wave of corruption is lapping at the doors of North American sports” (Hill, 2016a), an assertion that holds true in Canada through the example of the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) where rampant match fixing was revealed. In 2012, CBC’s The National broke a story alleging that a player in the league accepted a bribe to fix a match in 2009. This was just the tip of the iceberg, and it was eventually revealed that the entire CSL was affected, including the manipulation of as many as 42% of games in the league (Rumsby, 2015). International media attention at the time led to increased scrutiny and investigative efforts which cast a long shadow over Canadian soccer.

Despite proven match fixing in Canadian soccer, the Government of Canada has taken limited action to address this growing issue. The crux of the problem? According to Hill, “Match-fixing suspicions surrounding the CSL have been allowed to fester by a combination of lax laws and official indifference. This open door to sports corruption is linked to the globalization of gambling. Soccer games in countries like Canada, even low-level ones with barely any fans, are bet on thousands of kilometres away, making professional fixers tens of millions dollars. It has been going on for years and, in this country, no one seems willing or able to stop it” (Hill, 2016b).

Canada is limited in its ability to prosecute match fixing because there are no specific provisions in the Criminal Code that prevent such activity. A private Members bill has been introduced to the House of Commons to legalize single event sport gambling (and thus regulate it and be able to deal with criminal activity associated with it) on three occasions – but it has never been passed.

Delegates and experts from the Symposium proposed the following recommendations as a way forward for the Canadian sport community:

  1. Establish a Federal Commission to examine the issue of match manipulation in Canadian Sport and to provide recommendations for action.
  2. Become a signatory to the Macolin Convention.
  3. Undertake a review of relevant sections of the Canadian Criminal Code, including amendments to address the prosecution of corrupt practices focused specifically on match manipulation in Canadian sport.
  4. Enhance efforts to educate and inform athletes, coaches, officials, and sport organizations about the risks associated with match fixing in sport.
  5. Create an independent Sport Integrity Unit in Canada.

Beyond the White Paper

It has now been over a year since the CCES and MGSS hosted the Symposium on Match Manipulation and Gambling in Sport, and more than nine months since the release of the White Paper summarized above.

On the global front, we’ve seen examples of strong leadership. For example, the Australian Government announced the Chief Executive Officer for Sport Integrity Australia (SIA), a new agency born from recommendations in the Wood Review that began operations on July 1, 2020. SIA will assume responsibility for some of the current functions of Sport Australia and will be responsible for examining the issue of organized crime in sport.

Unfortunately, in Canada, there continues to be a disappointing lack of interest and activity to address this issue. Despite the known risk to the safety of our athletes, the best practices available, an international governmental convention that is open for ratification to all countries around the world and that many countries have endorsed, Canadian sport continues to be taking a “wait and see” approach. 

On February 25, 2020, a private Members’ bill was introduced (for a fourth time) into the Canadian House of Commons to amend the criminal code to allow for single event sports betting in Canada. Bill C-218 can be found here. The sport community should use the introduction of this bill as an impetus to seek governmental support to implement the recommendations outlined above.

If Canada is serious about maintaining the integrity of Canadian sport and protecting the health and safety of our athletes, then we can no longer afford to be complacent in our response to gambling and match manipulation in sport.

For many Canadian sport administrators, a global pandemic seemed the stuff of history books or science fiction movies. However, in March 2020, with COVID-19 sweeping the globe, a number of major sport events were cancelled in Canada. This article shares the experiences and lessons learned from the 2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society, Skate Canada and Volleyball Canada.

March 7, 2020 – 101,927 confirmed COVID-19 cases globally; 51 confirmed cases in Canada (WHO Situation Reports)

2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society – Arctic Winter Games, Whitehorse YT

The 2020 Arctic Winter Games were scheduled for March 15-21, 2020 in Whitehorse, Yukon, marking the 50th anniversary of the Games. Preparing to welcome 2,000 athletes plus staff and volunteers from delegations across the circumpolar region (Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia; in addition to Nunavik, Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Alberta, Yukon and Alaska), briefings with the Yukon’s acting Chief Medical Officer (CMO) relating to COVID-19 began in February. Questions from the CMO’s office slowly escalated, from standard public health protocols in early February; to details about the delegations and sleeping arrangements in mid-February; to inquiries about specific travel routes through international airport hubs in early March. Moira Lassen, General Manager of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society, recalls the unexpected conversations amongst staff and volunteers, including an emergency hand sanitizer meeting when only 6 of 75 jugs were delivered. “I remember thinking, ‘this is getting weird.’ But even then, we were confident that we had the necessary precautions in place.” 

