The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre
Catcher and hitter on first base during softball game.

Highlights

  • In recent years, national sport organizations have been hard at work on Safe Sport policies and initiatives. They’re designed to ensure the safety and well-being of sport communities, from the grassroots level all the way up to national teams.
  • Sport organizations have several opportunities to advance Safe Sport, including:
    • Revising existing policies to ensure consistency with new policy documents
    • Working on initiatives with experts in the field, such as researchers and lawyers
    • Making sure key stakeholders are aware of policy changes, why they’re happening, and the available resources
  • Finding unique and engaging ways to promote Safe Sport policies, initiatives, tools and resources may help sport organizations to reach their intended audiences. Those promotions may also make the Safe Sport message stick.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the unofficial theme of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games has been ‘safety first.’ Postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games are scheduled to take place respectively from July 23 to August 8 and from August 24 to September 5.

Even before the word COVID‑19 entered our global vocabulary, safety was top of mind for national sport organizations (NSOs). In the years leading up to the pandemic, more and more high-profile abuse and maltreatment cases in sport had made national and international headlines. From these revelations, the Safe Sport movement was born.

The words safe and safety often make us think of preventing physical injury or harm. But the Safe Sport movement is about more than that. It’s about optimizing the sport experience for everyone involved in sport. Safe Sport involves the reasonable expectation that the sport environment will be free from all forms of maltreatment (that is, abuse, neglect, bullying, harassment and discrimination) and that it will also be accessible, safe, welcoming and inclusive.

A prime example of how Safe Sport has advanced in recent years is the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS) coming into being. Officially released in 2019, the UCCMS encourages a Safe Sport environment by providing NSOs with guiding principles, defining prohibited behaviours and outlining sanctions for misconduct.  

With both the Tokyo and Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games set to take place over the next several months, NSOs have been hard at work on Safe Sport policies and initiatives. NSOs want to ensure the safety and well-being of their sport communities, from the grassroots level all the way up to their national teams. In this article, we take a deep dive into how 4 NSOs (Alpine Canada, Gymnastics Canada, Hockey Canada and Softball Canada) are advancing Safe Sport. We also discuss tips, strategies and lessons learned for other sport organizations working to optimize the sport experience for everyone.

Building and strengthening Safe Sport policies

For all 4 NSOs we interviewed, advancing Safe Sport meant first addressing policy to protect their sport communities, including athletes, coaches, staff and others involved in the sport environment. For example, after the UCCMS was established, each sport went straight to modifying their existing bullying and harassment policies.

“The Safe Sport movement has allowed us to re-address some of those areas, and certainly start to build and strengthen them as we move forward,” says Todd Jackson, Director, Insurance and Risk Management at Hockey Canada.

Male gymnast performing on rings.

The idea of Safe Sport as a “movement” was echoed by other NSOs. They viewed the UCCMS as more than just a document to integrate into their existing policies, but rather the driving force behind a cultural shift in the way we see, think, and speak about maltreatment in sport. That shift has begun to take hold, but it requires continued action.

“While updating our organizational policies has been an important step for enhancing safety, there is still much work to do in education and advocacy to bring them to life in practice,” says Ellen MacPherson, Director, Safe Sport at Gymnastics Canada.

Part of that shift is to consider the language we use to describe and discuss Safe Sport. For instance, the use of terms like maltreatment have been adopted to discuss abuse and harassment in sport. According to Kristin Noonan, Manager, Coaching & Safe Sport at Softball Canada, consistent terminology was an important part of Softball Canada’s first step toward revising their policies and developing Safe Sport initiatives.

“With the release of the UCCMS, we wanted to ensure the terminology used within was consistent with the terminology on our website, within our own policies and in all of our Safe Sport initiatives,” says Noonan.

Having a shared understanding of key terminology and being consistent in its use is an important step for any organization, club or team when making changes and advancing toward a “new normal” or culture. Something as simple as creating a glossary can help make sure everyone is on the same page.

Another strategy is to seek out and lean on experts in the field. As part of their efforts to refresh policies, the NSOs we interviewed touched on the importance of consulting with experts in the field, including researchers and lawyers.

