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Highlights


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the evidence says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key takeaways for sport organizations, coaches, parents and guardians

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

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

Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIRC: What are the ingredients of a good relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Highlights


Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Canadian Disability Participation Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building quality participation in sport and exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting quality participation into practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising the profile of Para sport in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting an inclusive sport system, from playground to podium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended resources

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

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

Quality of Participation Measure and Guide

Inclusive Playgrounds Resource

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

All of the CDPP’s resources are freely available at cdpp.ca.

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


Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games take sustainability to a new level

Team Canada at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Canada to be carbon neutral in Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympians Racing to Zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A provincial association leads the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expert insights on sport and sustainability

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

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

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

Mountain biking athlete on race route

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

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

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

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

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

Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding sport culture

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

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

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

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

Our study: The athlete perspective

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

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

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

The contexts of unsafe and safe sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel unsafe when…

1. Coaches behave inappropriately   

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

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

Another athlete explained:

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

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

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

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

Another athlete referred to:

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

2. Teammates and fellow athletes are exclusionary or aggressive

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

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

Another athlete said:

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

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

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

3. There’s a lack of resources

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

Athletes shared examples such as:

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

4. The sport system is inattentive

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

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

Another athlete described:

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

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

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

I feel safe when…

1. The coach is knowledgeable and prioritizes athletes’ interests

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

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

2. There’s a sense of community

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

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

Another athlete described:

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

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

Toward a safer sport culture

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

Athletes’ targets for a safer sport culture:

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