Late morning on March 7th, Lassen was called to a meeting at the office of the Minister of Community Services – the CMO was recommending the Games be cancelled. After discussion about the health considerations, the consequences of cancellation and key communication messages, the decision was clear. By midday, the Host Society, with the support of the Yukon government and the City of Whitehorse, officially announced the 2020 Arctic Winter Games had been cancelled following a recommendation from Yukon’s acting Chief Medical Officer of Health.

At the time, some criticized the decision. There were no COVID-19 cases in Canada’s territories, minimal cases in the circumpolar region, and no athletes from any delegations had tested positive for the virus (although one did test positive on day the Games were to open). As the situation worsened, and with the declaration of the outbreak a pandemic, the decision to cancel the event was applauded.

March 11, 2020 – 118,319 confirmed cases globally; 93 confirmed cases in Canada (Pandemic declared by the World Health Organization)

Skate Canada – ISU World Figure Skating Championships, Montreal QC

On March 11th, Debra Armstrong, CEO of Skate Canada, received a phone call giving her seven minutes notice before the Government of Quebec would announce the cancellation of the International Skating Union (ISU) World Figure Skating Championships scheduled for March 16-22, 2020 in Montreal, Quebec.

Preparing to host the 200 best figure skaters from 50 countries for the World Championships, and with Canadian athletes and staff travelling to international events, Skate Canada had been monitoring the COVID-19 situation. As the Montreal event drew closer, and concern over the spread of the virus increased, Skate Canada worked with the ISU to create and refine a COVID-19 plan to manage and monitor the health risks for 400 athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers through multifaceted protocols involving temperature checks, hand washing stations, and isolation rooms.

What Skate Canada could not control were the thousands of spectators expected throughout the week. Millions of dollars in tickets had been sold for the event, with spectators expected from around the world, including an estimated 25% of ticket purchases from China, Korea and Japan. While Skate Canada and the ISU could impose safety protocols on athletes, their entourages, staff and volunteers; they did not control the facility so could not control spectators. The Government of Quebec had been discussing the risks associated mass gatherings for a few weeks, and the ISU World Championships were by far the biggest event to be held in the province. In the end, public health officials made the ultimate decision to cancel the event.

March 24, 2020 – 372,755 confirmed cases globally; 1,432 confirmed cases in Canada

Volleyball Canada – 2020 Nationals, Edmonton AB

Volleyball Canada’s Nationals event, which would have brought 10,000 athletes to Edmonton, Alberta,  for U15, U16, U17 and U18 events on May 10-20, 2020, was cancelled on March 24, 2020. Concurrent events in Halifax, Ottawa and Abbotsford were also cancelled. What surprised CEO Mark Eckert was how quickly the pandemic situation changed. “In early March our gaze was focused internationally – concerned with how to get Canadian athletes who were training and competing abroad home safely. Conversations at that time with Edmonton Public Health focused on risk mitigation – handwashing, signage, and spectator guidance. Within days, restrictions were in place and we were forced to consider a new reality.”

Initially, Volleyball Canada had set April 13th as their deadline to make a decision about whether or not they would proceed with hosting Nationals. However, with other domestic events being cancelled, Eckert said it would have been careless to delay the decision any longer. Volleyball Canada’s announcement on March 24, 2020 was made shortly after the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees announced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Edmonton Expo Centre, where 55 volleyball courts were planned to host the Nationals event, was repurposed as a temporary health centre to help vulnerable people through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were incredibly prepared; and we weren’t ready at all.”

Event cancellation because of a global pandemic was admittedly something these three sport leaders had not imagined. When asked about her overall experience of the cancellation, Armstrong said she was of two minds. On one hand, the Skate Canada team learned how incredibly prepared they were. Efficient project management processes meant they were able to adjust as early public health measures were suggested. Once the cancellation decision was made, staff knew where every contract was, every line item, and who they needed to talk to. Their three-year communication plan included crisis communication protocols with holding statements and clear guidance on who needed to be notified, in what order and by who. Strong financial and project management meant event files where closed in May 2020, whereas other organizations might take a year or more to wrap things up. On the other hand, Armstrong reflects they weren’t ready at all – “In a million years we wouldn’t have predicted this.”

The cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games and ISU World Championships required immediate action from the host committees. Partners, suppliers, funders, sponsors and staff needed to be informed. With the imminent arrival of athletes, both organizations needed to work with other sport organizations to ensure no one boarded planes to Canada and wound up stranded if international travel was restricted. One international volunteer for the Arctic Winter Games saw the cancellation announcement upon arrival at Vancouver International Airport, and immediately changed her travel plans to return to the United Kingdom on the next flight.

Unlike Skate Canada and the Arctic Winter Games Host Society, whose events were shut down with little notice by health authorities, Volleyball Canada took the lead in the decision to cancel Nationals. Internally the decision was made on Thursday, March 19, 2020; the public announcement was made on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. This gave Volleyball Canada time to work with staff, partners and key stakeholders to consider logistics and craft their communication messages. “We didn’t want any partners to hear about the event cancellation through a press release,” said Eckert. “Taking the time to meet with partners and engage them in the decision-making helped ensure they were on board to support the necessary short-term actions, but also long-term plans for rescheduling and return to play.” The extra time also allowed Volleyball Canada to coordinate cancellation announcements with their provincial associations, helping to manage any negative feedback.

The financial impacts of cancellation

From a CEO perspective, the immediate financial implications of the cancelled events were perhaps the most stressful. Each event involved dozens of contracts worth millions of dollars. With less than one week to go until the start of their events, some of the contracts associated with both the Arctic Winter Games and the ISU World Championships had already been delivered, including merchandise and decorations. These costs were sunk, and with dates included on everything, the items were not considered reusable. Something that helped all three organizations was a force majeure clause in many contracts, which frees parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties prevents the fulfillment of contractual obligations. Overall, Volleyball Canada reported a net income loss close to $1M and Skate Canada $1.035M. The Arctic Winter Games Host Society had cancellation costs of approximately $710K.

For Volleyball Canada, strong partnerships and communication practices were a key factor in limiting the financial impact of Nationals cancellation. For example, travel partners waived attrition clauses for the 24,000 rooms reserved for the event; others were willing to either take on part of the costs or move money forward for future events. Eckert said, “Our strong relationships meant partners were invested in a successful event. Involving them in decision-making relating to the cancellation invested them in a new way.” With only three cities able to host a volleyball tournament of such scale, local partners could be confident the event would soon return.

Lost legacies

For all three organizations the event cancellations represent significant opportunities lost. Both Skate Canada and Volleyball Canada rely on event revenues to support athlete, coach, official and infrastructure development for years to come. The legacy plan from the Arctic Winter Games was similarly designed to deliver benefits throughout Yukon. It would be difficult to recreate that legacy without hosting another event. 

The cancellations also had economic impacts in the host communities. The three events would have brought significant tourism revenue. Skate Canada and the Arctic Winter Games Host Society spoke about the missed opportunity to host the world, highlighting the best of our country and supporting local hotels, restaurants and shops.

After cancellation, the Arctic Winter Games Host Society faced a decommissioning task quite unlike that of Skate Canada or Volleyball Canada. With limited storage space available, the Host Society had to make arrangements to gift, sell, recycle or dispose of a wide variety of materials, from office equipment, to merchandise, to bunkbeds and sleeping bags for the expected 2,000 athletes. The gifting of materials aligned with the legacy plan for the Games, informing decisions that would benefit Yukon as a whole. Teams were given the choice of having Games swag shipped at their own cost and proceeds from anything sold were invested into the legacy fund for the next Arctic Winter Games in Yukon.

The cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games also meant that initiatives introduced by the Host Society to make the event more inclusive than ever before were not fully experienced. These historical firsts included a Reconciliation Action Plan focusing on Yukon First Nations; gender neutral bathrooms and shower spaces; and the first Arctic Winter Games Pride House. These initiatives were included in the Host Society’s final report and recommendations to the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, and will be shared with the next host society as part of transfer of knowledge processes. Lassen hopes the initiatives will be part of the 2020 Games’ legacy.

Dashed dreams and missed opportunities

The event cancellations were devastating for the athletes. Within the international figure skating community, the ISU World Championships were to be the event of the year – the culmination of athletes’ training and competition, and for many an important step in qualifying for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Skate Canada met with Team Canada athletes prior to the cancelation to talk about the status of the event, and walk through the consequences. Key to their approach was avoiding any speculation. Armstrong said, “We told the athletes what we knew. Unfortunately we didn’t know a lot then…and we still don’t. We’re all going to have to be flexible until we figure it out.” Skate Canada and the ISU are still determining how to make up for the missed World Championships.

