- Adoption in practice of research findings is often sub-optimal because of a disconnect between researchers and the individuals or groups overseeing and facilitating sport and physical activity participation.
- To help bridge the gap between sport and physical activity research activities and the needs of those best positioned to apply those findings, we conducted a study to identify top research priorities of people involved in various sectors of sport and physical activity across Canada.
- The study results highlight 8 high-ranking priorities for sport and physical activity research in Canada. They provide much-needed guidance to sport and physical activity researchers seeking to engage in impactful research. That is, research from the perspective of those in a position to apply the findings to promote greater participation in sport and physical activity across Canada.
- Best practices and frameworks for effective knowledge translation are also shared. Here, knowledge translation means the sharing of research results and adoption or uptake of those findings to encourage improvements in sport and physical activity across Canada.
Until recently, a typical research process would include generating ideas or research questions, gathering and analyzing data to test hypotheses, publishing the results in scientific journals and anticipating that the findings would be adopted or applied in the “real world.” Then, this cycle would repeat, replacing old questions with new lines of inquiry.
True, this outdated approach generated new knowledge, although clearly at various levels of depth and breadth. However, that approach rarely resulted in uptake of research findings by the people or organizations best positioned to make use of such findings. They’re also known as knowledge-users or end-users.
Without that uptake, the findings don’t lead to meaningful shifts or improvements in how things are done. For example, despite a recent increase in research focused on sport and physical activity policies, programs and practices (Blamey & Mutrie, 2004; Faulkner et al., 2006), there have been no notable improvements in population-level sport and physical activity participation, according to surveillance data.
It’s undoubtably complex to effectively translate knowledge that stems from academic research findings and apply it to the real world of sport and physical activity participation. A disconnect between researchers and knowledge-users could be a factor that’s hindering the translation of such research into practice. In particular, it’s possible that sport and physical activity researchers pursue studies that aren’t valuable to knowledge-users, such as sport administrators, coaches, public health professionals or education specialists. Or, if they do, it’s possible that their results don’t find their way to those working to promote sport and physical activity participation.
Essentially that’s a gap between the research (on sport and physical activity) and the needs of those who can best apply or act on those research findings. To bridge that gap, we recently conducted a study aimed at identifying top research priorities of sport and physical activity among knowledge-users from various sectors across Canada. In this article, we’ll describe best practices and frameworks for effective knowledge translation (which guided our study). We also cover how we conducted our research and what we found to be the top research priorities of sport and physical activity knowledge-users in Canada.
Bridging the research-to-practice gap
Several studies previously reported that many people who work to promote sport and physical activity participation don’t feel well informed by current research (Coutts, 2017; Dale et al., 2016; Fullagar et al., 2019; Zenko & Ekkekakis, 2015). Similarly, sport and physical activity researchers felt they had observed a gap between research findings and related policy and programming (Faulkner et al., 2006; Fullagar et al., 2019; Holt, Camiré, et al., 2018; Holt, Pankow, et al., 2018).
As noted earlier, it’s thought this gap is partly driven by sport and physical activity researchers investigating issues that differ from the daily challenges experienced by stakeholders, practitioners and coaches (Fullagar et al., 2019). The gap may also exist because knowledge-users are unaware of research results that could help alleviate some of the challenges they’re facing (Holt, Pankow, et al., 2018).
To overcome these 2 challenges, and to maximize the significance of their research, researchers can now follow guiding principles that lay the ground for what is known as integrative knowledge mobilization. To understand that term, the Knowledge to Action Framework is the most widely used set of principles to guide integrative knowledge mobilization. It essentially promotes a research process that involves a knowledge creation cycle and an action cycle (Graham et al., 2006). The 2 distinct, but related cycles include multiple phases that are iterative and can overlap.
