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Photo credit: Denise Maxwell
Organizers of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games plant trees for a new Commonwealth Games Forest that will serve as one of the Games’ legacies.


At a United Nations Conference on the role of sport in combating climate change in April 2022, conference participants noted that sport is both a casualty of and a big contributor to climate change.

Lindita Xhaferi-Salihu is the Sports for Climate Action lead at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. She says sports leave a large carbon footprint with infrastructure that’s built for large and small events, and emissions that go hand in hand with travel of participants and spectators.

“Sports can lead through action but also by example,” she says. “Imagine all sports using their platforms to educate their athletes and fans and to bring them along on the journey. Imagine all sports positively advocating for climate action towards policy makers, their supply chain, sponsors, and their communities.”

At this same conference, the United Nations representative from Qatar pointed out that one of the main venues constructed to host this fall’s World Cup of soccer has been built using 974 recycled shipping containers. It’s a symbolic number, as that’s also Qatar’s country code. After the tournament, many venue seats will be removed and donated to developing nations. Organizers are pledging to host the first carbon neutral FIFA World Cup.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been encouraging global sport bodies to join the United Nations Sports for Climate Change Framework. The IOC  and about 300 other signatories have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. To date, there are five Canadian signatories: Tennis Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canada Games Council, the Banff Marathon, and the World Athletics Masters event in Toronto.

“We see sports for climate action as a mass movement that has already started but has so much more to give,” says Xhaferi-Salihu.

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games take sustainability to a new level

Team Canada at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremonies

At this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, organizers want the Games to be remembered for a lot more than just medals and great athletic performance. The organizing committee has set out a bold ambition by pledging to be the most sustainable Commonwealth Games yet and to leave a carbon neutral legacy.

The organizing committee has focused on reducing carbon emissions and where possible changing public behaviour. They’ve looked at areas that might be considered carbon hotspots and worked with their internal teams and suppliers to find innovative solutions when it comes to energy, food, waste, procurement and transportation, among other things. They’re using mostly existing venues and including public transportation for spectators with their tickets. To help educate the public, they’re including a journey planner for ticket buyers, which explains the carbon impact from using different modes of transportation.

“From a Commonwealth Games perspective, I think we are pushing the boundaries on what previous Commonwealth Games have done with the carbon management approach and with new standards and new technologies,” says Joanna Leigh, who is a Sustainability Coordinator for Birmingham 2022. Leigh, who was part of the field hockey squad which won a gold medal for Great Britain at the Rio 2016 Olympics, says one of the key lessons for others is not to look for perfection before putting a plan in place.

“I think that overcoming that idea of having to be perfect in this journey is a powerful aspect of what I’ve learned. I think that’s something that resonates in sport. As an athlete or as a coach, you start your journey and put out your big ambition (to win an Olympic medal), and then you work incredibly hard to get there. You come up with [seemingly insurmountable] challenges and barriers. [It’s the same with fighting climate change]. Everyone’s actions move that ambition forward and can make it happen.”

Birmingham 2022 estimated what the carbon footprint would be for the Games in 2020, updated those numbers with more accurate figures the next year, and plans to issue a full sustainability report when the Games end. Leigh says measuring the impact and holding yourself accountable are two other important lessons.

“Understanding what the carbon footprint of sport is, whether that’s for sport organizations or events, it’s very difficult because there’s not a lot out there for benchmarks. Our aim is to be open and transparent about our process so that we can add to that picture. We’ve gone on a massive process of learning over the last couple of years and plan to share some of that learning as part of our legacy.”

Another part of the legacy is to offset emissions that can’t be eliminated. One of the main ways they plan to do that is by planting 2022 acres of a new Commonwealth Forest in the area. That forest is to be managed by Birmingham 2022’s Nature and Carbon Neutral Supporter, Severn Trent, one of Britain’s largest water companies.

Leigh says having sustainability as a key priority from the leadership at Birmingham 2022 from the beginning has allowed all of this to happen. “I think that’s probably something of real fundamental value—that by having sustainability as one of your biggest priorities, it helps ensure that there’s budget secured and resources, which is a massive thing.”

Leigh says a lot of times that doesn’t happen. “I think we’re waking up in sport to the fact that this issue of sustainability, climate change, and carbon emissions is something that sport needs to address. But we’re not. There are many instances across sport where it’s coming up, but the budget isn’t there or needs to be negotiated out of someone else’s budget because it’s been thought of too late. But things are starting to change.” 

Team Canada to be carbon neutral in Birmingham

For those Commonwealth Games, the team Canada is sending has implemented its own plan to be carbon neutral in Birmingham. That plan involves a carbon reduction strategy.

One of the first things Commonwealth Sport Canada (CSC) did was consult with Canadian researcher Madeleine Orr, Ph.D., a leader in sport and sustainability and founder of the Sport Ecology Group. Orr, who has written about sport and sustainability for SIRC, helped the team calculate what its emissions will be, somewhere between 750 to 900 tonnes of greenhouse gas. Most emissions will come from air travel to and from Birmingham for Canadian athletes and staff.

Ryan Pelley is helping oversee the program for Commonwealth Sport Canada. He says it can feel daunting to get started. “I would say just take the first step. That’s done by realizing and acknowledging that we have a responsibility to the environment and need to take action.”

Another key, Pelley says, is to reach out to these experts in the field who can guide you. Orr helped the team devise a strategy that limited travel in the lead-up to the Games by holding more video conferences, using e-documents rather than paper, reducing packaging on supplies and equipment, and staying in low-energy and low-water hotels.  

Pelley says they’ll issue a report about how they did after the Games. “The biggest thing is to be able to measure that impact. So not just say, ‘Hey, we’re responsible, we believe in these things.’ It’s about having a plan set forward, taking meaningful action, and then showing the results of those actions through measurement, including what we accomplished and where we can improve in the future.”

Team Canada has also provided athletes, coaches and mission staff with online climate awareness training and education, in which Orr highlighted Team Canada’s carbon neutral efforts.

At home, Commonwealth Sport Canada is investing several thousand dollars in carbon offset projects. In areas where carbon emissions cannot currently be eliminated or reduced, the goal is to remove the equivalent volume of gases from the atmosphere in Canada compared to what the team has produced in the lead-up to the Games or will create during Birmingham 2022. “A lot of verified, high quality carbon offsetting projects are located in Canada, for example, projects converting loggable land to protected forests on Indigenous land in BC and projects in Ontario which see forests being protected to retain their carbon capture potential,” Pelley says.

He adds with government and corporations focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, sport organizations must do their part. “I think it’s absolutely a priority for environmental responsibility and climate action within sport in Canada. I don’t know what the future holds with regards to environmental responsibility obligations for sport organizations. But I would anticipate that there might be a need to meet certain (sustainability) standards, in order to potentially receive funding,” Pelley says.

Olympians Racing to Zero

Beach volleyball player reaching for ball over the net with Commonwealth Games logo in the background.

One organization that’s helping to bring world-leading sustainability practices to provincial and local sport organizations in Canada is Racing to Zero, a not-for-profit founded by two-time Canadian Olympian Seyi Smith. Alongside fellow Olympians Oliver Schofield, Martha McCabe, and Donna Vakalis, Racing to Zero offers sustainability education and audits to sport organizations. It also provides support to sport organizations working on carbon improvement initiatives.

For example, Racing to Zero has worked with local track and field meets in Calgary to evaluate their overall sustainability. For this project, they helped the meet directors develop baseline emission and sustainability scores for each meet. Learn more about the evaluation findings.

One of their conclusions was that there’s lots of room for improvement when it comes to changing behaviours around transportation, where the bulk of emissions are generated. It was partly a by-product of COVID-‑19, but most participants and spectators drove to the events in their own cars rather than cycling, car-pooling, or using public transportation.

Another key finding related to procurement. Event directors were often unaware of their influence over suppliers. Smith recommended race directors collaborate with their food, awards, clothing, equipment and hotel suppliers and ask about their sustainability practices. For example, Racing to Zero identified race bib and medal suppliers that meet minimum sustainability thresholds for track and field events.

They also examined the waste at these meets and found most was going to landfills even though much of that waste could have been composted or recycled instead.  

Smith has had similar conversations about sustainability with about 25 national and provincial sport organizations (NSOs and PSOs) from around Canada. “The main thing I’m finding is that 98% of the sport organizations don’t have knowledge or awareness about what they can do. Those are the same people who do host 90% plus of all the sporting events in the country. That’s the opportunity we see.”

Smith believes Olympians like himself can make a huge difference in the fight against climate change. “Olympians are uniquely positioned as role models who cross cultures, and we need to embrace that power and our platforms.” He adds, “We can be players in the biggest comeback story the world has ever seen: the climate comeback.”

A provincial association leads the way

While many sport associations are struggling to figure out where to start, a group that Smith says is light years ahead of others is the Quebec provincial cycling federation, Fédération québecoise des sports cyclistes.

In 2020, the association published a sustainability charter after working with Triathlon Quebec who were leading the way on that front. The charter, which began in 2019 with the staff at the Quebec cycling federation, lays out clear objectives and actions for staff, members and events to reduce their carbon footprint, waste, and energy. In addition, the federation introduced 3 levels of certification for their events (gold, silver and bronze) with 50 actions that can be taken to make events more sustainable.

To achieve the gold standard, events must complete 40 of these 50 action items. This includes actually measuring the carbon footprint when it comes to transportation, which is the biggest source of emissions. The aim is to reduce those emissions from year to year. For silver, events need to complete 30 of the action items.

Bronze is designed to get events to start thinking more sustainably. Among other things, the event has to put two people in charge of their sustainability efforts. One must attend an educational webinar hosted by the Quebec cycling federation. The hope is this will be the start and events will eventually go even further in their sustainability efforts.

“If athletes and participants have the choice between two events, they probably will choose the event which gets certification if they are aware of sustainability. Then, if the choice is between a bronze event or silver, this could be another motivation for the organizers to get a little better,” says Aurélien Morel, the sustainability lead for the Quebec cycling federation.

He says the goal is to see these sustainability actions lead to more sponsorship dollars for the federation that it could pass on to events that reach the gold standard. Morel, who is originally from France, says there’s a green charter in place for sport events there.We felt it was about time to do it. We really want to be in line with what is happening in the world.”

Expert insights on sport and sustainability

A good place for any sport organization to turn to at its outset, if it’s trying to become more sustainable, is groups like the World Resources Institute. It offers a global standard for organizations to measure their carbon footprint.

But there’s a danger if that sport body isn’t fully committed, according to Rob Millington, who’s an assistant professor of Sport and Social Change at Brock University. He says sometimes groups choose carbon offsetting, but that doesn’t undo the carbon emissions and can take years to provide meaningful results. “There’s a real risk of greenwashing from sport organizations and individuals who feel external pressure to commit to sustainability, but end up only doing so in a superficial way.”

There are useful Canadian websites offering information about carbon offsets, including:

Mountain biking athlete on race route

Adam Ali, who’s an assistant professor of Sociocultural Studies in Kinesiology at the Western University, says he believes sports must think in bold new ways about how they operate which could involve making big compromises to their core business. “We saw during the pandemic, we could decrease the amount of travel. [NBA or NHL] teams played a series of games in one place, which significantly cut down on things like carbon that’s produced via travel. We need to think creatively about how we can reimagine a sporting venue that actually contributes to environmental health rather than simply try to limit the destruction it causes.”

Rob Millington agrees it’s time to reimagine sport. “What we really need to be doing is looking at reducing our carbon footprint and reducing the scale of these sporting events. I think during the pandemic we saw that there are other ways to envision sport and mega events moving forward that doesn’t mean building bigger and bigger every year.”

Millington says there are some great examples of teams functioning in new sustainable ways, trying to serve as role models and making a big impact including the Forest Green Rovers, a soccer team in the United Kingdom. “The owner of that team owns a green energy company. He’s trying to model what a sustainable future for sport could look like. The pitch they play on is organic. They used reclaimed wood to build the stadium, green energy to power the stadium and serve only vegan food to players and fans. Through these types of initiatives, it’s feasible to make societal changes to work towards more sustainable futures.”

For organizations just starting out though, Ali says to begin with internal conversations about what they can do, look at their capacity to set realistic expectations and seek out experts. “There are many researchers around Canada that do this work who would be absolutely willing to speak to or provide support to NSOs and PSOs. From a researcher perspective, we’re always thinking about ways we can translate our research into meaningful action at various levels.”

Both Millington and Ali agree it’s now time for urgent action around sport and sustainability. “All sport organizations should be reflecting upon how they’re impacting the environment, and what steps they can take to mitigate some of those things. Even if it’s just having these types of conversations, I think that’s such an important first step,” Millington says.


What’s the best path to the podium? That’s the question behind the debate between early specialization and early diversification. Drawing on the example of some well-known champions like Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters, the early specialization camp argues that an early start in the athlete’s primary sport is essential for development of high-level skills and tactical abilities. That is, the ability to “read the game.” The early diversification (sometimes called “sport sampling” or “multi-sport”) camp looks at the high incidence of overuse injury, burnout and dropout among early specializers, and calls for an end to early specialization. They cite the many champions who came to their primary sport late, like Steve Nash or Clara Hughes, as better examples of how to reach the top.

Which is correct? What does the latest research say? And if we aren’t aiming at the podium but instead at healthy, lifelong participation, does early specialization make any sense at all? Based on a comprehensive review of 139 research publications, this article breaks down the latest evidence to help answer these questions.

Understanding early specialization, early engagement and the multi-sport approach

soccer male youth groupYoung athletes typically follow 1 of 3 paths: early specialization in a single sport, participation in multiple sports and activities with later specialization, or a hybrid combining an early preferred sport with continued participation in other activities.

