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Highlights

The 2011 film Moneyball was a critically acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated, box office success. This is quite something, given that the movie centres on debates over baseball strategy and statistics.

Moneyball dramatizes the story of the Oakland Athletics Major League Baseball (MLB) team in the early 2000s, and specifically the team’s adoption of unconventional player evaluation methods to compete on a limited budget against baseball’s biggest spending franchises. In the movie, actor Brad Pitt plays the role of Athletics General Manager Billy Beane. Jonah Hill plays Beane’s newly-hired assistant, Peter Brand (a fictional character said to be based on Athletics executive Paul DePodesta).

In a key scene, Beane and Brand try to convince other Athletics staff that conventional methods of player evaluation are ineffective. The resource-strapped Athletics need to think creatively. In making their case, Beane and Brand return repeatedly to on-base percentage, a statistic that, to that point in time, earned far less attention than others in determining a player’s value. Brand has expertise in analytics and an Ivy League degree. Beane is decisive and brash enough to shake up the status quo. The message is clear: the old way is obsolete. 

This article explores sport after Moneyball, meaning sport at a time when Moneyball’s disruptive ideas are widely accepted, and often celebrated. It’s true that the statistical revolution of the early 2000s was years in the making (for example, see Millington & Millington, 2015). But the Athletics’ then-unorthodox approach and Michael Lewis’s telling of their story in the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (the source material for the film) helped popularize the idea that advanced statistical analyses can improve sport performance “at the margins,” meaning in slight but still significant ways.

ordinateur avec analyse des donnéesWe contend that the rising importance of data and technology in sport over the past two decades reflects the arrival of a wider digital economy. In this context, important questions about the implications of data and technology in sport still need to be considered.

Twin revolutions in sport

The term “sports analytics” is commonly used now as shorthand for rigorous and objective data processes in sport. You’d be hard pressed to find a professional sports team in North America that isn’t informed by sports analytics at least in some way. Famously, Kyle Dubas was hired as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs after bringing an analytical approach to the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. A story in The Athletic charting Dubas’s rise makes a comparison to Moneyball:

Just as Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane discovered how analytics could help his team win games in the film (and real life), Dubas believed numbers could be part of the way forward in hockey. Like the Athletics, the Greyhounds were a small-market squad. Dubas felt the organization had to exploit whatever margins they could to challenge behemoths like Windsor, London, and Kitchener for OHL titles.

It’s not just professional sport that is changing. In 2017, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) partnered with analytics company SAS Canada, and thus reportedly became “the first National Olympic Committee to form a long-term partnership with an analytics company and to leverage the power of data to give athletes and coaches an extra advantage in maximizing their performance outcomes.” The Canadian Tire Corporation’s “best-in-class data analytics division” has evidently informed Canada’s quest for Olympic and Paralympic success as well.

In education, there are sports analytics groups at Canadian universities. Syracuse University describes its Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Analytics as the first of its kind in America. Researchers are continuously adding to the wealth of technical sports analytics knowledge that might help performance.

In media, sports analytics knowledge is impacting how sports are broadcast and discussed. “Next generation” statistics are now shown during live-game programming. And options abound when it comes to websites, podcasts, social media accounts and news media stories that take an analytical approach in critiquing sport performance.

In the commercial sector, Canadian-based companies are providing novel insight to athletes and teams in an array of sports and at various level of competition. Per their website, Stathletes offers “Professional hockey’s deepest performance data & analytics.” Sportlogiq “helps teams gain an edge and media surface engaging stories with advanced AI [Artificial Intelligence] technology.”

What, exactly, is revolutionary here? With the mainstreaming of sports analytics, there are at least two revolutions at play. One is epistemological, meaning it has to do with how we understand the world around us. In this case, it’s the belief that more rigorous data processes can lead to a better understanding of issues of concern, and potentially to better outcomes. Such an approach might inform player evaluations, contract decisions, health and wellness assessments, on-field strategies, and many other aspects of sport business and operations.

The other revolution is technological. The task of evaluating player or team performance can be helped by an ever-growing suite of hardware and software: motion-tracking cameras that give a bird’s eye view of performance; wearable technology for tracking everything from heart rate to distance travelled and beyond; sensor-embedded smart objects that chart the trajectory of projectiles; apps for tracking lifestyle elements such as diet, sleep, and mood; platforms for visualizing and sharing data on performance; the list goes on. The growing sophistication of technology is helping a shift towards predictive insight on the playing field, to complement reflective insight on what happened in the past.

The upshot of these twin revolutions is what Deloitte, the multinational professional services firm, recently called the “hyperquantified athlete.” It’s clearly a phenomenon in elite-level sport. But it’s relevant to other levels of competition too. If a recreational golfer lands in the bunker, their smartwatch might deliver good news about their swing tempo – a silver lining, despite the poor result. Knowledge that was once confined to the most successful athletes and coaches or to researchers operating out of sport sciences laboratories is now much more widely accessible.

Sport and the digital economy 

As researchers studying sport from a social sciences perspective, we have recently embarked on a project focused on sports analytics in Canada. The project is based on the idea that the guiding belief for sports analytics, that rigorous data processes can assist performance, is well-founded. Canadians celebrated gleefully when Canada won soccer gold at the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Some pointed to a progressive approach to data and wearable technology as a factor in the team’s success.

But we also think the above-described twin revolutions in sport have wide-ranging implications that merit further consideration.

There’s a view among many who study sport that sport reflects and contributes to the wider contexts in which it’s situated (for example, see Donnelly, 2008). In this case, the changes we’ve seen in sport are reflective of a broader shift towards a digital economy, meaning the widespread integration of information and communication technologies into organizational activity. It’s not just sports teams and athletes that use data and technology for insight and efficiency gains, it’s organizations of many kinds.

In pre-game preparation or post-game debriefing, a sports team might share game clips, prepared by a video analyst, through performance analysis software. In-game, athletes and coaches might assess individual or team performance on a computer tablet while seated on the sidelines. This is the integration of technology into the workplace. Examples of this kind abound in sport. Such uses of technology in sport are akin to the adoption, in other sectors, of messaging services to complement face-to-face meetings and in-person conversations around the office. In other words, sport reflects and contributes to the trend of integrating data and technology into a wide range of workplaces.

Sports analytics has risen in conjunction with the digital economy. Thinking about sport’s twin revolutions in this way is helpful in thinking about potential implications of sports analytics that go beyond the prospect of improving sport performance. In our own work, we’re interested in exploring several questions, including:

1) How are data and technology impacting job roles and communication in sport?

In one sense, this is a question of knowledge and skills. The film Moneyball seemingly depicts competing job roles: “old” scouts versus “new” analysts. The divide is perhaps exaggerated for dramatic effect. But job roles such as video analyst and performance analyst are now commonplace. A question that follows is, how knowledgeable do employees across a sport organization (for example, coaches, trainers, executives, and athletes) need to be about sports analytics? What accompanying skills do they need? Is there actually a perception of “older” and “newer” ways of understanding sport, and if so, how does this perception impact communication within sport organizations?

In another sense, this is a question of space and time. To be a scout once meant attending games in person. But the technological revolution means game data can be recorded and shared widely with ease. Perhaps sports analytics job roles needn’t be tied to geographic location? If so, this again reflects the wider digital economy, where the ease of outsourcing job tasks has made for an era of flexible work. What does this mean for jobseekers and sport organizations? What are the upsides and downsides of the era of flexible work for sports analytics?

2) How widely accessible is sports analytics knowledge?