In the volleyball community, Nationals are a huge event, bringing together U15, U16, U17 and U18 athletes from across the country. The cancellation was heartbreaking for athletes that would be aging-out. Nationals swag is a source of team identity, pride and status within the volleyball community. Within weeks of the cancellation, Volleyball Canada was able to work with its merchandise partner, VolleyballStuff, to create “Rally Together Apart” 2020 Nationals merchandise. Proceeds from each purchase went to Food Banks Canada – just over $25,000 was donated through the campaign. Volleyball Canada also heard of teams donating their refunded registration fees to local charities.

Beyond competition, cultural exchange and social interaction are key values of the Arctic Winter Games. The Games would have been the first time some athletes traveled outside their territory, province or country. The opportunity to visit new places, meet new people, and experience new cultures is part of what makes participation at the Arctic Winter Games a life-changing experience. In Whitehorse, Team Yukon hosted a parade on March 15th (before any public health measures were introduced) as a way to honour the commitment and dedication of their athletes. 

Experiences of grief

Athletes weren’t the only ones experiencing grief relating to the cancelled events; staff and volunteers were also grieving. The events were many years in the making, requiring thousands of hours of staff and volunteer time. In Whitehorse, the territorial Minister of Community Services and acting CMO met personally with the Arctic Winter Games Host Society board members and staff (gathering restrictions were not yet in place). The meeting provided an opportunity for people who had invested so much time and effort in the event to share their emotions and to hear from the decision makers about the seriousness with which the decision was made, and how it impacted them as well. Lassen reflected, “It helped having the Minister and CMO there, to explain how the CMO came to the recommendation to cancel the event, and to show they were just as disappointed by the cancellation.”

For Skate Canada, the cancellation meant a missed opportunity to bring the world to Canada. As one of the oldest members of the ISU, hosting exceptional events is a point of pride and contributes to Skate Canada’s international reputation. Along with Montreal partners, staff and volunteers grieved the missed opportunity to showcase Canada for international competitors, sport federations and spectators. Armstrong joked, “It was the greatest World Championships that never was.”

July 12, 2020 – 12,552,765 confirmed cases globally; 107,126 confirmed cases in Canada

Final Reflections

Wrapping up the interviews, the three leaders were all asked about advice they would give to other sport organizations. The leaders were consistent with their advice:

  1. Ensure all contracts include a force majeur clause. While Skate Canada, the Arctic Winter Games Host Society and Volleyball Canada had to enact this clause to varying degrees in relation to the March 2020 cancellations, it is now something they would not go without.
  2. Communication is key. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was swift, requiring organizations to be incredibly nimble. Communication before, at the time of decision, and after the cancellation with key stakeholders, including public health officials, partners and member organizations, and athletes, was key to successfully navigating the dynamic landscape. As time allowed, the sport organizations worked to control the messages, recognizing the financial and emotional impacts, but prioritizing the safety of Canadians and visiting international delegations.
  3. Time to ramp up contingency planning. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for event hosts to think through the unthinkable. The lessons learned and protocols developed to manage the spread of COVID-19 can help inform contingency plans for future events. Lassen reflected, “Even if the risk is low, even extremely low, event hosts need to take the time to discuss the issue and put a plan in place. Pandemic contingency plans will be an unexpected, and important, legacy of these events.”

Armstrong confessed, “I’m glad to see 2019-2020 in the rear-view mirror. The opportunity now is for us to integrate these learnings into the future.”

From little leagues to international competitions, the global pandemic brought a halt to sport in Canada. With ongoing public health restrictions in many communities and the implementation of return to play plans in limbo, COVID-19 continues to impact the Canadian sport system. Despite the unknowns, many sport organizations have focused their attention on new strategies to support their members. Reflecting the sentiment across the entire sport community, Armstrong said, “Seeing the increasing toll of the pandemic kept things in perspective. The attention of the Canadian sport sector is now on how we can help with recovery in terms of contributing to physical and mental health, and building and maintaining community.”


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Gamification is the use of game techniques, such as the allocation of points and rewards, to provide incentive and fuel the competitive spirit in aspects of life outside of sport (Bunchball, 2020). Examples are abundant, and include Points Days at Shoppers Drug Mart, using an Aeroplan credit card to earn travel miles, or opening a SCENE debit account to earn free movies. Fundamentally, gamification is about stimulating engagement and offering incentive for decisions. This can be used to drive areas of existing interest, as with the everyday runner or walker starting to use a FitBit and then going that extra kilometre to earn their Kilimanjaro badge; or the mix of product, service and technology can also add a little more fun and excitement to behaviours that are often ignored or not given much thought, such as completion of program evaluation surveys among children and youth participating in Sport For Development programs.  