“I think anytime that you’re integrating new guidelines like that, to have the experts around you and have people who can give you input on what you’re doing and not doing is a real benefit and helps to alleviate some of those challenges,” says Jackson.

diverse group of childrens' hands cheeringFor example, Gymnastics Canada developed a new policy, dubbed the “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy,” in collaboration with researchers and experts within and outside of the sport. In addition to that policy’s launch, Gymnastics Canada is currently creating supplemental eLearning resources that highlight key aspects of the policy and can be shared by the broader sport community. According to MacPherson, “The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy is a foundational policy from which further initiatives designed to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion in Canadian gymnastics can be built.” It was put in place to ensure all participants feel welcome, respected and have equitable opportunities to experience the physical and mental health benefits of sport participation.

Finally, NSOs are increasingly turning to independent third parties to resolve violations of Safe Sport policy. For instance, Alpine Canada formed the Alpine Independent Supervisory Board: A group of professionals including lawyers, researchers and other independent investigators who are external to the organization and solely responsible for the adjudication of major infractions. In addition, the Government of Canada recently announced that the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada has been selected to establish and deliver a new Independent Safe Sport Mechanism that will oversee the implementation of the UCCMS for federally funded sport organizations. Establishing a third party to specifically handle violation cases not only helps to strengthen policy, but also allows for a neutral adjudication process that minimizes bias and conflicts of interest.

However, according to Joseph Gurgis, who recently left the role of Safe Sport Manager at Alpine Canada to pursue a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Cape Breton University, Safe Sport is about more than policy. “A multifaceted approach that extends beyond policy implementation to include education, advocacy, independent complaint mechanisms, research, monitoring, and evaluation is required to ensure that we adequately advance a culture of Safe Sport,” he says.

This leads us to another cornerstone of Safe Sport: education.

From the ground up: Education and awareness

What is maltreatment? What does maltreatment look like? And what is Safe Sport? Gurgis reflected on this new terminology and how an important part of Safe Sport is making sure people know what it is.

“There’s a lot of behaviours in sport that are harmful but normalized by stakeholders, who are often unaware of how certain sport practices may be harmful to a person’s physical or psychological welfare,” says Gurgis.

Team Canada competes in Para Ice Hockey action in Ostrava
Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee

Ironically, when discussing Safe Sport with those who are meant to benefit from it, few can articulate what Safe Sport is and what it’s meant to achieve. For Jackson and Hockey Canada, it all boils down to 2 words: education and awareness.

“I think that’s where the education and awareness become so important, because you not only have to put a policy in front of an organization or put a policy in front of people, you have to explain why you’re putting that policy in front of them. And you also have to give them a little bit of background on how to work within that policy,” says Jackson.

Jackson highlighted the Speak Out! program as a foundational component of Hockey Canada’s approach to Safe Sport. Speak Out! Was originally created in 1997 to educate and prevent bullying, harassment and abuse in hockey across Canada. Hockey Canada established the Speak Out! Subcommittee to oversee the building of the Speak Out! program as it progressed.

“[The Subcommittee] put together a framework for the program that included policy building, education at our grassroots levels, screening, which continues at all levels of the game, and creating awareness around the prevention of bullying, harassment, and abuse,” says Jackson. “It continues to be delivered by our members in various forms, to our volunteers, to our coaches, to the people involved with young players across the country.”

More recently, NSOs across Canada have focused their efforts on creating effective and engaging educational tools focused on maltreatment and Safe Sport more generally, especially before sending their best athletes off to Tokyo. This includes increasing awareness of practices that may be harmful or problematic, as well as resources that are available to participants for reporting and assistance. As part of this process, many NSOs are requiring mandatory screening in addition to Safe Sport training for all Olympic- and Paralympic-bound participants. This screening is now also being carried out at lower-level sports organizations.

Little girl doing gymnastics moves with ribbon in studio lit by warm sunlightThe NSOs we interviewed also described unique initiatives to educate and engage their communities from the ground up. For example, Gymnastics Canada has launched a new Safe Sport Learning Series and a Safe Sport Champions Series this summer. Designed to complement one another, these series leverage research experts and mentors in the field of Safe Sport. They’ll share insights and practical tips for creating healthy, safe and positive environments for participants at the grassroots level all the way up to Gymnastics Canada’s national and high-performance teams.