Specialization is “intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports” (Jayanthi et coll., 2013). Specialization is normal for senior high performance athletes, but it’s also common in young athletes aspiring to high performance. Early specialization refers to “children who commit exclusively to a sport in the early-to-middle elementary school years,” that is, ages 6 to 10 years (Jayanthi et coll. 2013).

A multi-sport approach differs from early specialization in that the child participates in multiple sports and physical activities and doesn’t spend most of their time in only 1 sport. The number and type of sports differ widely among athletes and aren’t consistent across research studies. For example, the “sampling years” in the Developmental Model of Sport Participation include participation in multiple sports and a focus on “deliberate play.” Deliberate play is defined as “early developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment… such as street hockey or backyard soccer” (Cote & Abernethy, 2012).

A third pathway, referred to as the early engagement hypothesis (Ford et coll. 2009; Hendry and Hodges 2018), has more recently been identified in athlete development literature. The early engagement hypothesis is based on early entry into the eventual sport of specialization, combined with participation in other sports and relatively high amounts of deliberate play. It’s argued that this approach may: reduce the many risks associated with early specialization, allow development of specific foundational skills and avoid “political and social barriers” that can discourage late entry to the primary sport (Hendry and Hodges 2018, p.82).

Generally, early specialization or early engagement is more common in sports where highly developed motor skills (such as, tennis, golf) or a combination of motor and tactical skills (such as, soccer, hockey) are seen as essential. Early specialization or early engagement also tends to be more common when an early developing ability like flexibility is critical (for example, gymnastics). Traditional views must be questioned when there’s a possibility that disadvantages outweigh potential benefits. For this, we turn to the research.

What the evidence says:

Which is the best path to the podium: early specialization, early engagement or a multi-sport approach? There’s much more at play than that. Athlete development is complex. Performance arises from a complex interaction of multiple factors, including genetic, social and cultural factors. Plus, those factors happen across physiology, psychology and other traits. The answer can’t be reduced to whether the athlete follows a multi-sport approach, specializes early or engages in a main sport early (Gibbons et coll. 2003; Gulbin et coll. 2010; Collins, MacNamara and McCarthy 2016; DenHartigh et coll. 2016).

Does early specialization lead to increased risk of injury? The majority of studies correlate early specialization with a higher likelihood of injury, burnout, and dropout from sport (Carder et coll., 2020). Simply, the more time an athlete performs a movement, the more likely overuse injury becomes. Starting early means more repetitions. In sports with repetitive motion, such as baseball pitching, professional players who specialized early had a higher probability of significant injury in their career (Wilhelm, Choi and Deitch, 2017). Similarly, NBA players “who were multisport athletes participated in more games, experienced fewer major injuries, and had longer careers than those who participated in a single sport” (Rugg et coll. 2018).

Does early specialization lead to burnout and dropout from sport? Burnout is a psychological state accompanied by a reduced sense of accomplishment, physical and emotional exhaustion, and less desire to participate in sport. The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine recommends the multi-sport approach to minimize overuse injuries and related burnout (DiFiori et coll., 2014). Burnout can lead to dropout (Fraser-Thomas, Cote and Deakin, 2007), which may be more common for in women and girls (Isoard-Gautheur et coll., 2015; Latorre-Román, Pinillos, and Robles, 2018).

Does the multi-sport approach result in athletes gaining transferrable skills? The multi-sport approach in youth, up to roughly the age of puberty, appears to help young athletes develop a broad base of skills, which may transfer to a later sport of specialization (Arede et coll., 2019). Skill transfer may depend on whether the experience was gained in similar sports. In a study of soccer decision-making, skills from other invasion sports seemed to transfer while decision-making skills from volleyball didn’t transfer (Causer and Ford, 2014). “Deliberate play” (unstructured, unsupervised play) also seems important. Coutinho et coll. (2016) found that highly skilled players had participated in more unstructured, “deliberate play” activities than less-skilled peers.

Teenage soccer goalie covering his netDo different types of sport require different paths? It’s likely, especially in sports where performance is measured in centimetres, grams or seconds (for example, racing sports like swimming, cycling and canoeing, or strength sports including weightlifting). For such sports, Moesch et coll. (2011) found adult high performance is most often the result of later specialization (post-puberty) combined with an earlier multi-sport approach.

In sports requiring high degrees of technical skill or tactical ability or a combination of both, including many team sports, adult high performance appears to be enhanced by early engagement in late childhood before puberty (Learn to Train), together with participation in a range of other sports and physical activities. For example, among Scottish youth academy soccer players “less than 10% of the sample specialized only in soccer from childhood and no early specializers progressed to Adult-professional.” However, “soccer was the majority sport from early childhood for nearly all players” (Hendry and Hodges, 2018).

In sports which traditionally specialize early, including artistic and acrobatic sports, very careful attention is needed to ensure the young athlete doesn’t engage in excessive repetitive movements. Instead, they should also participate in a range of other sports and activities. It’s also important to monitor and avoid factors that may lead to burnout.

But what about the all the early specializers who became Junior national or world champions? Were they on the wrong track? Gullich, Macnamara and Hambrick (2021) think so. The title of their paper says it clearly: “What makes a champion? Early multidisciplinary practice, not early specialization, predicts world-class performance.” Their analysis of 51 research papers showed that adults who are world-class athletes were involved in more childhood and adolescent “multisport practice, started their main sport later, accumulated less main-sport practice, and initially progressed more slowly than did national-class athletes…that is, senior world-class athletes who began their main sport early and specialized are the exception, not the rule.”

Early specialization may contribute to high performance in youth. Gullich, Macnamara and Hambrick’s (2021) analysis also found that “higher performing youth athletes started playing their main sport earlier, engaged in more main-sport practice but less other-sports practice, and had faster initial progress than did lower performing youth athletes.” So, do we want youth champions or adult champions?

Key takeaways for sport organizations, coaches, parents and guardians

  1. Children riding bikes outsideEarly specialization makes no sense if we aren’t aiming at the podium but instead at healthy, lifelong participation. The idea of early specialization is based on the example of a few well-known exceptional champions who specialized very early. If we aren’t aiming at the podium, based on the evidence of injury, burnout and dropout, then early specialization makes no sense at all. The best advice for a pre-puberty athlete is to help them experience a variety of sports and activities, including unstructured play, and allow them to gravitate to a sport of their choice. Pay careful attention to holistic, multi-lateral development, appropriate rest, and discouraging excessive repetitive movements.
  2. Sport parents, guardians, coaches and sport organizations should be more aware of the risks of early specialization. They must resist the temptation to gain a short-term advantage by earlier specialization or by allowing relative age effect (selecting the bigger or faster youth, when these are temporary effects due to earlier birth dates) to influence athlete selection. In most cases, whether or not the young athlete reaches high performance (for example, Junior National Champion, selection to Junior World Championships), early specialization may shorten that athlete’s sport career.
  3. Youth sport programs for younger children should help develop diverse movement and game skills instead of focusing on only 1 sport. In other words, whether it’s a swim, baseball, soccer, or gymnastics program, programs for children in the FUNdamentals stage of Long-Term Development (around 6 to 9 years old) should include a variety of non-specific games and movements. This would help children and reduce pressure on parents and guardians to register them in multiple different sports.
  4. More research is needed about whether the multi-sport approach results in greater retention and longer participation in sport. While early specialization may predispose athletes to early injury, burnout and drop out, it doesn’t automatically follow that the multi-sport approach will result in long-term retention. There are many other factors at work when deciding to remain in sport or drop out.

Youth girl with DS performing GymnasticsIt’s often said that without participation, there can be no high performance. It’s equally true that unless young participants stay in sport (healthy, happy, engaged, and excited), there can be no high performance. The research clearly shows the risks of early specialization and the benefits of multi-sport, multi-activity participation. Our challenge has two parts. First part is to make diversification the easy, affordable option for parents, guardians, coaches and sport organizations. The second part of our challenge is to sustain a sport culture that enables each athlete to remain in sport long enough to fulfill their potential and their dreams.


Since 2018, a rapid increase in the number of reported and high publicized cases of maltreatment has catapulted safe sport to the top of the priority list for sport policymakers around the globe. Prompted by the power of the #MeToo movement, athletes have taken steps to go public with their stories and report their own experiences within the Canadian sport system. In 2019, the former Minister of Science and Sport, Kirsty Duncan, responded to these reports and called for a systematic shift in the culture of sport to eradicate issues surrounding abuse.

In response, several initiatives followed, including funding for the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada to create an investigative unit and confidential helpline, the establishment of a Universal Code of Conduct on Maltreatment in Sport and new and updated policy for National Sport Organizations (NSOs) to reflect that code.

In 2022, the current Minister of Science and Sport, Pascale St. Onge, doubled down on safe sport, with further support to help address continuing issues that have plagued the sport system. Such issues include, but aren’t limited to: verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as various other forms of maltreatment.

Before a meaningful culture shift can happen, Canada needs to understand current values that prevail in an unsafe culture of sport. An understanding of what a safer sport culture could, and should, look like is also needed. Athletes’ perspectives are essential for this understanding.

Over the past year (2021 to 2022), we interviewed high performance athletes across the country about their experiences with safe and unsafe sport. We talked to them in one-on-one confidential conversations about what safe sport means to them and when they feel unsafe in sport. We also asked about how a culture of safe sport might be realized.

This research is the first phase of a larger project that’s also generating an understanding of safe and unsafe sport culture from the perspective of coaches and administrators. Here, we present the project’s preliminary findings, sharing the athletes’ voice in understanding key aspects of safe (and unsafe) culture in high performance sport.

Understanding sport culture

Culture refers to the values, beliefs and assumptions that define a pattern of behaviour among individuals in a shared context (Schein, 2017). Athletes learn (and live) the culture of sport by observing and experiencing the actions of others. They observe accepted behaviours and practices, and see what practices the sport leaders reinforce. What’s accepted, or at least tolerated, and even rewarded and celebrated, reflects underlying values, beliefs and assumptions about “how things are done around here” (MacIntosh & Doherty, 2005).

Culture develops as (sport) leaders and athletes bring their ideas and ideals to the playing field and the broader sport system. Over time, certain behaviours and practices become accepted and reinforced, despite questionable outcomes. Those espoused values may be different than lived values (MacIntosh & Doherty, 2005; Schein, 2017). For example, the sport system promotes respect as a value, however, domination and hyper-competition may be sport participants’ lived values that they carried out and experienced. This may explain the unsafe culture in high performance sport despite government, Sport Canada and related agencies advocating for principles consistent with a safe environment.

It’s possible to effectively shift or change culture over time by refocusing and entrenching new and different values and behaviours (Alvesson & Svenignsonn, 2016). However, it requires an understanding of the culture’s existing undesirable aspects as well as the preferred values, beliefs and practices.

There’s mounting concern about how to create a culture that fosters excellence in participant outcomes while ensuring athlete wellness. And that concern is consistent with an athlete-focused understanding of the environments in which athletes train and participate in sport (MacIntosh, 2020). So, it’s critical to understand the athlete perspective, because ultimately, the athletes both live the culture and can help create the changes needed when given the opportunity to do so.

Our study: The athlete perspective

We interviewed 28 high performance athletes across Canada in 2021 and 2022. All athletes were 18 years of age or older and competing at (or recently retired from) the high performance level of sport. The participants included 16 athletes who self-identified as women, 11 as men and 1 participant preferred not to disclose.

The athletes represented 16 sports, including summer and winter, team and individual and able-bodied and parasport. The athletes’ highest level of engagement included major international sporting events, such as the Pan American and Para Pan American Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, Olympic and Paralympic Games.

We used a trauma-informed interviewing approach in our virtual conversations with athletes about safe and unsafe sport environments and mechanisms to shift the culture within the Canada sport system.

The contexts of unsafe and safe sport

The athletes described slightly different contexts of unsafe and safe sport. In discussing when they feel safe in their sport, athletes focused on the environment closest to them, specifically their coaches, teammates and fellow athletes. They also referenced ancillary support and staff (for example, physiotherapy, nutrition and mental performance counselling, media support, financial aid). This connection to context is illustrated by the concentric circles that are closest to the athlete in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Contexts of athletes’ safe and unsafe sport experiences.

In contrast, in relating when they feel unsafe in their sport, athletes focused on a broader environment, including not only those closest to them (teammates, fellow athletes and coaches), but also ancillary support and staff and the sport system itself (notably their NSO, related policies and processes, and sport bystanders).

The athletes don’t particularly associate the sport system, including their NSO, with feeling safe in their sport (that focus was on the people closest to them). Instead, they described the system as the context of an unsafe culture.

As such, it isn’t surprising that athletes described a greater range of experiences of unsafe than safe sport. That suggests unsafe sport is a complex phenomenon.

What athletes have to say about feeling safe and unsafe in sport

Athletes related specific experiences of “when I feel safe” and “when I feel unsafe” in their high performance sport environment. Figure 2 depicts the athletes’ experiences, and our interpretation of the necessary shift from an unsafe to a safer sport culture.

Figure 2. Manifestations of unsafe and safer sport in the high performance environment

I feel unsafe when…

1. Coaches behave inappropriately   

Unsafe coaching behaviour included overstepping boundaries and “blurring lines” by getting too involved in the athlete’s life (for example, nutrition, daily schedule, social world). One athlete stated:

“The coaches could be making comments about nutrition, looks, weight and that is a really big one in the sport. I’m sure there’s that kind of side of it, trying to kind of manipulate and change the way you do things, which often leads to eating disorders, especially in the sport that I’m in as well.”