Access can mean, in one sense, accessibility for the public. As said above, the sports media landscape is more crowded than ever. For example, hockey fans can turn to podcasts such as The Hockey PDOcast for analytical insight (PDO is a hockey statistic). But analytics knowledge quickly grows complex. Is there a perceived line between demystifying sport through analytics and (inadvertently) making sport harder to comprehend? How does this play out for “traditional” sports journalists compared to those making analytics content through new media channels? The description for The Hockey PDOcast seems to allude to this issue: “There’s an analytical bend to the discussion, but it’s not nearly as nerdy as the title may sound.”

The issue of access also brings questions of equity into play. For example, there is a persistent persistent of under-resourcing and underfunding women’s sports. How does sports analytics factor in? Perhaps women’s sports earn less attention in this area too? Might investment in sports analytics help address gender inequity? There are gender disparities in leadership opportunities in sport as well (for example, see Norman, Donnelly & Kidd, 2021; Evans & Pfister, 2021; Wicker & Kerwin, 2020). Does sports analytics contribute to or counter this trend?

3) Do stakeholders in sport see limits on the use of data and technology in sport, or is “more always better”?

In an oft-cited lecture, social scientist Herbert Simon (1971) upended the idea that more information is necessarily desirable from a management perspective. People consume information, yes, but information consumes attention; people can only handle so much. Constant data collection and analysis in sport might be productive, but can it be overwhelming too? If so, how do athletes, coaches, analysts, executives, and others manage this potential dilemma?

Furthermore, as noted in the aforementioned Deloitte report, the explosion of data in sport raises questions not just on how to use data, but how to do so ethically. Data and technology might help in creating safer and fairer sports environments, for instance, through technology-aided predictive insight identifying when athletes are at risk of injury. But concerns arise if athletes or others in sport see data collection as too far-reaching, unfair, or invasive. Again, research into the matter can help identify how stakeholders in sport are pursuing effective and safe practices in the use of data and technology, and what might be done to go further in this regard.

Sport after Moneyball

The book Moneyball captured a moment of disruption in sport. The film offered an entertaining and dramatized version of events. Decades later, the ideas at the core of Moneyball have found mainstream acceptance.

Our work isn’t alone in exploring implications of data, technology, and analytics in sport (e.g., see Baerg, 2017; Beer, 2015; Hutchins, 2016; Manley & Williams, 2022; Wanless & Naraine, 2021; Watanabe, Shapiro & Drayer, 2021). Yet there are still many contributions to be made, including about the emergence and impacts of sports analytics in Canada.

Sport reflects and contributes to (and yes, at times resists) its wider conditions. The growing use of data and technology in sport is an important case in the arrival of a wider digital economy.

Author’s note

This article draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Highlights

Am I eating enough to be healthy and perform at my best?

Researchers know now that assessing the adequacy of energy intake in athletes is not as straightforward as crunching the numbers for calories-in (the energy we consume through the food we eat) minus calories-out (the energy we use to function, from basic processes such as breathing and blood circulation to the complex processes we use to work or exercise). Be wary of what the latest calorie tracking app is promoting as one’s daily energy budget, as the cost of all the human body processes that are involved in energy consumption and expenditure is incredibly complex (Burke et coll., 2018).

What researchers, athletes, coaches and health practitioners are really after is an understanding of an athlete’s energy availability status. Energy availability (EA) refers to the amount of energy left over and available for your body’s functions after the energy expended for training is accounted for from the energy you consume from food (Loucks et coll., 2011). Inadequate energy availability, or low energy availability (LEA), arises when there simply is not enough energy (calories) consumed to support critical body functions as well as extra physical activity, such as training. If this goes on long enough, athletes can face serious health implications. Typically, physiological functions of the body get neglected and only receive the energy that is available after the needs of physical activity are taken care of. The prevalence of low energy availability is assumed to be high in female athletes, and if persistent may pose a significant health risk (Melin et coll., 2014).

Women's hockey player watching the play on the iceRelative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDs) results from longstanding or severe LEA in athletes (Mountjoy et coll., 2014). It looks different in every athlete, and is associated with a variety of negative health and performance outcomes. For example, REDs can compromise physical (such as, reproductive, gastrointestinal, bone, and heart function) and mental health. It can also lead to impaired training adaptation, such as a decrease in muscle strength or endurance performance (Vanheest et coll., 2014; Woods et coll., 2017; Tornburg et coll., 2017; Schaal et coll., 2021) (See Table 1 for a list of Health and Performance Indicators of REDs).

Why does this matter to athletes? Like a house with a poor foundation, the body eventually starts to “break down.” Without a solid health foundation, the athlete is susceptible to an increased risk of injury, illness and blunted responses to training, all of which may hinder sport performance (Mountjoy et coll., 2014; Vanheest et coll., 2014; Woods et coll., 2017; Tornburg et coll., 2017; Schaal et coll., 2021; De Souza et coll., 2021; Joy et coll., 2014; Heikura et coll., 2021, 2018).

So back to the question, how do we know a female athlete’s energy availability is in a good place? Until recently, menstrual cycle patterns were touted as one of the main indicators of energy availability status in female athletes. Once an athlete’s period arrived each month, the athlete and their respective support teams would be content, and training would go on. So, what has changed?

Menstrual cycle patterns remain an important element in understanding energy availability status, with missed menstrual cycles ringing the alarm for REDs risk. However, ovulation is the more important part of the picture when it comes to providing a lens to energy availability status. Confirming ovulation via the luteinizing hormone surge is now considered the gold standard to monitor REDs in female athletes (Elliot-Sale et coll., 2020, 2021). 

Accordingly, if you are a female athlete who is keen to understand your REDs risk, or are a coach or parent of a female athlete, read on for an explanation of this method and walk away with a greater understanding of ovulation monitoring to support long-term health and performance.

Table 1: Potential indicators of REDs (Mountjoy et al 2014; Woods et al 2017)

chart with potential REDs indicators

Common questions regarding ovulation monitoring

Is ovulation monitoring appropriate for me?

Before adding ovulation sticks to your shopping cart, it is important to understand if monitoring is a fit for you. If you experience a consistent period, every 21 to 35 days, or experience irregularly long or short periods, (more than 35 or less than 21 days), go ahead and purchase those sticks, ovulation monitoring is likely valuable for you.

However, if you are an athlete that is pregnant, breastfeeding, or menopausal, ovulation monitoring might not be appropriate for you due to hormonal influences at play. Ovulation monitoring is not a fit for those who have been exposed to hormonal therapy or certain medications or diseases that cause disruptions to the menstrual cycle over the last six months. This includes oral contraceptives (“the pill”), hormonal IUDs (such as Mirena), estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. If in doubt, ask your doctor if ovulation monitoring is appropriate.

My period is like clockwork, but I’m still experiencing signs or symptoms of REDs. Do I really need to monitor ovulation?

It is highly recommended you monitor ovulation if you are experiencing symptoms of REDs (See Table 1). Regular menstrual bleeding does not always indicate ovulation and normal menstrual function. In fact, one study of recreationally active women (running around 30km per week) observed that 12% to 20% of the participants demonstrated anovulation (lack of ovulation) despite reporting regular menstruation (De Souza et coll., 1998; Prior et coll., 1990). This emphasizes the importance of monitoring ovulation and not just menstruation (in the form of bleeding), as ovulation is the primary indication of normal hormonal function. It is also important to be aware of other indicators of REDs beyond reproductive function (See Table 1).

person holding ovulation stickSo I pee on a stick, is that right?

Ovulation sticks (not to be mistaken for pregnancy tests) can be purchased online or at a pharmacy. Approximately 20 to 40 sticks are needed to monitor for the recommended monitoring window of 3 months. Ovulation testing begins 7 days after day 1 of a new menstrual cycle. For those not currently menstruating, monitoring begins right away. Though different brands can promote different protocols, we recommend to measure every morning, first thing. This is because the hormone we are measuring, luteinizing hormone, generally peaks during the 12:00 pm to 8:00 am window (World Health Organization 1980, Cahill et coll.,1998).

