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“I don’t coach a sport, I coach life.” – Dane Baugh, Coordinator of Sport Programming, MLSE LaunchPad

Can all sports be considered Sport For Development opportunities?  

Sport For Development (SFD) is the intentional use of sport and physical activity to build healthy communities and help people reach their full potential, often through the integration of sport with positive development approaches to enhance overall effectiveness. In a grassroots youth context, SFD is as much about providing a supportive environment where youth can develop as people, as it is a place to train and compete.

The evaluation report on the 2012 Canada Sport Policy (CSP) showed that while youth initiatives were the most common type of SFD initiative, these were most frequently applied in community-level sport environments and not within high-performance athletics. In other words, while positive youth development approaches are more commonplace in traditional recreation, play, and try-a-sport contexts, competitive sport leaders and athletes have generally not been exposed to training in ways that target and achieve life-skills-based positive development outcomes.

As Canada moves toward the renewal and adoption of a new policy to guide the next 10 years, further integration is anticipated. The 2021 CSP renewal environmental scan, for example, cited recommendations for more equitable and inclusive sport overall that unites different approaches and actors. The 2023 What We Heard research report that will inform the CSP renewal, showed that Canadians believe the sport system has the opportunity to promote positive values and outcomes beyond sport, such as in the home, at school and in the community. Two thirds of respondents on a national survey indicated that SFD approaches should be integrated into other sport participation contexts in the new policy, rather than stand alone as a separate context for participation.

This article draws on recent insights from the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Foundation’s Change the Culture, Change the Game report. It extends the practical recommendations and approaches voiced by over 8,200 youth and parents in Ontario for sport organizations and administrations looking to act on advancing a more positive culture for youth in sport. We make the case for all sport environments to incorporate an SFD approach and offer examples for how to get started.

Insights on trust, inclusion and youth sport culture

The MLSE Foundation Change the Game research project, implemented in collaboration with Dr Simon Darnell, Director of the University of Toronto Centre for Sport Policy Studies, engaged youth and parents on how issues of sport access, barriers, equity and culture show up for them.

From the perspective of youth, indicators of trust and inclusion remain a concern. In a research sample that is representatively diverse with regard to age, gender, race, geography, ability and household income, 82% of respondents reported not having anyone they feel they can talk to about experiences with racism or discrimination in sport. This increases among Latinx women and girls (89%), youth from Northern Ontario (91%) and youth with a visible disability (94%). While incidents of racism and discrimination in sport remain disproportionately experienced by Black youth, Indigenous youth, women, girls, and youth with disabilities, the perceived lack of trust among teammates, coaches, and the sport provider paints a sobering picture of a sport environment that is not an authentically safe space for those it intends to serve. 

Para hockey youth

Qualitatively, youth and parents shared stories and details of how a culture of silence surrounding issues of safety and quality in sporting environments is perpetuated. Youth who have directly experienced an adverse event report they do not feel comfortable raising or reporting the issue due to a lack of trust that teammates, coaches, or the organization will “have their back.” Further, youth and parents who were aware of a serious incident having affected someone else expressed anxiety about whether to speak up or engage on the issue out of fear of losing their or their child’s spot on a team.

Amidst widespread discourse on Safe Sport and several recent high-profile instances of toxic cultures in hockey, basketball, gymnastics, soccer and across the sporting landscape, it is important to ask what change looks like from the perspective of youth, and how to get there. If more inclusive and positive cultures, trusting relationships, and environments that are physically and psychologically safe for young athletes are the building blocks of the future we want to build, what is our next move?

To start, let’s listen to what they have to say.

Youth and parents call for Sport For Development as part of solution

The 2022 Change the Game research project findings left us with an evidence-based blueprint for how to move forward with making the changes to support youth sport access, engagement, and equity. The incorporation of aspects of SFD in youth sport spaces is key. At MLSE Foundation, we see a tremendous opportunity to utilize sport to address the growing crisis in youth mental health post-pandemic, and a demand for sport programs that develop life skills as much as sport skills.

Of the nearly 8200 young Ontarians whose voices are represented in this rich data set, almost 60% voiced support for sport programs being used to teach and develop social, emotional and developmental life skills within youth. These themes were especially prevalent among youth with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, South Asian, and mixed-race youth, and youth from Eastern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.

Youth and parents were clear about how the barriers of affordability, ongoing health and safety concerns, and social factors are leaving too many of them on the sidelines. Prominent social factors relate largely to the post-pandemic reality of decreased social connectedness highlighted in other research including Toronto Foundation’s 2022 Social Capital Report. Canadians, including youth, have less frequent contact each week with individuals outside of their households, and interact in-person with smaller circles of family and friends compared to pre-pandemic. These changes impact ability to engage in team sports, and likelihood of signing up with a friend – a factor that is known to facilitate participation, particularly among girls. Socio-environmental barriers also include lack of access to local facilities and lacking a means of transportation to sport programs, particularly affecting youth in northern, rural, and remote communities in the Change the Game research project. Youth have also been clear about what constitutes a safe and inclusive environment. Youth want a system focused on healthy, prosocial opportunities, provided by organizations where the culture is physically and psychologically safe. Strength-based approaches, where youth’s self-determination and strengths are emphasized and youth are viewed as resourceful and resilient, are foundational to SFD offerings and remind sport leaders and the youth we serve to see themselves in terms of assets and potential, not risks and defects.

Youth and parents signing up to play are seeking a safe place to form or develop healthy friendships and relationships. Alongside affordability, a lack of friends or peers to play with and not feeling welcome or included as part of a team were the strongest barriers to engagement in sport emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Having no peers to play with was of particular concern amongst girls. The research also found an extremely strong correlation between sport participation and sense of belonging, highlighting the potential of sport opportunities as strong catalysts for building community among youth, even in the context of post-pandemic social disconnection. These findings emphasize SFD approaches as a vital investment in communities where social connection and capital have been seriously compromised, including sport communities.

Practical steps for advancing a positive culture for youth in sport

Strength-based cultures. Safe spaces to formulate healthy relationships. Positive environments to learn and develop within. Cultural changes of this nature are often cited as priorities for addressing issues of toxicity across the sport landscape, without defining what that could look like in practical terms. Here are five initial areas of focus that sport organizations and administrators can consider when thinking about how to get started.

kids stretching

  1. Promote a welcoming environment: “Make it fun and get it done”

Implementation of welcoming and safe environments for athletes, participants, staff, and volunteers begins at the organizational level by fostering inclusive cultures. Culture is a term that is referenced often in sports, but it becomes increasingly important when we pluralize the word and intentionally consider the unique and diverse lived experiences that individuals bring to each organization.

Taking a more holistic approach in this way allows for organizations to develop, and live, core values that permeate through the work that they do and guide planning, actions and decisions in a way that ensures everyone feels welcome. Principles such as trust and respect, for example, remain vital to creating positive environments, however we encourage sport organizations to develop core values that are meaningful and unique to them and the impact and outcomes they are striving to achieve.

A core value at MLSE LaunchPad, for example, is ‘Our Differences Make the Difference’, which includes the principles of trust and respect but also encompasses the belief that MLSE LaunchPad’s strength is rooted in diverse voices, ideas and lived experiences. Another example is ‘We Are Family’, which includes unconditional care and accountability. Collectively, the effort of leadership, coaches, staff and volunteers working together on action plans on how to live and operationalize values can lead to culturally relevant operations and programming, inclusive hiring practices, and staff training. All of these things ensure that individuals consistently feel physically, psychologically, and socially safe and supported when engaging with an organization and its personnel, programs, clubs or leagues.

  1. Shared reflection: “Identify your blind spots”

Consistently create space to understand what current access, equity, and engagement issues exist within your organization’s membership and community to increase awareness of organizational blind spots and to inform priority-setting and solutions. Engaging community stakeholders to elicit feedback and perspective, in addition to leadership and staff, is vital before any decisions or adjustments are made.

Gathering reflections on statements such as “Sports should help me feel better” and what supports are required for this to be true can help organizations prioritize resources. For example, access to sport opportunities and support with easier access to mental health services was identified as a priority by a large proportion of youth in the Change the Game study. However, understanding what this could look like in a specific space, club, or team requires further reflection and dialogue with its intended beneficiaries.

Practical implementations of intelligence-gathering can take the form of parent and guardian surveys, focus groups, one-on-one conversations, engagement of a community organization with expertise in the area, the construction of a youth advisory council, or other creative ways to facilitate communication between staff and young people. This practice of ongoing two-way communication helps ensure that organizations are making decisions that best suit their members.

  1. Policies and processes that support transparency, development and trust: “Say what you do, and do what you say”

Building a process for active review of internal policies can promote transparency, respect for others, and the ongoing accountability to evaluate the processes that drive an organization. Policies and processes must evolve in lockstep with changing member needs and interests to ensure that organizational priorities and incentives are aligned with those of the communities they serve. Ideally, a continuous cycle of shared reflection will lead to a continuous cycle of organizational review. In turn, this will help create a feedback loop communicating to members and key stakeholders that their voices are valued and acted upon where possible and increasing the likelihood of developing a mutual trust through the collaborative transparency of the process.

Review processes should be formal, scheduled activities and informed by key stakeholder feedback to complement other inputs such as sport accountabilities, research and evaluation insights, and the key sport and non-sport outcomes (for example, youth or community engagement, mental wellness, or sense of belonging) the organization is striving to achieve.

  1. Coaching standards and development: “Youth first, always”

With almost 60% of youth calling for sport and sport programs that teach and help them learn and develop social, emotional and developmental life skills, it is important to see and utilize sport as a vehicle for learning and development. As such, coaching standards and development should reflect this sentiment and incorporate SFD strategies including the explicit transference of life skills that are intended to advance positive youth development.

Just as basketball exercises can teach dribbling skills and hockey exercises can teach stickhandling skills, they can also intentionally teach life skills such as leadership, critical thinking, social competence, or resilience. Sports can and should contribute to the holistic development of youth that have shared the opinion that “I am more than an athlete.” The adoption of a train-the-trainer model, for example, can encourage organizations to review their coach training curricula to assess whether these standards are considered and if coaches are being developed to coach the whole person. Ensuring that staff have both formal and informal mentorship opportunities will provide important professional development opportunities that lead to ongoing learning and benefit the entire community. Ultimately, the leadership of an organization should set the tone throughout the organization and consider this call for prioritizing youth wellbeing in how it reviews, updates, and implements training models for a youth sport landscape whose future is rooted in a SFD mindset.  

coach helps youth hockey player tie skatesIn addition to the “what” that coaches will be teaching and developing, Change the Game further challenges organizations to focus on the “who.” Youth are calling for “coaches who look like me” and organizations have a responsibility to ensure that they implement inclusive recruitment and hiring practices. If 82% of youth are reporting not having anyone they feel they can talk to about experiences with racism or discrimination in sport, the value of lived experience needs to be added to the list of work experience, education, and qualifications that often become the main factors in hiring. While this can look slightly different based on each individual member of the community, the intentionality behind these actions remains consistent and in support of the vital role of the coach in facilitating a welcoming, inclusive, and safe environment that is necessary for youth to recognize and reach their full potential. These considerations can continue to fuel the training of the next generation of leaders in SFD practices and truly help change the game.

  1. Data-driven approaches: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”

Adopt a data-driven approach to monitoring the quality of internal culture. Applying a data equity lens to collect, anonymize, and use demographic data, including race, gender, ability, and household income will help your organization better understand the evolving needs and experiences of athletes, coaches, and staff.

In short: collect feedback, and most importantly, use it. This will help to deepen understanding, identify blind spots, inform decision-making and monitor progress over time. Learn from external research to pilot bite-sized experiments in SFD approaches – the Journal of Sport for Development and are great starting places to begin exploring practical, evidence-based approaches to building life skills and other positive youth development outcomes through sports.

