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  • This article draws on recent insights from the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Foundation’s Change the Culture, Change the Game report, offering practical recommendations for sport organizations and administrations looking to advance a more positive culture for youth in sport

  • The authors make the case for all sport environments to incorporate a Sport For Development approach and offer examples for how to get started

  • Sport For Development (SFD) is the deliberate use of sport and physical activity to foster healthy communities and help people reach their holistic potential

“I don’t coach a sport, I coach life.” – Dane Baugh, Coordinator of Sport Programming, MLSE LaunchPad

Can all sports be considered Sport For Development opportunities?  

Sport For Development (SFD) is the intentional use of sport and physical activity to build healthy communities and help people reach their full potential, often through the integration of sport with positive development approaches to enhance overall effectiveness. In a grassroots youth context, SFD is as much about providing a supportive environment where youth can develop as people, as it is a place to train and compete.

The evaluation report on the 2012 Canada Sport Policy (CSP) showed that while youth initiatives were the most common type of SFD initiative, these were most frequently applied in community-level sport environments and not within high-performance athletics. In other words, while positive youth development approaches are more commonplace in traditional recreation, play, and try-a-sport contexts, competitive sport leaders and athletes have generally not been exposed to training in ways that target and achieve life-skills-based positive development outcomes.

As Canada moves toward the renewal and adoption of a new policy to guide the next 10 years, further integration is anticipated. The 2021 CSP renewal environmental scan, for example, cited recommendations for more equitable and inclusive sport overall that unites different approaches and actors. The 2023 What We Heard research report that will inform the CSP renewal, showed that Canadians believe the sport system has the opportunity to promote positive values and outcomes beyond sport, such as in the home, at school and in the community. Two thirds of respondents on a national survey indicated that SFD approaches should be integrated into other sport participation contexts in the new policy, rather than stand alone as a separate context for participation.

This article draws on recent insights from the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Foundation’s Change the Culture, Change the Game report. It extends the practical recommendations and approaches voiced by over 8,200 youth and parents in Ontario for sport organizations and administrations looking to act on advancing a more positive culture for youth in sport. We make the case for all sport environments to incorporate an SFD approach and offer examples for how to get started.

Insights on trust, inclusion and youth sport culture

The MLSE Foundation Change the Game research project, implemented in collaboration with Dr Simon Darnell, Director of the University of Toronto Centre for Sport Policy Studies, engaged youth and parents on how issues of sport access, barriers, equity and culture show up for them.

From the perspective of youth, indicators of trust and inclusion remain a concern. In a research sample that is representatively diverse with regard to age, gender, race, geography, ability and household income, 82% of respondents reported not having anyone they feel they can talk to about experiences with racism or discrimination in sport. This increases among Latinx women and girls (89%), youth from Northern Ontario (91%) and youth with a visible disability (94%). While incidents of racism and discrimination in sport remain disproportionately experienced by Black youth, Indigenous youth, women, girls, and youth with disabilities, the perceived lack of trust among teammates, coaches, and the sport provider paints a sobering picture of a sport environment that is not an authentically safe space for those it intends to serve. 

Para hockey youth

Qualitatively, youth and parents shared stories and details of how a culture of silence surrounding issues of safety and quality in sporting environments is perpetuated. Youth who have directly experienced an adverse event report they do not feel comfortable raising or reporting the issue due to a lack of trust that teammates, coaches, or the organization will “have their back.” Further, youth and parents who were aware of a serious incident having affected someone else expressed anxiety about whether to speak up or engage on the issue out of fear of losing their or their child’s spot on a team.

Amidst widespread discourse on Safe Sport and several recent high-profile instances of toxic cultures in hockey, basketball, gymnastics, soccer and across the sporting landscape, it is important to ask what change looks like from the perspective of youth, and how to get there. If more inclusive and positive cultures, trusting relationships, and environments that are physically and psychologically safe for young athletes are the building blocks of the future we want to build, what is our next move?

To start, let’s listen to what they have to say.

Youth and parents call for Sport For Development as part of solution

The 2022 Change the Game research project findings left us with an evidence-based blueprint for how to move forward with making the changes to support youth sport access, engagement, and equity. The incorporation of aspects of SFD in youth sport spaces is key. At MLSE Foundation, we see a tremendous opportunity to utilize sport to address the growing crisis in youth mental health post-pandemic, and a demand for sport programs that develop life skills as much as sport skills.

Of the nearly 8200 young Ontarians whose voices are represented in this rich data set, almost 60% voiced support for sport programs being used to teach and develop social, emotional and developmental life skills within youth. These themes were especially prevalent among youth with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, South Asian, and mixed-race youth, and youth from Eastern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area.