Do you prefer a visual of the ovulation monitoring method? If you’d like to see a visual of the ovulation monitoring method, check out this infographic.

Every morning? How am I supposed to remember that?

We know. We get it. You’re busy. As a cue to remember, place the sticks on your bathroom sink, or the top of the toilet lid, as a visual reminder.  

What happens once I get a positive test (or don’t)?

A positive test represents the luteinizing hormone surge that confirms ovulation (a good thing, in this case). Once you get a positive test, you can stop monitoring. Repeat the protocol outlined above for the next 2 cycles, with one exception: monitoring begins 7 days before the day a positive ovulation test occurred during the first cycle. For example, say, you ovulated on Day 12, you would start monitoring on Day 5 (7 days before) this time around.

If no ovulation occurs, test daily until your next menstrual cycle. Then stop monitoring until the cycle is complete and begin monitoring again the day after your cycle is over.

Initial ovulation monitoring should be conducted for a minimum of 3 months, and then repeated throughout the year depending on ovulation test results and recommendations from your physician.

What do I need to do with all this information?

Documenting the date and times of menstrual cycles and ovulation during this monitoring window is important to understand menstrual trends. It is also useful information to share with your doctor so all facets of your health are considered and assessed appropriately. Whether it be a calendar and pen, or tracking in your phone, determine what tool works for you and get tracking.

What if I haven’t gotten my period in a long time or I’ve never had a positive ovulation test?

If you are an athlete that has not gotten your period or a positive ovulation test, don’t ignore these warning signals. See your doctor right away, as missing periods or ovulations could be the body’s way of telling you that something is not right, including LEA or REDs.

If I ovulate and menstruate consistently, am I in the clear of LEA and REDs?

Menstruating with positive ovulation results is a very encouraging sign you are in the clear of LEA and REDs, especially if you don’t demonstrate any of the other signs and symptoms of REDs. However, if you still suffer from some of the symptoms of REDs, despite menstruating and ovulating, you might need to seek an assessment from a sports medicine physician. REDs could still be a factor, but showing up in your body in other ways (See Table 1 for Health and Performance Indicators of REDs).

Although monitoring might seem like a lot of work on top of training, the reward versus perceived inconvenience is huge. If you are a female athlete, consider adding ovulation tracking as part of your monitoring routine, as it could be very valuable to understand how you are faring physiologically and your risk for LEA and REDs. After all, a huge part of being a successful athlete and a healthy human involves tuning-in and connecting to one’s body cues to support long-term health and athletic success.

For more information, including an extended protocol and infographic on ovulation monitoring, visit the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific Nutrition Resources webpage.

Highlights

Let’s face it, being an athlete that trains outdoors during the winter can be stressful. Cold hands, runny nose, dry eyes, burning lungs, and wearing too little or too much are all realities athletes in Canada face throughout the winter. Luckily, our understanding of how humans can exercise safely and effectively in cold weather has improved. This article summarizes the research on human responses to cold exposure and presents evidence-informed strategies to promote safe participation, training and competition in outdoor sport activities during the winter months.

While there are different types of cold that athletes and outdoor enthusiasts may be exposed to, including cold air and cold water, this article will focus on cold air (because most decisions we make regarding winter outdoor physical activity and exercise are not in water, thank goodness). If readers are interested in understanding more about the effects of swimming in very cold water please see Tipton et al. (Tipton & Bradford, 2014) or are interested winter swimming challenges see Manolis et al. (Manolis et al., 2019).

Science of human responses to cold exposure

At 30 degrees Celsius, humans perceive water as cold (Smith & Hanna, 1975), and in a semi-nude state your body perceives 28.5 degrees Celsius air as cold (Kingma et al., 2012). In general, cold water or cold air is called a “physiological stressor,” which just means your body recognizes cold as something it needs to accommodate to stay in balance (body equilibrium). These mechanisms for cold stress (just like heat stress) are tightly regulated and every minute of the day your body is trying to ensure you are in “thermal balance.”

As it relates to cold environments thermal balance is the functional way to maintain comfort, overall body temperature and protect your core temperature. This is because unless extreme cold or prolonged exposure to cold overwhelms your ability to maintain your core temperature, thermal balance is your main consideration while being active in cold environments. To maintain thermal balance you are constantly balancing “heat loss factors” with “heat gain factors.”

main factors of thermal balance
Figure 1. The main factors of thermal balance

Thermal Balance is a product of heat loss and heat gain factors. On the heat loss side of Figure 1: conduction is the heat exchange between the skin or clothed parts of your body in direct contact with colder surrounding surfaces (for example, an ungloved handing touching a cold door handle or standing on snow). Convection can be natural (air movement on skin which can be between a base layer of clothing or unclothed skin such as your face) or forced (where your body is moving in motion throughout air or water) both of which cause heat to be transferred from the body to the air. Radiation is the heat energy transfer from your body to the surrounding environment.

On the heat gain side of Figure 1: radiation is the effect that the sun has on transferring energy to your body. Conduction can be adding heat to your body if the thing you are touching is warmer than your tissue temperature (think about the heat packs that you add to your gloves on cold days). Convection can cause heat gain when air warmer than your skin (for example, think about walking into a warm ski lodge after skiing in the winter). Metabolism is the energy produced from body fuels (fat stores, sugars in your body) for resting metabolism (all the energy it takes to keep your body alive) and muscular activity (extra energy being made to allow you to complete whatever physical activity you are doing). The thermic effect of food refers to the energy required for digestion, which does add some excess heat production (this is why you feel hot after a really large meal).

Core temperature is the temperature of your trunk and head (Lenhardt & Sessler, 2006) and your normal core temperature is about 37 degrees Celsius (Kurz, 2008), though your body core temperature can vary by up to 1 degree Celsius over the course of a 24 hour period (Kurz, 2008).

Mean body temperature on the other hand is the combination of your core temperature and your extremities, which are usually 2 to 4 degrees cooler than your core (Sessler & Todd, 2000). Your body will defend core temperature via many mechanisms in cold environments but if it cannot then accidental hypothermia risk increases.

Accidental hypothermia occurs when there is an involuntary drop in core temperatures < 35 degrees Celsius, leading to serious medical consequences (Castellani et al., 2021). Accidental hypothermia can occur in athletes exercising in a variety of air temperatures, especially if a combination of environmental “wet or windy” conditions are present, the individual has reduced exercise intensity due to fatigue or low blood sugar levels (Procter et al., 2018) or lack of adequate insulative wind/water proof clothing (Burtscher et al., 2012).

One less recognized factor that can affect body temperature is sweat either on the skin or in base layer clothing (Morrissey & Rossi, 2013). Getting sweaty due to inappropriate type and amounts of clothing while exercising vigorously can lead to extreme thermal discomfort (feelings of skin clamminess and coolness and overall perceptions of feeling cold) (Morrissey & Rossi, 2013) as well as a potential reduction in core temperature (Castellani et al., 2006). This is because sweaty skin at 5 degrees Celsius anywhere on your body is at least 10 degrees Celsius colder than dry skin in air that is 5 degrees Celsius (Pugh, 1967). 

