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Joseph Gurgis is an Assistant Professor at Nipissing University. He completed his doctorate at the University of Toronto, where he explored Canadian stakeholders’ interpretations, experiences, and recommendations for advancing Safe Sport. His findings suggest the Safe Sport movement would be best served by a shift in focus to cultivating inclusive environments, rather than a singular focus on harm prevention.

SIRC chatted with Gurgis about the status of coaching certification in Canada.

SIRC: What are the main barriers to achieving coaching certification?

Joseph Gurgis: Dr. Ashley Stirling, Dr. Gretchen Kerr and I published a study on this a couple of years ago that was funded by the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC). We surveyed and interviewed both certified and non-certified coaches about barriers and facilitators to certification.

Coaches reported many barriers associated with the certification process in Canada. The most common perception was that certification was a tedious and time-consuming process. In addition to completing multi-sport courses, coaches would have to complete sport-specific courses, a written portfolio, and an evaluation, just to get certified.

For coaches living in remote locations of Canada, certification became an inaccessible and expensive task. Some coaches indicated they would have to drive three or four hours to access a course; between gas, accommodations, food, and the course fee, becoming a trained coach, let alone certified, was an expensive process.

Finally, coaches didn’t perceive any benefits from certification. The overall coaching process was described as impractical insofar that the evaluation process was perceived as a “tick the box” process. Further, coaches believed acquiring certification wouldn’t advance their career. This was especially true for some volunteer coaches, who seldom received any type of compensation or support for the hours they’ve committed to coaching. This begs the questions, what’s the purpose of pursuing certification?

SIRC: Has it changed a lot over the past few years?

JG: About 20 years ago, the program shifted from a five-level system into what is now understood as a “competency based” program. The NCCP relied on a 1,2,3,4,5 system that provided coaches theory and technical courses. Coaches would progress from the basic 1,2,3 levels of coaching to levels 4 and 5, where things would get a lot more specific. For example, a baseball coach may participate in a course on the biomechanics of swinging or the physiology of throwing.

Coaching Female Hockey PracticeThere were legitimate reasons for changing the system; however, preliminary data from a recent evaluation reveals several shortcomings, which may also influence coaching certification. For example, NCCP stakeholders described the several coaching streams as confusing to navigate. Further, some stakeholders and evaluators complained about there being too many criteria, which are a) too technical-tactical focused and b) unavailable to coaches to review, thus making evaluation a more challenging process to pursue.

SIRC: What are the key facilitators to coach certification?

JG: We found that the certified coaches were more likely to report facilitators to certification. Having completed the process, it may have been easier for these coaches to reflect back and identify the benefits of pursuing certification.

Some felt that certification enhanced their reputation and therefore led to greater vocational opportunities. Some reported increased coaching effectiveness. A lot of people did appreciate that some of the courses enhanced their understanding of how to facilitate a safe space. For some, specifically those who received compensation for coaching, an increase to their earnings was a facilitator.

SIRC: Are these barriers/facilitators different for coaching cohorts from minority communities?

JG: For my postdoc I explored coaching experiences of Indigenous coaches on Cape Breton Island. I don’t want to generalize to all equity-deserving groups, but for Indigenous coaches specifically, we found that a major barrier affecting coach development related to the challenging circumstances affecting them within their communities (for example, generations of trauma, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse). A lot of times personal realities complicated coaching for them. For example, some coaches we spoke to shared how common it was for their athletes to attend practice without eating all day. These coaches found themselves in positions where they were thinking, “I’m not just a coach to these kids. I’m also a parent, I’m a mentor, I’m their bus driver, I’m their role model.”

The coaches we spoke to also expressed frustration about the Eurocentric organization of coach education in Canada. They believed there wasn’t any acknowledgement of other beliefs or attempt to integrate Indigenous principles into the coaching modules, aside from a land acknowledgement, which was only recently included for coach developers to say upfront during facilitation. Subsequently, a lot of coaches criticized how the certification system is really designed to develop and reproduce Western coaches and how coach education more broadly fails to acknowledge the cultural, spiritual, and emotional significance of sport.

Finally, another barrier, which I would argue extends to other equity-deserving groups, is systemic racism, or more broadly discrimination, which tends to displace certain groups from obtaining coaching positions. The CBC investigation from 2020 exposed the poor representation of BIPOC leaders across university sport. This is an issue that extends beyond coaching.

SIRC: How could organizations do a better job attracting quality candidates into coaching roles?

JG: We need to be mindful that many coaches in Canada are volunteers, and thus, find a way where we can simplify the certification process. It’s hard for coaches to invest in such a lengthy process when they don’t perceive the return to be worth it. Organizations also need to be responsible for articulating the benefits of pursuing certification, to better convince coaches of the importance of certification. We should also consider how to incentivize or reward coaches who complete certification. For example, maybe certified coaches receive additional funding for their team or athletes.

SIRC: That relates to balancing that impetus and importance of education and training for coaches with the burden, especially on volunteer coaches who are already giving up a significant amount of their time to step into this role.

JG: It’s a real issue. Especially as the Safe Sport movement is becoming more prominent there is greater pressure on volunteer coaches to complete Safe Sport education and maybe an unrealistic expectation that coaches should be experts in this space. Education is important, but how much education can we throw at them before people give up?

Sometimes, less is more. I think there needs to be a greater effort of developing quality, blended education, rather than producing a ton of online modules that coaches quickly click through because they’re told they need to complete a specific course.

Male coach baseball for youth smallThat’s my concern with the Safe Sport movement right now. This relational approach of Safe Sport points the finger at coaches, focuses on coaches doing all the education. But there are a lot examples, such as Hockey Canada, USA Gymnastics, Penn State University, where a coach may have perpetrated the violence, but there were a lot of other people within the system who knew about that abuse. This speaks to the importance of Safe Sport adopting a systems approach, whereby all stakeholders are responsible for completing education. I think this may relieve coaches of some of the pressure. This, along with other interventions, such as implementing comprehensive policies, developing independent reporting mechanisms, establishing appropriate advocacy initiatives, and increased research.

Overall, I think meaningful and relevant education grounded in principles of blended learning and experiential learning would create meaningful learning opportunities for coaches, which would translate into better practice.

About the Author(s)

Joseph Gurgis, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Exercise Science from the University of Toronto, where he explored Canadian stakeholders’ understanding of, experiences, and recommendations for advancing Safe Sport. To further his knowledge of Safe Sport, Gurgis pursued a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Cape Breton University, where he collaborated with Indigenous stakeholders to better understand their needs and experiences around sport. In addition to his research, Gurgis has contributed to the Canadian Safe Sport sector in the capacity of a Safe Sport Manager for Alpine Canada Alpin, and as a content developer for several National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) courses, including Canada’s national Safe Sport training and NCCP Creating a Positive Sport Environment.

Caela Fenton, Ph.D., is a content specialist at SIRC. In this role she calls on her experience as a researcher within cultural studies of sport, and as a sports journalist, to help make sport and physical culture research accessible to a broad audience.

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.