It’s ok to start small, as long as you start somewhere. If you are a sport organization who provides opportunities for youth and are interested in having a sounding board or are seeking resources on what an equitable approach to demographic data collection could look like in your setting, reach out to a member of the MLSE Foundation and LaunchPad research and evaluation team any time.

Concluding thoughts

All sports are SFD opportunities in that positive social and economic benefits can and should be expected from sport initiatives at all levels. In the post-pandemic era and during a time of reckoning for the youth sport sector, approaches borrowed from the SFD space offer rich insight into how to engage youth positively at all levels of the sport system. Youth have made it clear that that there is no longer room for sport programs and indeed systems that focus exclusively on physical development at the expense of social, emotional and cognitive considerations.


Most of us have been in a situation where we have arrived at an outdoor sporting event only to find that the game has been cancelled or rescheduled due to lightning. But have you ever had the same thing happen because of air pollution? While there is a broad understanding of how to protect sport participants from environmental events like lightning, few people know what to do when the air quality is poor.

To fill this gap, the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) and Health Canada partnered to create and share air quality resources, including an e-learning module, infographics and a policy guide, for outdoor sport stakeholders. In this SIRCuit article, we describe the partnership between SIRC and Health Canada, highlight key information about air pollution and the safety of outdoor sport participation, and outline strategies that sport stakeholders can implement to help protect sport participants from the harmful effects of air pollution.

Throughout the article, we have linked to resources to help you spread awareness and take action in your sport. Together we can clear the air around air quality and the safety of outdoor sport participation!

The partnership

In 2022, Health Canada engaged SIRC to support its initiatives focused on air quality and outdoor sport safety. Health Canada provided SIRC with financial and scientific support for the creation of educational resources and tools for sport organizations, including:

Health Canada and SIRC launched the eLearning module and supporting resources at the Ontario Soccer Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, on February 25, 2023. We will continue to share the resources developed through this partnership via an education and awareness campaign targeting organizations at all levels of sport.

The basics of air pollution

Air pollution is a mixture of chemical, physical and biological agents that contaminate indoor and outdoor environments (WHO, 2022). There are many different types of air pollutants. Some of the most harmful air pollutants to human health include:

Air pollutants can come from many sources. In Canada, the highest emissions of air pollutants have been linked to electricity generation, construction, oil and gas industries, forest fires, transportation, agriculture and wood burning (GoC, 2022a). Environmental events can also contribute to poor air quality. Examples of environmental events that can contribute to air pollution include:

symptoms of smoke exposure

smog symptoms

The effects of air pollution on human health

Exposure to air pollution can lead to a range of short and long-term health effects. While short-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to symptoms such as dizziness and headaches, long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of illnesses such as lung cancer and asthma (HC, 2021). In fact, in Canada, it is estimated that air pollution contributes to 2.7 million asthma symptom days and 15,300 premature deaths each year (HC, 2021).

It is important to note that while the long-term health effects of air pollution can take years to develop, the short-term health effects can occur within minutes of exercising in an environment where the air quality is very poor. This highlights the importance of monitoring air quality when planning or engaging in physical activity.

You may be wondering: who is at risk of experiencing the adverse effects of air pollution? The answer is that everyone is at risk. However, some groups, including, children, older adults and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions are at an increased risk. Although you might not suspect it, people engaging in sports and exercise are at increased risk too. 

The effects of air pollution on outdoor sport participants

Why are athletes at an increased risk? When a person engages in physical activity outdoors, they require more oxygen (Carlisle et Sharp, 2001; Giles et Koehle, 2014). The harder they exercise, the more oxygen their body needs. To meet this increased need, a person must breathe more deeply and more frequently (Carlisle et Sharp, 2001; Giles et Koehle, 2014; EPA, 2011). If the air quality is poor, this increased air intake during exercise means that a person will also breathe in more air pollutants.

Another reason why outdoor sport participants are at increased risk is because when a person exercises heavily, they breathe more through their mouth than their nose (Carlisle et Sharp, 2001; Giles et Koehle, 2014). This means that that less air is filtered through the body’s natural filtration system in the nose, which means more air pollutants have the potential to enter the body (Bateson et Schwartz, 2007).

To summarize, athletes shift their breathing pattern and style during exercise to inhale greater amounts of air. If they are in an area with high air pollution levels, for example, near a busy roadway, they inhale more air pollutants, putting them at an increased risk of health complications.

Poor air quality can also affect athletic performance. When athletes exercise in areas with high air pollution levels, they tend to have a higher perceived exertion (Sandford et coll., 2020). More simply, exercising when the air quality is poor can make outdoor sport participants feel like they are working harder to do the same task. This can mean that athletes can’t perform at the same level as they do when the air quality is good. As you can imagine, this can have considerable implications in outdoor sporting events requiring endurance, like soccer, or timed events, like those in track and field.

The Air Quality Health Index

At this point, you may be wondering what you can do to help protect sport participants from air pollution. The answer is that you can monitor local air quality and make informed decisions about the safety of outdoor sport participation. To do that, you can use the (AQHI).

The AQHI was created to help individuals understand and make decisions about the safety of the air around them. The AQHI presents the relative health risk associated with the combined health effects of air pollutants, including Nitrogen Dioxide, Ground-level Ozone and Particulate Matter. The AQHI is presented on a scale of 1 to 10+, which is further broken down into four health risk categories ranging from low risk (1 to 3) to very high risk (10+).

AQHI risk chart

The AQHI shows observed and forecasted values, so you can use it to measure air quality before and during your event. The AQHI values are accompanied by health messages. These messages can be used to support your decisions around the safety of outdoor sport participation. When reading the health messages, it is essential to remember that outdoor sport participants are considered a high-risk population. As such, more conservative approaches should be taken to ensure their safety.

how to use AQHI

Below are some general guidelines on how the AQHI can be used for planning outdoor activity. As a coach, sport official or leader it is up to you to assess the needs of your participants as well as your environmental conditions to determine if outdoor sport participation is safe.

To access the AQHI visit or download the WeatherCAN app on Google Play or in the App Store.

Strategies to limit sport participants’ exposure to air pollution

Sport organizations, coaches and officials are responsible for the safety of their participants. Here are a few things you can do stay informed and limit sport participants’ exposure to air pollution:

Final thoughts

We hope that this article helps get you thinking about air quality and the safety of outdoor sport participation. We encourage you to use this information to start discussions within your organization or teams about the importance of considering air quality when planning and participating in outdoor sports. Remember that when air quality is poor, it is essential to modify outdoor activities to protect the health of outdoor sport and physical activity participants, as poor air quality can impact health.

An important next step for sport organizations is to develop air quality policies that support safe outdoor sport participation. The policies should provide guidance on appropriate actions to take during poor air quality events and establish education and training expectations on AQHI for coaches and sport officials. If you have any questions or need any supports as you begin this process, please do not hesitate to reach out to the SIRC team at

Resources to explore for further learning

Below are some resources that you may find helpful as you work to learn more about air pollution and what your organization can do to help keep your participants safe:


Dorothy Paul has several decades of experience as an athlete, mentor and facilitator within sport in Canada. But organized sport wasn’t always a part of her life. 

“Growing up, I was the oldest girl of 7 kids, so there wasn’t a lot of extra money for me to participate in sport,” she says. Paul would play outside with her siblings, climbing trees and racing, jumping from tree to tree. 

Things changed after Paul and her siblings watched the Montreal Olympics in 1976. The Olympics inspired new versions of their old games: “We created an obstacle course around the house using saw horses, jumping over the septic tank, all kinds of things. And we would race to see who could do it the fastest. And I guess it accidentally trained me well for middle school cross-country!” Paul says. 

Middle school cross-country led to high school track, soccer, field hockey and rugby, which then led to an over 30-year career in the Victoria Women’s Premier Soccer League. Now, Paul is a master facilitator for the Aboriginal Sport Circle’s Aboriginal coaching modules and has served as an Indigenous Long-Term Participant Development Pathway mentor through Sport for Life. She has held several positions with the North American Indigenous Games, including serving as the Chef de Mission in 2002. 

After retiring from soccer, she started a women’s box lacrosse team, the Victoria Wolves, which she still plays with. But when the world shut down with COVID-19 and Paul had a little extra time to reflect, she started thinking about how the sport system needed to change, and searching for models of what that could look like.  

“For 30 years, I’ve been hearing people say, ‘We need to un-silo, we need to un-silo, so what are we not doing? What’s preventing us from un-siloing?’ Maybe we need to take a different look at systems change and possibly that will spark conversations with people and then they’ll start to do things just a little bit different,” Paul says. 

In doing so, she came across the 2 Loops Theory of Change. 

Exploring 2 Loops Theory of Change 

2 Loops Theory of Change was developed through the Berkana Institute (established in 1992) and specifically an article published by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze entitled “Using emergence to take social innovation to scale.” The theory seeks to describe and model organizations as living beings with life cycles, rather than as mechanistic entities that are unchanging.  

Fig 1: 2 Loops Theory of Change Diagram, adapted from the Berkana Institute

The theory depicts the processes involved in the transition from one system (the dominant system) to another system (the emerging system). Within and between each system, people take on a variety of roles, including as: 

The theory accounts for the fact that you are both an individual and a member of a system. It also accounts for the fact that change isn’t linear, life’s external forces impact how a system operates, hence why a system can never really remain unchanged. 

This is what originally drew Dorothy Paul to the theory, and what made her start thinking about the potential for using it as a model to inspire reflection and change within the Canadian sport sector.  

“It’s fluid,” Paul says of the 2 loops model, “It’s not concrete. Other systems theories I saw came at it from like a mechanical point of view, where it’s like, ‘Oh, this piece isn’t working? Let’s take it out and replace it with something else and oh, why didn’t that work?’ [Those models] have forgotten that all the pieces of a system rely on all of these other things to exist as well. I like the idea of systems change from a human point of view and a fluid point of view.” 

In their original article, Wheatley and Frieze (2006) write: “Despite current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future. Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections.”  

Almost everyone is familiar with the idea of growth within a system or sector. What we don’t often talk about is the decline of an organization, system, or sector. Decline is not necessarily failure, it may just mean that the context in which the system exists has changed, and now a different system would be better suited. 

Frieze uses the example of the oil industry. We are all likely familiar with oil’s rise to be the dominant system. As people learned more about pollution, climate change, and fossil fuels, individuals began questioning the system and looking for alternatives. In the 2 loops theory, these people are called pioneers. These pioneers truly gain strength when they begin to connect with each other, forming networks and brainstorming new systems. This occurs at the same time as those resisting any change from the dominant system are saying things like: “we’ve always done it this way,” or “we’re too big to fail.” 

System change isn’t flipping a switch. And dominant systems are not inherently bad. They often have important elements to carry forward or learn from. This is why the roles of “stabilizers” and “hospice workers” are important. They are the people within the dominant system that recognize that change is coming, and work to help the older system transition into the new. In the oil industry example, they are not only the people thinking about how infrastructure can switch from oil and gas to renewable energy, but also the people that consider what will happen to people currently employed by the oil industry and helping to figure out how to transfer their skills elsewhere.  

These roles are important because there’s always a gap between dominant and emergent systems, this is why in the diagram itself, the loops don’t touch. The emergent system isn’t ready to catch and carry everyone from the dominant system right away. The old system needs to be gently wound down in a respectful manner, with its resources redistributed and lessons learned carried forward. Bridge builders are the people that help everyone transition from the dominant to the emergent system. At which point, the lifecycle of the system starts again. 