Another athlete explained:

“It makes you not feel safe or respected or supported when a coach goes beyond, I guess, the lines of your performance and more so into your actual life, the decisions you’re making, your own autonomy.”

Athletes also feel unsafe when the coach is a gatekeeper of valuable resources, including financial support and information. Gatekeeping intensifies the power imbalance that already exists. Athletes also viewed as unsafe the coaches whose knowledge was out of date.

Athletes described aggressive and exclusionary coach behaviours as examples of when athletes feel unsafe in high performance sport. For example, one athlete said:    

“Belittling you and attacking your character when you’re just asking a simple question.”

Another athlete referred to:

“That idea that your coach has his favourites, or your coach deliberately excludes you from drills or just somehow hinders your progress in any way, that makes sport an unsafe environment.”

2. Teammates and fellow athletes are exclusionary or aggressive

Athletes described teammates and fellow athletes as also exemplifying unsafe sport through exclusion. For example, through the language used in a group, and through exclusion from the group entirely. An athlete described:

“[Fellow athletes] trampling on people to get to the top and the people who, you know, don’t respect their training partners, people who don’t listen, who will belittle you or make you feel like you’re crap.”

Another athlete said:

“Teammates told me I wasn’t allowed to race in a club singlet [uniform] because I wasn’t in the group anymore.”

Athletes also described teammates and fellow athletes as contributing to an unsafe environment when they’re physically and emotionally aggressive:

“Putting other people at risk in [the sport] is unsafe. That’s like the biggest thing that I think of. So, like intentionally doing something to hurt someone else.”

3. There’s a lack of resources

Athletes positioned a lack of resources as an additional unsafe condition. They related insufficient ancillary support (for example, physiotherapy, mental performance, financial aid) as contributing to their vulnerability in the high performance environment. They also noted that common conditions of an unsafe environment included insufficient rules and regulations (or lack of regard for existing rules) both on and off the field of play, and unsuitable equipment and facilities.

Athletes shared examples such as:

“We didn’t have a team doctor at the time to help.”

4. The sport system is inattentive

Finally, athletes discussed the sport system in terms of a limited reporting process, where confidentiality isn’t protected, so individuals fear reaching out. Athletes also reported a lack of accountability and action. In those cases, the organizations didn’t necessarily check themselves when inappropriate behaviour exists. Or if such behaviour is acknowledged, the organizations took no action. For example, one athlete said:

“They kind of said, you can make a report, but you’re going to be [ostracized] for the rest of your career.”

Another athlete described:

“That is why I never approached anyone, and if I did, it would have been really weird to go about trying to get this [person] fired. But if they added up all the stories and they would have known something was very wrong, but there’s no in-between button. There’s no like yellow. It’s always like red, green, and it’s tough for the athletes. [Red meaning definitely inappropriate, reportable behaviour. Green is appropriate. Yellow is behaviour that either doesn’t fit clearly in red or green, or that athletes suspect the behaviour is inappropriate, but are unsure if it is.]”

These issues include the inaction of bystanders as well and the repercussions for athletes:

“I feel like it should be adults’ priority to step in when they see it happen and not depend or rely on a child basically, to come forward and say that it’s a problem. And if they see it with their own eyes, I think that they should come forward and stop it before things get out of hand. By the time they’re like 18, for example, it’s too late to step in at that point. But honestly, in my experience, [they] didn’t even step in. So then I think that’s really unfortunate, because it comes to the point where the athlete has to come forward, but after going through years of abuse, you get to the point where you’re brainwashed, and you almost don’t realize it’s abuse anymore.”

I feel safe when…

1. The coach is knowledgeable and prioritizes athletes’ interests

When discussing what constitutes a safe sport environment, the athletes also focused on coach behaviour. In particular, athletes feel safe when their coach is knowledgeable about athlete development and self-aware of their own strengths and limitations. In a safe environment, the coach has the athlete’s best interests in mind and is focused on their personal sport development through a positive, two-way relationship. An athlete described:

“Making sure you have a good environment around you; a good coaching staff. You’re developing in an appropriate way, relative to a long-term athletic development model. So, kind of safety as a broad term as in, you know, you’re developing in a proper way that’s going to allow you to have longevity in the career that you chose.”

2. There’s a sense of community

Athletes described a strong sense of community as fundamental to a safe sport environment. Inclusion, open communication, and trust among individuals who are like a family promotes emotional security. For example, an athlete said:

“Just supportive and there to help you without criticizing or judging your needs or anything like that.”

Another athlete described:

“You’re in an environment that you feel comfortable in. And when you’re pushing that boundary, that you have people around you [who] you trust. And then I would say a huge aspect of it is the emotional side of it and the cultural side of it. So being able to ask for extra help, being able to trust your teammates that they’re, they’re there for you.”

These were the most common manifestations of safe sport for athletes. However, athletes also noted support, such as the availability of physiotherapy, nutrition counselling and so on, and the existence and enforcement of regulations.

Toward a safer sport culture

Children happy in their soccer uniforms.There’s a need to shift away from the unsafe culture of high performance sport and its associated behaviours and practices described by the athletes in this study. In keeping with the athlete-centred focus of our study, we asked the athletes how the high-performance sport system in Canada could be a safer culture. They outlined several places to focus future attention, including elements of the sport system, coaching, teammates, and ancillary support and staff. The athletes most frequently outlined the sport system as a whole, and coach behaviour in particular, as targets for change.

Athletes’ targets for a safer sport culture:

Canadian high performance athletes have shared their perceptions about unsafe and safe sport and provided insights to targets and mechanisms for change. Their voices must lead the way.


Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee

When Jenny Davey first started working at the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) in 2014, she had no idea how much a fledgling research partnership would shape the work she does in the Paralympic sport system 8 years later.

“I never would have thought, ‘well, 8 years from now, I’m going to be able to pick up the phone and call this person’ or that this work would be infused in everything that I’m doing,” she says.

Davey is referring to her involvement in the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP), a cross-sector network of partners working together to enhance community participation, including in sport and exercise, among Canadians with disabilities. Here, “participation” refers to both the quantity and quality of a person’s involvement in an activity.

Davey is now the CPC’s Manager of Paralympic Pathways and the community lead for the CDPP’s sport and exercise team. She works closely with Amy Latimer-Cheung, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at Queen’s University and the sport and exercise team’s research lead.

Latimer-Cheung shares a similar view when she thinks back to the CDPP’s early days.

“I thought we were going to just do a lot of surveys,” she says. “I thought we would look to create a definition of quality participation, and then do a survey of athletes to understand their experience, and then maybe create a resource or 2.”

But the sheer number of relationships built, programs created, and resources developed since the CDPP launched in 2014 tell a different story. Researchers and partners from across the CDPP’s network agree that the CDPP is moving the needle when it comes to enhancing sport and physical activity participation for Canadians with disabilities.

The Canadian Disability Participation Project

Para-athletics race. Closeup view of leading athlete during a race on the track.Led by Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor in the Department of Medicine and the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus), the CDPP is funded by a partnership grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). SSHRC awarded the grant to Martin Ginis in 2014 for a 7-year period, then extended the grant to 2023 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Martin Ginis, the CDPP was born out of an earlier SSHRC-funded initiative that promoted physical activity specifically for people with spinal cord injuries. “When that [initiative] ended, our spinal cord injury partners said, ‘Awesome, can we do more than just physical activity?’ And our disability partners said, ‘Awesome, can we focus on more than people with just spinal cord injury?’” she says. These conversations laid the groundwork for what became the CDPP.

The CDPP focuses on community participation in 3 areas: mobility (that is, moving about one’s community), employment, and sport and exercise. The goal of the sport and exercise team is to develop, test and implement evidence-based best-practices to increase the number of people with disabilities who participate in sport and exercise, and to improve the quality of their experiences.

“I think it’s a matter of right people, right time, right place. The sport sector is so open to the idea of quality participation,” says Latimer-Cheung, the sport and exercise team lead. “We’ve learned and continue to learn to listen to our partners… and by being open to our partners, I think that’s led us down a really amazing path,” she added.

The CDPP’s cross-sector partners include organizations that fund, offer or facilitate adapted physical activity and sport programming for Canadians with disabilities. These organizations range from community hubs, like the Abilities Centre (Whitby, Ontario) and The Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement (Edmonton, Alberta), to sport organizations that serve the national sport sector, including PowerHockey Canada, Special Olympics Canada (SOC) and the CPC.

Researchers and sport partners in the CDPP network agree that the CDPP’s commitment to community-driven research and knowledge translation are key to its success. As Latimer-Cheung puts it, “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the research you do put into practice and changing the way an athlete experiences sport or the way a program runs.”

Building quality participation in sport and exercise

Athlete working out during training.In Canada’s sport sector, the term “participation” is most commonly associated with numbers: How many people are participating in sport, how often, and for how long? While we’re so focused on quantity, we’re less likely to consider the quality of a person’s sport participation. 

That’s where the CDPP is taking a different approach. The work of the CDPP is founded on the concept of quality participation. According to the CDPP, quality participation is achieved when a person views their involvement in sport as satisfying and enjoyable, and experiences outcomes that they consider important.

“I know we’re not the only ones talking about quality participation… but I think we are the first who have been so evidence based and deliberate and systematic in defining it and using research evidence to advance it,” says Martin Ginis.

Through building and synthesizing the evidence base focused on quality participation in sport, Latimer-Cheung’s team developed the Blueprint for Building Quality Participation in Sport for Children, Youth and Adults with a Disability. The Blueprint is a free resource that provides sport program administrators, leaders and policymakers with practical tools to design and evaluate the quality of sport programs for people with disabilities.

The Blueprint, which is based on the Quality Parasport Participation Framework, identifies 6 “building blocks” of a quality sport experience:

The Blueprint also identifies strategies that program administrators, leaders and others in the sport environment can use to support the building blocks. For example, when a coach gives an athlete the option to choose the skill or technique that they feel is most important to work on during practice, the coach is supporting the athlete’s autonomy.

“The 6 building blocks seem to be quite universal across types of disability and across types of programming,” says Latimer-Cheung. “And the strategies to achieve quality don’t have to be huge changes… it’s the small things in a day that make a difference.”

In addition to the Blueprint, CDPP researchers created a tool to measure the building blocks of quality participation in a program or activity. The Quality of Participation Measure and Guide is free to download on the CDPP’s webpage.

Putting quality participation into practice

Young male athlete with a disability training in a gym, unhappyThe Blueprint and related resources have become a foundational component of the work being done by the CDPP’s sport partners. From guiding program design and evaluation to setting criteria for the administration of funding opportunities, partners say the Blueprint is a helpful tool to promote quality sport programming.

“One of the most useful pieces that we’ve been integrating at the Steadward Centre is the quality participation framework,” says Jen Leo, the Director of the Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement at the University of Alberta.

The Steadward Centre delivers programs in sport, physical activity and recreation for adults, youth and kids experiencing disability. Last year, the Steadward Centre asked members to rate their perceptions of the building blocks of quality participation as part of the centre’s annual program evaluations. The findings of these evaluations informed staff training, says Leo.

“Our members identified ‘challenge’ [as being important to them], which our staff didn’t identify as much. Okay, well, if that’s important for our members, how as a team can we better foster challenge?”

The Blueprint is also a go-to resource for the CPC, says Davey.

“You could be a small club using it or you could be a multisport national organization like us, depending on how high or low up the Blueprint you want to go,” she says. “I just think it’s a really good tool if you’re working in Para sport.”

While the Blueprint was initially created to inform sport programming for people with physical disabilities, a partnership with SOC helped to expand the focus to people with intellectual disabilities as well.

Tom Davies, the Director of Athlete and Coach Development at SOC, approached Latimer-Cheung about a potential partnership after she presented the quality participation framework at the Sport for Life Summit in 2019. “I just kind of walked up to them after [the presentation] because we’ve always talked about our programs being quality, but have never been able to support that, from a research or evidence base,” says Davies.

The CDPP worked with SOC to engage stakeholders in conversations about what quality participation looks like in Special Olympics Active Start and FUNdamentals programs. The CDPP also reviewed SOC’s resources for program leaders.

“They started really learning about Special Olympics and our programs. And they were able to define for us… where we’re hitting on the right marks based on their pillars of quality participation, and some opportunities for improvement,” says Davies.

From there, CDPP and SOC worked together to create a new Blueprint for program providers and leaders to enhance the quality of programs for participants with intellectual disabilities.

“Our partnership with SOC has been amazing,” says Latimer-Cheung. “Tom and his team have been super receptive to the work and then also provided really instrumental feedback. And, you know, we’ve learned along the way too, about how to work with partners.”

Davies agrees: “A lot of times when working with researchers we put money out, they go do the research, give us the research back, and then nothing happens. But I think with CDPP, it’s been [more collaborative].” Both partners were equally invested in the project, financially and intellectually, he says.

The CDPP’s commitment to helping SOC create quality experiences for its participants is not lost on Davies either. “There’s been a real desire to take what we found through that research and make programmatic improvements for SOC.”

Raising the profile of Para sport in Canada

Canada's sledge hockey team practicesFor Meghan Hines, the president of PowerHockey Canada, the opportunity to share her lived experience as a powerchair Para athlete has been a key part of her work with the CDPP. Hines is collaborating with the CDPP on a project exploring the experiences of powerchair Para athletes and program providers. The ultimate goal of the project is to get more powerchair sport programs up and running across Canada.

“[The CDPP researchers] have been really helpful in providing insight into how we can leverage research methodology to get the information we need to achieve our project goal,” says Hines. “Their insight, combined with our lived experience as powerchair users, has been invaluable and will truly create positive change within the Canadian Para sport landscape.”