Challenges in a youth Sport for Development setting

In 2017, MLSE LaunchPad set out to gamify how youth engage in a community sport setting. This was not about the actual sports being coached at the facility – it was about how youth interact with and experience a community-based sport organization. Our approach to gamification considered registration, relationships, attendance, program evaluation and whether incentives earned through a gamified experience could influence motivation – one key component that contributes to physical literacy and other outcomes of interest to sport programmers (Chen, 2015).

In applying this approach in practice, MLSE LaunchPad initially piloted a values-based currency of points and digital rewards to intentionally stimulate engagement related to priority challenges at the facility. Implementation of two tactical approaches formed the foundation of an early strategy:

  1. Providing youth with the ability to earn points for attendance, with bonus rewards for attendance streaks or perfect attendance, as a means to increase consistency in attendance and reduce ghosting (youth not showing up to a program for which they had registered).
  2. Providing youth with the ability to earn points and bonus rewards for the completion of a program evaluation activity before or after their program, to address challenges with low survey completion rates.

An innovative platform for youth engagement

Recognizing the potential of an effective gamification strategy to drive essential youth behaviours, MLSE Scoreboard™ was born – a digital platform for youth engagement, program evaluation, and program and facility management.  Part digital infrastructure, part loyalty rewards, and all engaging – anytime, from any device.

The system has two core components, which have advanced the implementation of the tactics described above:

Points as a key to success

During three years of testing, implementation and refinement with hundreds of programs and thousands of youth, one of the most critical insights has been that from the participant perspective, points are a currency. One key to success has been the intentional alignment of how points are earned with our values. For example, MLSE LaunchPad values the development of prosocial life skills and promotes the benefits of showing up, trying new things, and engaging positively with peers and staff. Consistent with these values, the life cycle of a typical program gives participants opportunities to earn points for living these values, including points for consistent attendance, multi-sport engagement, participating in evaluation activities, and engaging positively in program activities. Points are not earned for talent or sport performance. Youth reach the top of the leaderboard by actively embracing the diversity of sport programs on offer, showing up consistently, pushing themselves, and listening to their coaches and mentors. In essence, the points system is a currency of engagement. Over time, with the point system integrated into the fabric of the organization and its programs, the system can be adapted and refined by staff to address other priorities.

Refining the process

With the launch of MLSE Scoreboard and its points-based currency, youth response rates to program evaluation surveys jumped to 85%. However, some process issues persisted. Early in the MLSE Scoreboard journey, an evaluation station or “rotation” was integrated into a program’s first and last day where youth would go to a classroom or tablet station to complete the program evaluation survey. With MLSE Scoreboard available as a digital, mobile-friendly platform, evaluation staff began releasing pre-program surveys a full week in advance, with bonus points available for early completion. The results were swift – approximately two thirds of youth logged in from home to complete their baseline survey before the start of the program. This increased efficiencies in data collection, but perhaps more importantly, provided two sources of time savings for staff. First, fewer participants leaving program activities to complete a survey helps optimize the time they have for coaching and sport program experience. Second, 2/3 of youth completing surveys from home helps reduce demands on staff time, enabling them to focus on youth who need extra support to complete their survey onsite. For all the prospective benefits of a gamification strategy, none of it is useful if busy staff do not see value in terms of their most prized commodity: time (Ontario Nonprofit Network, 2018).

Tips for applying these concepts in your setting

1. Know your values

There is no homogenous population and different groups behave differently. Being aware of the challenges your participants may be experiencing and the values your organization wants to promote will inform smart and practical goals in building your own points currency. MLSE LaunchPad developed our points system around accountability for showing up, trying new things, and the development of prosocial life skills. What behaviours does your organization value?

2. Start small

We recommend focusing on a small number of concrete objectives while your staff and participants get comfortable with the system. At MLSE LaunchPad, early iterations awarded points to build engagement around attendance and evaluation. While fun custom challenges and other nuances have been added, starting with a simple focus helped staff develop comfort with the points system while generating excitement among youth around clear, achievable goals.

