The Sport Information Resource Centre
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The Sport Information Resource Centre

“At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that the sport sector thrives and is united in offering positive sport experiences for all Canadians. For sport to do good, it must be good. For people to realize the benefits, they have to have an opportunity to play. I think that’s what it’s all about.” Karri Dawson, Senior Director of Quality Sport at the CCES, discusses the new True Sport report and next steps to ensure that sport is living up to its full potential in Canada.

In a recent survey, Quebec women identified 3 primary sources of motivation for participating in hockey: desire for self-accomplishment, enjoyment, and acquisition and mastery of new skills. When coaches and sport leaders are sensitive to these motivations and provide supportive environments with positive role models, they support girls and women’s hockey participation.

Over the past 6 months, we’ve seen ongoing news of alleged maltreatment of athletes who compete at national and international levels. These reports of maltreatment in artistic swimming, gymnastics, bobsleigh and skeleton, and most recently boxing have sparked increased discussion by both the sport sector and the public. These reports also led to action by the Government of Canada and countless calls to meaningfully engage stakeholders, specifically athletes, to collaboratively evolve the sport system for the better.

Sport administrators are working in earnest to ensure that sport is safe, welcoming and inclusive. They’re working to that end despite facing heightened demands in terms of increased mandates, podium expectations, stagnant funding, dropping participation rates and intensified public scrutiny. To make positive changes, we must understand our organizational environments and the needs and interests of our stakeholders. Program evaluation and analysis methods are traditionally used by sport and recreation organizations to gain this understanding. However, real-world data and real-world evidence offer another format for understanding the environment and responding to these needs.

Applying real-world data to sport

computer with data analysisThe health sector has begun to use real-world data (RWD) to inform its practices. RWD is an umbrella term for healthcare data collected from various sources in the routine delivery of care, as opposed to what’s collected from strictly conventional randomized control trials (Birkmeyer, 2021; Makady et al., 2017). These RWD sources include patient, clinical and hospital data, public health and social data, and others (Makady et al., 2017). By looking across these data sources, they can use analytics to transform that aggregated data into real-world evidence (RWE) through analytics. In turn, that results in rich and holistic insights that can be used to inform changes in policy and make meaningful decisions about daily practice (Birkmeyer, 2021).

Sport organizers have traditionally used demographics, registration and retention data to inform decision making. They’ve also conducted formal evaluations after finishing programs and events. Although this information is useful, analysis can take considerable time. Plus, the analysis may only happen annually or at a few key points throughout the year, such as between seasons of play. To this end, the concepts of RWD and RWE offer a different perspective in how the sport sector could interpret data and respond to stakeholders’ needs and trends. Incorporating new and different types of data into analysis could allow sport organizers to bridge the real-world experience of stakeholders and respond in real time.

Stakeholder engagement is one RWD source that could present sport organizers a fuller picture of their organization. Stakeholder engagement is the process of listening to, collaborating with or informing stakeholders. These stakeholders would be the groups of people who have an investment in the organization, such as participants and athletes, parents, guardians, caregivers, coaches, officials, volunteers and administrators, partners and sponsors (Ferkins & Shilbury, 2013). This engagement could happen in various informal and formal ways. For example, those ways could include but not be limited to, surveys, focus groups, interviews, personal conversations, polls or simple one-question check-ins.

The various stakeholders who contribute to stakeholder voices include: •	Athletes and participants •	Parents, guardians and caregivers •	Coaches and sport officials •	PTSOs and clubs •	Staff •	Board members

Considerations for doing stakeholder engagement well

  1. Receive feedback openly, without response

To engage in stakeholder engagement well, it’s essential to truly hear stakeholders’ perspectives. It’s equally important to gain a full understanding about all that the stakeholders have to share. It’s best to listen with open hearts, without judgment, and not respond to what’s offered. It can be difficult to receive constructive or critical feedback. It’s also tempting to correct what seems misunderstood. However, reserving comments and rationale for a later point in the process builds an open environment. In an open environment, all perceptions, both positive and negative, are welcomed. That environment lets stakeholders feel heard, which ultimately builds trust.

  1. Consider the format carefully

Consider who will conduct the stakeholder engagement and what their relationship is to the topic of engagement or the organization. Some stakeholders perceive direct involvement of an organization as a conflict of interest or an influence of power. Others won’t feel safe sharing their honest opinions without assurance of anonymity. Therefore, it can be wise to seek facilitators who are independent to the topic or organization.