Youth and parents were clear about how the barriers of affordability, ongoing health and safety concerns, and social factors are leaving too many of them on the sidelines. Prominent social factors relate largely to the post-pandemic reality of decreased social connectedness highlighted in other research including Toronto Foundation’s 2022 Social Capital Report. Canadians, including youth, have less frequent contact each week with individuals outside of their households, and interact in-person with smaller circles of family and friends compared to pre-pandemic. These changes impact ability to engage in team sports, and likelihood of signing up with a friend – a factor that is known to facilitate participation, particularly among girls. Socio-environmental barriers also include lack of access to local facilities and lacking a means of transportation to sport programs, particularly affecting youth in northern, rural, and remote communities in the Change the Game research project. Youth have also been clear about what constitutes a safe and inclusive environment. Youth want a system focused on healthy, prosocial opportunities, provided by organizations where the culture is physically and psychologically safe. Strength-based approaches, where youth’s self-determination and strengths are emphasized and youth are viewed as resourceful and resilient, are foundational to SFD offerings and remind sport leaders and the youth we serve to see themselves in terms of assets and potential, not risks and defects.

Youth and parents signing up to play are seeking a safe place to form or develop healthy friendships and relationships. Alongside affordability, a lack of friends or peers to play with and not feeling welcome or included as part of a team were the strongest barriers to engagement in sport emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Having no peers to play with was of particular concern amongst girls. The research also found an extremely strong correlation between sport participation and sense of belonging, highlighting the potential of sport opportunities as strong catalysts for building community among youth, even in the context of post-pandemic social disconnection. These findings emphasize SFD approaches as a vital investment in communities where social connection and capital have been seriously compromised, including sport communities.

Practical steps for advancing a positive culture for youth in sport

Strength-based cultures. Safe spaces to formulate healthy relationships. Positive environments to learn and develop within. Cultural changes of this nature are often cited as priorities for addressing issues of toxicity across the sport landscape, without defining what that could look like in practical terms. Here are five initial areas of focus that sport organizations and administrators can consider when thinking about how to get started.

kids stretching

  1. Promote a welcoming environment: “Make it fun and get it done”

Implementation of welcoming and safe environments for athletes, participants, staff, and volunteers begins at the organizational level by fostering inclusive cultures. Culture is a term that is referenced often in sports, but it becomes increasingly important when we pluralize the word and intentionally consider the unique and diverse lived experiences that individuals bring to each organization.

Taking a more holistic approach in this way allows for organizations to develop, and live, core values that permeate through the work that they do and guide planning, actions and decisions in a way that ensures everyone feels welcome. Principles such as trust and respect, for example, remain vital to creating positive environments, however we encourage sport organizations to develop core values that are meaningful and unique to them and the impact and outcomes they are striving to achieve.

A core value at MLSE LaunchPad, for example, is ‘Our Differences Make the Difference’, which includes the principles of trust and respect but also encompasses the belief that MLSE LaunchPad’s strength is rooted in diverse voices, ideas and lived experiences. Another example is ‘We Are Family’, which includes unconditional care and accountability. Collectively, the effort of leadership, coaches, staff and volunteers working together on action plans on how to live and operationalize values can lead to culturally relevant operations and programming, inclusive hiring practices, and staff training. All of these things ensure that individuals consistently feel physically, psychologically, and socially safe and supported when engaging with an organization and its personnel, programs, clubs or leagues.

  1. Shared reflection: “Identify your blind spots”

Consistently create space to understand what current access, equity, and engagement issues exist within your organization’s membership and community to increase awareness of organizational blind spots and to inform priority-setting and solutions. Engaging community stakeholders to elicit feedback and perspective, in addition to leadership and staff, is vital before any decisions or adjustments are made.

Gathering reflections on statements such as “Sports should help me feel better” and what supports are required for this to be true can help organizations prioritize resources. For example, access to sport opportunities and support with easier access to mental health services was identified as a priority by a large proportion of youth in the Change the Game study. However, understanding what this could look like in a specific space, club, or team requires further reflection and dialogue with its intended beneficiaries.

Practical implementations of intelligence-gathering can take the form of parent and guardian surveys, focus groups, one-on-one conversations, engagement of a community organization with expertise in the area, the construction of a youth advisory council, or other creative ways to facilitate communication between staff and young people. This practice of ongoing two-way communication helps ensure that organizations are making decisions that best suit their members.

  1. Policies and processes that support transparency, development and trust: “Say what you do, and do what you say”

Building a process for active review of internal policies can promote transparency, respect for others, and the ongoing accountability to evaluate the processes that drive an organization. Policies and processes must evolve in lockstep with changing member needs and interests to ensure that organizational priorities and incentives are aligned with those of the communities they serve. Ideally, a continuous cycle of shared reflection will lead to a continuous cycle of organizational review. In turn, this will help create a feedback loop communicating to members and key stakeholders that their voices are valued and acted upon where possible and increasing the likelihood of developing a mutual trust through the collaborative transparency of the process.