Hines’ research with the CDPP is being used to create a “playbook” on how to run a successful powerchair sport program. The next phase of the research will involve using the playbook to pilot new powerchair sport programs across Ontario.

“At the end of the day, this project is not about research. It’s about ‘how do we create more quality powerchair sport programs, and create a better experience for our current and future powerchair Para athletes?’” she says.

While many of the CDPP’s partners are adapted sport and physical activity service or program providers, the CPC brings a different lens to its work with the CDPP. The CPC is a multi-sport service organization that works with national sport organizations to develop a sustainable Paralympic sport system in Canada. 

“I think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Davey. “We certainly engage CDPP to help us with our research or when we have questions or sometimes even to help us figure out the right questions to ask. And if CDPP is looking to do certain research or they’re looking for feedback with a Paralympic lens, then we try and share back what we can.”

Davey likes to highlight the CDPP’s support in helping one of its network community partners, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities (Jumpstart), to redefine the eligibility of the Para Sport Jumpstart Fund. Davey sees it as an example of how the CDPP used research to make a small change with big impact for the program.

A joint initiative of the CPC and Jumpstart, the Para Sport Jumpstart Fund was a grant program designed to help community organizations remove barriers to Para sport programming for children with disabilities. Now, all Para sport, adapted sport and inclusive sport program applications are reviewed as part of Jumpstart’s Community Development Grants.

“When we were first partnering on that grant, back around 2014, 2015, we literally were not able to disperse the funds that we had because not enough organizations were eligible on the old criteria,” says Davey.

The CDPP helped CPC and Jumpstart build a case for increasing the age limit for eligible Para Sport programs from 18 to 25. The CDPP also helped them to expand the definition of “barriers” beyond strictly financial need. After implementing these changes, demand for the program soared. As Davey put it: “We went from not being able to get the money out to huge demand and huge impact.”

The evolution of the CPC’s partnership with the CDPP over the last 8 years has been a highlight of Latimer-Cheung’s involvement in the CDPP.

“The CPC has always been great to reach out to ask for the latest and greatest findings, but now they’re also reaching out with their own research ideas,” she says. It’s something she hopes more organizations will think about doing in the future.

“I want sport organizations to know that they’re reaching researchers hungry to work with them. And we always find their ideas really exciting and interesting.”

Supporting an inclusive sport system, from playground to podium

The CDPP’s sport and exercise team is also pushing boundaries when it comes to studying physical activity and sport participation in new and non-traditional contexts, like on the playground.

Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos is an associate professor studying disability and physical activity at the University of Toronto. She’s leading a CDPP project that explores the playground experiences of Canadian children with disabilities and their families, including how physical educators and rehabilitation specialists can use playground spaces.

Arbour-Nicitopoulos has been working with Jumpstart since 2019 to help evaluate the impact of the playgrounds built through its Inclusive Play initiative. The initiative works in partnership with local municipalities to bring large-scale inclusive infrastructure to communities across Canada, in an effort to ensure children of all abilities have access to recreational infrastructure.

“Families are having positive experiences from opportunities [for children with disabilities] to be involved in play on the playground. But what’s interesting is that there are still challenges in the surrounding environment,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos.

In other words, while the playgrounds are built to be inclusive, getting to the playground might be more difficult. For example, while Jumpstart works with municipal partners to try to ensure accessible parking spaces, pathways and washroom facilities, there continues to be room for improvement with regard to the accessibility of resources surrounding the playgrounds. By communicating these findings back to Jumpstart and the communities with these playgrounds, Arbour-Nicitopoulos hopes to create a more inclusive playground experience “from the moment a parent or child wants to go to the playground” to when they arrive back home.

Arbour-Nicitopoulos and her team have also identified 13 recommendations for how to design inclusive playgrounds based on an extensive review of the academic literature. She is working with partners to create evidence-informed resources that will put these recommendations into practice.

“We have been creating evidence-based resources with The Steadward Centre and colleagues at Holland Bloorview [Kids Rehabilitation Hospital] to support not only the building of more inclusive and accessible playgrounds, but also training on inclusive play practices to maximize return-on-investment of playground spaces and create quality play experiences for children and youth with disabilities,” she says.

Another way that the CDPP is working to support inclusive sport and physical activity programs is through advocacy and awareness.

“A family can’t participate in a physical activity program if they don’t know it exists, or if they don’t know whether or not it meets their child’s needs,” says Rebecca Bassett-Gunter, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University.

Bassett-Gunter’s contributions to the CDPP center on evidence-informed practices to promote physical activity to families of children with a disability. These practices include everything from what a message says to how that message is shared with its target audience.

A tangible outcome of Bassett-Gunter’s recent work has been the development of 5 evidence-informed recommendations for community-based organizations. The recommendations are intended to help organizations in their efforts to promote physical activity among children with disabilities through sharing information with parents.

“We have gone through this process of looking at our own research evidence, and then going through a more rigorous process involving 31 different stakeholders to come to a consensus on recommendations that we can give to community-based organizations,” says Bassett-Gunter.

Engaging stakeholders in the process helped to ensure the recommendations would be relevant and useful for community-based organizations. But working with 31 different stakeholders posed challenges of its own.

“You can imagine that ParticipACTION’s needs are really different than the Toronto Accessible Sports Council or the Steadward Centre in Alberta,” says Bassett-Gunter. “But it was really important to have all those voices involved.”

“There’s no downside to bringing Para sport into the community”

Wheelchair athlete wearing a training jersey on the sidelines of a practiceSince 2014, the CDPP sport and exercise team has partnered with over 70 organizations, published nearly 60 peer-reviewed papers, and created more than 100 resources, toolkits and knowledge translation bulletins. While the grant that funds it will expire in 2023, Latimer-Cheung is leading the charge to obtain new funding to support the CDPP’s sport and exercise initiatives.

“One of the cool things is that because it’s been such a long grant, it’s given us time to really establish long term relationships,” says Leo, who was first contacted about partnering with the CDPP during the grant writing process in 2013. “I feel like even if CDPP stopped tomorrow, we would continue working together because it is such a mutually beneficial collaboration.”

The group will continue to develop new and existing relationships to enhance the quantity and quality of sport and physical activity participation among Canadians with disabilities, building on the knowledge it has gathered and translated over the last 8 years.

“The strategies aren’t rocket science, but the way that [the CDPP researchers] present them and explain things and the fact that it is being presented by researchers and is evidence based, I think gives it a little bit more weight,” says Davies. “I think just being able to get those strategies and tools out there has created potential for more inclusive sport environments,” he adds.

Hines echoes Davies’ sentiment. “There’s no downside to bringing Para sport into the community. It may feel like a big undertaking, but with the right tools and strategies, like those provided by the CDPP, it is more than possible,” she says.

Making progress in the areas of inclusion and equity often requires stepping outside of your comfort zone, but the CDPP has shown what a difference that can make. As Bassett-Gunter puts it:

“I think people are scared of getting things wrong in the area of inclusion. And you know, I think it’s the willingness to learn and try and work with the people in your community to do the best that you can, that’s really what we need to focus on.”

Recommended resources

Blueprint for Building Quality Participation in Sport for Children, Youth and Adults with a Disability

Blueprint for Building Quality Participation in Sport for Children and Youth and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

Quality of Participation Measure and Guide

Inclusive Playgrounds Resource

Tips and Tricks for Developing and Disseminating Physical Activity Information for Children and Families with Disabilities

All of the CDPP’s resources are freely available at


“Teaching was something that I always knew that I could do. From an early age, I was captain of teams and things like that, so I was thrust into leadership roles,” says Greg Henhawk.

Henhawk is a Mohawk of the Bear Clan, from Six Nations of Grand River First Nation, in Southern Ontario. He’s a retired secondary school teacher who spends time engaging, collaborating and consulting with Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, sport coaches, leaders and program providers across Canada. With a passion for Indigenous philosophy and holistic athlete development, Henhawk is leading the way for physical literacy and long-term development in sport.

As an Indigenous Ambassador, Long-term Development Advisor, and team member for the Physical Literacy with Indigenous Communities project at Sport for Life, Henhawk is actively involved in educational programs and initiatives designed to engage Indigenous people in sport and physical activity. According to Henhawk, Indigenous philosophies offer an approach to physical literacy and long-term development that benefits everyone.

SIRC sat down with Henhawk to discuss how Indigenous ways of knowing and doing can inform an approach to sport that encourages physical literacy and lifelong sport engagement. Here, we share our conversation with Henhawk. Through storytelling, Henhawk conveys the importance of building relationships, promoting diversity and accepting change in sport. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

SIRC: Thanks for being with us today. Let’s start by talking about physical literacy. What does it mean to you, Greg?

GH: Physical literacy isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. It’s about developing skills throughout your life that directly impact your life. It’s about being able to accept, embrace and flow with change, as change is one of the only guaranteed aspects of life. I think it’s especially [relevant] to Indigenous people and our holistic way of knowing and doing. It fits our ways of understanding “life balance” and the adaptability needed to regain it, amid factors and conditions changing around us.

There are always differing perspectives when trying to explain physical literacy. For me, it isn’t just doing physical education, sports or recreational activities. Physical literacy is way more holistic than that. It deals with the whole person. It affects the way you feel mentally, emotionally, spiritually and culturally, while you’re active in any way.

And it’s something that’s continual, it’s something that you go through your entire life. It isn’t something that’s one and done. There isn’t one “right” way or a “one size fits all” for everybody. It’s like nature in its diversity. In nature there’s more than one type of tree globally, more than one type of animal and more than just one climate.

Rivers continually flow and change their specific course, but their general course remain consistent from their source to their mouth. As conditions change, rivers and water remain resilient in their path forward, but they also adapt to obstacles.

Physical literacy is going to take on a different role, a different importance depending on the culture, but you’ll find it in every culture. It’s going to manifest itself in a different way from person to person or group to group. It’s completely analogous to an Indigenous (holistic) path through life.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit people traditionally didn’t silo things into mutually exclusive boxes. We looked at relationships in a broad, holistic way. Physical literacy and Indigenous knowledge match each other extremely well.

SIRC: If you were to define physical literacy through an Indigenous lens, what would you say?

GH: A piece I wrote (for the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ontario, during another physical literacy project) explains the relationship between rivers and water and the lessons they can, and do, teach about life. And since physical literacy is about a journey through life, they’re all related. A knowledge quote I used is from a knowledge keeper here on Six Nations:

“A river is a symbol of travel through time and life. The river stands for the idea that the principles of the law and the relationships they foster can remain constant, even as the temporal, social, and political landscapes change.” (Williams, 2018, p. 48)

Often, I share that which is shared with me. I have to remind people, this isn’t my invented philosophy. I’m simply passing on a philosophy that’s existed for thousands of years.

Physical literacy is more holistic than just the physical aspect of a person that connects the mind, body, spirit, and physical aspects of being. And like water, it continually flows and contributes to balance in life and overall wellness.

If you went down to a river today and went in for a swim, or just even walked in and wet your feet, you can go to that same river the next day, and you aren’t in the same water. You’re in different water, but it’s still the same river. There’s constant change in the water as it flows downstream, but it’s still the same river. Consistency and adaptability at the same time. Our pre-settler ideology emphasizes the idea that we must be prepared to adapt, because the only constant thing in the world is change. 

I look at physical literacy as the same thing. As you develop, as you go through life, you learn how to walk, you learn how to run, you learn these different skills, and you must learn how to adapt and then learn more.

As you get older you must adapt. I realize that as my body ages, it changes. I must accept that there are some things I’m not going to be able to do, like I did when I was younger. But I can do things to try and keep that from happening, and today I’m capable of things I couldn’t do yesterday.

Change is hard, but it’s possible. An example from sporting life is when professional athletes or someone who’s been involved in something physical for a very long time comes to the end of their competitive career. Often their wellness suffers when they must stop competing within their sport and move on to a new part of their life journey.

Going back to traditional teachings, you’re encouraged to learn to adapt to this eventuality so that you embrace the change (flow downstream) and adjust to this new way of life, rather than fight it. It then becomes a part [of] life you must adapt to throughout life. A river reminds you that life’s a journey and what that journey’s all about. 

Those aspects of Indigenous philosophy that were commonplace in the past help frame things like physical literacy. It’s much more than just being physically strong, so that you can be at the top of your game for a particular sport. It’s about overall wellness and balance as you journey through life, learning how to play the game.

SIRC: You’ve said there isn’t an Indigenous translation for “right” and how there are many ways of doing things, not a single “right” way. What do you mean?

GH: It’s true that in our language (as in many First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages), there was no direct word for (or translation or conceptualization of) “right.” The best translation of what we would say is “good.” Over time this may have developed into a word for “right.” But only because there’s been pressure to come up with direct translations for English words and concepts. They lose the true conceptualization in translation. Words have been developed for modern things like cellphones and TV. Things like that wouldn’t be traditional, but they’re also an example of adaptation, although sometimes forced.

Getting back to “right,” the explanation for not having a definitive word relates back to adaptability. Unfortunately, in English the word “right” is definitive. And it’s become dichotomous in a negative way. There’s good and bad or there’s good and evil. So, by saying something is “right” or something is “wrong,” there’s no alternative. There’s no alternative, no diversity, just one way.