  1. Develop a plan for reporting back

Your message is heard above social media network noise in speech bubble copy space background.An important part of doing stakeholder engagement well is to develop a process for reporting back on the feedback received. This can happen in a variety of ways, including circulating a summary report, publishing an article in the organization’s newsletter or on its website, posting videos on social media, holding a town hall, or directly contacting those who participated in the engagement.

An engagement report should include a summary of what was heard and the resulting decisions that have been made. It should also discuss if stakeholders shared feedback that didn’t lead to changes being made. It may also be an excellent opportunity to correct any misconceptions that were raised during the stakeholder engagement. Be sure to also report on timelines of any resulting actions, especially if they’re longer-term timelines.

Without completing this step, stakeholders may assume the organization never intended to act on the feedback received. Reporting back demonstrates transparency and integrity to the process.

Final thoughts

Stakeholders have rich insights to share based on their backgrounds, lived experiences and positions within sport. Compared to traditional data, stakeholder engagement offers the ability to glean insights that may not have been available otherwise. Engagement offers a way to answer the call to become more collaborative and to co-create the sport experience with those who are invested in it. Incorporating stakeholder engagement into data collection and engagement may be a real-world data source that enhances our ability to deliver a better sport environment for all. That is, a sport environment where everyone feels safe, welcomed and included.

“I think that sport has unique evaluation opportunities in that you can measure things like confidence. You might not spot that change in confidence unless you measure these skills at baseline and share that information with the kids.” In the SIRC blog, Chris Penrose, Director of Programs and Operations of Lay-Up Youth Basketball, discusses how evaluation findings led to meaningful program improvements.

The issues that face sport organizations are complex. A sport organization board needs to engage in dialogue, listen to its full spectrum of stakeholders, and be patient enough to transform its understanding of complicated issues. A steward-leader board is uniquely equipped to listen and lead to a desirable future.

In honour of Clean Air Day (June 8), SIRC partnered with Health Canada to present information about air pollution and how it can affect the health and performance of outdoor sport participants. We also highlight the ways coaches, officials and sport organizations can adapt to keep all participants safe during outdoor sporting activities.

In recent years, there’s been a renewed focus to create safer environments for participants in sports activities. While advances in sport safety have primarily revolved around addressing abuse and maltreatment and COVID-19 return-to-play protocols, what’s been overlooked is the aspect of sport safety associated with air quality in outdoor sports environments.

Fortunately, Canada’s air is consistently ranked among the cleanest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. But that’s no reason for us to let down our guard! Even at low levels, air pollution can negatively affect human health and performance.

Understanding air pollution and its effects on human health

In Canada, air pollution comes from: Vehicles (car with exhaust) Industrial facilities (factory with smokestacks) Forest fires (trees burning) Wood burning (indoor wood stove) Construction (machine used to dig foundations and other building projects) Agriculture (tractor) Oil and gas industry (fossil fuel tower) Electricity generation (power transmission tower)
Sources of air pollution in Canada. See the complete infographic created by Health Canada.

Air pollution is a mixture of chemical, physical and biological agents. There are different types of air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), ground-level ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These pollutants can come from many sources, including vehicle, agriculture and industrial emissions.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to lower lung function and asthma flare-ups. Of greater concern, long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and premature death.

While air pollutants from sources like traffic, factories and forest fires can negatively affect the health of everyone, those at increased risk are children, older adults, pregnant people and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions. Although you might not suspect it, people engaging in sports and exercise are at increased risk too.

How air pollution affects sport participants

Sport participants require more oxygen to perform at their best during training and competitive events. To meet this increased oxygen demand, sport participants breathe rapidly and deeply, taking large quantities of air into their lungs. If sport participants are in an area with air pollution, this also means that they’re inhaling higher amounts of air pollutants.

Sport participants are also at increased risk of exposure to air pollution because they breathe primarily through their mouths during strenuous activities. What this means is that the air they breathe bypasses the nose’s natural filtration mechanism, leading to more air pollutants being inhaled directly into their lungs. Some air pollutants, such as gases and fine particulates, can go from the lungs into the bloodstream affecting other organs as well as the lungs.