3. Have fun with your challenges

Whatever your engagement goals, encourage staff creativity and learn from participants to build gamified challenges that are fun and fresh while also reinforcing program content and behavioural goals. Physical literacy and the development of functional movement skills have been an intentional programming focus for younger youth at MLSE LaunchPad. As youth advance in age, the development of life skills such as social competence becomes the programmatic focus. Staff are empowered to award points or create challenges for observed examples of youth demonstrating growth in these life skill areas. For example, an MLSE Scoreboard challenge was established where youth earned points for introducing themselves to new mental health counsellors and getting to know them as people, helping to facilitate a warm introduction and reducing barriers to accessing this new service for youth and families. 

4. Incentives need not be costly

Yes, MLSE LaunchPad has access to team-branded merchandise for youth to redeem. However, in our journey we have learned that the points themselves provide more drive for engagement than any item or prize on offer. Most participants choose not to redeem in favour of building up their point totals to achieve goals or compete with their peers. Access to a leaderboard with peers is an essential enabler of the healthy competition that an engaging and values-driven points system can facilitate. Online rewards such as digital “badges” can be earned and accumulated, for example, related to a specific life skill, an act of positivity, or leveling up their sport participation. This type of reward is similar to the way points are used in favourite video games – except in this case, winning the game involves demonstrating the characteristics and attributes we work to promote through long-term quality sport engagement.

For those more extrinsically motivated, points redemption can take on many forms. We find smaller accessories such as wristbands and bracelets popular among 6-10 year-olds, and sport accessories such as water bottles and t-shirts popular among 11-14-year-olds. Experiential rewards are popular among older youth, such as a movie night donated by a sponsor, admission to a special event, or an earned privilege like choosing what the team eats at an end-of-season dinner. 

5. Learn and adapt

This article provides a framework for how the gamification of youth sport engagement has worked in a youth Sport For Development setting. Every program, culture and population are different, and what works in one environment may not be perfectly adaptable to another. Conceptually, it is helpful to think about a system of gamification through points as a choose-your-own-adventure platform, where organizations have the flexibility to tailor and evolve their system over time against the most pressing engagement goals or challenges as defined by them. People are not static, and as they grow and what motivates them evolves, those of us working with them must keep our approaches fresh, relevant and engaging.  

If you need a sounding board or would like to ideate about what a values-based points currency could look like for your organization, don’t hesitate to reach out to the MLSE LaunchPad Research and Evaluation team. 

Recommended Resources

Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). Engaging youth in evaluation processes. SIRCuit Article.

Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). The gamification of evaluation for non profits and charities. Imagine Canada 360 Blog.

As community sport clubs begin their return to play phases, the short and long-term impacts of COVID-19 – on the field and in the office – are unmistakable. Physical distancing measures and stay-at-home protocols have illuminated how technology can keep people connected and involved in their local communities. These new ways of working provide an opportunity for community sport clubs to tap into existing and new volunteers in innovative ways. This article will discuss the concept of virtual volunteering and its benefits. Suggestions are provided below for incorporating virtual volunteering into community sport now and as an ongoing practice to increase capacity and engagement.

What is virtual volunteering?

Virtual volunteering simply refers to volunteer tasks “…done online, via computers, tablets or smartphones, usually off-site from the non-profit organization being supported” (Volunteer Canada, 2019). This form of volunteering is also known as online volunteering, digital volunteering, and e-service. Virtual volunteering is by no means a new concept, and has been around since the start of the internet itself (Cravens & Ellis, 2014). In many cases, on-site and virtual volunteers are the same people, but virtual volunteering can also be used as a strategy to engage people who would otherwise be unlikely or unable to volunteer.

The sport sector is a vibrant context for volunteering in Canada, accounting for almost one quarter of all volunteers (Volunteer Canada, 2015). While many volunteer positions within the sector are considered “on-site” roles such as coaches, officials, and event hosts, sport clubs also rely on volunteers for administration and management support behind the scenes. During the global pandemic, clubs are being required to re-imagine how sport is delivered and how to best support athletes during this time. Many clubs are struggling with new or increased demands requiring technical, administrative, communication and advocacy expertise. Given the uncertainty remaining for the various phases of return-to-sport plans in many sports, it may be helpful to consider how existing and new volunteers can contribute to addressing immediate club needs, and support long-term engagement.

