Taking a person-first approach to high performance sport in CanadaMarch 13, 2023
- Over the course of 2022, athletes and supporters have consistently raised concerns about maltreatment and lack of transparency in the Canadian sport sector
- In this SIRCuit article, Teddy Katz explores athlete concerns, as well as changes being made within Canadian sport to move towards a “person-first” system
- Katz spoke to Olympians, mental health experts and sport administrators, including Own the Podium CEO, Anne Merklinger, to gain insight into issues and solutions
- Swimming Canada is considered as a case study of an NSO transitioning to place greater emphasis on mental health
At the Canada Summer Games in Niagara for up-and-coming athletes in August, the power of sport to transform lives was on full display with stories that showcased the pure joy, excitement and fun sport can offer. Teenage wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak became Nunavut’s first ever gold medallist in the games and an emotional video clip went viral as he talked about dedicating his victory to his deceased brother and explained how sport had saved his life.
That example of how sport can transform lives is a far cry from the headlines of the past year, ones that have shown a darker side to sport. Dozens of athletes in various sports spoke out in 2022 about maltreatment in a year of sport activism like no other. Some described a toxic environment in sport and demanded immediate change.
Before we hear more about some of the biggest concerns from athletes, it’s important to add some context. High performance sport by its very nature is not for everyone and is not always the healthiest endeavour.
Allison Forsyth is a two time Olympian and was one of the top skiers in the world for close to a decade: “I go to my orthopedic surgeon today and he’s like, ‘Good news, you’re 43 but your knees are like 72 now.’ We push our bodies to such an extreme place at a young age so I’m worse off as a 43 year old than if I just sat around and did nothing my whole life.”
Natalie Durand-Bush is a sports psychology professor, scientist and practitioner at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics. She’s also the Executive Director for the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. When asked if high performance sport is healthy, she says, “There are definitely some drawbacks because you’re so hyper focused on this one particular thing in which you are so invested. You work above and beyond what normal people would do to achieve that.” She says this is the same for other high performance domains like medicine, business and the performing arts.
Durand-Bush says that despite potential drawbacks, sport offers many benefits. It can teach important life lessons about winning and losing and about being part of a team. Participants also develop friendships that extend long after they leave sport. Durand-Bush says it’s become abundantly clear that we need to measure success in sport in new ways and by much more than just medals. For instance, success may mean considering athletes as people first, prioritizing their mental and physical wellness, retaining athletes, coaches and staff, and providing positive and rewarding experiences.
Athletes feel it’s podium or bust
In the past year, many athletes shared horrific stories of maltreatment and abuse going back years. Many believe one of the root causes for the crisis is that the high performance sport system has been too narrowly focused on medals as the marker of success, sometimes allowing toxic behaviour to go unchecked. Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Kyle Shewfelt told the National Post that needs to change. “I think high performance sport has to look in the mirror and ask itself the question ‘What is this worth?’” He added, “There is a way to create champions and high performing athletes in a very positive environment where the athletes do have a lot of independence, they do have a lot of agency and we don’t use fear and manipulation, those tactics, in order to get the athletes to work hard and be great.”
Alison Forsyth says sometimes athletes are made to feel like commodities. Going into the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, Forsyth was ranked third in the world and carried the weight of the team on her shoulders at her first Olympics. “When I went to those games, I was told I was not going to the opening ceremonies because I was a medal hopeful. The board sat me down and said, ‘you better get a medal or we’re not going to get any funding.’” She adds, “that’s a lot for someone to take on. You already feel the pressure of your whole country, your family and yourself. Then to feel you have the pressure of other people’s careers in your hands is too much.”
Forsyth ended up finishing 7th in the giant slalom in Salt Lake City after suffering a panic attack and not being able to sleep the night before her race because of that pressure. It’s something she’s carried with her ever since. “If you ask how I feel even now about my Olympic performance, I’m devastated with my 7th place finish. Devastated because I was ranked third in the world and wanted to win. Every athlete knows it’s podium or bust.”
Many athletes have such a negative experience in high performance sport that when they retire, they don’t want anything to do with it. Durand-Bush says this is heartbreaking: “Some have mentioned feeling like a number, like they are commodities to produce medals for the country. But like anyone else, these athletes deserve to be treated as humans.” That’s why Durand-Bush believes there is a need to return to a more human-centred approach to high performance sport.