The knowledge creation cycle involves the traditional research process, but ensures consistent tailoring of the knowledge created. Specifically, tailoring it to cater to the needs of knowledge-users by engaging them from the onset and keeping them involved throughout the research process. In contrast, the action cycle identifies the activities required for knowledge to be applied in practice. The individual phases within the action cycle dovetail with one another. Those phases evolve as they move from identifying an issue that needs attention to determining whether the issue represents a knowledge-practice gap that needs filling. The next phases then include adapting the knowledge for the local context, assessing barriers and facilitators associated with the uptake of knowledge and implementing it. Monitoring and assessing the impact and sustainability of the knowledge implemented are the final phases of the action cycle. Naturally, tailoring knowledge to the needs of knowledge-users means its crucial to co-involve researchers and stakeholders in all phases of both the knowledge creation and action cycles.
Given that researchers have relatively focused areas of expertise, they may be intimidated to work collaboratively with knowledge-users. Researchers may consider it risky if they realize the most pressing issues requiring attention don’t align with their scope of competence. Since the involvement of knowledge-users is essential for the Knowledge to Action Framework, it would therefore be useful for researchers to have an already established understanding of priority issues generally identified by knowledge-users. With access to a repository of knowledge-users’ main challenges, researchers could identify issues for which their skillset is best suited.
Being able to readily pinpoint a pressing issue they’re ready to tackle, researchers could then rapidly move to the step of seeking knowledge-users to partner with for the various phases, from knowledge creation to action. By identifying knowledge-users’ priorities, researchers have the potential to accelerate knowledge creation and align limited research resources with the needs of those in a position to act on the findings.
Listening to what the Canadian sport and physical activity community had to say
We recently conducted a study aimed at identifying the top issues of sport and physical activity knowledge-users from various sectors across Canada (Bélanger et al., 2022). Many different ways exist to identify research priorities, so we used a hybrid model. To generate a shortlist of research priorities, we combined various approaches that promote: congregating expert opinions, purposefully sampling stakeholders from multiple sectors and using an iterative process to collect and analyze data (Cowan & Oliver, 2018; Kelly et al., 2014; Sivananthan & Chambers, 2013).
For this national-level research program, we followed 3 consultation steps. Our consultations involved Canadian sport and physical activity knowledge-users. And in all cases, they were from multiple sectors (including health, education, sport, social development, governmental, and non-governmental). First, we brought together a group of sport and physical activity knowledge users for a 1 day workshop to identify a long list (68) of potential priority topics for Canadian researchers.
Secondly, we held prioritization exercises, during which workshop participants took an online survey about the priority topics identified earlier. For the survey, they reported the extent to which they felt each topic was: relevant, difficult to address, and representative of an issue for which more knowledge is needed. From the survey scores, we identified issues perceived to be the easiest to address (that is, issues perceived to be very relevant and with a low difficulty score) and the most important (that is, issues perceived to be very relevant and with a high need of knowledge).
Thirdly, we invited any Canadian sport and physical activity knowledge-user to take our next questionnaire, which was also delivered online. Participants were asked to rank the top 21 issues that met the threshold of ease and importance in our second step. In this final step, participants rated each issue with the same criteria of relevance, difficulty and perceived need for more knowledge. The average of scores obtained in this final step allowed a number of issues to stand out, ultimately highlighting knowledge-users’ top priorities for sport and physical activity research.
Priorities for sport and physical activity research in Canada
The multistep process of engaging stakeholders from various sectors led us to identify 8 research foci. In general, we found that Canadian stakeholders want more research on the financial barriers to participation, best communication strategies to promote participation, consequences of dropout, key characteristics of effective interventions, engagement of Indigenous populations, creation of positive and inclusive experiences, recruitment and retention of volunteers, and implementation of knowledge exchange strategies. More specifically, the top 8 issues stakeholders identified are described here, in no particular order:
- Financial support for sport and physical activity. Several types of barriers can impede participation in sport and physical activity. Because of the inequity created by financial barriers for sport and physical activity participation, several government and community-driven financial aid programs aim to enable participation regardless of ability to pay. Notwithstanding, stakeholders identified financial support as a priority. They want communication gaps addressed to ensure that individuals who would need financial support know about the available programs and have access to them.