The benefits of virtual volunteering

In a time when so much in our life has changed and feels uncertain, contributing to your community from your home and helping others is important for mental health and overall wellbeing (Lu et.al, 2019). Times of crises can strengthen people’s pro-social behaviours such as volunteering. Some volunteer agencies such as Volunteer British Columbia have noticed an increase in the number of people wanting to volunteer during the pandemic, which the organization attributes to an increase in people’s amount of free time (Zillich, 2020). In particular, volunteering in community sport can build a sense of community and connection between like-minded individuals (Dickson, Hallman & Phelps, 2017). Typical forms of sport volunteering can generate the perception that volunteer involvement requires face-to-face interaction and set schedules. However, virtual contributions to community sport organizations can benefit volunteers by allowing for more schedule flexibility and completion of tasks from home.

Virtual volunteering also reduces some barriers to volunteer involvement such as geographic location, physical ability constraints, or inflexible work hours (Volunteer Canada, 2019). For example, 64% of Canadians ages 75 and older expressed that physical ability impaired their ability to participate in traditional volunteering activities (Volunteer Canada, 2015). Virtual volunteering can be an inclusive way to engage busy professionals, older adults with experience in sport clubs, or others with varying physical abilities in the sport community, and foster connections to sport. In return, virtual volunteers can enhance the capacity and resources of the club through contributing their skills and time in a variety of different roles.

Pivoting to Virtual Volunteering

For sport organizations seeking ways to adapt to new circumstances, virtual volunteering could provide a means to gain much needed assistance in advancing club operations. Like other volunteer strategies, success depends on having a clear purpose and strong support for the program (Bezmalinovic Dhebar & Stokes, 2008). Sport organizations should start by conducting a needs analysis to determine where help is required and where virtual volunteer investments could best be focused. Remember that these individuals are part of your overall volunteer team and volunteer management policies and procedures should be applied consistently without distinguishing between virtual and on-site volunteers. Established practices should be applied relating to screening, interviewing, training, and orientation (see Cravens & Ellis, 2014).

Virtual volunteers can be identified through a call to current volunteers and broader membership outlining the opportunities, or by posting virtual volunteer opportunities through your local volunteer agency or on other sites like charityvillage.com and SIRC.ca. In these posts, be clear about the time commitment and any specific skills and technology required for virtual volunteers. As with all volunteers, organizational support is crucial and has benefits for both the volunteer (e.g. decreased stress, increased commitment) and the organization (e.g. reduced turnover, enhanced productivity levels) (Eisenbeger et al., 2011). In order to ensure volunteers feel supported, volunteer orientation is key. Orienting volunteers to the organization, its policies, platforms and training them on any specifics related to their position will help volunteers feel comfortable and competent from the get go. Be transparent as to whether or not it is feasible or not for your organization to provide financial compensation for software or subscriptions to secure virtual platforms that they need to complete certain project or tasks prior to the volunteer agreeing to take on the role. In addition, it may be helpful to decide on and communicate a record system to ensure organization has a consolidated place to store related documents to help virtual volunteers and your organization stay organized.

Ways to Engage Virtual Volunteers

Volunteers can contribute virtually in a variety of roles while social distancing measures are still in place and may continue within these roles as restrictions ease. Such roles could include social media specialist, digital marketing coordinator, administrative assistant, scheduler,  video analyst, web designer, community outreach coordinator, online mentor, inclusion education. Volunteer roles assigned in the short-term may help to minimize organizational costs; however virtual volunteering programs designed from a perspective of strategic growth can help achieve program scale (Bezmalinovic Dhebar & Stokes, 2008). As pandemic restrictions continue to lift, consider the potential for virtual volunteering roles to contribute to ongoing minimization or recuperation of funds, as well as opportunities for virtual volunteers to increase capacity and augment organizational growth.

The list below offers 12 ways to engage virtual volunteers in your sport organizations during physical distancing:

1. Implementing return to sport plans

Create a return to sport committee to help customize and implement plans and policies that respect guidance from public health departments and sport governing bodies. Volunteers can help to refine contingency plans for training and competition to their specific local context, while ensuring all plans support a safe and quality experience for members. Volunteers can monitor the communications from relevant sport governing bodies for direction in this process to ensure the club is complying with guidelines and decision making.

2. Tap into new funding streams

Engage a volunteer with expertise in fundraising, sponsorship and/or grant writing to apply for relevant COVID-19 government subsidies, seek new funding opportunities, or develop a strategy to diversify the organization’s funding.

3. Coordinate communications for all return to play related inquiries

While much of the future of sport remains unknown, club members need to feel supported with clear communication related to the future of their sport club and its programs. Designate a group of volunteers to create a webpage and contact line for any return to sport related inquiries to ensure answers are consistent and members feel heard.