A conversation with Dorothy Paul 

Paul has presented to different audiences in the Canadian sport sector, using 2 Loops Theory to suggest a pathway for change and instill reflection within individuals and organizations. SIRC chatted with Paul to dive deeper into some of her thoughts on our changing sport landscape.  

SIRC: What do you think are the most pressing issues that we’re facing as a sport sector right now?  

DP: Our current sports system is based on volunteerism. With COVID, volunteerism has almost disappeared. So either our system is going to have to really adapt or we’re going to have to really look at ways of restructuring things, how we do things at the community level, at the provincial and territorial sport organization level because we’re not going to have people to train athletes to move through the system and we’re not going to be able to pull our coaches, our administrators from the system of volunteers as we have been. I don’t know what the answer is for that, but I think we need to consider: how did other countries make that transition? And what did they do to make that transition? Because I think in Canada we aren’t going to rely on volunteerism much longer. 

Even though this is kind of an older change theory, I think it still has value because it takes into account all the outside influences. In the last little while because all of the things that have been happening in the media, like Safe Sport, diversity and equity, those things have really been pushing the current system and have been at the forefront for the past 4 or 5 years. Which is why I think we’re somewhere here [points to the middle of the 2 loops, during which a dominant system is transitioning through hospice and decomposing, and another system is emerging on its way to communities of practice].  

For example, the system has created courses for people to take to ensure that we understand as coaches and as workers in this system that we’re educated on these things that are coming forward and pushing our system in an emerging direction. But for the volunteers that are coming through, they’re thinking: “I just want to coach right now, but now I have to do Safe Sport workshops and coaching workshops, and a criminal record check! Do I really want to spend 3 weeks to become a coach for a 4-month season?” We have to recognize that when you get down to the community level, sometimes volunteers don’t want to spend that much time, they just want to go and coach. So with the Rule of Two, Safe Sport and all of the other courses that have cropped up in the last 5 years, people are hesitant or walking away from wanting to participate in the sport system. I’m also seeing a lot of movement within sport administrators, a high turnover in organizations. Which makes me think that we could still be here [points to left side of model with pioneers leaving the dominant system]. 

SIRC: How can we use the 2 Loops system to think about that problem? 

DP: I think we need to pay attention to how we’re treating people in the system. The people who are part of the resistance, or the stabilizers, or the hospice, that takes a lot of time and energy. We need to be really understanding: “What does this employee in front of me bring to the table and what are their real strengths? Does the position we put them in actually suit how their brain works?” When people are in a position where it’s a great fit for them, they’re going to do all kinds of work.   

What I’ve seen in the system today, really, is if you’re not working 100 hours a week, you’re not producing, so therefore you’re not valuable to us. That’s not sustainable. I think COVID got a lot of people thinking, “do I really want to consistently do 100 hours a week for a system that views me as expendable?” 

So, it’s really looking at how we can keep the good people that are in our system and support them so that they want to stay for a longer period of time. I’m even thinking even just in mainstream sport [as opposed to Indigenous], it’s harder and harder for people to be an employee for life. People come in, they’re employed in one area for 3 to 5 years and then they move on to something else. What do we need to do as employers within the system to ensure that our employees feel supported and valued?  

The current system as it is feels safe, the “this is what we know, therefore we’re going to keep doing it.” So now it’s a question of how do we share new information in such a way, like with all the Safe Sport programming, where we can translate it into our place of employment, our administration, our organization? That’s where we need those stabilizers, bridge builders and hospice workers.  

SIRC: What’s the response been like from when you’ve done presentations on 2 Loops within the sport sector? Does it resonate with people? 

DP: One of my presentations, I physically made the loops with rope and asked people to stand on where they thought they fit in the system. Nobody wanted to stand on a dominant system because of the type of conversation we had around that. But there’s a reason we need those dominant people.  

I like the terms dominant and emerging instead of new and old systems because “new” implies that the old is bad, but it’s not. As the system is changing, we need to figure out which are the parts of the dominant system we are going to keep because not everything is terrible in the current system, and there’s a lot of good things in there. And that’s what the hospicing and decomposing is about. 

More than half of people went to bridge building, which really says something about how people are registering change in the system. 

SIRC: What else is important to keep in mind when using this model to think through change in the sport system? 

I think for me what keeps coming up is thinking through that decomposition piece. There’s a lot of good things in this current system. We need to take a hard look at what actually needs to change. For me, it’s the human element. That’s my biggest piece, how are we treating our people within this system? And how can we keep them? It bothers me that I’ve come across a fair number of people who have just left the system altogether and gone elsewhere. That person had a huge set of skills and had a huge history of the sports sector. How come we couldn’t keep them? How come we couldn’t shift them into a different role?  

So when we think of the dominant system, we can’t just think of the people that are in it as the resistance. We need to find a way to address that resistance and share where that new system is actually moving, what it believes in, and how they are a valuable part of that emerging system, that they do have a role to play. 

Questions for sport orgs and individuals to consider: 


Every day, athletes are faced with small decisions that have potential to impact their performance, recovery and health. Often these decisions relate to things that may seem comparatively inconsequential to the average person, and can be as simple as what foods to eat, or what activities to avoid or participate in. When it comes to cannabis use, things are no different.

In October of 2018, recreational cannabis use became legal across all of Canada for individuals who are 19 years and older. Data gathered from the years following the legalization of recreational cannabis use suggest that one quarter of all Canadian adults, and nearly half of all Canadians aged 20-24, have used cannabis in the past year (Government of Canada, 2021). Clearly, cannabis use in Canada is widespread amongst the general population. But what should athletes be considering when it comes to using or avoiding cannabis?

In this article I will provide a research-informed exploration of the current state of cannabis use in relation to sport in Canada and provide advice for how sport organizations should approach the topic of cannabis with athletes.

Contextualizing cannabis

To start off, it’s important to understand what cannabis is. The term “cannabis” refers to a group of plant species containing unique molecules called “phytocannabinoids,” or more generally, “cannabinoids.” There are hundreds of different cannabinoid molecules, however, the 2 that most people will be familiar with are called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the primary cannabinoid responsible for causing the psychological effects of cannabis that many users are seeking. In other words, THC is responsible for the “high” that many people associate with cannabis use. CBD on the other hand, is generally not thought to cause psychological effects, since it interacts with chemical receptors in the body’s tissues in a different way than THC (Ahston, 2001). While many people tend to focus on the way each of these cannabinoids affect our brain, it’s important to understand that both may have effects on other tissues in our bodies. This is just one of the reasons that athletes should approach cannabis use cautiously.

While any adult in Canada older than 19 can legally use cannabis that contains THC or CBD recreationally, the picture is more complicated for athletes. Firstly, many sport organizations and regulatory bodies list cannabinoids as banned substances in some shape or form. For example, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) bans the use of cannabinoids during the competition phases of the season (notably, CBD is exempt) (World Anti-Doping Agency, 2022). This is also relevant to Canadian athletes participating in U-SPORTS competitions, as these regulations are also enforced by U-SPORTS and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, n.d.). Secondly, because cannabis has been illegal for a long time, research on the safety of cannabis use has been challenging to conduct in the general population (Haney, 2020) with even less work having been done with athletes (Burr et coll, 2021). Therefore, it is extremely important for athletes to understand that very little research exists surrounding many of the applications of cannabis in sport. For some athletes, each of these facts may be enough to deter from cannabis use, however, research suggests many athletes still use cannabis recreationally (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018; Peretti-Watel et coll, 2003), or even for performance enhancement (Lorente et coll, 2005).

Exploring reasons athletes use cannabis

Like many other people, athletes report using cannabis for reasons completely unrelated to sport, including recreational use. In 2018, a study conducted by the NCAA on its own student athletes reported that as many as 25% of athletes use cannabis recreationally (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018). In further support of this study, a systematic review of peer-reviewed literature identified similar lifetime and past-year prevalence of cannabis use in athletic populations from countries other than the USA (Docter et coll, 2020).

In Canada, the practice of recreational cannabis use is perfectly legal, assuming the athlete is 19 years or older, and the nature of use does not contradict substance use policies of sporting body regulating their respective sport. Nevertheless, recreational cannabis use, even outside of the competition phase of a season may still present significant risks to athletes. Many cannabinoids can be detected for up to days after the time of use and well after any effects have subsided, in biological samples (Huestis et coll, 1995). Therefore, it is entirely possible that cannabis use outside of, but in near proximity to competition, could trigger a violation. In an effort to avoid these situations, WADA tests numerous cannabinoids as “threshold substances” meaning that a certain level of cannabinoid has to be present in a sample, making it a little more lenient than a zero-tolerance style policy. However, despite the use of thresholds, cannabis related anti-doping violations are not uncommon in Canadian athletics (Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, n.d.).

Outside of recreational use, there is a growing body of evidence that some athletes use cannabis with the intention of improving performance. A survey of ultra-marathon runners showed that cannabinoids are one of the most widely utilized performance enhancing substances in the sport (Campian et coll, 2018). The prevailing thought for how cannabis may improve performance in this sport is that some of the reported effects of THC, such as reduced anxiety, nausea, and pain, may allow athletes to mitigate exercise related anxiety, pain, or exertion, and subsequently perform better.

To date, there is very little research studying cannabis use before exercise. The first studies found that patients with cardiovascular disease reached exhaustion sooner during an exercise test after using cannabis (Aronow & Cassidy, 1974, 1975) Studies in healthy individuals show similar but slightly different results. The first study using healthy participants showed that at a given heart rate, participants were not able to work as hard following cannabis use (Steadward & Singh, 1975). Based on this finding, authors concluded that maximal exercise performance would be reduced. A later study published on the topic that actually did examine maximal exercise after cannabis use showed that participants were unable to exercise for as long during an exercise test of increasing difficulty, providing direct evidence that cannabis did indeed negatively impact maximal exercise performance in healthy individuals (Renaud & Cormier, 1986).

While these studies provide some evidence that cannabis containing THC reduces exercise performance, there are a few caveats that should be considered. The primary caveat to all these studies is that none of these studies utilized exercise tests which mimic real-life athletic competitions, nor do they match the demands of the sports in which athletes most report use of cannabis for athletic performance enhancement. So, to fully understand how cannabis impacts performance, studies should aim to use more relevant exercise tests, particularly ones that mimic the demands of the sports from which athletes report cannabis use.

Additionally, the recreational cannabis available to athletes in today’s consumer market is much different from the cannabis available at the time of these early studies. Today, cannabis users have many more options for how they use cannabis. Although many people think of cannabis as something that is smoked or inhaled, modern day consumers can also eat or drink cannabis products. Recently, a study conducted at Colorado State University looked at the effects of edible cannabis products on numerous different cycling performance tests. Their results differ from the studies conducted 40-50 years ago, showing that cannabis had no effect on performance in the tests they used (Ewell et coll, 2022), nor did they affect the way the cardiovascular system responded to exercise. While all these studies provide valuable insight into how cannabis impacts performance, it should be acknowledged how many questions remain unanswered. For example, does the inhalation method matter? What if cannabis is used further out from when exercise begins? How about if we alter the cannabinoid composition within cannabis?

Each of these questions highlight the fact that right now, there is much more that is not known than is known about how cannabis impacts performance. While there is evidence that cannabis either negatively impacts, or does not impact performance, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that it has any benefits. Furthermore, very little research has systematically evaluated whether cannabis use prior to exercise threatens athlete safety or introduces any additional risk to health. This alone should be a good enough reason for athletes to avoid cannabis use before exercise. Given this, and the fact that cannabis use is banned in competition for many sports, athletes should avoid cannabis use with exercise. Even if cannabis could provide some benefits that outweigh these risks, there is very little existing evidence to suggest that cannabis used in conjunction with exercise should provide any kind of benefit. Athletes, coaches, and sporting bodies should keep a keen eye out for new research in this area that will hopefully emerge in coming years, and further inform our knowledge on how cannabis use impacts performance.