How to create a system where we put humans first
It all starts with having to redefine success in sport. Forsyth says throughout her career she was unhappy more days than she was happy. She says, “by relieving some of that pressure and supporting athletes, they will still win. I actually think they will win more.” Forsyth now consults for National Sport Organizations, including Rowing Canada, where she is trying to rebuild a safe sport culture. Rowing Canada recently conducted a review which found that 50 percent of its high performance participants over the past decade described their experience as negative. More than 85 percent of people surveyed reported that they witnessed, experienced or heard maltreatment.
Forsyth advocates for humanizing the sport experience and sport organizations to create mutual respect for everybody, from the sport administrators, to coaches, to athletes. In her mind, that means including athletes in every step of the process, treating them as professionals and including them as members of boards. In her work with Rowing Canada, she has encouraged them to adopt “fun” as one of their core values and key pillars. This advice came from her experience training for months on end with few breaks and not a lot of fun: “taking a little breather from that crazy micro-environment of high performance sport, will actually elevate the overall results.”
Perception is reality
One of the organizations often criticized by athletes, coaches and administrators for tying funding to high performance is Own the Podium (OTP). Some are under the impression that funding for high performance athletes is tied solely to performance, fueling a “podiums over people” mentality.
The Chief Executive Officer of OTP, Anne Merklinger, acknowledges that “perception is reality.” But Merklinger says it’s not correct and a “flawed” idea to think that if an athlete wins a medal, the sport gets funding. Merklinger says OTP makes funding recommendations not looking at past results but rather looking into the future over an eight year time horizon that takes into consideration many factors and not simply winning.
“As an organization, I think we need to do a better job in increasing the awareness and understanding of what we do,” she concedes. Merklinger says the stories that have come out in the past year have caused everyone in the sports system to do some soul searching to examine how things can be improved. “We are hearing horrible circumstances around situations where athletes have not been in a safe environment. Any one of those circumstances is one too many,” she says.
For more than 3 years, OTP has been focused on improving the culture in high performance sport. Merklinger says the organization has made “culture” a part of its mandate, to help National Sport Organizations (NSOs) achieve excellence through a clear set of values, including the provision of a safe and inclusive environment in the high performance program.
For example, OTP has provided culture assessment and audit tools to help NSOs identify areas where they may be struggling and how to improve. To create a better understanding with athletes, OTP recently created an athlete’s council linked to the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Athletes Commission. OTP is also in the final steps of appointing an athlete as a member of their board.
In response to some of the issues highlighted in sport over the past year, OTP has also introduced a new integrated wellness plan. One of the guiding principles of the plan is that “a system focus or refocus is needed to ensure that the psychological and physical health, wellness and safety of all athletes, coaches, technical leaders, Integrated Support Teams, and High Performance staff is prioritized within the National Sport Organization’s high performance plan.”
OTP’s wellness plan offers examples of current best practices within NSOs and helps other sport organizations identify where they have gaps. OTP is also hiring cultural wellness facilitators to assist NSOs, and connecting them with experts from organizations such as Game Plan and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. Sports can use OTP’s wellness plan as a starting point, but they need to show evidence they have implemented components of the plan by April of this year.
“In order to be considered for a funding recommendation, the sport needs to have some sort of a wellness framework developed. It could be rudimentary,” Merklinger says. She adds, “it’s critically important to get it started. It’s about giving [NSOs] the tools to identify where they can be better. Then, if they have weaknesses, or gaps, identify the experts who can help them.”
Swimming Canada as a case study
After Olympic medallist Emily Overholt shared publicly her battle with depression just weeks after returning from Rio 2016, she felt a huge sense of relief opening up about mental health. When this came to light, it was also one of the major issues that forced Swimming Canada to look reflect on how it could make mental health and wellness more of a priority. The sport leaders wanted to offer support from experts while balancing the need for confidentiality for anyone who might be accessing those services. Now, Swimming Canada has a mental health lead who is part of the program.
“We’ve always taken our team physician who will deal with physical issues. But now we also have a physician of psychiatry who can deal with the mind when needed. I think when we have experts like that on the team, it sends a message that this is also important,” says John Atkinson, Director of High Performance for Swimming Canada.
More recently, Swimming Canada has seen just how important mental health is. In December 2021, swimming star Taylor Ruck spoke publicly about some of the challenges she faced with an eating disorder as part of a Globe and Mail investigation, in the hope it would help others.