4. Support athlete training and skill development

Support current or new coaches in hosting online strength and conditioning or sport skill development sessions for their athletes. Volunteers could facilitate opportunities for coaches to share ideas, curate credible resources, create weekly fitness challenges to support activities, or coordinate an online session with a certified professional for multiple teams. Check out an example from the Oakville Soccer club’s program here.

5. Deliver educational content for members 

Tap into expertise amongst your membership or the broader community to deliver educational seminars for your athletes, parents, coaches and others. Topics could include mental health, conflict resolution, bullying prevention, concussion awareness, nutrition or inclusion (consider what is most relevant to your members or club objectives!), with volunteers delivering content based on expertise, and coordinating the sessions. Alternatively, recruit volunteers to identify credible content to share with members, such as TED Talks.

6. Expand the credentials of your volunteers by encouraging participation in an online certification program

Encourage volunteers to engage in online education or certification programs specific to their role. For example, encourage coaches to complete the NCCP Multi-Sport Training Modules or the Coaching Association of Canada’s new Safe Sport Training. Other national sport organizations also provide a range of training and professional development opportunities that can be explored and shared among volunteers such as the Keeping Girls in Sport module and Sport for Life course offerings.

7. Update the club website

A volunteer with website development experience can assess the functionality, accessibility and content of the sport organization’s website and make improvements. The website should be made accessible for persons with disabilities, and new features can be added such as closed-captioned videos. The site should accurately share the latest news on return to sport plans.   

8. Build a social media campaign to reinforce club values or follow a specific initiative

Social media campaigns can be developed by volunteers for present or future use to enhance the club’s communication efforts related to specific initiatives or values. Other campaigns could recognize the efforts of current volunteers and promote opportunities for others to get involved. To learn more about how to enhance your organization’s reputation via communications check out Building a pandemic communications strategy must start with this one-word question.

9. Develop an athlete mentorship program

Senior athletes can volunteer as mentors for younger athletes and check in regularly to help them with goal setting, motivation for training at home, and overall wellbeing. Experienced athletes can be introduced to volunteerism in sport in new ways and fuel their interest in coaching and other youth development pursuits.

10. Develop a regular social calendar for your sport club

Assign volunteers to a social committee to create opportunities for members and other volunteers to connect socially, even if they’re not yet on the field or in the pool. Online socials could include activities such as sport trivia nights, bingo, fun skill or activity challenges, cooking bake offs, and more!

11. Engage in the concept of micro- volunteering

Micro-volunteering is another fantastic option to keep volunteers engaged, but not overwhelm them. Some people may be more likely to volunteer their time in short and convenient, bite-sized chunks (i.e. 30 minutes or less). Micro-volunteering offers volunteers a series of easy tasks that can be done anytime, from their own homes, on their own terms. The concept isn’t new; it has historically been done mostly in the UK. Check out the UK-based Help from Home website for ideas and opportunities and download their exceptional free guide. Sport related micro-volunteering examples could include micro-consulting initiatives in the form of posing a question or generating a poll for your social media audience to garner feedback, creative input and ideas on things like club logo, creative artwork or marketing ideas.

12. Partner with other causes and organizations to give back to the community

COVID-19 has impacted many of society’s most vulnerable communities. Volunteers could reach out to local non-profit organizations outside of sport that might need support at this time and coordinate efforts to help among the club membership. Some clubs, such as the TriMuskoka Triathlon Club, have already contributed to hospitals and foodbanks to provide volunteer support and resources during this time of need. Research has shown that members are paying attention to and support their club’s efforts to engage in socially responsible initiatives (Misener, Morrison, Shier, & Babiak, 2020). Club members care deeply about the wider community and clubs who engage in social action may benefit through member loyalty and positive word of mouth.

Retaining virtual volunteers post-pandemic

As public health measures are relaxed and sport clubs begin to offer on-site programming again, virtual volunteers can continue to represent an important lifeblood of a club’s operations. Many of the roles listed above will remain relevant and can evolve into ongoing volunteer roles. Thinking of volunteers beyond the arena or board room can help clubs remain resilient in times of change, but also promote diversity and innovation within the volunteer force.

After orientation, be sure to consistently check in on virtual volunteers. Research shows that after 6 months of taking on a role, perception of organizational support changes and volunteers slowly can feel less appreciated if the organization becomes less attentive to the needs and concerns of volunteers (Eisenberger et. al, 2011). Aim for the latter by recognizing your virtual volunteers and creating opportunities for meaningful contributions and connections.