AWG Dene Games“The Indigenous conceptualization of “good” is also different than in English. One example of good ties in with cycles. Cycles and circles are incredibly important to not only Indigenous art, but also to Indigenous philosophy. The world’s cyclical nature informs and teaches adaptability. A yearly cycle of going around the sun includes the changing of seasons. Even in warmer climates, changes still happen. Cycles are a reminder that things change, but they also return to a balance with the opportunity for renewal. From spring to fall, the leaves change. From the orbit and phases of the moon, water rises and lowers. Within a cycle, things will change, but also return to balance and some aspects change are also constants. There’s no “right” way for that change to happen either. It isn’t going to happen the exact same way every time. Nature functions in a multitude of ways (diverse), it doesn’t only do things one “right” way. Why try for “right,” humans?

“Good” also leaves the door open for improvement. If something is good with today’s knowledge (what we know now), then when our knowledge improves (as we learn more), shouldn’t we adapt? A river doesn’t flow on exactly the same path for all of eternity, it changes directions. That doesn’t mean it’s no longer a river. It doesn’t lose the best of what makes it a river. It keeps moving forward toward its ultimate goal, downstream in a better way, a better future.

SIRC: How can thinking about our actions as “good” versus “right” help us create meaningful change in sport?

GH: If you aren’t used to adapting to change, you get entrenched in the “right” way as the only way. Ever. And that can lead to rationalization that we can’t change because it’s going to upset the applecart and that just leads to way too much work!

But times do change and like water flowing downstream in a river, every day there’s new water, but it’s still a river. In a river, factors like the river bottom change, changing from rocky to clay as water travels through different environments. But the water is resilient and doesn’t change its essence. But, it will adjust to new conditions or find a new way when necessary. When there’s resistance to change, often a person’s philosophy (rationalization) has become: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

If you aren’t used to adapting or changing, you get entrenched in one path, only one “right” way. I believe that’s where the “old dog, new tricks” philosophy stems from. Ultimately, I believe that thinking is driven by the mentality of maximizing profit and spending the least possible. And unfortunately, that translates into: “Don’t take it personally, it’s just business,” which depersonalizes decision-making. It also promotes “I need to obtain and maintain a position of wealth, power and influence” ahead of good relations.

That’s the opposite of traditional Indigenous thought. We don’t want to (and can’t) control nature, which includes controlling people. And nature means diversity and change. Throughout history, there are many examples (negative ones) of humans trying to control nature and people, especially people who were different in culture, spirituality and philosophy. If they didn’t fit the “right” way, then they were automatically bad or evil. Strategies to wipe out or control people who were different were rationalized as dealing with the bad or evil in the “right” way.

Being able to consider the premise “nothing is ever 100% right” opens the possibility for adaptation, even if in small ways. The possibility of change doesn’t mean everything must change or that it will happen all at once (again, think of the changing riverbed). A reason people resist change is fear, either of the unknown or that good will become bad. That’s when “good” strong relationships are needed between all relations (people, animals, earth).

To Indigenous people, medicine is way more than chemicals. Medicine is anything that supports wellness. Good relationships are medicine, including relationships born of diversity, not just similarities.

SIRC: What are the ingredients of a good relationship?

Good relationships require unity. And unity requires three things: a good message, peace and power.

Good message: That’s understanding everyone’s connected with each other and the world that surrounds us (diverse as we may be). We must commit to: respect, trust and friendship. We must transform adversaries into allies. We must insist on equality and reciprocity as integral to Respect”. And remember there isn’t only one “right” way to have a good mind and heart.

 Peace: It’s more than just a word. It’s an idea, a process, an action. Peace is health and wellness and it doesn’t stop at a healthy body and good mind. It extends beyond a healthy society to all our relations in our surrounding world. We help one another in many ways, not in one “right” way.

Power: It isn’t what some may think. It’s the power of togetherness within our diversity. A lasting “good” is sustained by establishing relationships and actions that are continually examined, and not just from a single transaction or policy. It’s sustained from the process of continually sharing our diverse voices, languages and thoughts.

Diversity (and not just one “right” way) is served by listening to truths of the past. As difficult as that may sometimes be, it’s a necessary process that seeks to guide actions in the now, and also in the future, for the children and youth we haven’t seen yet! A better place for our children and our children’s children. Seven generations into the future has always been the goal of our ancestors’ wisdom. A good mind and a good heart will always join with other good minds and hearts for that’s where the power lies.

I truly believe there’s momentum for “good” change in sport at the grassroots and mid management level. The top level of decision-making (and funding) seems wary of change, they need our help, they need our medicine. In the near future, I’m hopeful they’ll be open to consider the possibility that good change won’t totally upset their applecart, their world, our world.

Any consideration of change has to be holistic and that means personal (trust, respect and power). And “power” in Indigenous philosophy means the strength of connection intertwined with trust and respect, not just business.

Sport can flow forward in a good way toward a better future when all levels of decision-making and all people are connected and moving toward the same goal. And that leads to considering what is truly meant by Reconciliation, Acceptance of Diversity and Inclusion. In a good way.

SIRC: How can collaboration play a role in equity, diversity and inclusion?

GH: So, how do we work together? Nature has found a way. I go back to nature, because that’s what our Indigenous thought does. The world over, there isn’t just one tree, one climate, one kind of plant. There isn’t one kind of animal that has taken over and made everything the same. There’s diversity in nature. And there’s balance in nature too, it finds a way.

Globally, throughout time I think philosophy and leadership hasn’t asked “How do you deal with differences in a good way?” Instead, it’s been: “Let’s get rid of the difference and do it our way, the ‘right’ way.”

When settlers first arrived, the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois) developed an agreement with the settlers detailing how their relationship would exist moving forward. It’s recorded with the “Two Row Wampum” (two parallel lines, close together, continuing in the same direction).

Essentially, the two lines represent two water vessels (one Indigenous and one non-Indigenous) flowing in the same direction (future). They’re close together, representing sharing and knowing each other very well. The lines never cross, never become one, nor diverge. Several concepts were embedded in these lines. Neither culture will impose its will on the other (tell them what to do), there shouldn’t be conflict between them, nor should they change their unity by moving apart (power or strength exists in good relationships). The lines’ proximity represented working together, but still retaining their own unique identity.

Would this have been an agreement with Savages? I don’t think so. Indigenous people weren’t Savages when settlers first arrived (we had our conflicts in the past, but had moved past that history). The Haudenosaunee had the “Great Law of Peace!” But, we definitely had differences.

 We helped them; we helped settlers survive in ecosystems that were foreign to them. We showed them how to survive in this climate, we showed them foods that could give them vitamin C so they wouldn’t die of scurvy. We showed them all kinds of things when they first came here. We didn’t attack them when they first came here. The perception of who we were when they first arrived is misleading.

Despite not being considered people in Constitution of Canada and the British North America Acts until 1952, I still believe the good path forward is through collaboration, true partnerships where everyone has an equal voice at a table, not just simply a seat at the table without voice. We help one another. Collaboration also means we work with differences and diversity, rather than trying to make everybody the same.

SIRC: What advice would you leave our readers about enhancing their physical literacy and sport programming?

Begin with the premise that “people are people first.” And then learn to communicate by speaking with people rather than at them. Begin the long process of unpacking the past’s uncomfortable truth by not only learning surface culture but deep culture as well. Create trust and respect by listening for understanding, as opposed to listening to simply respond. Build strong relationships first. There will be plenty of time to talk business second.

Trust in the possibility of good change and the inevitability of change. It’s part of the cycle of life. Never forget that physical literacy, sport and people are all interconnected in a holistic way, not simply in a checkbox or acknowledgement. Be adaptable and creative. Change will happen, albeit in small ways and small cycles, and over large cycles and generations.

All people are guided by and exist for a better future for our children and youth, far into the future. That’s the power that binds us.


Until recently, a typical research process would include generating ideas or research questions, gathering and analyzing data to test hypotheses, publishing the results in scientific journals and anticipating that the findings would be adopted or applied in the “real world.” Then, this cycle would repeat, replacing old questions with new lines of inquiry.  

True, this outdated approach generated new knowledge, although clearly at various levels of depth and breadth. However, that approach rarely resulted in uptake of research findings by the people or organizations best positioned to make use of such findings. They’re also known as knowledge-users or end-users.  

Without that uptake, the findings don’t lead to meaningful shifts or improvements in how things are done. For example, despite a recent increase in research focused on sport and physical activity policies, programs and practices (Blamey & Mutrie, 2004; Faulkner et al., 2006), there have been no notable improvements in population-level sport and physical activity participation, according to surveillance data.  

It’s undoubtably complex to effectively translate knowledge that stems from academic research findings and apply it to the real world of sport and physical activity participation. A disconnect between researchers and knowledge-users could be a factor that’s hindering the translation of such research into practice. In particular, it’s possible that sport and physical activity researchers pursue studies that aren’t valuable to knowledge-users, such as sport administrators, coaches, public health professionals or education specialists. Or, if they do, it’s possible that their results don’t find their way to those working to promote sport and physical activity participation.  

Essentially that’s a gap between the research (on sport and physical activity) and the needs of those who can best apply or act on those research findings. To bridge that gap, we recently conducted a study aimed at identifying top research priorities of sport and physical activity among knowledge-users from various sectors across Canada. In this article, we’ll describe best practices and frameworks for effective knowledge translation (which guided our study). We also cover how we conducted our research and what we found to be the top research priorities of sport and physical activity knowledge-users in Canada. 

Bridging the research-to-practice gap

Basketball coach with clipboard and marker explain with scheme the strategy of the game to a player.

Several studies previously reported that many people who work to promote sport and physical activity participation don’t feel well informed by current research (Coutts, 2017; Dale et al., 2016; Fullagar et al., 2019; Zenko & Ekkekakis, 2015). Similarly, sport and physical activity researchers felt they had observed a gap between research findings and related policy and programming (Faulkner et al., 2006; Fullagar et al., 2019; Holt, Camiré, et al., 2018; Holt, Pankow, et al., 2018).  

As noted earlier, it’s thought this gap is partly driven by sport and physical activity researchers investigating issues that differ from the daily challenges experienced by stakeholders, practitioners and coaches (Fullagar et al., 2019). The gap may also exist because knowledge-users are unaware of research results that could help alleviate some of the challenges they’re facing (Holt, Pankow, et al., 2018).  

To overcome these 2 challenges, and to maximize the significance of their research, researchers can now follow guiding principles that lay the ground for what is known as integrative knowledge mobilization. To understand that term, the Knowledge to Action Framework is the most widely used set of principles to guide integrative knowledge mobilization. It essentially promotes a research process that involves a knowledge creation cycle and an action cycle (Graham et al., 2006). The 2 distinct, but related cycles include multiple phases that are iterative and can overlap.  

The knowledge to action cycle. This cycle has 2 stages. Stage one is the knowledge creation funnel. Stage two is the action cycle.
The Knowledge to Action Framework. Image retrieved from Graham et al. (2006)

The knowledge creation cycle involves the traditional research process, but ensures consistent tailoring of the knowledge created. Specifically, tailoring it to cater to the needs of knowledge-users by engaging them from the onset and keeping them involved throughout the research process. In contrast, the action cycle identifies the activities required for knowledge to be applied in practice. The individual phases within the action cycle dovetail with one another. Those phases evolve as they move from identifying an issue that needs attention to determining whether the issue represents a knowledge-practice gap that needs filling. The next phases then include adapting the knowledge for the local context, assessing barriers and facilitators associated with the uptake of knowledge and implementing it. Monitoring and assessing the impact and sustainability of the knowledge implemented are the final phases of the action cycle. Naturally, tailoring knowledge to the needs of knowledge-users means its crucial to co-involve researchers and stakeholders in all phases of both the knowledge creation and action cycles. 

Given that researchers have relatively focused areas of expertise, they may be intimidated to work collaboratively with knowledge-users. Researchers may consider it risky if they realize the most pressing issues requiring attention don’t align with their scope of competence. Since the involvement of knowledge-users is essential for the Knowledge to Action Framework, it would therefore be useful for researchers to have an already established understanding of priority issues generally identified by knowledge-users. With access to a repository of knowledge-users’ main challenges, researchers could identify issues for which their skillset is best suited.

Being able to readily pinpoint a pressing issue they’re ready to tackle, researchers could then rapidly move to the step of seeking knowledge-users to partner with for the various phases, from knowledge creation to action. By identifying knowledge-users’ priorities, researchers have the potential to accelerate knowledge creation and align limited research resources with the needs of those in a position to act on the findings. 

Listening to what the Canadian sport and physical activity community had to say 

We recently conducted a study aimed at identifying the top issues of sport and physical activity knowledge-users from various sectors across Canada (Bélanger et al., 2022). Many different ways exist to identify research priorities, so we used a hybrid model. To generate a shortlist of research priorities, we combined various approaches that promote: congregating expert opinions, purposefully sampling stakeholders from multiple sectors and using an iterative process to collect and analyze data (Cowan & Oliver, 2018; Kelly et al., 2014; Sivananthan & Chambers, 2013).  

For this national-level research program, we followed 3  consultation steps. Our consultations involved Canadian sport and physical activity knowledge-users. And in all cases, they were from multiple sectors (including health, education, sport, social development, governmental, and non-governmental). First, we brought together a group of sport and physical activity knowledge users for a 1 day workshop to identify a long list (68) of potential priority topics for Canadian researchers.  

Secondly, we held prioritization exercises, during which workshop participants took an online survey about the priority topics identified earlier. For the survey, they reported the extent to which they felt each topic was: relevant, difficult to address, and representative of an issue for which more knowledge is needed. From the survey scores, we identified issues perceived to be the easiest to address (that is, issues perceived to be very relevant and with a low difficulty score) and the most important (that is, issues perceived to be very relevant and with a high need of knowledge).  