What the research says about CBD and exercise

While the use of whole cannabis within sport is relatively common, many will be aware that the use of CBD in sport is even more popular. In fact, informed choices surrounding CBD are arguably even more important to make, given that CBD is not a banned substance by WADA, and consequently, many sporting bodies. CBD has become an increasingly popular supplement for recovery and performance due to a range of claims including anti-inflammation, antioxidant properties, sleep promotion and pain relief (Gamelin et coll, 2020; Rojas-Valverde, 2021). The prevailing thought is that many of these effects would be beneficial for recovery from intense exercise or activities that are physically demanding on our bodies’ tissues.

While this thought may appear intuitive at the surface, there are many caveats regarding what research exists to support use of CBD by athletes, and whether these effects would be beneficial for athletes. Let’s first address arguably the most prominent claim for CBD, which is that its anti-inflammatory properties are beneficial for recovery. A popular method of testing how well something aids recovery in a research lab is by testing how well athletic performance can be preserved by a given intervention, following some sort of demanding exercise that results in some degree of muscle damage. In other words, studies will often have participants complete an exercise bout, and then measure either tissue damage, or performance in a subsequent bout with and without the intervention (in this case, CBD).

To date, there have been 3 studies (Cochrane-Snyman et coll, 2021; Crossland et coll, 2022; Isenmann et coll, 2021) with human participants which examine whether CBD is effective in mitigating muscle damage and performance decrements associated with resistance exercise. These studies have shown mixed but largely disappointing results. One of these studies showed that CBD can reduce blood markers of inflammation and muscle damage following damaging exercise, and that CBD may have allowed participants to recover back-squat performance 72 hours post-exercise (Isenmann et coll, 2021). However, the 2 other studies examining how CBD might affect muscle damage and fatigue showed that CBD performed no different than placebo, in any measure, performance- or inflammation-related (Cochrane-Snyman et coll, 2021; Crossland et coll, 2022).

Therefore, these studies provide little evidence, if any, suggesting that any potential anti-inflammatory effects of CBD are beneficial for recovery. It’s also important to note that the use of any anti-inflammatory drugs following training may not have intended effects, as studies have shown that inflammation may be important for adapting to training, and these types of products may blunt this response (Owens et coll, 2019). When it comes to pain mitigation following exercise, there is even less research. While there are no experimental laboratory studies assessing whether CBD alters the pain associated with exercise, a survey of rugby athletes demonstrated that although as many as 80% of athletes who used CBD did so with the intent of improving recovery or mitigating pain, only 14% perceived any benefit (Kasper et coll, 2020).

Research on the ability of CBD to improve sleep in athletes is about as equally scarce. Most of the research to date examining the effects of CBD on sleep have used clinical populations rather than athletes, with only one study reporting that CBD improved self-reported sleep onset and perceived quality (Carlini & Cunha, 1981). Another study in healthy participants showed no effects on subjective sleep quality, or objective measures of sleep quality following CBD use (Linares et coll, 2018).

While CBD has mainly been studied as a recovery aid for athletes, there is also potential that some of its purported effects related to benefitting pain and anxiety could create some utility for performance enhancement. To date, only one study has examined the acute effects of CBD on exercise performance, and the body’s response to exercise (Sahinovic et coll, 2022). A research group out of the University of Sydney asked participants to run both at a steady pace and at increasing speeds up to exhaustion after consuming CBD orally. The results of this study showed that despite small differences in the maximal amount of oxygen consumed and feelings of pleasure during exercise after CBD intake, time to exhaustion was not affected, suggesting that CBD does little to alter performance, and likely has only minor effects on the physiological and psychological responses to exercise.

When turning to the research, it doesn’t take long to realize that many of the claims tied to CBD use are largely unproven, and much work needs to be done before athletes should feel like using CBD is unequivocally a good idea. At the moment little evidence exists to suggest that CBD has any benefit for athletes at all, either when it comes to recovery, or performance. In addition to the lack of physiological benefits, CBD may possess its own anti-doping risks. Although CBD is not generally a banned substance, CBD products may actually contain THC, a banned substance. A growing body of research has identified that many cannabis products, including CBD products, are not accurately labelled (Johnson et coll, 2022; Vandrey et coll, 2015). Another analysis of 23 hemp products (a form of cannabis many CBD products are made from) showed that many of them contained a wide range of cannabinoids, with approximately 30% of them containing enough cannabinoids to cause an anti-doping rule violation if samples would have been taken within 8 hours of use (Mareck et coll, 2022).

Final thoughts

For athletes, coaches, and sporting bodies, the landscape of how to approach cannabis use in sport in 2023 remains uncertain. Since legalization of recreational use in Canada, athletes in the country have never had greater access to a range of products marketed for a vast array of claims that may seem attractive. That said, there remains significant gaps in the research that must be filled before cannabis or derivative cannabinoid products can be confidently recommended to any athlete seeking benefits from their use. Given the risks associated with product contamination, and potential unknowns about product safety, there is little reason to suggest that at the moment, any possible benefits of cannabinoid use in sport are outweighed by the current risks.


Quality sport. Values-based sport. Safe sport. Positive youth development. Person-centred sport. Athlete-centred sport. Holistic approaches.   

These are just a few of the many terms used within the sport sector to discuss the different ways in which sport delivery, programs, and culture are approached. Whether you are new to working in sport or an experienced staff member, participant, or even sport parent, it’s not uncommon to hear these terms used and feel a sense of confusion. What do they mean? Why are they important? And most importantly, how can you implement them? 

In this article, we explore 3 approaches to sport program delivery that sport researchers and practitioners alike recommend for their potential to optimize the sport experience: Quality sport, values-based sport and safe sport. We define these approaches, what the evidence says about them, and map out how they are similar or different from one another. 

Quality sport  

Within academic literature, a quality approach to sport participation means ensuring participants view their experiences as enjoyable and satisfying based on their own preferences and values (Evans et coll., 2018). More specifically, researchers define quality participation in sport as repeated exposure to positive experiences, programming, or environments that promote long-term athlete development and participation (Côté et coll., 2014, Yohalem & Wilson-Ahlstrom, 2010). 

There is evidence to suggest when an individual’s needs are satisfied and participants are enjoying their sport experiences, they are considerably more likely to continue to participate in sport (Caron et coll., 2019; Ryan & Deci, 2017). With repeated exposure to positive experiences, they will also be more likely to reap the physical, social, and mental benefits of sport participation (Caron et coll., 2019; Martin Ginis et coll., 2017). This means that prioritizing the quality of programming is important for long-term participation and healthy development 

Figure 1: Sport for Life Society LTD Framework

It is important to acknowledge that organizations apply these definitions in their own way or use slightly different language to express their specific quality sport goals. For instance, Sport for Life uses “quality sport” and promotes the Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity (LTD) framework as a guide for achieving positive experiences in sport and physical activity for individuals over the lifespan. According to Sport for Life, quality sport “is developmentally appropriate, safe and inclusive, and well run.” In other words, quality sport is “good programs, led by good people, in good places.”  

On the other hand, the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP) promotes “quality participation” in sport and physical activity for people with disabilities. According to the CDPP, “quality participation is achieved when athletes with a disability view their involvement in sport as satisfying and enjoyable, and experience outcomes that they consider important.” To achieve quality participation, participants need repeated and sustained exposure to “quality experiences” over time. Six elements contribute to a quality experience (Martin Ginis et coll., 2017):  

To support these elements, appropriate conditions in the physical (for example, accessible facilities, access to equipment), social (for example, coach or instructor knowledge, friendships, family support), and program (for example, program size, funding support) environments need to be in place (Evans et coll., 2018). While the CDPP’s framework was developed for people with disabilities, it can be applied to sport participants in all contexts. 

Figure 2: The CDPP’s blueprint for building quality participation in sport and physical activity.

A variety of practical tools and resources have been created to guide sport organizations and program leaders in fostering quality sport programs. For example, Sport for Life creating a Quality Sport Checklist and a Quality Sport Guide for communities and clubs. Alternatively, the CDPP created the Blueprint for Building Quality Participation in Sport as a tool to help sport programmers foster quality experiences for children, youth and adults with disabilities, which leads to quality participation over time. The Blueprint has also been tailored for children and youth with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Ultimately, creating quality sport experiences involves understanding your programs and athletes unique needs to help identify what values and program components you should focus on and prioritize. 

Values-based sport  

The aim of sport delivery that is values-based is to create an environment that encourages values like (but not exclusive to) good character, physical literacy, community and belonging. Another goal of values-based sport is to create good citizens and well-rounded individuals through sport. However, this approach to sport delivery is more explicit in its use of values and morals to achieve its goal when compared to the other approaches described in this article.  

Adopting and promoting values in Canadian sport has been advocated by communities and organizations like Collaborative Community Coaching (C3)™, the Sport Law & Strategy Group, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), and True Sport. 

Of particular note, the CCES is an independent, national, not-for-profit organization committed to making sport better. The CCES does so by working collaboratively to activate a values-based sport system, protecting the integrity of sport from the negative forces of doping and other unethical threats, and advocating for sport that’s fair, safe and open to everyone. True Sport is an initiative of the CCES designed to give people, communities and organizations the means to leverage the benefits of good sport from a platform of shared values and principles. As a values-based sport network leader, the CCES believes that activating the True Sport Principles, on and off the field of play, will contribute to a positive shift in Canadian sport culture.  

Figure 3: The 7 True Sport Principles

Values-based approaches operate on the belief that sport has many physical, social and mental benefits but these benefits are not guaranteed by simply participating in sport (Bean et coll., 2018). The 2022 True Sport Report, commissioned by the CCES, recommends that in order for sport to be “good sport,” values and principles need to be put into action (for example, incorporated into policy, practice, and programs) and work together at all times. Informed by recent research, the report suggests that when this occurs, participants and communities alike will benefit.  

Despite being advocated for and implemented in organizations for many years, values-based approaches have not yet been investigated extensively in the academic literature. Nevertheless, the goal remains similar to previous approaches discussed—that is, meeting the basic human and developmental needs of participants.  

While researchers are still investigating whether the explicit teaching of values is necessary for participants to acquire them (as opposed to them being obtained organically from “good sport”), the morals and principles promoted through values-based sport are universally positive (Bean et coll., 2018).  

The key characteristic of values-based approaches to sport programming is that they are intentional and clear with the values and purpose of the activities participants are taking part in. According to Jones and McLenaghen, a good starting point for an organization or club looking to take this approach is to develop a “values-based agreement.” In other words, come together and agree upon your organization’s values and principles and promote them throughout your programming. Part of the CCES values-based education programming also includes a values-based agreement as an essential step in guiding and clarifying your community’s purpose for athletes, coaches and leaders, and meeting the goal of fostering values through your programming.  

The CCES provides additional suggestions for those wanting to make a positive difference in their sport and community:  

Safe sport  

The safe sport movement aims to optimize the sport experience for everyone in sport, including but not limited to administrators, officials, and support staff. To optimize the experience, stakeholders should have the reasonable expectation that the sport environment will not only be free from all forms of maltreatment (for example, abuse, neglect, bullying, harassment, and discrimination), but that it will also: 

Safe sport extends beyond the prevention of physical, psychological and social harm to include the promotion of participant rights (Gurgis & Kerr, 2021). According to Gretchen Kerr, an academic expert and a leader in the safe sport movement, the safe sport movement does not intend to abandon athletic results altogether, but rather places emphasis on healthy, safe, and inclusive methods for achieving performance results.   