Exposed skin in cold environments can be both physiologically challenging to your body as well cause injury. Frostbite is an injury to the skin (particularly exposed skin) most often seen on hands, feet, nose and ears where frostbite risk is accelerated by wind speed, wetness of the skin and touching cold materials such as metal and snow. Early symptoms in frostbite are numbness, white or yellow skin, or waxy looking skin (Castellani et al., 2021). More severe frostbite is associated with the tissue feeling “cool to touch” or tissue feeling like a “block of wood”(Castellani et al., 2021). Current time estimates for frostbite injury show that 15 km/hr wind speed at air temperatures of –20 degrees Celsius can lead to significant tissue injury in 10 to 30 minutes (Castellani et al., 2021).

Side view of a male biathlon athlete shooting during a competition in winter.In addition, exposing any skin on your body to cold environments can lead to a host of additional  adjustments to ensure your overall body temperature is maintained, and some of these adjustments influence your comfort and ability to exercise. The wide range of responses to exposed skin in cold environments is due to the fact our body has thermoreceptors (nerve endings that sense temperature) everywhere on our body. They are there to provide immediate feedback to your brain to ensure your core temperature and overall body temperature are maintained, however, the responses can alter your ability to exercise. For example, – 20 degrees Celsius air blown across a person’s face exercising at a moderate intensity can increase oxygen cost (you work harder (Stroud, 1991)) and your VO2max has been shown to be significantly lower in -18 degree Celsius air compared to warm environments (Stensrud et al., 2007). Furthermore, the thermoreceptors in your face can affect your lung function, constricting your lungs, even if you are breathing warm air (Koskela & Tukiainen, 1995).

Interestingly, your respiratory system (which includes your sinuses, mouth, throat and lungs) is like your skin. Even though it is inside your body, it is considered directly exposed to the environment because there is no barrier to the surrounding environment. Thus, your lungs, like your skin, are vulnerable to the cold air conditions, and breathing cold air can trigger thermoreceptors in the upper respiratory system, which affects your cardiovascular response to exercise (Heindl et al., 2004).

Our research has shown that when you exercise at a hard intensity, your lungs do a good job at warming and humidifying air in temperatures warmer than – 15 degrees Celsius, but temperatures colder than –15 degrees Celsius affect the lining of your lungs, leading to constriction and respiratory symptoms (cough, burning or sore throat, wheeze, more mucous) both during and after exercise (Kennedy et al., 2019). Exercising in very cold air leads to what is called respiratory evaporative heat loss (that feeling that your chest is cold inside) (McFadden Jr et al., 1999) and your body needs more water to humidify air in cold air (especially if you are breathing heavily) (Koskela, 2007), which means your lungs work much harder in cold air than warm air to stay functional.

From a thermal comfort standpoint, we know that your body early in the winter perceives cold air as a greater stressor than later in the winter (Van Ooijen et al., 2004). This can be an advantage in situations such as the Canadian Men’s Soccer Team qualifying run for World Cup 2022. In these cold games, for example in Edmonton on 16 November 2021 where the air temperature was – 9 degrees Celsius, the Canadian team likely perceived cold stress as lower due to their habitual exposure to cold over years compared to their Central American opponents. Although significantly understudied compared to heat acclimation, leading experts in the field provide clear evidence that 10 days of cold exposure can alter perception and reduce cold defence mechanisms (Yurkevicius et al., 2022). 

Applying the science of cold exposure to exercise and sport

A cross country skiier on a nature trail.Remember from Figure 1 that there are several different ways we can lose heat, and these potential losses of heat are all to some degree affected by how much the body is exposed to the environment. Thus, adding insulative clothing helps provide resistance to cold stress, and can do so very effectively, especially if you are exercising in sub-zero temperatures. The science of insulative clothing is based on “clo” units where 1 clo is equal to the air trapped between the skin and the layer of clothing needed to keep someone comfortable at rest in 21 degrees Celsius (Gagge et al., 1941). However, since the original research was conducted in the 1940s, better “insulative materials” have been developed that are more breathable and also wind and water proof, meaning we can extend the range of cold temperatures we can be active in while better maintaining thermal comfort (Liu et al., 2022).

The other good news is that our bodies are between 20 and 30 % efficient, meaning we produce a lot of heat while exerting energy to exercise (Whipp & Wasserman, 1969). So, if we wear enough proper insulative clothing, we can achieve thermal balance quite easily. The multi-layer approach is still highly recommended (base wicking layer, insulative mid-layer and the breathable but windproof outer-layer) because it allows for thermal balance to be readily controlled (Morrissey & Rossi, 2013).

However, it is important to remember sweaty skin is the real culprit with regard to discomfort and thermoregulation, so choosing the right ensemble of clothing really matters, to ensure that sweat does not accumulate on skin, in your base layer, or increase condensation within the outer shell (Huang, 2016). An outer shell that has a hydrophilic layer (attracts moisture to vent) is the best option for reducing condensation. However, in addition, wearing looser clothing allows for greater water vapour transmission through the base layer (reduced water on skin) and maintains air layers between layers (which improves heat retention). Thus, choosing the correct combination of technical clothing layers that maximize wicking offers thermal resistance (warmth), are highly breathable but wind proof as well as looser will ensure good cold weather thermal management (Morrissey & Rossi, 2013; Tang et al., 2014).

Our recent research looking at exercise in – 15 degrees Celsius found that despite tissue temperature throughout the body decreasing, warm up exercise intensities were sufficient to maintain thermal comfort. The participants wore a base layer, a thin Lycra® mid layer and technical warm up suit (Gore-Tex Infinium®) and an early conclusion from this study would be that “starting cold” will ensure you don’t overheat during the main part of your workout.

Covering your skin as much as possible will have some obvious benefits in reducing frostbite risk, while also reducing thermoreceptor strain. This includes covering your cheeks, forehead, nose and neck, especially in windy conditions (Mäkinen et al., 2000), even in conditions that Canadians might not consider “that cold” (-5 and -10 degrees Celsius).  Covering your mouth and nostrils via some type of mask or “heat and moisture exchanger” device (for example, AirTrim®), certainly has benefits in reducing strain on the respiratory system and reducing the chances of having cold induced shortness of breath or asthma like attack (narrowing of the airways in your lungs) (Frischhut et al., 2020). Interestingly, some recent research has also found that maintaining temperature in your nostrils ensures you have preserved your ability to fight off inhaled viruses, which is one more reason to wear a mask (Huang et al., 2022).

Concluding thoughts on safety and performance in cold

If you are parent, coach or involved in youth sport organization, remember that prevention matters. Canadians often have a “tough it out” attitude to cold weather and we likely expose ourselves to too much cold air for our own good. With that being said, there is no clear indication of what is considered “too cold” in Canada, and most sports have some cold weather policies that are based on old evidence or just expert opinion. The emerging science would indicate that if we can reduce those severe exposures on an annual basis, we will reduce the incidence of asthma and exercise induced asthmatic conditions, catastrophic medical situations and cold weather deaths. Given that I consistently advocate for safer cold weather training and competitions environments I will leave you with these thoughts:

Highlights

While Canadians are used to severe winter weather, 9 of the 10 warmest years on record in Canada have occurred in the last 25 years. This has real world implications for outdoor sport events. For example, even the best triathletes in the world struggled with the extreme heat in Edmonton in July, with Paula Findlay and Kristian Blummenfelt forced to reduce their intensity in the later stages of the race, costing each of them the win (Professional Triathlon Organization July 24, 2022).

The trend of heat waves across Western Canada also led to the cancellation of the Manitoba Marathon mid-race. The known risks of exercise in extreme heat put too many amateur participants at risk. The move to cancel the event (even mid-race) was a smart choice by the organizers. While highly trained athletes possess a better capacity to regulate their body temperature in the heat (Douzi et al., 2019), amateur athletes can experience a significant increase in core body temperature during even relatively short (15km) running events in cool or temperate (11 degrees Celsius) conditions (Veltmeijer et al., 2015). Given that the average temperature in the country is increasing annually at roughly twice the global mean rate and many Canadian athletes travel to compete abroad, dealing with extreme temperatures when competing in the spring, summer and fall months is a reality that many will have to face.