Review processes should be formal, scheduled activities and informed by key stakeholder feedback to complement other inputs such as sport accountabilities, research and evaluation insights, and the key sport and non-sport outcomes (for example, youth or community engagement, mental wellness, or sense of belonging) the organization is striving to achieve.

  1. Coaching standards and development: “Youth first, always”

With almost 60% of youth calling for sport and sport programs that teach and help them learn and develop social, emotional and developmental life skills, it is important to see and utilize sport as a vehicle for learning and development. As such, coaching standards and development should reflect this sentiment and incorporate SFD strategies including the explicit transference of life skills that are intended to advance positive youth development.

Just as basketball exercises can teach dribbling skills and hockey exercises can teach stickhandling skills, they can also intentionally teach life skills such as leadership, critical thinking, social competence, or resilience. Sports can and should contribute to the holistic development of youth that have shared the opinion that “I am more than an athlete.” The adoption of a train-the-trainer model, for example, can encourage organizations to review their coach training curricula to assess whether these standards are considered and if coaches are being developed to coach the whole person. Ensuring that staff have both formal and informal mentorship opportunities will provide important professional development opportunities that lead to ongoing learning and benefit the entire community. Ultimately, the leadership of an organization should set the tone throughout the organization and consider this call for prioritizing youth wellbeing in how it reviews, updates, and implements training models for a youth sport landscape whose future is rooted in a SFD mindset.  

coach helps youth hockey player tie skatesIn addition to the “what” that coaches will be teaching and developing, Change the Game further challenges organizations to focus on the “who.” Youth are calling for “coaches who look like me” and organizations have a responsibility to ensure that they implement inclusive recruitment and hiring practices. If 82% of youth are reporting not having anyone they feel they can talk to about experiences with racism or discrimination in sport, the value of lived experience needs to be added to the list of work experience, education, and qualifications that often become the main factors in hiring. While this can look slightly different based on each individual member of the community, the intentionality behind these actions remains consistent and in support of the vital role of the coach in facilitating a welcoming, inclusive, and safe environment that is necessary for youth to recognize and reach their full potential. These considerations can continue to fuel the training of the next generation of leaders in SFD practices and truly help change the game.

  1. Data-driven approaches: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”

Adopt a data-driven approach to monitoring the quality of internal culture. Applying a data equity lens to collect, anonymize, and use demographic data, including race, gender, ability, and household income will help your organization better understand the evolving needs and experiences of athletes, coaches, and staff.

In short: collect feedback, and most importantly, use it. This will help to deepen understanding, identify blind spots, inform decision-making and monitor progress over time. Learn from external research to pilot bite-sized experiments in SFD approaches – the Journal of Sport for Development and are great starting places to begin exploring practical, evidence-based approaches to building life skills and other positive youth development outcomes through sports.

It’s ok to start small, as long as you start somewhere. If you are a sport organization who provides opportunities for youth and are interested in having a sounding board or are seeking resources on what an equitable approach to demographic data collection could look like in your setting, reach out to a member of the MLSE Foundation and LaunchPad research and evaluation team any time.

Concluding thoughts

All sports are SFD opportunities in that positive social and economic benefits can and should be expected from sport initiatives at all levels. In the post-pandemic era and during a time of reckoning for the youth sport sector, approaches borrowed from the SFD space offer rich insight into how to engage youth positively at all levels of the sport system. Youth have made it clear that that there is no longer room for sport programs and indeed systems that focus exclusively on physical development at the expense of social, emotional and cognitive considerations.

About the Author(s)

Marika Warner is the Director of Research and Evaluation in MLSE’s Community Engagement and Social Impact Department and leads research at MLSE LaunchPad, a Sport For Development facility for youth facing barriers in downtown Toronto. Marika’s expertise and interests include physical literacy, program evaluation, sport equity, and corporate social responsibility in professional sport. Marika is also a retired professional dancer.

Bryan Heal is the Social Impact Research Lead at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), leading initiatives such as the Change the Game research program for the MLSE Foundation, MLSE LaunchPad and MLSE Community Engagement and Social Impact departments to advance access, engagement, equity and positive outcomes for youth to recognize and reach their potential through sport. Outside of work, Bryan serves on the Strides Toronto Board of Directors, Toronto’s Lead Agency for Infant, Child and Youth Mental Health, where he is Chair of its Quality Committee. Bryan’s favourite hobby is going on long runs and hikes through trails and parks, and he spends much of his waking life thinking about what to eat for his next meal.

Luciano Lombardi is the Director of Community Sport at MLSE and oversees all planning and delivery of the organization’s youth sport programs, including MLSE LaunchPad’s Sport For Development programming, MLSE Foundation’s Signature Programs, and MLSE’s team-branded camps, clinics, and events. A former professional soccer coach that is still on the field focusing on youth development, Luciano is also a certified member of the Ontario College of Teachers and holds a Master of Education degree. Luciano also spent time teaching PHE at the secondary school level in the Greater Toronto Area.

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.