“We’re building on this [Safe Sport] momentum in the lead up to Tokyo by continuing IST (Integrated Support Team), as well as inviting experts and mentors to deliver webinars and workshops for the national team and high-performance community. Topics will include positive coaching practices, enhancing mental health, self-awareness, building resilience and staying positive, and supporting nutrition and healthy eating,” says Gymnastics Canada’s MacPherson.  

At Softball Canada, Safe Sport Onboarding is the newest educational initiative. The Safe Sport Onboarding program is designed to educate, protect and empower all members of Softball Canada. And the program has already been mandated for players, coaches and support staff heading to Tokyo for the Olympic Games.

“Leading up to the Olympics, we are providing a Safe Sport education package to the team and we will also be giving a Safe Sport presentation specifically for our Women’s National Team Program prior to their departure for the Games,” says Noonan.

This initiative will educate Softball Canada’s participants on the reporting processes, policies, guidelines and contacts related to Safe Sport at the Games. Understanding that individuals won’t necessarily read through all policy documents, Noonan spoke to the importance of this education program as a way of providing key stakeholders with the main pieces of information in a more digestible and engaging way.

Thinking outside the box (and other advice for sport organizations)

While policies and educational initiatives are important, they need to be developed and delivered in a way that resonates with intended audiences. The NSOs we interviewed stressed the importance of getting creative with educational tools and policy resources. That creativity is essential not only for promoting key messages, but perhaps more importantly, for making Safe Sport messages stick.

“It’s got to be delivered in a way that’s user friendly, and at the same time effective. Engagement is so important so that people will be responsive and so [the Safe Sport movement] will continue to grow,” says Hockey Canada’s Jackson.

Young high school softball players in action, making amazing plays, during a game.To reach provincial/territorial sport organizations (PTSOs) and grassroots clubs in each sport, some NSOs have come up with innovative strategies to increase uptake. Softball Canada offers a great example. It shares its policy templates and resources, including access to lawyers, with softball PTSOs. Doing so limits the work needed by PTSOs to adjust their policy suite, meaning that implementation is quicker and more consistent across all levels of sport.

“The UCCMS became a backbone for us moving forward with our provincial/territorial alignment, allowing us to take our complete policy manual and provide templates to each of the [PTSOs],” says Noonan.

Her most important tip for sport organizations that are working to build up their Safe Sport initiatives is to think outside the box. “[Think about] what can be done in addition to those policies and procedures. Make it fun and provide awareness by getting it out there in different ways than just on a piece of paper,” Noonan says.

French and English backstop signs developed by Softball Canada. Please remember These are kids This is a game Coaches are volunteers Umpires are human Everyone deserves respect! Softball Canada logo N'oubliez pas Ce sont des enfants C'est un jeu Les entraîneurs sont des bénévoles Les arbitres sont humains Tout le mode mérite le respect! Logo de Softball Canada

For example, Softball Canada has created a short video to educate stakeholders about Safe Sport. It has also developed postcards and backstop signs that reinforce key Safe Sport messages for spectators, including parents and guardians, at youth and adult softball events.

“They [the signs] hang on the backstop so that all the fans and parents can see them. A gentle reminder for all involved that everybody deserves respect,” says Noonan. “Fun, outside-the-box ideas are what has made our initiatives so successful because they’re simple and tangible. It’s more than just reading a policy.”

In addition to getting the message out in an engaging way, it’s important to ensure that the voices of stakeholders are included in decisions about Safe Sport policy and initiatives. At Gymnastics Canada, that involves hearing input from voices within the gymnastics community. Hearing from people who are experiencing or implementing Safe Sport principles was important for figuring out if there were any gaps, resolving any, and thinking about ideas for future development.

“Safe Sport is an ever-evolving portfolio. It’s important to work collaboratively with our stakeholders and incorporate their input to ensure the safety, health, well-being and inclusiveness of all participants,” says MacPherson.