In the short term, increased exposure to air pollutants can affect sport performance by making breathing more difficult and increasing how hard it feels like you’re working during aerobic exercise (perceived exertion). In the long term, this increased exposure can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects that can get in the way of sport participation. Athletes with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma are even more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

Strategies to reduce exposure to air pollution for outdoor sport 

A cyclist rides near industrial smokestacks

Sport organizations, coaches and officials are responsible for the safety of their participants. Lightning guidelines are widely used across Canada and the world to protect outdoor sports participants from hazards associated with lightning. Likewise, outdoor sport organizations, coaches and officials can protect themselves, athletes and spectators from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. Strategies include:

  • Monitor the news and trusted social media sources for local and regional public health air quality alerts
  • Cancel or reschedule outdoor sport activities on days when air quality is poor
  • Relocate outdoor sport activities to indoor venues when air quality is poor
  • Choose locations for outdoor sport activities away from sources of air pollution, such as factories or heavily used roadways 

Using the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

One tool that anyone involved in sport can use to monitor air quality is the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). The AQHI, which can be found at Airhealth.ca, is a public health tool used to communicate the risks of exposure to air pollution in your area. The AQHI presents the relative health risk associated with the combined health effects of air pollutants, notably NO2, PM2.5 and O3. The risks are based on a scale of 1 to 10+. The 4 categories of relative risk go from low risk (1 to 3) all the way up to very high risk (10+).

Bilingual chart showing the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) risk values grouped by:   low risk (1 to 3) in shades of blue  moderate risk (4 to 6) in shades of yellow to orange  high risk (7 to 10) in shades of pink to burgundy red  very high risk (10+) in brown
The AQHI scale and health risk categories. To see the forecasted and observed AQHI values in your area, visit AirHealth.ca.

The AQHI presents the current, observed air pollution risk and it also forecasts the AQHI values for later in the day and the next day. The risk presentation is accompanied by health messages that you can use to help decide if outdoor sport participation is safe in your area or if you should consider rescheduling or cancelling your activity. By providing the forecasted values for the upcoming days, the AQHI can help you plan future outdoor activities.

The optimum time to carry out outdoor sport activities is when the health risk is low (1 to 3). You may still hold your activity when the health risk is moderate (4 to 6), but you should monitor participants for symptoms and change the activity accordingly. Pay particular attention to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, When the health risk is high (7 or above), you should cancel and reschedule the activity for when the health risk is low. Or, if possible, move the activity to an indoor location like a school gym.

If you would like to receive air quality alerts directly to your phone, you can download the AQHI app on Google Play or the App Store

Advancing air quality education and policy in sport

Outdoor soccer on a field when there’s low air quality and smog is visible.

To protect outdoor sport participants, sport organizations must be aware of the effects that air pollution can have on everyone involved in sport, from athletes and coaches to spectators and officials. To this end, Health Canada has initiated, and is providing financial and technical support to, the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) to develop an e-learning module and a policy guide focused on air pollution and sport.

The e-learning module will review the effects of air pollution on outdoor sport participants. It will also identify ways to take action to protect all participants from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. When it’s ready, the module will be housed on the Coaching Association of Canada’s e-learning platform, The Locker.

Health Canada is also working with SIRC to develop a guide to help sport organizations develop air quality policies that will help protect their participants now and in the years to come. The policy guide will be available to download from SIRC’s website.

The free training module and policy guide will be available in fall 2022. Please contact info@sirc.ca for more information.

Recommended resources

You may find the following resources helpful as you work to learn more about air pollution and what your organization can do to help keep your participants safe:

Designing inclusive programs in sport is not an easy task. Inclusion requires intention, honest conversations, flexibility and innovation. It means using individual power and privilege to create safe and accessible spaces for all Canadians to engage in sport. Learn about how Canadian sport policies and programs have evolved to support the development of safe and inclusive sport in the SIRCuit.

In 2021, the Government of Canada announced it would invest $80 million to support increased participation in organized community sport, particularly among underrepresented groups including Black, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQQIA+ and new Canadians. Careful planning is required to enhance these groups’ participation opportunities in community sport. Sport leaders can use strategic planning as an important tool for when sport clubs seek to attract new members.

While management is about “getting the work done,” governance ensures organizations pursue the right purpose, in the right way, and continuously develop. In any sport organization, the board of directors’ role is to govern the organization. When board members are also on the management team, it can help to divide meetings into 2 parts. One part for focusing on governance roles and the other for management responsibilities. Otherwise, day-to-day responsibilities can distract from the board’s work.

Women often find it challenging to return to sport after giving birth. To create inclusive sport spaces for new moms, consider how access to childcare and private, comfortable and clean breastfeeding or pumping spaces can be integrated into the venue or schedule of your sport program or event.