- Communications for optimal sport and physical activity promotion. Stakeholders consider it a priority to find better ways of clearly communicating the importance of sport and physical activity participation. Targeted communication approaches may be more effective than wide-reaching strategies for promoting physical activity. So recognizing that, investigations relating to this topic could help identify targeted communication approaches to favour reaching different sub-groups.
- Consequences of dropping out from sport and physical activity. Despite having a good understanding of the positive impacts of sport and physical activity, participants reported that it’s a priority to correct the current lack of information on the influence of dropping out from such activities. In particular, stakeholders called for more information on the moderate-term to long-term consequences of dropping out. Consequences could include mental and physical health, future participation, other behaviours and general development.
- Characteristics of best interventions for sport and physical activity participation. This priority highlights that researchers must better communicate what’s already known with respect to most effective approaches to promote engagement of various population-groups when it comes to sport and physical activity. It’s also a priority to identify the best ways to keep individuals in sport and physical activity (retention) once they’ve initiated participation. For several sub-groups, this represents a need to better share what the scientific literature identifies as effective interventions. For other groups, it means disclosing gaps in knowledge and seeking evidence of effective approaches to sustain participation over time.
- Physical activity and sport participation among Indigenous populations. Another priority emerged to address low levels of physical activity and sport participation. In this case, specifically to address this priority among Indigenous populations. However, the current study didn’t include enough representation of Indigenous people to provide a clear direction. The emergence of this topic among the priorities nevertheless highlights the need to further investigate research priorities related to sport and physical activity participation in collaboration with members, leaders and Elders of Indigenous communities.
- Promotion of safe, inclusive and quality experiences in sport and physical activity. The need for researchers to identify ways to harness inclusiveness within organized sport and physical activity was also deemed a priority. In particular, participants wanted better knowledge on approaches to facilitate the development of a sport and physical activity system that respects and values diversity and inclusion. Through the study, stakeholders explained they’re seeking leadership from the research community to identify evidence-based strategies to avoid bullying in sports and promote safe, positive and inclusive experiences.
- Sustaining volunteer engagement in sport and physical activity. Researchers can also contribute to helping sport and physical activity organizations find ways to address volunteer shortages. The sport and physical activity sector relies heavily on volunteer engagement for managing and delivering programs. Stakeholders from this sector consider it a research priority to better understand how to engage and retain volunteers. Researchers could help by identifying reasons for which individuals engage in volunteering and what contributes to them remaining involved over the long term.
- Knowledge exchange between researchers and knowledge-users. The need to enhance the involvement and integration of knowledge-users into the research process was also identified. Although this gap may not need to be addressed through research questions, all sport and physical activity researchers should consider it as a sign at the outset. Their research processes must engage those who’ll have the power to adopt or apply their findings or those people most affected by their research.
What can sport and physical activity knowledge-users expect from their involvement in research?
As recognized and integral members of a collaborative or co-involved research team, knowledge-users are encouraged to:
- express their right to have input into research meant for them
- enhance research’s efficiency and value of research by improving relevance, recruitment and retention rates, and dissemination of findings beyond academic audiences
- contribute to increasing accountability and transparency of research and possibly even help attract resources
Co-involvement may be new to both the researchers and to knowledge-users. Before knowledge-users can successfully contribute to research, let alone adopt research findings that improve their programs, researchers first need time to work out which priority research needs they’ll address and how to address them.
Once the researchers are ready to tackle issues, they’ll need to seek knowledge-users to partner with them. When that happens, knowledge-users will have a say about the specific research objectives. So that way, the objectives are truly tailored to those knowledge-users’ needs.
This study identified 8 high-ranking priorities for sport and physical activity research in Canada. These priorities provide much-needed guidance to sport and physical activity researchers, specifically those seeking to engage in research from the perspective of knowledge-users from various sectors. By acknowledging and implementing these findings, research will more accurately reflect the burning issues identified by multisectoral representatives in sport and physical activity promotion. This is particularly true if that’s done while adhering to best practices in terms of knowledge exchange. Canadian sport and physical activity participation will hopefully improve if collaborative research efforts address the priority topics identified by Canadian sport and physical activity stakeholders.