Para-alpine skier going down the hill.For its part, Alpine Canada established a National Safe Sport Committee comprised of 25 individuals, including parents, athletes, coaches and sport administrators, from across Canada’s skiing community. “The advancement of Safe Sport requires the collective efforts of all stakeholders in sport. So, the purpose of this diverse collaboration is to engage participants, from each stakeholder organization, in meaningful conversations regarding Safe Sport and to provide them a platform to openly discuss their Safe Sport needs,” says Gurgis. This committee gathers 4 times per year to discuss key Safe Sport concepts, establish and discuss Safe Sport goals, identify stakeholder responsibilities for advancing Safe Sport in the community, clarify ways to monitor and advance Safe Sport, and evaluate Alpine Canada’s Safe Sport progress overall to provide recommendations for next steps.

Moving toward Safe Sport in Canada

As shown, sport organizations across Canada have taken various steps to advance the Safe Sport movement. Safe Sport, and the UCCMS specifically, are direct in what is “unacceptable” behaviour in sport. However, there’s a growing need to prepare organizations and participants with information about “acceptable” behaviours and best practices.

Ice Hockey Players Celebrating

“Often we say, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’ but we rarely say, ‘What does that Safe Sport environment look like?’ and ‘How do we make it safe and welcoming? It really is about following those True Sport principles and reminding everyone what a supportive environment looks like,” says Softball Canada’s Noonan.

Similarly, Gurgis encourages sport organizations to think about Safe Sport beyond the conceptualization of preventing maltreatment.

“At Alpine Canada, it represents so much more. Safe Sport isn’t just about eliminating maltreatment, but it’s also about optimizing the sport experience to ensure that everyone understands their fundamental right to participate in and access a version of sport that embraces values such as respect, inclusion, and fair play,” says Gurgis.

It appears that Safe Sport is more than just a phase, but rather the “new normal” for sport. There’s still much to learn and do to create Safe Sport spaces across Canada, but Alpine Canada, Gymnastics Canada, Hockey Canada and Softball Canada have demonstrated important lessons and learnings to protect the safety and well-being of all participants. For other NSOs looking to advance Safe Sport within their sport communities, key learnings include:

  • No need to reinvent the wheel. Start with your existing policies and modify them to be consistent with policy documents like the UCCMS. This might include updating language and terminology. Make sure these policies and resources are also reaching PTSOs and community sport organizations.
  • Call on the experts. Consider including researchers and lawyers who can provide their expertise and input on Safe Sport policies and initiatives.
  • Education is key. It’s important that all participants are aware of the resources that have been created for them. They should also be educated about how to use new policies, procedures, tools and resources (for example, how to report instances of misconduct).
  • Be creative! Find unique ways to promote Safe Sport policies, initiatives, tools and resources in ways that are engaging and will stick with members of your sport community.
  • Get connected. Consider establishing groups or networks that connect representative members of your sport community to discuss Safe Sport and related initiatives. Learn what works and what doesn’t for different members.

Employing these tips and strategies can help sports to build, strengthen, educate and grow awareness of Safe Sport. Join the movement to optimize sport experiences for all!


Recommended resources

Additional information, the Universal Code of Conduct to Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS) and resources on safe sport in Canada can be found on SIRC’s website: https://sirc.ca/safesport


About the Author(s)

Jennifer Coletti, M.Sc., is a research assistant for SIRC and recently completed her Master’s degree in the field of sport psychology. Her love of sport and aspiration to provide positive sport experiences for all participants stems from her personal experiences as a competitive soccer player. She is continuing to pursue her love of learning and sport by beginning her PhD at Queen’s University’s Performance Lab for the Advancement of Youth in Sport.

Veronica Allan, Ph.D., is the Manager, Research and Innovation at SIRC. In this role, she leads SIRC’s research and evaluation initiatives. She also solicits, supports and curates content from researchers, experts and thought leaders to mobilize knowledge for Canada’s sport and physical activity sector. Her experiences as a researcher, journalist and athlete have equipped her with a unique skillset and passion for data, storytelling and sports!


The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.