Why exercising in the heat is such a challenge

When exercising in the heat, skin blood flow and sweat rate are increased to allow dissipation of heat to the environment (Racinais et al., 2015). Although beneficial to regulate body temperature, the increase in sweat contributes to dehydration, further exacerbating the physiological responses to exercise (Pryor et al., 2019). The higher physiological cost to maintain the same intensity of exercise alters the metabolic rate at which energy is produced, increasing the reliance on anaerobic energy. This leads to a higher rate of depletion of liver glycogen stores, increased metabolite accumulation and significantly higher lactate concentrations (Pryor et al., 2019). The increased cardiovascular, thermal, and metabolic stress, along with a higher perception of effort for any given work rate contribute to a significant reduction in performance (Périard et al., 2021). Fortunately, there are strategies that can help mitigate the effect that heat stress might have on performance. 

A conceptual framework of the different factors influencing performance in the heat
Figure 1. A conceptual framework of the different factors influencing performance in the heat (Périard et al., 2021)

Dealing with heat

The science of how our bodies get better at dealing with heat is called heat acclimatization (HA) when occurring naturally (outdoors) or heat acclimation if it occurs in an artificial environment, like a laboratory. In either situation, the idea is to expose your body to the same environmental stress (in this case heat) to elevate internal temperature (core body) and skin temperatures, causing profuse sweating (Sawka et al., 1993). Just like in cold acclimation, the repeated environmental stress leads to adaptations that allow your body to better get rid of heat to control core and overall body temperature.

These changes occur in your cardiovascular system (heart and arteries), thermoregulatory (nerve receptors and your brain), metabolic (altering how you use energy), and perceptual (how you feel in the heat) during exercise in the heat, enhancing your ability to do more work with less heat stress (Chalmers et al., 2014). Heat acclimation also occurs quickly (within a week of repeated heat exposure), meaning you feel cooler, use less energy and have a lower heart rate if you persevere through that first week of heat exposure.

Figure 2. Time course of adaptations related to exercise heat acclimatization. (Périard et al., 2021)
Figure 2. Time course of adaptations related to exercise heat acclimatization. (Périard et al., 2021)

How to train to beat the heat

While the benefits from heat acclimatization seem to be more pronounced when it is done in the exact same conditions as the event will occur, acclimation (think of exercise in the heat indoors or in a lab, for example) has been shown to provide similar adaptations for endurance and team sport athletes if sufficient heat stress is provided.

For those that cannot perform a heat acclimation cycle, there are still plenty of options. Recent studies have demonstrated that passive heat exposure (for example, a post-exercise sauna or hot water immersion) can also lead to significant adaptations to heat (McIntyre et al., 2021). In fact, when the heat stress applied was the same, recreational athletes showed similar adaptations to exercise in the heat when compared to post-exercise hot water immersion (McIntyre et al., 2021). The use of saunas to elicit a heat stress response has also been shown to lead to similar adaptations as traditional heat acclimation, reducing heat stress during exercise and improving performance (Casadio et al., 2017; Kirby et al., 2021).

Figure 3. The above shows different approaches to HA, divided into natural and artificial exposures (Périard et al., 2021)
Figure 3. The above shows different approaches to HA, divided into natural and artificial exposures (Périard et al., 2021)

Planning a heat training program

Of the approaches listed above (figure 3) self-paced and controlled heart rate exercise are the most practical options. Self-paced exercise offers a sport-specific method of inducing adaptation, having been successful in improving performance in high level cyclists after a training camp (Périard et al., 2021; Racinais et al., 2015). For example, on your first day in the heat you could ride your bike (or run) for 60 minutes at a comfortable pace, with the effort controlled based on heart rate and perception of effort, for example. The second day could include a progression in the duration of the session, aiming to maintain the same overall perception of effort.

However, as your body adapts to the heat stress, it is necessary to provide a continuous overload to the system to ensure that the desired adaptations will occur. In this scenario, exercising with a target heart rate in mind (controlled heart rate approach) is a great option. In cyclists completing a 10-day heat acclimatization protocol, the power output to maintain the intended heart rate increased by approximately 25 watts (or about 15%) during the intervention (Travers et al., 2020). With this approach, you could start your heat acclimation with 60 minutes of cycling at 65% of your heart rate max. Maintaining the same target heart rate over the next few days, while increasing the duration of your sessions, should provide you with the required stress to continuously adapt to the heat.

The downside to these approaches is that exercising in the heat will force you to reduce your training load, affecting your training quality. If this is a concern, passive heat exposure is your best choice. Exercising in cool temperatures (such as riding indoors at the gym or virtual world cycling (like Peloton or Zwift in your basement) prior to a sauna or hot water immersion is a great option to maintain training quality and induce similar adaptations to the more traditional methods of exercising in the heat (Périard et al., 2021). For example, 40 minutes of hot water immersion (40 degrees Celsius, with water up to the neck) reduced the perception of effort and heat strain, improving running performance (in 33 degrees Celsius) in as little as 6 days (Zurawlew et al., 2016). So, if following the snowbirds south is not an option prior to your competition in early March, don’t worry! Perform your sessions as scheduled and make sure you can spend some time in the heat after you are done!

The following points, based on current research can inform your decision making when preparing to compete in the heat (Périard et al., 2021; Pryor et al., 2019; Sawka et al., 2015):  

As you can see, there are multiple ways to ensure you are ready to compete in the heat. The best news for you is that all of these methods have been shown to be effective in improving your performance in the heat. The obvious question you are asking yourself now is: which one do I choose? Pick and choose the one that fits your race (and life) schedule the best. Remember that your heat training should start 1 – 3 weeks before competition to ensure that you recover from your heavy training and also to allow you to perform a taper (Pryor et al., 2019).

Beating the heat during competition

So, what can you do if heat training is not an option? Regardless of the completion of a heat training protocol, cooling strategies can have a significant effect on performance on race or game day. Cooling strategies can be classified as internal, such as the ingestion of an ice slurry or cold beverage, or external, such as through the use of a cooling garment or cold-water immersion. These strategies can be employed before (pre-cooling) or during the event (per-cooling). Pre-cooling is focused on reducing core body temperature prior to the start of the event, while per-cooling focuses on reducing skin temperature and improving thermal perception during the event (Gibson et al., 2020). Since the pre-cooling effects of different strategies might be reduced after approximately 20 to 30 minutes, a combination of both types of cooling might be the most beneficial (Périard et al., 2021; Racinais et al., 2015).

Research suggests that cold water immersion seems to be the most effective pre-cooling method, leading to the largest benefits in performance, while utilizing an ice vest led to the largest benefits during the event.

Figure 4. Pre-cooling and per-cooling strategies and their impact on exercise performance. The dashed line represents the average improvement for pre-cooling (top panel) and per-cooling (bottom panel) (Périard et al., 2021) Data extracted from (Bongers et al., 2021)

Bringing the recommendations to practice, here are some examples of what you can do to try to minimize the effects that heat might have on your performance (Douzi et al., 2019; Gibson et al., 2020; Périard et al., 2021; Racinais et al., 2015):

Prior to your event:

During the event:

Lastly, don’t forget that hydration is essential. Sweat rates of 1.0 to 1.5 liter per hour are common when performing intense activities in the heat (Racinais et al., 2015). Since sodium is the most common salt lost during exercise, it might be necessary (particularly for heavy and “salty” sweaters) to consume sports drinks containing sodium when exercising for longer than 1 hour (Pryor et al., 2019; Racinais et al., 2015). Consuming 30 – 60g / hour of carbohydrates or up to 90g / hour is also recommended for exercises longer than an hour or longer than 2.5 hours, respectively.

