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The Sport Information Resource Centre

Unexpected stressors happen often and are more challenging to manage than expected stressors. However, they can be managed. One way to manage them is by expecting them. To help athletes “expect the unexpected” during competition, work with them to identify potential stressors before competition. Then establish strategies to manage those stressors.

If there was ever a time in our history to consider how to not leave anyone behind, 2020 was that year. As people and organizations seek to reconcile the impact of COVID-19, we need to think about how we build back in ways that intentionally bring people together and collectively work towards a better future. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide a framework to achieve this goal.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, is a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. At the Agenda’s core are 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets designed as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The SDGs are a universal call for social responsibility – by the 193 countries who have signed on, and across every sector and to each person. We each have a role to play to meet the SDGs and contribute to a better way forward – a way that leaves no one behind.

Why does this matter to sport?

Sport is well documented in contributing to social development through developing life-skills, social skills and connections, and mental and physical health and wellbeing (Bailey et al. 2009; Holt et al. 2008; Neely & Holt 2014). Many sport organizations are investing in values-based sport, safe sport, and diversity and inclusion. The SDGs are an opportunity to align these priorities with the SDGs’ broader framework focused on inclusion and our social responsibility to contribute to the greater good and work toward a better future.

Of the 17 SDGs, eight are directly relevant to sport: 

3 – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

8 – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

10 – Reduce inequality within and among countries

11 – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

16 – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17 – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

The Kazan Action Plan provides a framework for aligning action within sport, physical activity, and physical education to contribute to the SDGs. For Canadian sport organizations, the Kazan Action Plan supports global connections and alignment on areas of common interest such as advocacy for sport, integrity of sport, gender equity, information sharing, and collective measurements – all key issues for the Canadian sport system.

Outdoor sport facility

According to Vicki Walker, Director General of Sport Canada, “The Sustainable Development Goals provide us with an internationally recognized and accepted framework through which we can identify and communicate the added value and broader impacts of [the Canadian government’s] investments in sport. The SDGs, and the global movement to use them to measure the impacts of sport, can help governments and sport organizations better understand the impacts of their current work, as well as guiding future investments and initiatives.”

The SDGs are increasingly used as a lens through which funders (governments, foundations, and others) are assessing the impact of their investments, requiring sport organizations to integrate the SDGs into their project designs and evaluation strategies.

Engagement with the SDGs

Sport organizations can engage with the SDGs by:

  1. Considering how the SDGs connect to current and future priorities, using them to inform activities to contribute to greater inclusion and other social outcomes.
  2. Articulating specific goals, targets and measurement strategies relating to the SDGs to create awareness and accountability for advancing the goals within your organization, community, and sport ecosystem.
  3. Communicating about work relating to the SDGs so key stakeholders, including members and funders, know you are investing in social development and a purpose beyond simply delivering a sport program.
  4. Working with others to move forward together – SDG 17 is about global partnerships supporting the goals, and is a call to action for us to collaborate to maximize the outcomes and impact.

Canadian sport organizations using the SDGs

Several Canadian sport organizations are already using the SDGs, including Commonwealth Sport Canada and MLSE LaunchPad.

Commonwealth Sport Canada (CSC) is a powerful example of a Canadian sport organization contributing internationally to the SDGs. Through the use of Sport For Development and Sport Development programming to promote community and social development and build national sport system capacity throughout the Commonwealth, CSC contributes to 10 SDGs (1- 5, 8, 10, 11, 16 and 17) with a focus on SDG 3,4,5 and 16. CSC has created or enhanced 129 Sport Development and Sport for Development (S4D) projects, including 17 S4D projects exclusively for women and girls. Of those 17 projects, nine are operational today in countries designated as official development assistance countries, where aid promotes and specifically targets the economic development and welfare of developing countries.