As testimonies continue to surface of discrimination, harassment, abuse, and other forms of maltreatment in sport, the body of literature focused on safe sport and safeguarding in sport has grown substantially. In particular, recent studies have demonstrated how unsafe sport environments and maltreatment are contributing to participants’ mental health concerns and withdrawal from sport (Battaglia et coll., 2022).   

For example, in a recent SIRCuit article, a team of researchers (Eric MacIntosh, Alison Doherty and Shannon Kerr) described the findings of a study exploring athletes’ perceptions of safe and unsafe environments in high performance sport. The researchers identified coach and teammate behaviour (like aggression, exclusion, and overstepping boundaries), as well as a lack of resources and inattentive sport system (meaning, lack of accountability, attention, and/or action) as primary contributors to unsafe sporting environments. In contrast, athletes shared that they felt safest when they had a knowledgeable coach, athlete interests were prioritized, regulations were followed, they had access to ancillary support (like, physiotherapy and counselling), and when there was a sense of community among athletes and coaches.  

According to experts, adopting a values-based framework where inclusion, safety, fairness, and accessibility are promoted alongside strategies to prevent harm and abuse appears critical to optimizing  the experiences of sport participants (Gurgis, 2021). With safe sport in mind, Donnelly and Kerr (2018) recommend that sport organizations engage in the following strategies: 

The Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS) was developed in 2019 by the CCES with SIRC and in collaboration with national and multi-sport organizations, athletes, coaches, researchers and experts in the areas of child protection and safety in sport. The UCCMS 6.0 underwent a recent update by the SDRCC and is a vital tool for communities and organizations when it comes to implementing safe sport practices. The latest version includes prevention strategies for all levels of Canadian sport organizations and guidelines on how to address maltreatment if it occurs.  

UCCMS violations are investigated and sanctioned by the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). The OSIC is the central hub within Abuse-Free Sport, Canada’s independent system for preventing and addressing maltreatment in sport. The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) launched the Abuse-Free Sport program in 2022 after extensive research and a national consultation with more than 75 different organizations. The government of Canada selected the SDRCC to develop and deliver this new safe sport mechanism at the national level in 2021.  

Abuse-Free Sport provides access to a wide range of resources, all of it available in English and French, including: 

You can visit SIRC’s safe sport web hub for more safe sport resources, including policy documents and relevant research. For safe sport education and training, the Coaching Association of Canada offers Safe Sport Training, a free online training module. The Respect Group also offers Respect in Sport Training targeted at coaches and program leaders, as well as parents.  


There are several evidence-informed approaches to sport delivery that researchers and sport organizations encourage, and that you can engage with, to promote positive experiences and combat harmful cultures in sport and society. Quality sport, values-based sport and safe sport are 3 common approaches promoted by sport researchers and practitioners to optimizes experiences and outcomes for sport participants. Although they have their differences, each of these approaches recognizes sport as a context for communities and participants to gain valuable benefits. These approaches promote morals and principles that aim to fulfill basic human needs like belonging, safety, and confidence, which encourage healthy development and overall wellbeing for all sport participants. At the end of the day, the goal of each approach is to encourage positive sport experiences that build thriving people and communities.  


In Canada, youth sport is often coupled with incidences of poor parent or guardian behaviour. News reports of parent or guardian arrests and verbal as well as physical altercations around their children’s youth sporting events are, unfortunately, common (Bell, 2020; Crosier, 2022; Kaufmann et coll., 2019). Further, for many young athletes, dealing with pressuring, loud, and aggressive parents or guardians (both their own and others) can be embarrassing, stressful and may lead them to consider quitting sport at an early age (Cumming & Ewing, 2002; Smoll et coll., 2011). 

Likewise, many youth sport coaches and the parents and guardians they work with experience a variety of conflicts, struggle to effectively communicate with one another, and often fail to establish common goals (Erdal, 2018; Horne et coll. 2022). Youth sport referees also describe experiencing negative interactions with parents and guardians. Some officials cite parent and guardian behaviour to be one of the leading causes of referee attrition, due to concerns around safety and abuse (Ackery et coll., 2012; Warner et coll., 2013). 

While negative parent or guardian behaviours can adversely impact athlete experiences, displays of positive parental behaviour can lead to positive athlete outcomes. For example, researchers found that parents’ and guardians’ supportive behaviours during sport practices and competitions were predictive of their children’s reported levels of enjoyment and motivation (Sánchez-Miguel et coll., 2013). Additionally, when parents and guardians provide their children with appropriate praise and encouragement, young athletes appear to want parents involved in their sporting activities and are more likely to seek out parental feedback and support (Strand et coll. 2022). 

Armed with the knowledge that sport parents and guardians have the power to influence how their children’s youth sport experiences play out, questioning why these individuals might act in harmful ways is important. The competitive context which comes part and parcel with sport participation plays a large role in facilitating some of these intensified parental behaviours. However, it is also important to examine the totality of the current youth sport landscape to consider what other conditions could be exacerbating these issues. 

Father and child playing soccer in the park.This article focuses on how sport parent behaviour could be changed to improve the youth sport environment. As a researcher currently exploring why negative parent behaviours arise within youth sport, I will attempt to outline some factors and conditions that may be contributing to these events. Following this, I will provide recommendations and suggestions for youth sport practitioners, parents, and guardians in hopes of creating actionable change and an improved youth sport experience for all children and adults involved.

Stressors behind the sport parent experience 

When looking at previous research exploring why parents and guardians may be behaving in negative ways during their children’s sporting activities, 2 main issues are often discussed: the phenomenon of parents or guardians “living vicariously” through their children and the rise of youth sport professionalization.  

The tendency for parents and guardians to “live” sport engagement vicariously through their children might be better described as a parent’s desire for their child to achieve milestones or levels of success that they could not achieve themselves (Knight et coll., 2016). Examples could include receiving a sport-related scholarship or playing sport at the professional level. Further tied to these parental desires is the amount of social capital often associated with a young athlete’s success within sport. Children are very much able to influence the social lives and status of their parents and families as a whole, particularly through achievement-oriented activities such as youth sport (Brown, 2020). This can be seen in the stories of young athlete phenoms or prodigies whose parents are often held in high regard or even granted a level of celebrity within their communities and beyond (Sandstrom, 2022; Williams & Cotton, 2019). Recent examples of this are the portrayal and glorification of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams’ father in the Oscar nominated film King Richard (Stinson, 2021) and the focus on the parents of Canadian World Junior hockey phenom Connor Bedard (Masters, 2022). In either case, when considering the benefits available to parents should their young athletes become successful within youth sport, it is important to acknowledge that incentives outside of their child’s development, growth, and sport enjoyment could play a role in affecting parent behaviours. 

The second systemic issue many young athletes and their families face is the rise of youth sport professionalization. The professionalization of a youth sport program occurs when program goals appear to align more closely with those seemingly more appropriate in a professional or adult sport context rather than in one targeted at children or teenagers (Erdal, 2018). For example, if a youth hockey program requires families to travel on team buses to away games, requires a strenuous off-ice training plan, and focuses on the teaching and implementation of advanced systems of play over individual development and fun, it could be considered more professionalized than recreational.  

While it might be assumed that children and their families can obtain a variety of benefits through their participation in these intensified settings, perhaps the most critical issue associated with youth sport professionalization is the financial cost. For many decades in Canada, the rising price tag of youth sport programming has increasingly acted as a deterrent in barring youth, particularly those from marginalized communities and individuals of low socioeconomic status, from becoming involved in sport or remaining involved in sport over multiple seasons. Overall, the gradual elimination of community sports programs (such as after-school recreational programming) in favour of more formalized, high-performance leagues has had the effect of reducing access to sport programming for many young people (Grueau, 2016).  

With the average registration cost of competitive youth sport programming sitting at approximately $774.00 per season and non-competitive programming at $320.00 in a typical mid-sized Canadian city, it can be assumed that most youth sport program participants are individuals from families of mid-to-high socioeconomic status with enough leisure time to be involved (Robertson et coll., 2019).  

Even for mid-to-high socioeconomic status parents and guardians, the pressure to continue to fund their children’s sport can be intense. Reports of parents opening additional lines of credit to pay for the equipment, league fees, and extra training opportunities required for their children to continue playing at a high level of sport are increasing (Adams & Johnson, 2018). Further, the social competition and comparison between sport families that these environments create is also problematic. During a recent study that I conducted, hockey parents described their family’s participation in the sport as more tied to ideas and notions around how they should appear as “good Canadians” and good community members rather than the outcomes related to their children’s program content or program quality (Murata & Côté, 2022).

Improving youth sport for young athletes and their families 

It is clear that parents often face a variety of personal challenges in relation to their children’s sport participation. When considering the financial commitments and social environments that parents and guardians must navigate within youth sport, their displays of frustration and other negative behaviours may be slightly easier to understand. As such, the pressure associated with participation as well as the financial cost to play sports must be addressed.  

Since the majority of youth sport programming appears to be more competitive than recreational in nature, the mandating and funding of more casual offerings (those that involve no travel, no sport-specific training, and fewer sessions per week) could be a way to even out the playing field for a greater number of families. The costs associated with facility usage are often prohibitive for these types of programs however, therefore governmental or sport governance support would be required.   

Culture change around the status associated with high intensity sport programming is also needed across Canadian youth sport. The current pressures felt by parents, guardians, and their children would perhaps be alleviated should participation become more centred on growth, recreation, and fun rather than metrics of achievement. Lowering the financial cost of sport would also do wonders to make participation appear to be less of a status symbol for those families involved. A sporting culture that discourages glorifying participation in high-performance sport programming early in an athlete’s life may act as a reasonable step in creating more equitable and positive sporting environments. 

In line with large-scale culture change, youth sport practitioners and researchers have begun to speculate on how negative parent behaviours could be mitigated at the administrative level (Gould, 2019; Ross et coll., 2015; Wiersma & Sherman, 2005). For example, previous research suggests that administrators should: 

Even when sport administrators follow these suggestions, parents still have a responsibility to both be aware of and in control of their own behaviour as key members of the youth sport system. Influential research by Knight et coll. (2010) and Tamminen et coll. (2017) suggests that parents can accomplish this by:  

Sport can be an important avenue for fostering enjoyable experiences, teaching life skills, and promoting positive physical and mental health habits for child and adolescent athletes. As such, it is important that all adults involved in facilitating and providing sport programming to these populations aim to create environments that will allow participants to develop, thrive, and remain involved over a long period of time.  

Given that parents play a critical role in supporting their children both within as well as outside of sport, it is important to ensure that these individuals are both equipped with the necessary skills and provided with an environment which will allow them to succeed. With the necessary knowledge and tools, parents and guardians can work towards fostering positive sport experiences for their children, themselves and everyone involved in youth sport. 


Aisulu Abdykadyrova remembers standing at a bus stop in Edmonton, Alberta on a cold winter night, the wind chill making it feel like -30 degrees Celsius. Her daughter, who had just finished practice at the Edmonton Rhythmic Gymnastics Club, was so cold she started to cry. It would be another 2 buses and 2 hours before they arrived home.

Abdykadyrova came to Canada from Kyrgyzstan to complete her PhD at the University of Alberta. She arrived in Edmonton with her husband and 2 kids, then aged 8 and 10, in 2014. With Abdykadyrova enrolled in a full-time graduate program and her husband working in construction, the family often found it difficult to make ends meet.

“The training fees were around $600 per month… That’s why I began to work while I was still in grad school,” says Abdykadyrova, referring to the cost of her daughter’s involvement in rhythmic gymnastics after she reached the national level. “It’s been so difficult. Nobody gave us a discount,” she adds.