Atkinson says for many members of the Olympic and Paralympic teams, the pandemic has taken a toll and that has forced the team to do things in new ways. He’s had conversations with Olympic and World Championship medallists who needed to take a break from competition. The Olympics, delayed a year in Tokyo, meant there were a number of high pressure events back to back including the Canadian Trials, World Championships and Commonwealth Games. Some athletes couldn’t do them all and Atkinson says that’s ok.
“It’s been a challenging year for the staff as well as the athletes. Everybody’s been kind of worn down through the pandemic. There have been lots of different issues that people have had to deal with. We recognized early in 2022, some people were going to have to go a slightly different route to what would have been the norm. There’s an acceptance that it’s not ‘results at all costs,’” Atkinson says. He adds, “I think we are still finding our way but we as a sport need to have that empathy.”
At their Olympic and Paralympic high performance centres, the team works with different sport psychologists on a daily basis. Atkinson says coaches can monitor the mood of athletes and notice if there are any big changes over a long period and seek out advice of experts to help support them. He also says they need to make sure they are communicating the support available. Because of confidentiality, sometimes, the work being done is not well known.
“We have to ask ourselves, have we actually communicated that support is there that they might not even know about? And that it might even be something they can access before it gets to the point where the panic button is hit,” Atkinson says.
Through using OTP’s new wellness framework, swimming has been able to see where there are gaps, in particular, for athletes in the sport beyond the National Team members at the high performance centres. For instance, he says athletes in the provinces and territories and at club level don’t enjoy the same benefits because they don’t have the same resources. Atkinson applauds the recent $2.4 million investment from the federal government for mental health and wellness support.
Mental wellness needs to be more central to high performance sport
When it comes to high performance sport, Durand-Bush says mental health and wellness, as in the Swimming Canada example, should be a key focus for all NSOs. She believes that is the best way to cultivate psychologically healthy and safe cultures. Durand-Bush says it isn’t enough to just create environments to avoid cases of maltreatment. The sport system must create spaces for everyone to discuss mental health the same way they discuss physical health and injuries. “This would make a world of difference. Imagine telling athletes, ‘We want you to succeed, but not at the cost of your mental and physical health. We will do everything we can to protect and support you,’” she says.
Durand-Bush notes that mental health and wellbeing can vary from one day to the next and conversations around this topic should be part of the daily training environment so that teams can develop strategies to address it. “Athletes are still scared to talk about this because they think they’re going to be negatively perceived or that they will be punished. I hear it all the time. It’s very sad.” Durand-Bush says it would never be that way with a physical injury: “If you pull a muscle, how many times would the coach or staff ask, ‘how are you doing today?’ That’s a no brainer and athletes are fine talking about that. But when it comes to their psychological well-being, they’re afraid to go there.”
According to Durand-Bush, mental health and wellness must be measured and rewarded in Canada’s high performance sport system. “Until we say that mental health is going to be a performance indicator, a performance variable, an element that we are going to talk about, and we will make sure that we promote and nurture it, we will be very limited in what we accomplish,” she says. Merklinger agrees, to a point: “Yes, that might be the end goal, but we’re not there yet.” She says NSOs need everyone’s assistance to get there, including the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Game Plan and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport.
“We’re trying to promote and nurture [mental wellness] within National Sport Organizations. Some are hitting it out of the park, some don’t even know what to do. So, it is way too early in the system, in my view, to say sports have to meet a mandatory score on the wellness framework,” Merklinger says.
The President of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Tricia Smith, a four-time Olympian, says 2022 has shown athletes need more of a voice with their NSOs and wellness has to be a major focus going forward: “It’s like a lot of things. When things get out of balance, things can go wrong.” She adds, “We’re very much focused on our high performance programs in Canada and getting to the podium, but I think some people take that the wrong way and they think that’s the only thing you have to focus on. You forget that athletes are humans first. We need to make sure there’s a better balance going forward.”
About the Author(s)
Teddy Katz is an award-winning journalist and communicator. He worked as a national sports reporter at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for close to 2 decades. Teddy now runs his own communications company, Think Redefined Inc., where he assists national and international organizations with their storytelling. That includes the Canadian Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee. Teddy was in Tokyo as the media attaché for the Refugee Paralympic Team.
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.