Within Canada, MLSE Launchpad created the Sport For Development Metrics Framework to unify the measurement and evaluation efforts of a range of organizations that fund and deliver youth Sport For Development programming across Canada and beyond. The use of consistent metrics enables powerful shared learnings to improve youth outcomes and charitable returns on investment. The Framework focuses on four pillars – Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Ready for School, and Ready for Work; and aligns with SDGs 3, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 16. The Framework is based on MLSE LaunchPad’s evidence-based Theory of Change, which describes how Sport For Development programming contributes to a range of Positive Youth Development Outcomes for youth facing barriers.

Getting Started  

As organizations look to recover from COVID-19 and evolve in response to the social reckoning resulting from the anti-racism movement, we have an opportunity to consider how to create a better world, a stronger sport system, and a path towards equity and justice as we move forward. The SDGs are an opportunity to connect to a global initiative AND consider how social inclusion, poverty, the environment, education and other key areas are connected and influence the lives of current and future sport participants. The SDGs are a rallying point that sport can embrace, align around, and use to truly make a global impact. Imagine if we took our collective energies and our passion for competition and channeled those into racing towards 2030 and meeting the SDGs!

Gamification is the use of game techniques, such as the allocation of points and rewards, to provide incentive and fuel the competitive spirit in aspects of life outside of sport. Learn how MLSE LaunchPad has used gamification to support the development of prosocial life skills in the SIRCuit.

Longitudinal studies allow us to observe behavioural changes and identify patterns over time, providing unique insight on how behaviours are affected by life events. New research using data from the Monitoring Activities of Teenagers to Comprehend their Habits (MATCH) study, which followed nearly 1,000 children for eight years, describes how Canadian youth follow different trajectories of specific health-related behaviours during the transition from childhood to adolescence. Learn more.

Gamification is the use of game techniques, such as the allocation of points and rewards, to provide incentive and fuel the competitive spirit in aspects of life outside of sport (Bunchball, 2020). Examples are abundant, and include Points Days at Shoppers Drug Mart, using an Aeroplan credit card to earn travel miles, or opening a SCENE debit account to earn free movies. Fundamentally, gamification is about stimulating engagement and offering incentive for decisions. This can be used to drive areas of existing interest, as with the everyday runner or walker starting to use a FitBit and then going that extra kilometre to earn their Kilimanjaro badge; or the mix of product, service and technology can also add a little more fun and excitement to behaviours that are often ignored or not given much thought, such as completion of program evaluation surveys among children and youth participating in Sport For Development programs.  

Challenges in a youth Sport for Development setting

In 2017, MLSE LaunchPad set out to gamify how youth engage in a community sport setting. This was not about the actual sports being coached at the facility – it was about how youth interact with and experience a community-based sport organization. Our approach to gamification considered registration, relationships, attendance, program evaluation and whether incentives earned through a gamified experience could influence motivation – one key component that contributes to physical literacy and other outcomes of interest to sport programmers (Chen, 2015).

In applying this approach in practice, MLSE LaunchPad initially piloted a values-based currency of points and digital rewards to intentionally stimulate engagement related to priority challenges at the facility. Implementation of two tactical approaches formed the foundation of an early strategy:

  1. Providing youth with the ability to earn points for attendance, with bonus rewards for attendance streaks or perfect attendance, as a means to increase consistency in attendance and reduce ghosting (youth not showing up to a program for which they had registered).
  2. Providing youth with the ability to earn points and bonus rewards for the completion of a program evaluation activity before or after their program, to address challenges with low survey completion rates.

An innovative platform for youth engagement

Recognizing the potential of an effective gamification strategy to drive essential youth behaviours, MLSE Scoreboard™ was born – a digital platform for youth engagement, program evaluation, and program and facility management.  Part digital infrastructure, part loyalty rewards, and all engaging – anytime, from any device.