Affording training fees and long trips on public transit are just a few of the many challenges that Abdykadyrova faced when trying to involve her children in organized sport. Sport can help to promote physical and mental health, build social connections and support integration into Canadian communities (for example, learning English or French) among newcomers to Canada. But research shows that newcomers, including recent immigrants and refugees, face unique barriers to sport participation. The cost of registration fees and equipment, transportation to and from sport facilities, access to information about sport programs, and experiences of racism and discrimination keep many newcomers out of sport, despite all it has to offer.

Why sport matters

Gololcha Boru knows these barriers all too well. Boru’s family, originally from Ethiopia, came to Canada as refugees when he was a young child. They settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Boru was introduced to sport through school. His early experiences in the sport system weren’t entirely positive, so he didn’t stick with it for long.

“A lot of it came from, you know, you don’t have money to register, then sometimes coaches bring that up in a team setting, so everyone knows you don’t have money to play,” he explains. “And then there’s also instances of microaggressions. If you talk up, you’re seen as you lack discipline. A white player talks up, they’re seen as having leadership skills.”

Boru returned to sport in his early 20s when he began coaching the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba’s (IRCOM) youth soccer team. It was as a coach that he realized the positive impact that involvement in sport could have on newcomer youth.

“I think sport itself is a tool or a mechanism that can be used to improve one’s life, not only to be physically active for life, but also… to learn important life lessons. So, you know, the importance of hard work, the importance of persistence, the importance of teamwork,” he says.

He sees sport as an avenue to develop newcomer youth into leaders who give back to their communities, but only if the sport environment is intentionally designed to foster positive experiences and development. Such was the goal of his work with IRCOM: “We tried to create environments where young people would feel safe and have that sense of pride and empowerment to not only participate in sport, but also take active roles in coaching, officiating and so forth.”

Now Boru works in the City of Winnipeg’s Community Services Division, where he played a key role in writing and implementing the city’s Newcomer Welcome and Inclusion Policy. He is also one of the leaders of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg’s Anti-Racism in Sport campaign.

Advocating for newcomers in sport

Like Boru, Abdykadyrova has become a fierce champion for newcomer sport participation in her local community. It all started when she enrolled her daughter in rhythmic gymnastics, a popular sport in Kyrgyzstan, where her family is from. Abdykadyrova knew that the cost of the sport prevented other newcomer families from getting involved, and she wanted to change that.

“I said to our head coach, we can create a free program for newcomers, and everyone was telling [me] ‘It’s not possible,’” she says. “I said, ‘It’s possible.’”

Abdykadyrova held volunteer positions as the Vice President and then President of her daughter’s rhythmic gymnastics club from 2015 to 2020. During this time, she fundraised and applied for grants until the club had enough to launch free summer camps and a recreational rhythmic gymnastics program for newcomer girls. Around 100 girls participate in the free programs each year. The club hired Abdykadyrova as its program director in 2020.

She’s also a staunch supporter of her son’s swim club, the Race-Pace Swim Club, an Edmonton-based organization serving the Ukrainian community, including newcomers to Canada. The club was denied Swim Alberta affiliation in 2019 because it’s in an area that is already well serviced by existing clubs. This meant that members of the Race-Pace Swim Club couldn’t compete in sanctioned competitions. While Swim Alberta offered to help transfer swimmers to existing clubs, these clubs did not offer the cultural community and reduced barriers that Race-Pace provides, says Abdykadyrova.

“What is the difference of this club from other clubs? It has a cultural component,” she explains. “And our club and board members and the coaching staff [have created a program that] helps newcomers to integrate into Canadian society through the swimming program.”

Abdykadyrova and other club supporters continued to advocate for the club. Race-Pace swimmers were able to compete in sanctioned competitions for the first time in December 2022.

Outside of roles with her children’s sport clubs, Abdykadyrova works as a project coordinator at Action for Healthy Communities, a settlement organization that provides capacity-building services for newcomers, including in sport. She coordinates the PASS (Participating in Arts, Sports, and Society) Program, which offers youth after-school sport programs, “try-it” introductory sport events, sport-focused community information sessions, a forum to share best practices for inclusive sport programs, and research focused on the barriers to sport participation among racialized newcomer youth. She also sits on the Edmonton Sport Council’s board of directors.

The Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy

Child with baseball bat at Winnipeg Newcomer Sport AcademyBack in Winnipeg, 16-year-old Ali Aljoumah has experienced firsthand the benefits of a sport program designed for and with newcomers. Aljoumah was born in Syria and moved to Canada in 2019. At the time, he didn’t speak English. The language barrier made it challenging for him to participate in organized activities such as sport. That changed when he was introduced to the Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy (WNSA).

WNSA was founded in 2016 to provide newcomer children and youth in Winnipeg, Manitoba with affordable quality multi-sport programs. Not only does WNSA aim to be both affordable and accessible for newcomer families, but it also strives to provide quality multi-sport programming that is developmentally and culturally appropriate for newcomer children and youth.

“One of the benefits [of the WNSA] is being able to do all of these different sports, literally for free, like, transportation is there for all of the families, food is included, all of that. It’s really fun being at the program playing all of these different sports, for nothing in return,” says Aljoumah.

With an explicit focus on improving participants’ growth and development both in sport and in their broader communities, WNSA seeks to promote fitness and sport skills, improve health and wellbeing, and provide opportunities for civic engagement and leadership. For example, WNSA provides older youth with opportunities for leadership development through coaching and officiating, including assistance to obtain credentials to help with future employment. When Aljoumah turned 13, he entered the leadership program and now works as a WNSA coach.

“I love coaching, you know, I love everything about it,” he says. “I love helping the kids getting around, learning about new kids, where they’re from, what they like, what they don’t like. I also love helping especially the WNSA because I was once just like one of the kids there.”

Through sport, WNSA introduces newcomer families to Canadian culture in a safe environment. It’s motto, “resettlement, integration, inclusion,” speaks to the vital role that sport can play in the settlement process. “You’re in a whole new culture. You don’t know what’s happening around you,” explains Aljoumah. But trying new sports (for example, learning to skate) helped him to feel more at home.

Considering all the success that the program has had in Winnipeg, there are 2 things that keep WNSA founder and volunteer Executive Director, Carolyn Trono, up at night: The quality of sport programming that newcomers get across the country, and how to make the Canadian sport system more welcoming.

Trono believes that designing welcoming, inclusive sport spaces for newcomers needs to “start from when they leave the house.”  Everything from cost, language and transportation to the relationships that participants build with peers and leaders in the program need to be considered, she says.

Trono also emphasizes that pathways into and through sport might look different for newcomers. For example, trauma-informed and culture-specific programs may play an important role in introducing recent immigrants and refugees to sport in Canada, but there needs to be pathways to “bridge the gap” into mainstream programs, particularly for those who have the motivation and skill to pursue competitive sport. That means that those running mainstream sport programs need to be welcoming and willing to learn about other cultures, says Trono.

With funding from the Canadian Department of Heritage, Trono is a part of a team developing evidence-informed workshops that teach sport leaders and organizations how to create welcoming environments for newcomers in sport. 

WinSport Welcomes Newcomers Initiative

children on spin bikes at Winnipeg Newcomer Sport AcademyAnother program that works to reduce barriers to sport participation for newcomers is the WinSport Welcomes Newcomers Initiative (WWNI). WinSport owns and operates Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Aberta, one of the key legacy facilities from the 1988 Winter Olympics. It provides programs and facilities that help people of all ages discover, develop and excel at sport. The WWNI was co-founded by Simon Barrick, a then-doctoral student at the University of Calgary, in 2017. Barrick partnered with WinSport, the Centre for Newcomers, and the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association to design the WWNI, an introduction to sport program for new Canadians in Calgary, as part of his doctoral research.

“We designed this program, and my dissertation was really about exploring the lived experiences of the newcomers in these programs, and providing kind of a critical examination of how the program was set up, how it operates and some of the outcomes and some of the barriers that still persisted despite the efforts specifically focusing on introducing newcomers to sport,” explains Barrick.

Barrick, who is now an Assistant Professor at Cape Breton University, is passionate about transforming Canadian sport, physical activity, and leisure to be welcoming to all Canadians, particularly marginalized and underrepresented communities. Through his work with WinSport, Barrick explored innovative ways to reduce barriers and foster inclusion for newcomers in sport.

For example, complex registration systems that require knowledge of the language, technology, and the registration platform, as well as access to the technology or the internet to use the system, can pose a significant barrier to program entry. As part of the WWNI, Barrick and his partners tried different ways to make registration easier, from having settlement services counsellors work directly with families to register them for programs to sending a guest services team from WinSport to the settlement service offices to walk participants through the process.

“I think the lesson there is looking at kind of a step-by-step process to make it a really positive experience [for newcomers],” he says.

Learnings around program registration extended to other challenges for participants. For instance, while WinSport waived the cost of equipment rentals and partnering organizations held a winter clothing drive to make clothing freely available, many participants required education about what type of clothing is appropriate (for winter sports in particular) or how to properly fit the equipment. So, the registration process evolved again. Newcomer families could go to the settlement services offices on targeted days and go from room to room to access each thing they would need, from program information and registration to clothing and equipment, including the education they need to use it.

According to Jennifer Konopaki, WinSport’s Vice President of Sport, understanding the needs of newcomers and where they are at in the settlement process is critical:

“What [new Canadians] go through in the first month to the first 6 months to the next year to 5 years looks very different. And their requirements and needs along that process or journey are very different. And so, as a facility operator or programmer, you need to know where you’re entering their journey. And then your services and the design of what you offer should be a reflection of where they’re at in their journey to become a new Canadian.”

More than 600 newcomers have participated in the WWNI since it was established in 2017, and the program has continued to evolve to meet the needs of newcomers in Calgary and surrounding areas during that time. For example, WinSport has hosted an annual Family Fun Day for newcomers, made possible through sponsorship from Capital Power, for the past 2 years.

“The families loved it. It removed some of the challenges with the longer commitment programs that we originally started with. Because the longer commitment programs, you have to participate, you have to show up, you have to be consistent, and that was a challenging, challenging element with some newcomer [families],” says Konopaki.

WinSport is currently engaged in a new research partnership with Matthew Kwan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University. The project will explore physical literacy programming for newcomer youth.

Konopaki sees great value in engaging researchers to support program design and delivery: “It’s been really great. Like, Simon [Barrick] was instrumental in helping us get started. And Matt [Kwan] has been instrumental in helping us become better operators and programmers.”

Tips for creating welcoming, equitable spaces for newcomers in sport

  1. Co-design programs with newcomers through an intersectional lens

When possible, sport programs for newcomers should be co-designed with newcomers and agencies or service organizations that advocate for them. This is an important step to ensure that relevant barriers are addressed, and that the program as a whole is meeting the target group’s needs. It’s also important for building trust between the organization offering the program and the newcomer community. 

“When you’re involving anybody, any group that has historically been excluded, or at least doesn’t have a presence in your sport space… I would say the biggest thing is you also need to directly involve [them],” says Barrick. “So, working with those entities, right from day one, to identify what individuals and the communities as a whole need, and start building that trust.”

As a newcomer herself, Abdykadyrova emphasized the importance of understanding the situation that newcomers are in and being compassionate. This requires speaking to newcomers about their experiences: “You know how it is cold in Edmonton [in winter], minus 20 but it feels minus 30. And we stood in the bus stop waiting for the bus. And my daughter was crying because she was so cold. Nobody from the board or the local parents don’t experience this, right?”

Boru adds that designing programs through an intersectional lens is important for understanding the overlapping influence of diverse identities and barriers on sport participation.

  1. Collaborate and share resources and capacity with relevant partners

According to Konopaki, the success of the WWNI is due in large part to partnerships. “What’s critical is the partnership between the facility operator and programmer, the agency who has the relationship and is currently servicing newcomers, and researchers. When those three groups of experts come together and co-design, it’s beautiful,” she says.