Thirdly, we invited any Canadian sport and physical activity knowledge-user to take our next questionnaire, which was also delivered online. Participants were asked to rank the top  21 issues that met the threshold of ease and importance in our second step. In this final step, participants rated each issue with the same criteria of relevance, difficulty and perceived need for more knowledge. The average of scores obtained in this final step allowed a number of issues to stand out, ultimately highlighting knowledge-users’ top priorities for sport and physical activity research.  

Priorities for sport and physical activity research in Canada 

The multistep process of engaging stakeholders from various sectors led us to identify 8  research foci. In general, we found that Canadian stakeholders want more research on the financial barriers to participation, best communication strategies to promote participation, consequences of dropout, key characteristics of effective interventions, engagement of Indigenous populations, creation of positive and inclusive experiences, recruitment and retention of volunteers, and implementation of knowledge exchange strategies. More specifically, the top 8  issues stakeholders identified are described here, in no particular order: 

  1. Financial support for sport and physical activity. Several types of barriers can impede participation in sport and physical activity. Because of the inequity created by financial barriers for sport and physical activity participation, several government and community-driven financial aid programs aim to enable participation regardless of ability to pay. Notwithstanding, stakeholders identified financial support as a priority. They want communication gaps addressed to ensure that individuals who would need financial support know about the available programs and have access to them.  
  1. A mega phone against a yellow backgroundCommunications for optimal sport and physical activity promotion. Stakeholders consider it a priority to find better ways of clearly communicating the importance of sport and physical activity participation. Targeted communication approaches may be more effective than wide-reaching strategies for promoting physical activity. So recognizing that, investigations relating to this topic could help identify targeted communication approaches to favour reaching different sub-groups.  
  1. Consequences of dropping out from sport and physical activity. Despite having a good understanding of the positive impacts of sport and physical activity, participants reported that it’s a priority to correct the current lack of information on the influence of dropping out from such activities. In particular, stakeholders called for more information on the moderate-term to long-term consequences of dropping out. Consequences could include mental and physical health, future participation, other behaviours and general development.  
  1. Characteristics of best interventions for sport and physical activity participation. This priority highlights that researchers must better communicate what’s already known with respect to most effective approaches to promote engagement of various population-groups when it comes to sport and physical activity. It’s also a priority to identify the best ways to keep individuals in sport and physical activity (retention) once they’ve initiated participation. For several sub-groups, this represents a need to better share what the scientific literature identifies as effective interventions. For other groups, it means disclosing gaps in knowledge and seeking evidence of effective approaches to sustain participation over time. 
  1. Physical activity and sport participation among Indigenous populations. Another priority emerged to address low levels of physical activity and sport participation. In this case, specifically to address this priority among Indigenous populations. However, the current study didn’t include enough representation of Indigenous people to provide a clear direction. The emergence of this topic among the priorities nevertheless highlights the need to further investigate research priorities related to sport and physical activity participation in collaboration with members, leaders and Elders of Indigenous communities. 
  1. Promotion of safe, inclusive and quality experiences in sport and physical activity. The need for researchers to identify ways to harness inclusiveness within organized sport and physical activity was also deemed a priority. In particular, participants wanted better knowledge on approaches to facilitate the development of a sport and physical activity system that respects and values diversity and inclusion. Through the study, stakeholders explained they’re seeking leadership from the research community to identify evidence-based strategies to avoid bullying in sports and promote safe, positive and inclusive experiences.  
  1. Volunteers supporting at a sporting eventSustaining volunteer engagement in sport and physical activity. Researchers can also contribute to helping sport and physical activity organizations find ways to address volunteer shortages. The sport and physical activity sector relies heavily on volunteer engagement for managing and delivering programs. Stakeholders from this sector consider it a research priority to better understand how to engage and retain volunteers. Researchers could help by identifying reasons for which individuals engage in volunteering and what contributes to them remaining involved over the long term.  
  1. Knowledge exchange between researchers and knowledge-users. The need to enhance the involvement and integration of knowledge-users into the research process was also identified. Although this gap may not need to be addressed through research questions, all sport and physical activity researchers should consider it as a sign at the outset. Their research processes must engage those who’ll have the power to adopt or apply their findings or those people most affected by their research.  

What can sport and physical activity knowledge-users expect from their involvement in research?

As recognized and integral members of a collaborative or co-involved research team, knowledge-users are encouraged to:  

Co-involvement may be new to both the researchers and to knowledge-users. Before knowledge-users can successfully contribute to research, let alone adopt research findings that improve their programs, researchers first need time to work out which priority research needs they’ll address and how to address them.  

Once the researchers are ready to tackle issues, they’ll need to seek knowledge-users to partner with them. When that happens, knowledge-users will have a say about the specific research objectives. So that way, the objectives are truly tailored to those knowledge-users’ needs.  

Final thoughts 

This study identified 8 high-ranking priorities for sport and physical activity research in Canada. These priorities provide much-needed guidance to sport and physical activity researchers, specifically those seeking to engage in research from the perspective of knowledge-users from various sectors. By acknowledging and implementing these findings, research will more accurately reflect the burning issues identified by multisectoral representatives in sport and physical activity promotion. This is particularly true if that’s done while adhering to best practices in terms of knowledge exchange. Canadian sport and physical activity participation will hopefully improve if collaborative research efforts address the priority topics identified by Canadian sport and physical activity stakeholders.  


“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” is a popular saying in leadership circles. However, knowing what to measure to inform change is a craft altogether.

To advance equity and inclusion in sport, the “who” of measurement is fundamentally as important as the “what.” Indeed, it’s important to understand the perspectives, realities and lived experiences of the people who experience sport as well as those who are pushed away, left on the sidelines, or chose to opt out. And that understanding has never been more important as sport organizations from coast to coast work to reinvent themselves to be safe, inclusive spaces for all.

This article draws on research findings from the Change the Game research project, by the MLSE Foundation with the University of Toronto. The project aims to clarify the value of embracing data practices concerning race and other identity factors for organizations working to achieve greater equity for youth in sport. At the same time, while calling attention to the systemic and many decision-making risks of not doing so.

Sport, society and social justice

A coach with BIPOC basketball players in a huddle on the sidelines of a basketball court

MLSE LaunchPad is a youth Sport for Development (SFD) facility in 1 of Canada’s most socioeconomically and culturally diverse neighbourhoods. The facility is located steps from a university that’s undergoing a renaming exercise, because its namesake was an architect of Canada’s Residential Schools system. Just steps away in another direction, a major thoroughfare’s street name is under review for its namesake having worked to delay abolishing slavery.

Social justice movements actively reflect communities’ and individuals’ lived experiences with institutions. A long overdue, social justice reckoning across society has been sparked, within and beyond sport. That spark comes in the cumulative aftermath of: George Floyd’s murder, the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of residential school children, and the compounding effect of racist incident after incident.

Organizations across Canada have released many statements, hashtags, and commitments to change. These have come from professional sports to national sport organizations and from SFD programs to municipal, physical activity opportunities for youth. Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) roles and committees are commonplace. “Build Back Better” is a popular mantra on social media with implicit acknowledgement that the status quo is no longer acceptable if sport is really going to live up to the promise and potential of sport as a force for good, and for all.

Changing the game: For whom?

If this is truly a watershed moment, where it’s possible to reinvent sport equitably, then the issue before sport providers is how to operationalize such change. How do we dismantle systems of inequality and centre our sport sector around people it’s intended to serve? And crucially, what data exists to guide where to begin and how best to allocate increasingly limited resources? The unfortunate truth to the question of data sources is there isn’t much available. Although data on sport is routinely analyzed through the lenses of age and gender equity, there’s limited (if any) publicly accessible demographic data to support meaningful insights related to race, geography, household income and other intersecting aspects of marginalization.

These are some of the issues that MLSE Foundation explored when launching its Change the Game research program on access, engagement and equity in youth sport. MLSE Foundation collaborated on this research program with Simon Darnell, Ph.D., and the University of Toronto’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies. Amidst slogans and voices calling for change, the fundamental ethos guiding the Change the Game research team was a clear-eyed commitment to understanding the reality of who we’re aiming to change the game for and what practical and concrete success looks like to them.

Informally referred to behind the scenes as a “youth sport census,” nearly 7000 youth, and parents and guardians of youth, responded from across Ontario as a representatively diverse sample for the research program. The sample spanned race, gender, household income level, ability, geography, immigration status and other demographic variables. It became the largest demographic survey of youth sport access and engagement to date in Canada. The survey explored barriers to participation and ideas for building a better and more equitable sport system for the diversity of Ontario’s youth, in the words of youth. A publicly accessible, open-data portal contains a summary report, interactive results dashboard, and an anonymized data set. Stakeholders who are interested in mining the data, may download the data set for their own learning, planning, funding decisions and policymaking.

The rest of this article isn’t meant to repeat the overall findings. Instead, this article will showcase the value of embracing data practices concerning race and other demographic factors, in pursuit of advancing equity and inclusion goals for youth in sport. By making a case for how race and identity-based data can help drive meaningful action toward a more equitable future, let’s pay homage to the great long-form basketball analysts. To do so, we’ll take a deep dive into 2 specific questions from the original Change the Game study and the insights we can draw.

Understanding blind spots

A series of “I” statements formed a 4‑item, Likert-style questionnaire about youth experiences with racism and discrimination in sport. The questionnaire was aligned with MLSE LaunchPad’s MISSION measurement model for youth data collection. Respondents were asked to select whether they strongly disagreed, disagreed, agreed or strongly agreed with each statement.

For example, 1 of the statements read: I have experienced racism in sports. Overall, 10% of youth in the study agreed or strongly agreed to having directly experienced racism in sport. Although perhaps meaningful in a dialogue about equity, is 10% on a survey enough for a sport organization, funder or policymaker to meaningfully change course in their decision-making or strategic plan? Hard to say.

Consider now the same statement through the perspective of specific segments of youth in the study.

Figure 1: Survey statement, “I have experienced racism in sports” 10% of overall youth (entire sample of respondents) agreed or strongly agreed 28% of Indigenous youth respondents agreed or strongly agreed 33% of Black youth respondents agreed or strongly agreed 22% of overall BIPOC youth respondents agreed or strongly agreed
Figure 1. Survey statement, “I have experienced racism in sports.”

How does your interpretation of the data change with this additional perspective? If a sport organization is genuinely interested in addressing anti-Black racism or forging right relations with Indigenous communities, does this new story unfolding help to convey a different level of urgency for action?

This is the power of demographic data: enabling one to look in-depth to better understand vital stories and perspectives that are otherwise at risk of being neutralized by the majority.

Now let’s consider a different example.

The fallacy of averages

Against the backdrop of “Build Back Better” becoming an increasingly popular slogan or hashtag, youth were asked to shed light in practical terms on what that might look like in their reality. A total of 9 thematic areas (or factors) received greater than 10% of support among youth overall, as follows:

Figure 2: “Build Back Better” factors for youth in sports 40% to 60% of overall youth respondents supported the following factors would “Build Back Better” in their reality: •	More affordable equipment •	Coaches who help me improve •	More affordable sport opportunities 20% to <40% of overall youth respondents supported: •	More opportunities to improve at a sport •	More adaptive sport opportunities •	Access to a greater variety of sports •	Teammates accepting who I am Fewer than 20% of overall youth respondents supported: •	Coaches who look like me •	Organizations that respect my culture
Figure 2. “Build Back Better” factors for youth in sports.

To be clear, each of these 9 factors is an important and sound investment area to improve accessibility and experiences in sport, including the 3 factors that polled the highest. 

However, equity isn’t a first-past-the-post concept. In many respects, the opposite is true. To get real about advancing racial equity for youth in sport in an authentic way, one must align their data practices accordingly. Doing so can help by enabling a deeper awareness of the issues and perspectives of constituencies whose relative size may not be large enough to move the overall averages.

With that in mind, let’s explore 2 of the factors in more detail. “Coaches who look like me” and “Organizations that respect my culture” were each called out as important by less than 20% of youth in the overall sample. Do any interesting insights emerge when race-based and Indigenous-identity data lenses or filters are applied?

As it turns out, yes.

Having “coaches who look like me” was identified by approximately 10% of youth overall, the lowest among the 9 factors. However, a closer look affirms this item as having outsized importance to specific demographics within the sample, notably South Asian youth (more than 20%) and Black youth (more than 30%). When reflecting on this 9‑factor list of Build Back Better, how do these additional details inform your own decision-making or perspective on the most critical issues to prioritize addressing?

Exploring who selected “Organizations that respect my culture” through a race-based and Indigenous-identity lens is also interesting, for a different reason.

Figure 3: “Build Back Better” means organizations respect my culture Black 38% Middle Eastern 35% South Asian 34%  South East Asian 32% Mixed race 28% Indigenous 26% East Asian 24% Latinx 20% White 12%
Figure 3. “Build Back Better” means organizations respect my culture.

The distribution pattern is obvious, especially when compared to the Build Back Better table in Figure 3. More than 1 in 5 youth from all 8 of the unique BIPOC categories in this survey called for respect for their culture, even though that rated proportionally much lower in the overall sample of youth.

Decision-making risks

Neither of these examples discredits the importance of any of the other Build Back Better factors cited above. They’re all vital components of a healthy future for youth sport and need attention from providers, policymakers and funders. These examples are provided to reinforce the value of intentionally including demographics in an organization’s data collection plans. Those demographics can shed light more meaningfully on how different experiences and ideas can show up for different segments of the population. If instead of race, the variable of interest had been gender, household income, ability or other intersectional factors of identity, then the results displayed may have told a different story. The core purpose or value proposition is for an organization’s EDI strategy and decision-making process to be informed by the people they intend to serve.