A final word on athlete health in the heat

Be aware that heat stress is a serious condition. While it is difficult to establish specific cut-offs across different sports for competing in the heat, it is important to be aware when risk is elevated.

Since the 1950s the most common method to report how the human body is dealing with the environment is called Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT). The term was developed to account for the various factors which ultimately affect a person in the environment; where the American National Weather Service defines it as “a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which considers: temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover (solar radiation). Given that WBGT account for the push and pull of all these factors a comprehensive determination of heat stress on the body is provided and has been used effectively to guide decision making of exertion in the heat (Budd, 2008).

For this reason many environmental physiologists use WBGT and many guidelines for heat stress use WBGT as the combined value to report risk of heat stress (Brocherie & Millet, 2015). As you can see in Figure 5, as WBGT increases and you add increased relative humidity, heat stress increases. This highlights the importance that evaporative cooling has on controlling your heat stress, where high relative humidity reduces evaporation mechanisms leading to reduced ability to cool oneself.

For the purposes of your own decision making, it is instructive to check the relative humidity and if it is high, then note your ability to cool will be less (especially in non or low wind conditions). For those training through the Canadian winter, the risk seems to be higher right after the winter months, when athletes are not seasonally heat acclimatized (Gosling et al., 2008).

Figure 5. Estimated risk for exertional heat illness based on wet bulb global temperature (WBGT) and humidity. (Racinais et al., 2015)

With temperatures remaining elevated in the coming years, competing in the heat is a reality. Fortunately, current sport science and environmental physiology research has provided some effective evidence-based strategies to assist with heat training prior to an event. Furthermore, on competition day or on a hard workout day we also know how cooling just prior to and during it can improve performance and reduce health complications.

Highlights

Athlete transfer is a tricky topic within the Para sport system. 

Athlete transfer refers to when an athlete chooses to pursue a new sport, take on an additional sport, or their circumstances compel them to change sports. Athletes may transfer for a multitude of reasons, including but not limited to: competitive opportunities, age, injury, or desire to try something new. Currently, athlete transfer is increasingly common, but informal and predominantly up to the athlete to navigate and manage. 

Jenny Davey, Manager of Paralympic Pathways at the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), says that people within the system often speak of transfer in “veiled conversations.” 

“On the one hand, transfer can provide choices to athletes and give them more options in their career, and it could be really positive for the athlete pipeline in Para sport,” Davey says. “But on the other hand, having a robust athlete pool is always a concern across all Para sports and there’s always been a bit of a scarcity mindset. We would hear from National Sport Organizations (NSOs), Provincial and Territorial Sport Organizations (PTSOs), or athletes that they felt like transfer was really cloak and dagger. There was a sense of, ‘I don’t want to lose all my athletes,’ which can feel territorial and even disrespectful.” 

When the CPC and Own the Podium (OTP) solicited feedback from Paralympic National Sport Organizations and athletes about how to grow and improve Paralympic sport in Canada, one of the significant recommendations was a need to establish an “Athlete Transfer System” between Paralympic sports. 

Understanding transfer to build a better system 

Alex Hayward riding his bike wearing a Team Canada kit.

To garner a better understanding of what a formal transfer system could and should look like, the CPC and OTP partnered with Joe Baker and Nima Dehghansai, researchers from York University. The collaboration grew naturally out of previous work Baker and Dehghansai had done on the Paralympian Search identification program, seeking to better understand the demographics and characteristics of athletes that attend the event. The Paralympian Search is an athlete-identification event designed to showcase sport opportunities and connect participants to different Paralympic sports. 

“What we noticed was that there’s a lot of athletes that are attending the event that are currently in the [Paralympic] system. And so technically, [the event] is facilitating an opportunity for transfer discussions with other sports,” Dehghansai says. 

The York team undertook interviews with Para sport athletes who had undergone transfer or participated in multiple sports, as well as Para sport coaches and high performance directors. Close to 50 athletes, coaches, and technical leaders provided input. 

This research informed the development of the Paralympic Athlete Transfer (PAT) Task Force, who took on a two-year mandate to serve as a think tank to provide recommendations on transfer to the broader sport system. The focus of the task force, based on the evidence from Baker and Dehghansai, and coupled with additional research and consultation, is to develop a vision of transfer that supports athletes holistically, rather than focusing solely on “talent” or “medal potential.” 

The task force was formed with the aid of a diversity matrix, with the goal of achieving a group with a multiplicity of lived experience and expertise. Upon forming, the task force examined current research and trends in athlete recruitment and transfer, looked at current resources available, and importantly sought the perspectives of athletes to inform the discussion. To hear more from an athlete lens, the task force took on a secondary consultation, this time including the voices of athletes who had not undergone transfer or multi-sport participation, as they realized reasons that athletes might have for avoiding transfer were not fully captured in the first series of interviews. 

One of the cultural challenges that the task force had to grapple with was that transfer has not historically always been welcomed by coaches or organizations. Darda Sales is a retired Paralympian who recently completed a PhD exploring Para sport athlete development and sport coaches’ preparedness for supporting the wellness of their athletes. As a member of the task force who herself underwent a transfer from Para swimming to wheelchair basketball, Sales says there can be a perception that an NSO or sport “owns an athlete.” With the pool of athletes in Para sport being comparatively small compared to non-Para sport, possessiveness surrounding athletes is a concern. 

“I think it’s dangerous psychologically for athletes,” Sales says, “People feel pressure that they have to stay with one sport and that is the only place they can be accepted or excel.  

On the other hand, when transfers did occur, they were most often thought of as a “talent transfer” rather than “athlete transfer.”  

Changing the narrative from “talent transfer” to “athlete transfer” 

The task force is focusing on a person-first approach to transfer and to general athlete development within the Para sport system, rather than one focused solely on Paralympic medals. On behalf of the task force, Dehghansai and Davey co-wrote in the Paralympic Athlete Transfer position statement:  

“Historically, talent transfers (TT) are defined as formalized processes designed to facilitate the transfer of an athlete to a new sport to maximize the potential of return, mainly measured in medals (Collins, Collins, Mcnamara & Jones, 2014). However, considering the core values of the Canadian Sport Policy, including a commitment to safety, excellence, inclusion, and respect (Canadian Heritage, 2012), the main objective of the transfer system in our proposal is to ensure it is athlete-centred, hence our shift away from the term ‘talent’ and a focus on ‘athlete’ transfer.” 

Wheelchair rugby Paralympian and coach, Mike Whitehead, another member of the task force, says that this changing of the narrative surrounding transfer is important in the long term. Rather than viewing transfer as athletes being “poached” from one sport to another, or with some sports being considered “donor” sports and others “receivers,” he envisions a system that encourages not only transfer, but multi-sport participation throughout careers. Based on his own experience, he strongly believes this will lead to more mentally-healthy and physically well-rounded athletes. 

“These kids that are moving up right now, they’re the future of our Paralympic Movement in the country. So if [the Para Athlete Transfer system] is in place for them, it’s going to be a beautiful set up for long-term success,” Whitehead says. 

Paralympian and coach, Michael Frogley, coming from the side of wheelchair basketball, a frequent “donor” sport, couldn’t agree more. In fact, he doesn’t really like the idea of “donor” sports, preferring instead to think of them as “opportunity” or “development” sports.  

“I think it’s incredibly important to understand that the sport an athlete first starts in has a huge role to play,” Frogley says, “because if it’s a positive experience, that’s what keeps the athlete in sport.” 