Barrick, the researcher who co-founded the WWNI, highlighted how meaningful collaborations with relevant partners can reduce the burden on any one organization through the sharing of resources and capacity (such as cost, expertise, and access to equipment or facilities). “When you’re working with different organizations, there’s a certain cost-sharing that comes about and especially in terms of in-kind support,” he explains. “So, for example, when we were working with settlement service organizations, they would offer to do translation services, and different things like that.”

  1. Find innovative ways to reduce barriers to newcomer’s participation

A key issue with inclusion in sport is whether its performative or structural, says Barrick. “A performative piece of inclusion that could be problematic is if a sport club or organization releases a statement saying, ‘We welcome everybody, please come out.’ … Yes, that’s nice to hear. And it can, in some cases, get people in the door. But if the organization hasn’t thought about innovative strategies to support those folks once they’re in the space, then it’s performative. And that is a problem.”

To be truly inclusive, organizations need to address barriers to participation, including cost, equipment, transportation, access to information, and religious or cultural considerations, whenever possible. For example, Aljoumah underscored the need to get buy-in from parents when promoting a sport program for newcomer children and youth: “If the parents get out there and see what we’re doing, I think it will be much better for the parents to know what we’re doing [and] to appreciate what we’re doing.”

  1. Think beyond the barriers to the quality of programming that you are offering

Trono, founder and volunteer Executive Director of WNSA, highlights the quality of sport programming as a key issue for newcomers. Reducing barriers is how you get participants in the door, but welcoming and inclusive spaces are needed to foster growth, development and life skills, she says.

Aljoumah, a former participant and current program leader at WNSA, emphasizes the importance of fostering positive relationships between program leaders and participants. He says its important that the relationships are about more than sport. “We talk not just about score, but we talk about, like, how their day is, how things are going, other feelings. So, it’s about more than just them coming in. They’re not just playing sports and leaving, but actually having good, good connections between the kids and the leaders.”

One last piece of advice: “You don’t have to make it too strict. They’re there to have fun,” he adds.

Recommended programs and resources


“Hey! You’ve still got 50+ years of time as an athlete!” I say to my class of university students who study sport and physical activity leadership.

Their stunned response: “What?”

 Nobody has ever told them that before. But it’s true.

Adult sport participation is often forgotten. It’s not discussed with the same frequency as youth sport. It’s often not prioritized by organizations and systems within sport, whether that be regarding policies, programming and recruitment, coaching or logistics of facilities use. This is true even of adults who like sport and were heavily involved in sport as children and youth.

We know that sport participation can prevent strain on public health, keep adults and older adults happy and healthy, and encourage them to seek mastery and new experiences. Still, it’s forgotten.

This article examines the research and realities of how the sport system can better support lifelong sport participation beyond youth. Understanding the needs of Masters athletes, seniors athletes, and older adult sport participants is an important consideration.

How we have overlooked Masters athletes and older adults

Much of the research in sport is geared towards high performance or youth sport participation. As the Editor-in-Chief for the International Sport Coaching Journal, I, Bettina (first author) will pick on myself to make this point (though facetiously, as I do not choose which manuscript topics are submitted to the journal). Looking at the most recent issue at the time of writing (Volume 9, issue 3, September 2022), we see the following (generalized) breakdown in the original research publications: 12% coach education, 38% coaching youth, 50% coaching elite, collegiate or professional athletes.

LTD framework by Sport for Life
Credit: Sport for Life Society

Remarkably, if we survey the model, we can see a parallel focus and how that impacts practice. The LTD uses a rectangular diagram to outline a framework for developmental pathways in sport and physical activity. It depicts a large section devoted to Active for Life, as an alternative to the Podium Pathway towards high performance. This is excellent, as it includes the large number of people (including adults and older adults) who are not on the trajectory toward podium performances at the highest level of sport yet continue to engage in sport and physical activity.

However, while the LTD acknowledges aging adults as an underserviced and under-supported group within the sport and physical activity ecosystem, the information in the framework itself is mostly associated with children, youth, and young adults. The LTD also outlines quality sport and physical activity as developmentally appropriate, well run, safe and inclusive. But the needs and preferences of adults in sport must be understood to create appropriate programming and development, and to make people feel safe and included.   

In reality, adult development in sport is often focused on becoming coaches or officials, joining the board of directors for the youth sport team or club, fundraising and volunteering. However, there are many ways in which adults can and should continue their own athletic endeavours. Graduating from high school, college or university should not equate to sport retirement. There are still several decades worth of sport participation and fun to be had. To promote, recruit, and carry-out lifelong sport participation, there need to be supports in place.

The role of coaching in adult-oriented sport

Qualified coaches are important actors that drive much of sport. Indeed, it was suggested to us once that without coaches, there would be no sport. But this is short-sighted, adult sport often exists without coaches. While there are recreational and “beer league” adult sports that most often do not have coaches, we turn the reader’s attention to Masters sport, where coaches can play important roles in the sport system (Callary et al., 2021).

Masters sport is defined as sport events, leagues, and competitions for adults typically over 35 years of age (although this differs based on the sport and can be as young as 18 years old), with sport participants who register (pay), and who practice or train usually towards competitive ends, and who oftentimes have a coach (Young et al., 2018). Within this cohort of more serious-minded adult athletes, effective coaches play an important role in meeting athletes’ psychosocial needs and validating their decision to pursue sport. Athletes, coaches, and those close to the sport system who do not know, or who perhaps underestimate the value of Masters sport, can undermine this role (Callary et al., 2017).

Some question why adults should need coaching. There are ageist assumptions that adults do not improve, and that they are simply there for social and fitness leisure time activity. In our research (Callary et al., 2017), we have found this ageism can lead coaches and athletes to believe that they do not really need to “coach” Masters athletes. That is, that they do not need to develop and prepare training plans, provide feedback, support athlete learning, and invest in quality coach-athlete relationships. Similar assumptions would be absurd within youth sport. Do we still demand quality coaching if young athletes do not become Olympians or professional athletes? Yes, of course. This same logic must apply at the adult sport level. In other words, quality coaching should be an inherent feature of Masters sport and sport for older adults too.

Nonetheless, there are important psychological and social considerations to think through when coaching adults to ensure a Quality Masters Sport Experience (Young et al., 2021). In our book Coaching masters athletes: Advancing research and practice in adult sport (Callary et al., 2021), we outline key psychosocial considerations that emerged from our research program of the last 10 years.

In particular, the book is based on the premise that there are 5 adult-oriented coaching approaches that coaches and athletes alike want, and that are aligned with adult learning principles that will enhance the sport experience (Callary et al., 2021). These adult-oriented coaching approaches have been developed through qualitative in-depth research (such as Callary et al., 2015; 2017; MacLellan et al., 2019) and validated through quantitative analyses.

For example, the Adult Oriented Sport Coaching Survey (AOSCS; Rathwell et al., 2020) defines our 5 themes as follows:

These 5 themes, whether applied collectively or used flexibly by coaches of adults, represent an evidence-based palette of coaching practices.

Our ongoing research shows that coaches find different skills and strategies within each of the 5 themes, as well as the theme itself, to be useful and relevant to their coaching. They note that these nuances of adult-oriented coaching approaches can be used as needed, not necessarily in tandem all the time, but instead as a “toolbox” for ongoing coaching practice over time (Callary et al., under review). This is important as coaches may work with the same Masters athletes for many decades. Thus, adopting and trying out new adult-oriented approaches can be particularly important for coaching this cohort, serving to keep things fresh, and possibly sparking further development among coaches.

Keeping in mind the hundreds of things coaches can do and try out with their athletes, Motz and colleagues (2022) indicated that the use of these 5 adult-oriented coaching approaches were particularly associated with positive coach-athlete relationships. Specifically, these researchers found that these approaches accounted for 63% of why Masters athletes feel committed to their coaches, 40% of why Masters athletes feel close to their coaches, and 41% of how Masters athletes see their coaches’ behaviours complementing their own.

When coaches “considered the individuality of their athletes” and “respected adults’ preferences for effort, accountability and being given feedback,” the Masters athletes felt close to their coach, and felt that their coach’s behaviours corresponded to their own. When coaches “created personalized programming,” Masters athletes felt a strong commitment to their coach (Motz et al., 2022). Adult-oriented coaching approaches also address how the coach can create a quality sport experience beyond relationship building. Indeed, when coaches embodied these 5 themes, Motz and colleagues reported how Masters athletes liked going to practice more, and wanted to invest in their sport more, than when coaches used less of these approaches (Motz et al., 2022). The evidence-based research suggests that the coach who uses adult-oriented coaching approaches can be considered an important asset for attracting adults and retaining their investment in sport, enhancing their liking of training, and sustaining commitment.

Nonetheless, there are no identified pathways for coaches into Masters sport. Those who do coach Masters sport tend to be Masters athletes themselves, or coaches of youth who were asked to also coach the Masters group on the side. It is difficult for coaches to see the value of developing themselves as coaches of adults when, for the most part, the system does not place value on such development. There exist no sport-specific coach education and very little other means for coaches to develop their craft and become “qualified” to coach Masters athletes (Callary et al., 2018).

Going forward: Building a better future for older athletes

With the work that we have done, sport organizations around the world have increasingly been calling on us to give workshops and webinars, especially because the coaches in their organizations have asked for such information. The rise in interest is noteworthy. As a result, we have done in-person and online coach education programming in various countries, with a wide range of sports. In these professional development sessions, we outline the 5 adult-oriented coaching approaches and often use surveys such as the AOSCS to have coaches think through the ways in which they apply these approaches or how they could do so.

We were recently commissioned to lead a series of online webinar workshops with a group of Masters coaches from a variety of sports. In these sessions, there were lively discussions around the characteristics of an integral adult sport experience, one that is worthy of investment and generates fulsome benefits for participants. We explored the hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience (see Young et al., 2021 for a detailed description), and coaches shared amongst each other how they addressed these, allowing them to build a repertoire of ideas from other Masters coaches. In other sessions, we invited coaches (and sometimes their athletes too) to complete the AOSCS and provided them with their scores to identify their strengths and areas for development.

Importantly, these discussions always centre on the coach’s context, and whether these adult-oriented themes (and specific survey items) are or could be useful to them. Coaches do the work to reflect on how they want to develop. The metaphor we used was that we were giving them the paint colours and a palette, but they have the brushes and canvas. They can choose which colours, how much of each colour, and where to blend them to make them their own.

In conclusion, many Masters athletes invest a lot into their sport participation. They want programming and coaching to match their investments of time, energy and money. They will also stop paying for sport if it’s not good. Relegating Masters sport to less ideal practice times (like late night), marginalizing them in facility use, and not providing quality coaching are highly unfortunate oversights. Not supporting coaches to become qualified to effectively work with this cohort is a seriously missed opportunity. Coaches do not know what they do not know, and so when Masters-specific coach education offerings are not present, these coaching opportunities are oftentimes not even on the radar.

Returning to the university students in my class as future (and current) sport leaders, many reflected excitedly on the possibilities of working with adults and older adults, and of staying involved themselves as they age. In this regard, we encourage sport leaders to think about ways in which they can support the professional development of their coaches in Masters sport.

Increasing the focus on training great coaches to work with Masters groups by emphasizing the 5 adult-oriented approaches (in addition to giving training on technical and tactical instruction), is a winning formula. We urge clubs and facilities to better prioritize Masters sport groups by giving them equitable access to training spots.  Indeed, sport systems will thrive when adults are given proper consideration.



At the Canada Summer Games in Niagara for up-and-coming athletes in August, the power of sport to transform lives was on full display with stories that showcased the pure joy, excitement and fun sport can offer. Teenage wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak became Nunavut’s first ever gold medallist in the games and an emotional video clip went viral as he talked about dedicating his victory to his deceased brother and explained how sport had saved his life.