Applying demographic data collection in your organization

Before you can improve an organization’s measurement and evaluation plans, you require some baseline competencies in data management, including privacy, ethics and analysis. Those competencies can help you apply some of the methods and tactics to integrate intersectional demographic lenses to your organization’s plans. Here are tips an organization can consider when getting started. They’re grounded in 4 pillars of transparency, trust, trying it out and talking it out.

  1. Transparency

If you’re collecting demographic information from staff, coaches, athletes, families or other stakeholders essential to your organization’s success, it’s key to be open and honest with them. For example, openly share why you’re collecting identity-based information, how you’ll handle the information, who will see it, and what you’ll do with the insights you learn. Engaging your core constituencies in these ways can help demonstrate respect, enable meaningful and informed consent to share data, and encourage active partnership on a shared journey to shape a more equitable future.

  1. Trust

Male High School Basketball Team Having Team Talk With Coach

Trust often makes all the difference between complete and incomplete information on a survey or profile page. Whether a respondent has a trusting relationship with the sport organization or its staff will often determine whether that respondent fills out all the fields on their registration or profile forms. Without that trust, they may only complete the required fields. It’s the difference between responding fulsomely to a multiple-choice question on a survey versus just selecting the “prefer not to answer” option. Individual respondents (data contributors) must believe the organization has their back and will use their data to make meaningful improvements. Sometimes this can take time, and it’s OK to be patient.

For example, at the MLSE LaunchPad SFD facility, this is a pattern seen when new members sign up for the first time. Youth, parents and guardians often fill out the minimum required information to get started on attending programs. Then, what and how much they’re willing to share changes over time. Their feedback and sharing practices grow after having built a trusting relationship with staff and the organization. When new members have gained an understanding of how data contributes to understanding and improvements, then that also contributes to enhanced sharing.

  1. Try (it out)

To echo Courtney Szto, Ph.D., of Queen’s University at the 2021 Anti Racism in Hockey Incubator: Do something! Too many ideas for change get left on the sidelines. Trying to do right typically trumps inaction, even if a concept is imprecise or not fully formed. Even if it’s a small step forward, take a shot. If you don’t achieve your intended outcome, learn from it, regroup, change your approach and try again. Progress can take unusual paths, but there’s tremendous value in letting stakeholders see that you’re actively trying to make a difference.

  1. Talk (it out)

Data practices don’t come naturally to everyone. If you’re considering a new idea, direction or practice, we encourage you to reach out to someone in the field to help critically assess your approach. If you’re a sport or SFD organization interested in having a sounding board on what an intersectional approach to demographic data collection could look like in your setting, then reach out to a member of the MLSE LaunchPad Research and Evaluation Team.

In closing, sport providers, funders and policymakers want to prioritize meaningful action toward equity, their toolkit to shape the future of sport should include embracing intersectional data collection practices, including race and other equity-related demographic factors. However, keep in mind that there’s potential risk if sport leaders are relying on data featuring top line averages and rankings without an intersectional approach. The data informing their decisions carries a heightened risk of being influenced by the majority and increases the likelihood of actions that perpetuate the very systems they’re supposedly seeking to reshape.

Recommended resources

Centre for Sport Policy Studies, University of Toronto

Indigeniety, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) Research Lab

The First Nations principles of ownership, control, access, and possession – more commonly known as OCAP®

We All Count toolkit

About MLSE LaunchPad

MLSE LaunchPad is a 42000 square foot Sport For Development facility in downtown Toronto built and supported by the MLSE Foundation to advance positive developmental outcomes for youth, aged 6 to 29, who face barriers.

Photo credit: Conestoga College Condors Athletics


Anyone involved in sport knows that confidence is key. Whether coach, athlete or participant, the importance (and fragility) of confidence can’t be overlooked.

The vital and tenuous nature of confidence means steps must be taken to safeguard the confidence of racialized women coaches, who are sometimes the “only” in their organization. They’re facing isolation and otherness that can hinder their confidence and wellbeing.

Mentorships are shown to enhance confidence in racialized athletes (Brandon, 2012) and women coaches (Allen & Reid, 2019). Yet, no current research details the benefits for Black women coaches in Canada. This article builds on previous research (Joseph & McKenzie, 2022; Joseph, McKenzie, & Brown, 2021; Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021) examining barriers faced by and resilience of racialized coaches in Canada.

Here we share findings on the importance of building knowledge and nurturing confidence for sport coaches who identify as Black women. We also offer best practices for optimizing bringing in (racialized) women coaches across sport and retaining them.

Race, gender and confidence in coaching

Sport coaches aim to build confidence in their athletes. Coaches need self-confidence to optimize the support they can provide. To this end, confidence is among the most influential, extensively studied psychological concepts (Machida et al., 2017).

Confidence has been shown to be associated with many positive attributes and outcomes, including goal orientation (Vosloo et al., 2009), lower cognitive and physiological anxiety (Cresswell & Hodge, 2004), and ultimately, optimized performance (Moritz et al., 2000). Improving confidence has been identified as a pivotal component of sport performance for athletes, however, coaches must also have self-confidence.

Head Coach Tara Mrakic, Vanier College Women’s Flag Football. Photo credit: Vanier College Athletics.

Because coach self-confidence and performance are important parts of athlete self-confidence and performance, programs that support coaches can be critical to the success of an entire sport organization. Coach confidence can be built through social support and environmental comfort. This can be harder to achieve for Black women coaches, given racism and sexism in sport (Fielding‐Lloyd & Mean, 2011; Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021).

In the U.S., gendered racism has been found to influence the access, opportunities, retention, promotion and overall experiences of racialized women, specifically in sport leadership roles (Cunningham et al., 2021; Nesseler et al., 2021). This body of research emphasizes it’s important to provide more opportunities for racialized women to coach, so they can learn from others who share their experiences. And also so that they can influence more women to enter and stay in coaching.

There’s scarce research on the intersections of race, gender and confidence in Canadian coaching. What little research has been done shows that coaching leadership is predominantly white and male in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) (Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021). For example, only 22% of OUA coaches who responded to a survey identified as racialized (Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021, p. 8). Another study of university athletics across Canada showed only 17% of head coaches and 22% of assistant coaches identified as women (Donnelly, Norman, & Kidd, 2013).

The major takeaway is that more work is needed to make Canadian sport coaching more equitable and diverse, from grassroots to high performance. Mentorship programs can be a buffer against cultural norms and social inequities affecting the confidence of underrepresented sport stakeholders, such as women and people of color.

Research with the Black Female Coaches Mentorship Program

Mentorship is designed to enhance the recruitment, retention and promotion of coaches across sport by advancing coach skill, comfort and confidence. In 2020, the Black Female Coaches Mentorship Program (BFCMP) began as a way to address the gap in mentorship for Black women coaches in Canada. We aimed to further understand Black women coaches’ experiences through research with the BFCMP.

As part of this research, we observed 3 mentorship sessions and conducted semi-structured, 1‑on‑1 interviews with 15 of 27 inaugural mentors and mentees. One of our objectives was to determine what role mentorships play in building confidence among Black women coaches.

As the only woman coach or only racialized coach in their organization, most participants in the BFCMP described feeling alone and unable to connect deeply with other coaches in their organization. However, there are dozens of Black women sport coaches who share their experiences across many sports organizations in all provinces. And there’s significant potential for the coaches to learn from each other. They just needed an opportunity to meet.

Coaches joined the BFCMP wanting to network with other people of their racial background and gender. An unexpected outcome for many participants was the range of knowledge they acquired by interacting with other coaches. Even seasoned mentors learned from mentees. Knowledge about self-care, navigating racism and sexism, and understanding how sport systems operate was imperative to improving their coaching.

Another essential area of learning was in building confidence. Because of the discrimination they had previously faced, some coaches doubted their skills, abilities, decisions and even self-worth. By seeing others in similar situations who have succeeded, the coaches in BFCMP could shift their lens from diffidence to confidence.

Below, the 3 main themes of our findings (friendship, learning and speaking up) point to the importance of building knowledge and confidence in Black women’s communities.

Theme 1: Friendship

Many BFCMP participants have few sport coaches in their communities who look like them. Mentors and mentees expressed learning through the experiences of other Black women was the biggest boost to their confidence. The learnings ranged from coaching best practices and communication techniques to styling hair and sharing home-cooked recipes.

“[The] best part was connecting with women [who] look like me, learning best practices, and celebrating everyone’s accomplishments.”

– Tiffany, mentor

Mentee Nika echoed a similar sentiment: “That was super cool, learning about other people’s experiences. … I realize that a lot of things that I have been feeling, everybody [in that] group has felt. … On the calls, I would see some girls in bonnets. I would see some girls in braids, twists. … We talk about ‘How do I make fufu?’ … It was great vibes. Then we had [a mentor] talking about what it’s like having two kids and being a successful coach.”

Participants felt they really got to know other women through the power of storytelling. For example, mentor Jolene and mentee Ella both thrived because the program was one of the first opportunities they’d had to connect with other Black women coaches to support their learning. They emphasized the interpersonal support gained through individual and group mentorship. For example:

“I loved meeting with my mentees because we got to really talk …  really dive into understanding who they are, not only as a coach but as a person, … giving them the objective view of what situations [they] are going through and giving them a different scope to look through. I loved going through that with my mentees and they’ve taught me a lot in return.”

– Jolene, mentor

Ella noted, “The best part of the program for me was the conversation and mentorship I had with my mentor in particular. … [Monthly sessions] provided an opportunity to reconnect with the other mentees and see how they were doing.” Knowing the mentees “as a person” with a regular “opportunity to reconnect” was critical to the program’s success.

By reflecting, connecting and offering advice, mentors and mentees can impart knowledge to each other. Mentor-only sessions were part of the training for the mentorship program. But Ariel reveals that mentees would have appreciated “a better opportunity to connect with other mentees to socialize on our own on a zoom call and ask each other questions and get to know each other our own way.”

The importance of spaces to connect can’t be understated. Combating loneliness is a key way to build confidence. Learning about others allowed for learning about the self.

Action items for coach educators and sport administrators:

  • Promote means for Head and Assistant Coaches and aspiring coaches to talk and socialize
  • Connect coaches internationally with a mentor who shares some of their experiences
  • Create mentee-only sessions as well as mentor-only sessions to encourage individuals to connect with one another

Theme 2: Learning

Participants in the BFCMP discussed the ways their confidence soared through learning. Many anticipated they would expand their knowledge of coaching tactics and techniques through the program. Instead, they were surprised to learn a wide range of self-directed soft-skills, important components of professional development (PD).

“Because my mentee was actually in my sport, I thought, OK, it’s going to be technically focused … and it wasn’t at all… There’s so much beyond that’s self-development, self-perspective, self-confidence.”

Lisa, mentor

The skill Jolene taught and reinforced with her mentees was positive self-talk: “I taught them to make sure they’re reflecting on their self-talk because, as Black women, we often have self-deprecating thoughts. And that made me check myself. How often do I check-in with … how I think about myself or how I talk to myself?”

It can be difficult to navigate barriers related to becoming a certified coach. The process can also be costly and confusing.  Sarah believed Black women coaches can be discouraged by the complex National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) process. However, she suggests mentorship as a way to gain comfort and confidence. “[I needed] a little bit more understanding of the NCCP process and how you get your levels, and I know that other women were more comfortable with it because … they’ve probably done the coaching stuff. … I worked with a [mentor] so I could feel more comfortable with it.”

When rules and practices are confusing for some outsiders, systemic discrimination can follow. Hauck (2020) found that the NCCP is inherently racist as inequitable policies including expensive training, on-site education and complicated websites disadvantage some excellent Indigenous coaches who are unaware of how the system operates. Mentorship is a way to help overcome barriers to coaching entry presented by lack of certification. Mentors and mentees noted both formal PD sessions and informal PD conversations were a valued part of the program that increased coach learning and understanding. 

“[BFCMP] changed me tremendously through the wonderful conversations I had with the mentees and mentors as it gave more understanding and comprehension about myself, the world and perception of the world towards Black women in sport. Through their mentorship, they assured me with great words of wisdom on how to tackle the negative perceptions and how to leverage my identity as a Black woman in sport to get through the doors of opportunity.”

Ella, mentee

Participants of mentorship programs clearly benefit from a wide range of knowledge about self, about processes, and about navigating racism and sexism in sport. All are important aspects of coaching and self-confidence.

Action items for coach educators and sport administrators:

  • Invite coaches for training on formal and informal aspects of the work, openly acknowledging that race and gender factor into the field of coaching
  • Include psychological concepts like ‘self-talk’ in training as an essential coaching skill

Theme 3: Speaking up and public speaking

Participants supported each other by providing strategies to improve their experiences and their representation as knowledgeable experts. Mentee Nika discussed how Black women can become siloed within society

“[We talked about] creating more spaces for minority groups to speak out, not just on topics about Black Lives Matter. There’s so much knowledge that [we] have that I feel we are kind of boxed in … You’re only reaching out to me for this [anti-racism work]. It’s not for the other things that I have knowledge on … In a sense, [mentorship built] up my self-worth … I’ve learned to stay true to myself, stand in my own shoes, and speak up for myself more too.”

– Nika, mentee

Nika believes that if more Black women coaches are invited to share their knowledge, that will elevate how they’re seen in the broader sport community. For Black women coaches, being heard and seen in public means that they can be role models for others. When Black women are the only ones in their organization, and are doubting themselves, they may see their inclusion as tokenism. When they’re confident, they see their inclusion as merited and an opportunity for the next generation of coaches to imagine their own potential and future inclusion. This aligns with what mentor Jolene stated:

“I’ve been turning the idea of tokenism into a chance for me to open up as a representation, a reflection of those who maybe need me in that space to know that they too can take up this space and be confident in it … Playing at the national level and coaching at the provincial level gives those kids who look up to me a chance to think that hey, I belong here too. See it, believe it, achieve it.”