Deghansai cautions that transfer is not the solution to all the challenges along the Para sport pathway, but rather an alternative or additional method of recruitment and support for athlete development and choice. It is important to continue to seek new avenues for recruitment and growth within Para sport and provide sporting opportunities to the community.  

Learning from athlete experiences 

Christina Picton Para nordic

There are many examples of how a supported transfer experience can aid in an athlete’s well-being. The Paralympic Athlete Transfer Taskforce partnered with SIRC to spotlight the experiences of athletes who have undergone transfer without an official process, to highlight the benefits of transfer. 

SIRC has published profiles of Alex Hayward, Brianna Hennessy, Liam Hickey, Cindy Ouellet, Christina Picton and Robbi Weldon, all Para athletes that have undergone transfer or compete in multiple sports. The idea is to make their positive experiences the norm, rather than dependent upon individual personalities within the system. 

Some common themes from their transfer and multi-sport experiences include: 

Next steps for the task force include drafting a list of actionable recommendations for a transfer system moving forward. 

However, Davey notes that it can be difficult to create recommendations that are quantifiable when it comes to issues of cultural change, such as the move away from prioritizing performance and towards prioritizing people.  

“We have to ask ourselves, how do you measure a mindset shift?” Davey says.  

Some of these potential recommendations for sport organizations include: 

Brianna Hennessy para canoe kayakFurther recommendations are likely to include asking organizations to look at their development strategies and ways they support athletes along the Para sport pathway, as many athletes reported feeling rushed to reach the highest levels of competition as quickly as possible, especially after a transfer. There’s discussion of an online platform to provide a forum for both peer-to-peer communication between athletes, but also more open collaboration between coaches and organizations. Funding will also be addressed within the recommendations. For example, the Athlete Assistance Program, which provides funding to athletes, does not currently allow athletes to be eligible for funding in more than one sport, which can be a barrier for multi-sport athletes. 

Overall, the goal is to pull conversation and policy surrounding transfer out of a “scarcity mindset” and towards a “robust mindset.” The latter is one where athletes feel supported and encouraged not only to try different sports, but also to chart a development pathway that feels physically and psychologically right for them. 

Highlights

When it comes to the relationship between sports and social media, it’s hard to know where to start. Athletes have never been more visible and accessible than they are now. As a result, social media has become an increasingly commercialized space within the sporting industry, with brands and sponsors seeking to reach consumers through athletes’ platforms.  

On the one hand, social media can be a tool in the hands of athletes to engage and inspire sport participation. In some cases, athletes use social media to create community, provide information, or undertake activism or philanthropic work. 

On the other hand, social media has demonstratively negative impacts on mental health and may place undue pressure on athletes to look or act in certain ways to be “marketable” online. Social media is rife with harassment, abuse, and sexualization, but many athletes feel as though they can’t opt out of social media, as it has become entrenched within the economic system of sport when it comes to sponsorship. 

So is social media good, or bad, for the sport industry? For athletes? For women and athletes of marginalized communities? The answer seems to be: it’s both. Or, rather, it depends who you ask. 

The reality of sport and social media is nuanced and complex. In this SIRCuit article, I will outline some of the challenges that athletes face within our increasingly digital world, and how sport organizations can best support athletes in navigating social media. This topic was explored at length in SIRC webinar, “Connecting mind and movement: How to create sport environments that support mental health.” Quotes from the webinar are included in this article. 

The research 

Woman using social media

The academic research on visual-based social media (think Instagram) and sport falls broadly into the camps: that of sport management and marketing, and that of cultural studies.   

On the sport management side, in 2014, practitioners developed a conceptual “model of the brand image” (MABI) (Akiko, Ko and Ross, 2014). According to the MABI, an athlete’s value as a “brand” is based on: 

The MABI makes explicit what any observer of sport culture might have noticed, that it is not just one’s raw talent or performance that determines one’s success, especially in sports in which athletes rely on precarious sponsorship relationships rather than salaries within big league franchises. One’s financial success may now also depend on their “physical attractiveness” and “marketability of lifestyle.”   

For example, in a webinar on branding offered through AthletesCAN, Randy Osei, founder of Athlete Technology Group and Rozaay Management, told athletes that they need to take their online branding “as serious as you take your sport” and that “this is a topic that I would give to a grade 7 class, because these are things that matter, moving forward with the digital transformation we’re in. Your online presence is everything.”  

On the other hand, researchers within cultural studies point out that this seemingly simple trifecta of elements that make up an athlete’s potential as a “brand” ignores the sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and ableism that often underscore what is or is not deemed “attractive” or “desirable.” Cultural studies research also critiques sport management for failing to consider the cultural pressures that influence the way that athletes present themselves online (Toffoletti et al, 2017, Toffoletti & Thorpe, 2018, Toll and Norman, 2021). 

According to Shaunna Taylor, a high performance counsellor and past chair of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, speaking in a webinar on mental health for women and girl athletes offered through SIRC, “one thing that has really irked me over the last 25 years of working in mental health is when we talk about athletes having to commit to their brand. You are not a brand. You are a person.” 

The tension between these two perspectives is not easily explained as “economic imperatives versus cultural consequences,” as these are intimately intertwined. The economic is influenced by the cultural and vice versa. 

The economics 

Sports are big business. To deny that would be silly. And athletes deserve to make a living wage to support their training and living. But now we have a system in which many athletes feel obligated to use social media as a key part of supporting themselves financially, through partnerships with sponsors. 

Recognizing this reality, the athlete support group, AthletesCAN, has partnered with the athlete marketing influencer firm, Firework, in an attempt to help support athletes navigating social media and its economic side. Firework ran the aforementioned webinar on branding, as well as one on monetization of social media for Canadian athletes. 

When asked if we should be worried about the requirement that athletes “be a brand,” Firework founder Nate Behar acknowledges it as a concern, but that it’s also a part of the reason he founded the company, so that athletes could have support along the way. He also astutely points out that “to move up in any organization, you’d have to do some personal branding. This is not new generally, and definitely not new to sports.” 

Firework helps athletes monetize their social media while staying true to themselves as much as possible, through giving them advice such as: 

Behar also brings up a study that found that 86% of Gen Z and Millennials would post sponsored content for money, and 54% would become an influencer, if given the opportunity (Morning Consult 2019). And athletes certainly have the opportunity.  

Julie-Anne Staehli post raceNot all athletes love the social media reality and are wary of how much it has become part of the financial reality for amateur athletes trying to make it. For example, track Olympian Julie-Anne Staehli is wary of people seeing her as a vehicle for advertisement, rather than seeing the work she puts in training. “You become a way that [companies] can use your following to sell something. That is not always a great feeling,” she says, “Of course I want to pay off student loans and all that, but for me, I have to set boundaries and ask, is this really something I genuinely believe in? Who are the people behind this and am I building some sort of relationship with them?” 

Staehli advanced in sport right as social media culture picked up. “Now we’re expected to compete, but also be a business person, to have this side of advertisement and content creation,” she says, “it’s not something we ever receive coaching in.” 

This, of course, is precisely the gap that the Firework and AthletesCAN partnership is hoping to fill. But coaching on branding and monetization doesn’t cover other key elements of social media that impact athletes, including the encouragement of perfectionism, comparison to others, trolling and online abuse, sexualization (in particular of women athletes), isolation, and more.  

The cultural 

Tracy Vaillancourt, an education and psychology professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in mental health, has an evolutionary explanation as to why social media can be so overwhelming.  

“What athletes need to know is that their brain is not set up to handle this media. We have hundreds of thousands of years of selection pressure that organized our brains for us to be living in small units, where gossip serves a purpose. And now what’s happened is that you have access to the whole world. We have this old brain set in this modern context and they’re incompatible,” Vaillancourt explains. 