That example of how sport can transform lives is a far cry from the headlines of the past year, ones that have shown a darker side to sport. Dozens of athletes in various sports spoke out in 2022 about maltreatment in a year of sport activism like no other. Some described a toxic environment in sport and demanded immediate change.

Before we hear more about some of the biggest concerns from athletes, it’s important to add some context. High performance sport by its very nature is not for everyone and is not always the healthiest endeavour.

Allison Forsyth is a two time Olympian and was one of the top skiers in the world for close to a decade: “I go to my orthopedic surgeon today and he’s like, ‘Good news, you’re 43 but your knees are like 72 now.’ We push our bodies to such an extreme place at a young age so I’m worse off as a 43 year old than if I just sat around and did nothing my whole life.”

Natalie Durand-Bush is a sports psychology professor, scientist and practitioner at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics. She’s also the Executive Director for the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. When asked if high performance sport is healthy, she says, “There are definitely some drawbacks because you’re so hyper focused on this one particular thing in which you are so invested. You work above and beyond what normal people would do to achieve that.” She says this is the same for other high performance domains like medicine, business and the performing arts.

Durand-Bush says that despite potential drawbacks, sport offers many benefits. It can teach important life lessons about winning and losing and about being part of a team. Participants also develop friendships that extend long after they leave sport. Durand-Bush says it’s become abundantly clear that we need to measure success in sport in new ways and by much more than just medals. For instance, success may mean considering athletes as people first, prioritizing their mental and physical wellness, retaining athletes, coaches and staff, and providing positive and rewarding experiences.

Athletes feel it’s podium or bust

In the past year, many athletes shared horrific stories of maltreatment and abuse going back years. Many believe one of the root causes for the crisis is that the high performance sport system has been too narrowly focused on medals as the marker of success, sometimes allowing toxic behaviour to go unchecked. Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Kyle Shewfelt told the National Post that needs to change. “I think high performance sport has to look in the mirror and ask itself the question ‘What is this worth?’” He added, “There is a way to create champions and high performing athletes in a very positive environment where the athletes do have a lot of independence, they do have a lot of agency and we don’t use fear and manipulation, those tactics, in order to get the athletes to work hard and be great.”

Alison Forsyth says sometimes athletes are made to feel like commodities. Going into the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, Forsyth was ranked third in the world and carried the weight of the team on her shoulders at her first Olympics. “When I went to those games, I was told I was not going to the opening ceremonies because I was a medal hopeful. The board sat me down and said, ‘you better get a medal or we’re not going to get any funding.’” She adds, “that’s a lot for someone to take on. You already feel the pressure of your whole country, your family and yourself. Then to feel you have the pressure of other people’s careers in your hands is too much.”

Forsyth ended up finishing 7th in the giant slalom in Salt Lake City after suffering a panic attack and not being able to sleep the night before her race because of that pressure. It’s something she’s carried with her ever since. “If you ask how I feel even now about my Olympic performance, I’m devastated with my 7th place finish. Devastated because I was ranked third in the world and wanted to win. Every athlete knows it’s podium or bust.”  

Many athletes have such a negative experience in high performance sport that when they retire, they don’t want anything to do with it. Durand-Bush says this is heartbreaking: “Some have mentioned feeling like a number, like they are commodities to produce medals for the country.  But like anyone else, these athletes deserve to be treated as humans.” That’s why Durand-Bush believes there is a need to return to a more human-centred approach to high performance sport.

How to create a system where we put humans first

It all starts with having to redefine success in sport. Forsyth says throughout her career she was unhappy more days than she was happy. She says, “by relieving some of that pressure and supporting athletes, they will still win. I actually think they will win more.” Forsyth now consults for National Sport Organizations, including Rowing Canada, where she is trying to rebuild a safe sport culture. Rowing Canada recently conducted a review which found that 50 percent of its high performance participants over the past decade described their experience as negative.  More than 85 percent of people surveyed reported that they witnessed, experienced or heard maltreatment.

Forsyth advocates for humanizing the sport experience and sport organizations to create mutual respect for everybody, from the sport administrators, to coaches, to athletes. In her mind, that means including athletes in every step of the process, treating them as professionals and including them as members of boards. In her work with Rowing Canada, she has encouraged them to adopt “fun” as one of their core values and key pillars. This advice came from her experience training for months on end with few breaks and not a lot of fun: “taking a little breather from that crazy micro-environment of high performance sport, will actually elevate the overall results.”

Perception is reality

One of the organizations often criticized by athletes, coaches and administrators for tying funding to high performance is Own the Podium (OTP). Some are under the impression that funding for high performance athletes is tied solely to performance, fueling a “podiums over people” mentality.

The Chief Executive Officer of OTP, Anne Merklinger, acknowledges that “perception is reality.” But Merklinger says it’s not correct and a “flawed” idea to think that if an athlete wins a medal, the sport gets funding. Merklinger says OTP makes funding recommendations not looking at past results but rather looking into the future over an eight year time horizon that takes into consideration many factors and not simply winning.

“As an organization, I think we need to do a better job in increasing the awareness and understanding of what we do,” she concedes. Merklinger says the stories that have come out in the past year have caused everyone in the sports system to do some soul searching to examine how things can be improved. “We are hearing horrible circumstances around situations where athletes have not been in a safe environment. Any one of those circumstances is one too many,” she says.

For more than 3 years, OTP has been focused on improving the culture in high performance sport. Merklinger says the organization has made “culture” a part of its mandate, to help National Sport Organizations (NSOs) achieve excellence through a clear set of values, including the provision of a safe and inclusive environment in the high performance program.

For example, OTP has provided culture assessment and audit tools to help NSOs identify areas where they may be struggling and how to improve. To create a better understanding with athletes, OTP recently created an athlete’s council linked to the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Athletes Commission. OTP is also in the final steps of appointing an athlete as a member of their board.

In response to some of the issues highlighted in sport over the past year, OTP has also introduced a new integrated wellness plan. One of the guiding principles of the plan is that “a system focus or refocus is needed to ensure that the psychological and physical health, wellness and safety of all athletes, coaches, technical leaders, Integrated Support Teams, and High Performance staff is prioritized within the National Sport Organization’s high performance plan.” 

OTP’s wellness plan offers examples of current best practices within NSOs and helps other sport organizations identify where they have gaps. OTP is also hiring cultural wellness facilitators to assist NSOs, and connecting them with experts from organizations such as Game Plan and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. Sports can use OTP’s wellness plan as a starting point, but they need to show evidence they have implemented components of the plan by April of this year.

“In order to be considered for a funding recommendation, the sport needs to have some sort of a wellness framework developed. It could be rudimentary,” Merklinger says. She adds, “it’s critically important to get it started. It’s about giving [NSOs] the tools to identify where they can be better. Then, if they have weaknesses, or gaps, identify the experts who can help them.”

Swimming Canada as a case study

swimmers in a race/training in a lane pool doing the front strokeAfter Olympic medallist Emily Overholt shared publicly her battle with depression just weeks after returning from Rio 2016, she felt a huge sense of relief opening up about mental health.  When this came to light, it was also one of the major issues that forced Swimming Canada to look reflect on how it could make mental health and wellness more of a priority. The sport leaders wanted to offer support from experts while balancing the need for confidentiality for anyone who might be accessing those services. Now, Swimming Canada has a mental health lead who is part of the program.

“We’ve always taken our team physician who will deal with physical issues. But now we also have a physician of psychiatry who can deal with the mind when needed. I think when we have experts like that on the team, it sends a message that this is also important,” says John Atkinson, Director of High Performance for Swimming Canada.

More recently, Swimming Canada has seen just how important mental health is. In December 2021, swimming star Taylor Ruck spoke publicly about some of the challenges she faced with an eating disorder as part of a Globe and Mail investigation, in the hope it would help others.  

Atkinson says for many members of the Olympic and Paralympic teams, the pandemic has taken a toll and that has forced the team to do things in new ways. He’s had conversations with Olympic and World Championship medallists who needed to take a break from competition.  The Olympics, delayed a year in Tokyo, meant there were a number of high pressure events back to back including the Canadian Trials, World Championships and Commonwealth Games. Some athletes couldn’t do them all and Atkinson says that’s ok.

“It’s been a challenging year for the staff as well as the athletes. Everybody’s been kind of worn down through the pandemic. There have been lots of different issues that people have had to deal with. We recognized early in 2022, some people were going to have to go a slightly different route to what would have been the norm. There’s an acceptance that it’s not ‘results at all costs,’” Atkinson says. He adds, “I think we are still finding our way but we as a sport need to have that empathy.”

At their Olympic and Paralympic high performance centres, the team works with different sport psychologists on a daily basis. Atkinson says coaches can monitor the mood of athletes and notice if there are any big changes over a long period and seek out advice of experts to help support them. He also says they need to make sure they are communicating the support available. Because of confidentiality, sometimes, the work being done is not well known.

“We have to ask ourselves, have we actually communicated that support is there that they might not even know about? And that it might even be something they can access before it gets to the point where the panic button is hit,” Atkinson says.

Through using OTP’s new wellness framework, swimming has been able to see where there are gaps, in particular, for athletes in the sport beyond the National Team members at the high performance centres. For instance, he says athletes in the provinces and territories and at club level don’t enjoy the same benefits because they don’t have the same resources. Atkinson applauds the recent $2.4 million investment from the federal government for mental health and wellness support. 

Mental wellness needs to be more central to high performance sport

When it comes to high performance sport, Durand-Bush says mental health and wellness, as in the Swimming Canada example, should be a key focus for all NSOs. She believes that is the best way to cultivate psychologically healthy and safe cultures. Durand-Bush says it isn’t enough to just create environments to avoid cases of maltreatment. The sport system must create spaces for everyone to discuss mental health the same way they discuss physical health and injuries. “This would make a world of difference. Imagine telling athletes, ‘We want you to succeed, but not at the cost of your mental and physical health. We will do everything we can to protect and support you,’” she says. 

Durand-Bush notes that mental health and wellbeing can vary from one day to the next and conversations around this topic should be part of the daily training environment so that teams can develop strategies to address it. “Athletes are still scared to talk about this because they think they’re going to be negatively perceived or that they will be punished. I hear it all the time. It’s very sad.” Durand-Bush says it would never be that way with a physical injury: “If you pull a muscle, how many times would the coach or staff ask, ‘how are you doing today?’ That’s a no brainer and athletes are fine talking about that. But when it comes to their psychological well-being, they’re afraid to go there.” 

According to Durand-Bush, mental health and wellness must be measured and rewarded in Canada’s high performance sport system. “Until we say that mental health is going to be a performance indicator, a performance variable, an element that we are going to talk about, and we will make sure that we promote and nurture it, we will be very limited in what we accomplish,” she says. Merklinger agrees, to a point: “Yes, that might be the end goal, but we’re not there yet.”  She says NSOs need everyone’s assistance to get there, including the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Game Plan and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport.

“We’re trying to promote and nurture [mental wellness] within National Sport Organizations. Some are hitting it out of the park, some don’t even know what to do. So, it is way too early in the system, in my view, to say sports have to meet a mandatory score on the wellness framework,” Merklinger says.

The President of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Tricia Smith, a four-time Olympian, says 2022 has shown athletes need more of a voice with their NSOs and wellness has to be a major focus going forward: “It’s like a lot of things. When things get out of balance, things can go wrong.”  She adds, “We’re very much focused on our high performance programs in Canada and getting to the podium, but I think some people take that the wrong way and they think that’s the only thing you have to focus on. You forget that athletes are humans first. We need to make sure there’s a better balance going forward.”


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.