Jolene, mentor

Nora mentions the advantage the program provided her in speaking truth to the experiences of Black women coaches because she finally understood her situation wasn’t unique. Now, she has a network of people to use as a sounding board: “I [was] stressed out like, ‘OK, how do I do this? I wonder if people understand this?’ … When dealing with a man, ‘Is [he] gonna take it the wrong way because of my race or because I’m a female?’ I was always second guessing myself. But now I have the confidence to … bounce this idea off of someone else, or ask a coach or another female [who] might have gone through the same thing and get her point of view. I feel more comfortable attacking these situations and it’s giving me more confidence. Now I speak out against stuff. [I’m] more vocal about my passions and the things that I believe in.”

Through the program, coaches built their confidence in speaking up and speaking out about their shared experiences. They came to understand the benefits of being seen and heard.

Action items for coach educators and sport administrators:

  • Encourage honest sharing about experiences of racism and sexism, and strategies for change
  • Provide opportunities for Black women coaches to speak publicly about a range of topics

Practical takeaways for putting research into action

  1. Safer spaces: Create safer spaces that promote belonging and community, particularly among racialized women, given the isolation and otherness to which they’re susceptible and to which they’re subjected. Opportunities for knowledge exchange can prevent the loss of great talent and can stimulate peak performance and retention.
  2. Sponsorship: Provide opportunities for professional development and coach licensing, assisting coaches in overcoming the financial and systemic challenges of becoming a certified coach. Information sessions and discussions about how to navigate certification processes are essential, especially if the aim is to promote equity and inclusivity.
  3. Platform for dialogue: Provide a platform for racialized women coaches to speak up and speak out on various topics inside and outside of sport. Black women coaches are capable of being subject matter experts on conversations outside of anti-racism or sexism. Holding space to engage in many topics benefits the confidence of women coaches, both personally and professionally, and demonstrates that organizations value their voices.

Mentorship programs offer Black women coaches a one-stop shop: a safe space, sponsorship, and a platform to dialogue and deliberate. These factors all greatly contribute to enhancing coach confidence. And, making them available through mentorship is a win for all stakeholders involved.


“What it’s done for me? It’s just I, I can’t put it in words. It’s amazing, an amazing program.”

– Nora, mentee

The Black woman mentor “goes beyond the institutional goal of solely promoting cognitive growth and focuses on the socioemotional well-being … understanding the marginalization and invisibility that Black [women] face” (Greene, 2020, p. 2). Through mentorship, the development of relationships among Black women can nurture self-confidence to better position them to navigate society. If sport is to be more equitable, feminist and anti-racist, then increasing opportunities for building confidence and relationships must be a focal point.

Based on their lived experience, women participants understood the profound effects of racism and sexism in sport. Through their conversations, the participants gained knowledge of how to address trauma and pain through self-care and self-confidence, how to conceptualize their goals and ambitions, and how to resist systems of domination. Having obtained that combined knowledge, they can help close the gap between anti-racism and feminist theory on one hand, and lived practices, speech habits, and ways of occupying space in sport coaching on the other.

Mentorship offers a methodology to develop the confidence of Black women coaches, fostering professional and personal growth through formal and informal means. Race-specific and gender-specific mentorship programs protect and promote the confidence of racialized women coaches, cultivating optimal performance in both athletes and coaches.


Over the past few years, the racism and discrimination brought to light throughout society and within the sport sector have forced a necessary reflection on policies and practices. While the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion were seeded in government policy many decades ago, the context has evolved significantly. Today, these terms have new meaning, in light of events in broader society and our responses to them. There’s a renewed urgency for sport stakeholders to adopt new policies and programs to bring about cultural change that can ensure the future of sport includes all Canadians.

In this article, we discuss how sport policies and programs in Canada have evolved and how they contributed to the development of safe and inclusive sport for all Canadians.

The past: Policy development

As early as 1971, the Government of Canada adopted an official multiculturalism policy to recognize the contribution of cultural diversity to the Canadian social fabric. The policy’s goal was to promote inclusive citizenship. In the next decades, the focus shifted to language of social exclusion and supporting specific groups who were identified as particularly vulnerable to economic and social marginalization, such as recent immigrants, “visible minorities,” religious minorities, sexual minorities, “urban Aboriginal peoples,” and individuals with disabilities. (Note: Certain terms above are drawn from that policy. Over time, the terms have evolved to reflect ongoing updates to appropriate, inclusive language.)

By the time the first Canadian Sport Policy was endorsed by federal-provincial/territorial governments in 2002, “social inclusion” and “equity” and other similar concepts were regularly included in policies, and shortly thereafter in legislation, in the Physical Activity and Sport Act (2003).

Through extensive collaboration and consultation, and over 2 years of work, the first Canadian Sport Policy reflected the interests and concerns of 14 government jurisdictions, the Canadian sport community and countless other sport stakeholders in Canada. That policy introduced the guiding principle that “sport is based on equity and access” as in:

Sport is welcoming and inclusive, offering an opportunity to participate without regard to age, gender, race, language, sexual orientation, disability, geography, or economic circumstances.

CSP 2002, p. 13

While consultations didn’t target specific groups, there was a noted effort to pay “specific attention to the issues of inclusion and equity” throughout the consultation and policy development process. That process welcomed and sought to involve everyone who didn’t currently consider themselves a part of the sport community or system, but who had the potential and desire to contribute.

The first Canadian Sport Policy reflected a new approach to shared leadership and collaboration to enhance participation, excellence, capacity and interaction in sport. The accompanying action plan prioritized the increased “participation of women, persons with a disability, Aboriginal peoples, and visible minorities.” The commitment from all governments for a common vision was an important step in aligning and committing to advancing sport equity in Canada.

A decade later, the renewal of the Canadian Sport Policy took a stronger approach. The Canadian Sport Policy 2012 (CSP 2012) expanded upon and embedded “inclusion and accessibility” in the policy’s values and principles:

“Sport delivery is accessible and equitable and reflects the full breadth of interests, motivations, objectives, abilities, and the diversity of Canadian society.”

CSP 2012, p. 6

The consultation process introduced targeted questions relating to under-represented populations and participation in sport. Additionally, it included questions about the lived experience of participants as well as the availability of accessing sport programs and services in both official languages. The answers provided valuable insight into inclusive and accessible sport, and the ability and likelihood for participation.

Important findings were that most consultation participants felt efforts should be made to increase the participation of under-represented groups in sport. In particular, these groups included: Indigenous people, racialized people, women and girls, persons with a disability, children and youth, new Canadians, and people who were at an economic disadvantage. Consultation participants felt that increasing participation would be a positive effect on health, community-building and personal development. It would also reinforce the priority of accessible sport.

As a result, increasing diversity was identified as a Policy Objective and desired outcome in the CSP 2012:

“Opportunities provided for persons from traditionally underrepresented and/or marginalized populations to actively engage in all aspects of sport participation including leadership roles.”

CSP 2012, p. 9

Sport Canada policies evolved along a similar trajectory. In the decade following the launch of the first Canadian Sport Policy, Sport Canada introduced several new policies targeting the same areas of inclusion and access:

More recently, the Canadian High Performance Sport Strategy (2019) identified 3 visionary pillars, 1 of which was a high performance culture based on integrity, trust and inclusivity. That strategy identifies what’s now known as the Indigenous Long-Term Participant Development Pathway, as an inclusive tool for supporting Indigenous participants in sport and recreation.

The present: Policy implementation through programs

When policy meets program that’s when inclusive sport can happen. The Canadian Sport Policy is delivered through the collaboration, engagement and commitment of provincial and territorial governments that advance this work within their unique jurisdictions. Bilateral agreements between the federal government and all 13 provincial and territorial governments are in place to support policy in action. Inclusive sport participation is the overarching objective of the bilateral agreements. Specifically, they:

At the federal level, implementation of sport policy is delivered through Sport Canada’s 3 funding programs: the Hosting Program, the Athlete Assistance Program and the Sport Support Program.

AWG Dene GamesThe International Multisport Games for Aboriginal Peoples and Persons with a Disability (IMGAPPD) component of the Hosting Program is inclusive by design. It provides competitive opportunities for designated under-represented groups in Canada facing systemic barriers to sport participation. Specifically, IMGAPPD supports the hosting of 4 eligible events in Canada: the North American Indigenous Games, the Arctic Winter Games, the Special Olympics World Games and the Deaflympics.

The Athlete Assistance Program provides grants to eligible, high performance Canadian athletes, including women and girls, athletes with a disability, those with any number of intersecting identity factors. Sport Canada works with National Sport Organizations to identify objective and merit-based evaluation criteria for athletes.

Under the Sport Support Program, policy has historically been implemented to eligible and funded organizations through reference-level funding (formerly called core funding). National Sport Organizations, Multisport Service Organizations, and Canadian Sport Centres are allocated protected funding to promote equitable access to information for Canadians in both official languages with accompanying accountability measures. Organizations recognized as providing programming and services to athletes with a disability are also provided funding that is protected for this purpose.  

Historically, while Sport Canada’s approach to programming and funding has provided reasonable stability to support official languages and athletes with a disability, it was recognized as insufficient in terms of supporting inclusive sport. Over the past 5 years, Sport Canada has been considering funding differently, expanding programs, and making space for innovation. As a result, there has been a significant shift and investment in creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable sport system in Canada to align with the goals of the CSP 2012.

Sport Canada is beginning to see meaningful impact on inclusion in sport across Canada. This is happening through project-based funding to support new organizations that are piloting programs or working in communities. There are also new protected funds being allocated to existing funding recipients.

Here are examples of this ongoing, inclusive work:

Beyond program funding, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Parliamentary Secretary for Canadian Heritage (Sport) held a general Sport Town Hall and a series of roundtable discussions on sport in fall 2020. They covered the following topics to advance Government of Canada priorities relating to diversity and inclusion:

Those discussions included women’s groups, LGBTQ2+ organizations, Indigenous organizations, as well as sport organizations. Sport Canada has continued the discussion by engaging with experts, including the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat and the LGBTQ2 Secretariat. Those engagements had to happen before embarking on a series of consultations to support the development of an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Sport for All Strategy. Lived experiences shared through consultations and data collected (for example, qualitative data from stakeholders, and disaggregated data) will ensure that evidence-based decision making is well supported in the future. Sport Canada will use collated evidence to evaluate how to update, adapt or improve its policies and programs to support the identified needs of Canadians. This marks an important shift in the way progress will be measured and in how funding and programs will be delivered. The shift aligns with the necessary move toward prioritizing safe, welcoming and inclusive sport.

The future: Where to next?

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the work that must be done. Sport Canada recognizes that the work can’t be done in isolation. After all, Canadian sport is a complex and dynamic network of intersecting systems that integrate context, geography, organizations, people, places and infrastructure. In December 2021, the Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister to all Ministers provided clear direction on the importance of incorporating the views of Canadians when considering our systems:

“We must continue to address the profound systemic inequities and disparities that remain present in the core fabric of our society, including our core institutions. To this effect, it is essential that Canadians in every region of the country see themselves reflected in our Government’s priorities and our work. As Minister, I expect you to include and collaborate with various communities, and actively seek out and incorporate in your work, the diverse views of Canadians. This includes women, Indigenous Peoples, Black and racialized Canadians, newcomers, faith-based communities, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ2 Canadians, and, in both official languages.”

This is a clear driver for all policy in Canada in the years to come. In the Mandate Letter specifically to the Minister of Sport and Minister responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, the Prime Minister provides an even more specific commitment. He outlines the importance of ensuring “a holistic and balanced strategic approach to sport development in Canada that supports the purpose and goals of the Canadian Sport Policy, including improved health and wellness for all Canadians through community sport, increased accessibility to sport programs, reduced barriers and the achievement of social and economic goals through the intentional use of sport.”

Work is underway toward the next iteration of the Canadian Sport Policy with consideration for incorporating the diverse views of Canadians. The inclusive nature of the engagements to be undertaken by the federal, provincial and territorial governments will help shape the future of the Canadian Sport Policy. The sport environment has changed since the development and publication of the first 2 policies. However, sport in Canada continues to require a policy for aligning the activities of the many organizations making up the sport system and for creating a shared vision for sport’s future. Fill out the Canadian Sport Policy Renewal Survey to have your say.

The intent of the Canadian Sport Policy is to continue to serve as the roadmap for progress to the desired state of Canadian sport. It’s informed by current evidence and by stakeholder consultations around various themes (including diversity, equity and inclusion).

The implementation is the challenge to policy makers, program deliverers and the Canadian sport community as a system. In acknowledging that diversity is defined differently in different contexts, we must also acknowledge that equity, diversity and inclusion are products of design. They’re necessary to see meaningful change, especially at the community level where the vast majority of Canadians participate in sport.

It’s no easy task to design inclusive programs. It requires intention and listening to the needs of those you wish to serve. It requires learning to have difficult and honest conversations. It requires flexibility and innovation. It requires willingness to try and fail forward. It means using individual power and privilege to create safe and accessible spaces for equity-deserving Canadians to engage in sport. All this must happen while also recognizing that sport policy in Canada is supported by limited resources, built on the backs of volunteers, and it requires sensitivity to the unique needs of each group.

It’s certain that the language of diversity, inclusion and equity will continue to evolve. As that happens, new terms and concepts will better describe intentions. What matters most is that the language doesn’t distract from the critical goal of effecting grassroots change to ensure all Canadians can access safe, quality sport and feel that they belong.