Apart from the incompatibility of our brains, Vaillancourt is emphatic that social media is inherently toxic: “It brings out the worst in humanity, or the best. But you don’t get the middle opinion too often, you get polarized opinions. Some can ignore the rejection and just bathe in the positive, but that’s also skewed and probably not healthy.”  

Research by Meta (then Facebook) itself has shown that over 30% of teen girls reported that when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel worse (Wells, Horowitz, Seetharaman 2021). 

Social media also plays a role in the overrepresentation of perfectionistic athletes, particularly women and girls.   

“A lot of people think that perfectionism is a good personality trait, but they’re confusing it with conscientiousness. Being a perfectionist is really quite maladaptive. It’s where a person self-imposes really high standards and then evaluates their ability to meet that erroneously high standard. It’s all or nothing. Perfectionism is linked to a higher incidence of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicidality,” Vaillancourt explains. 

Haley Smith Both Staehli and Haley Smith, a Canadian cyclist who also competed at the Tokyo Games, were emphatic that social media exacerbates their own perfectionistic tendencies. 

“There’s so much self-comparison in both body image, performance, and other elements,” Smith says.  

Staehli doesn’t think she would have been able to handle social media in high school and university the way that younger athletes do now. “Even at 28 as a professional athlete, it’s something I still struggle with,” she says. 

When asked about the perfectionism that is rife on social media, particularly visual-based media, Behar says that while he encourages athletes to develop a personal brand, he is adamantly against them projecting a “picture perfect” life online. For him, Canadian pole vaulter Alysha Newman comes to mind: “She dealt with concussion and almost retired and she was very forward about that. I think that lends itself to a whole different type of engagement and connection with an audience.” 

“Especially now, and I’ll be the first to make fun of them for it, but we have the Gen Z’s of the world who are so great at bawling their eyes out on camera,” Behar chuckles, “But I think that shows we are shifting away from idealizing that everything has to be perfect.” 

While Taylor, Vaillancourt and other mental health professionals worry about the risks of body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, (Cohen et al, 2017, Rogers & Melioli, 2015, Lonergan et al, 2020), Behar believes the biggest stress surrounding social media for athletes is when dollar signs are involved, that is, trying to figure out sponsorship relationships and projecting an online brand.  

These two positions might be more similar than they superficially appear. While athlete anxiety and body comparison may stem from the need to be an attractive “brand” online, those wishing to opt out of social media might find themselves stressed about their ability to financially support their training and lack of visibility in their field. 

Who is “seen” 

Who has a leg up in the social media game is inherently biased. Returning to the idea of MABI, physical attractiveness, athletic performance and lifestyle marketability all determine success in the digital world. Social media may not be unique in that way, but rather a reflection of broader societal values. My own doctoral research surrounding social media usage amongst high performance women runners showed this in three ways: the curated display of the fit body, the emphasis on confidence, positive emotions and “everything going well,” and the cultivation of an athlete-only identity. 

I tracked Instagram posts from the 25 women who made the Canadian and American Olympic teams destined for the Tokyo Olympics, at distances from 1500m to the marathon. The data collection period lasted from 4 July to 28 July 2021, roughly the time period between athletes qualifying for the Olympics, and the beginning of the Athletics events in Tokyo. Data was collected every 3 days, resulting in a cumulative 72 individual posts. 

Over half of all posts from athletes featured them in a sports bra or midriff baring outfit (note: athletes do not always have control of their official race uniform which, for women, is often a crop top and briefs). In a study undertaken by the European Data Journalism Network in 2020, findings showed that posts featuring women in bikinis or other undergarments were 54% more likely than other posts to show up in the newsfeeds of study participants (Richard et al 2021). While some might claim that this shows an algorithmic preference, Instagram argues that it popularizes newsfeeds based on the content that an individual clicks on, sending us right back into the cultural to economic feedback loop. 

Also in my study, 76% of the time, athletes posted in a tone that was upbeat, excited, or expressing gratitude. Upbeat posts emphasize the fun lifestyle of a professional runner, the amazing places traveled to and convey that they are having the time of their lives. This aligns with the element of the MABI that sees the marketability of an athlete’s lifestyle as important to the athlete’s success as a “brand.” However, always seeing everyone else’s “highlight reel” on social media is one of the very triggers for self-comparison that mental health practitioners worry about. 

As opposed to Behar’s advice of diversifying yourself and showing different interests, the athletes I studied posted almost-exclusively running-related content. Athletes posted themselves solo 62% of the time and with teammates, competitors, or coaches 32% of the time during data collection, meaning that only 6% of the time did they post photos with non-sporting related people, demonstrating an awareness of their accounts as running-focused. 

Finally, my research clearly shows that popularity (as determined by number of followers), does not necessarily align with the athlete’s history of athletic success. For example, in my data set, first time Olympians, through cultivation of self-representation as a “Can-Do Girl” athlete leveraging their MABI (similar to a “fitfluencer”) were able to garner more of a following than repeat Olympians, or other athletes that had performed better throughout the season, but posted less on Instagram. 

Camille Bérubé swimmingThe issue of who gets visibility online is something that Camille Bérubé, Team Canada Para swimmer and 2-time Paralympian thinks of often. She sees how social media can be an opportunity to diversify athletic representation, but often falls short of this. 

“I’m a wheelchair user, and I rarely saw someone who looked like me in the media,” she explained in an interview, “So to have these athletes share their own content and own journey allows us to diversify the landscape of the sport system.”  

But, over and over again, she has seen big sponsors, on and off social media, lean more towards working with Paralympians who are, in her words, “able-bodied passing.” Athletes with disabilities also face being stereotyped into a “supercrip” narrative that describes them as having “overcome” disability (Clare 1999). 

“They sell the story of tragedy and then triumph, rather than performance and excellence in sport. We put people on pedestals and talk about them overcoming disability. We’re not overcoming disabilities,” Bérubé says emphatically, “We’re actually living and attempting to thrive in a world that is crawling with ableism.” 

She sees social media as the potential to increase diversity and inclusion in the sporting industry and community, but because of its economic entrenchment, she most often observes it upholding the status quo, with white, heterosexual, able-bodied individuals being held up as the standard of “attractiveness” and “desirability.”  

What to do 

In particular with the change in name, image and likeness (NIL) laws in the United States, which now allows collegiate athletes to monetize their NIL, pressure to “become a brand” is starting earlier and earlier. Schools, teams and federations often give athletes social media training designed to protect the school, image or federation’s brand, rather than encourage them to ask questions about how social media makes them feel. 

If organizations wish to support their athletes in navigating social media, not only should partnerships like the one between AthletesCAN and Firework be prioritized, but also workshops and training focused on strategies for using social media in ways that help protect athletes from some of the detrimental mental health effects. 

Considerations for NSOs assisting athletes in navigating social media: 

Likewise, brands wishing to partner with athletes should undertake self-reflection of their sponsored athletes, and if that is reflective of the diversity within the Canadian landscape. 

Both Smith and Staehli emphasized one word when it comes to social media: boundaries. Boundaries referred to who they partnered with, who they followed and how much time they spent on the app, asking themselves questions like: “How does consuming this content make me feel afterwards?” These are their own self-taught strategies for managing the pressures of social media as a high performance athlete, rather than those garnered from any formal training.   

Questions for athletes to consider regarding social media use: 

Behar and Osei are right, a digital transformation has occurred, and social media isn’t going away anytime soon. However, thoughtful consideration of how content might impact followers beyond the monetary value and implementation of boundaries on the part of athletes, sponsors, and those who engage with social media is vital to a safe and healthy sport system.