The system has two core components, which have advanced the implementation of the tactics described above:

Points as a key to success

During three years of testing, implementation and refinement with hundreds of programs and thousands of youth, one of the most critical insights has been that from the participant perspective, points are a currency. One key to success has been the intentional alignment of how points are earned with our values. For example, MLSE LaunchPad values the development of prosocial life skills and promotes the benefits of showing up, trying new things, and engaging positively with peers and staff. Consistent with these values, the life cycle of a typical program gives participants opportunities to earn points for living these values, including points for consistent attendance, multi-sport engagement, participating in evaluation activities, and engaging positively in program activities. Points are not earned for talent or sport performance. Youth reach the top of the leaderboard by actively embracing the diversity of sport programs on offer, showing up consistently, pushing themselves, and listening to their coaches and mentors. In essence, the points system is a currency of engagement. Over time, with the point system integrated into the fabric of the organization and its programs, the system can be adapted and refined by staff to address other priorities.

Refining the process

With the launch of MLSE Scoreboard and its points-based currency, youth response rates to program evaluation surveys jumped to 85%. However, some process issues persisted. Early in the MLSE Scoreboard journey, an evaluation station or “rotation” was integrated into a program’s first and last day where youth would go to a classroom or tablet station to complete the program evaluation survey. With MLSE Scoreboard available as a digital, mobile-friendly platform, evaluation staff began releasing pre-program surveys a full week in advance, with bonus points available for early completion. The results were swift – approximately two thirds of youth logged in from home to complete their baseline survey before the start of the program. This increased efficiencies in data collection, but perhaps more importantly, provided two sources of time savings for staff. First, fewer participants leaving program activities to complete a survey helps optimize the time they have for coaching and sport program experience. Second, 2/3 of youth completing surveys from home helps reduce demands on staff time, enabling them to focus on youth who need extra support to complete their survey onsite. For all the prospective benefits of a gamification strategy, none of it is useful if busy staff do not see value in terms of their most prized commodity: time (Ontario Nonprofit Network, 2018).

Tips for applying these concepts in your setting

1. Know your values

There is no homogenous population and different groups behave differently. Being aware of the challenges your participants may be experiencing and the values your organization wants to promote will inform smart and practical goals in building your own points currency. MLSE LaunchPad developed our points system around accountability for showing up, trying new things, and the development of prosocial life skills. What behaviours does your organization value?

2. Start small

We recommend focusing on a small number of concrete objectives while your staff and participants get comfortable with the system. At MLSE LaunchPad, early iterations awarded points to build engagement around attendance and evaluation. While fun custom challenges and other nuances have been added, starting with a simple focus helped staff develop comfort with the points system while generating excitement among youth around clear, achievable goals.

3. Have fun with your challenges

Whatever your engagement goals, encourage staff creativity and learn from participants to build gamified challenges that are fun and fresh while also reinforcing program content and behavioural goals. Physical literacy and the development of functional movement skills have been an intentional programming focus for younger youth at MLSE LaunchPad. As youth advance in age, the development of life skills such as social competence becomes the programmatic focus. Staff are empowered to award points or create challenges for observed examples of youth demonstrating growth in these life skill areas. For example, an MLSE Scoreboard challenge was established where youth earned points for introducing themselves to new mental health counsellors and getting to know them as people, helping to facilitate a warm introduction and reducing barriers to accessing this new service for youth and families. 

4. Incentives need not be costly

Yes, MLSE LaunchPad has access to team-branded merchandise for youth to redeem. However, in our journey we have learned that the points themselves provide more drive for engagement than any item or prize on offer. Most participants choose not to redeem in favour of building up their point totals to achieve goals or compete with their peers. Access to a leaderboard with peers is an essential enabler of the healthy competition that an engaging and values-driven points system can facilitate. Online rewards such as digital “badges” can be earned and accumulated, for example, related to a specific life skill, an act of positivity, or leveling up their sport participation. This type of reward is similar to the way points are used in favourite video games – except in this case, winning the game involves demonstrating the characteristics and attributes we work to promote through long-term quality sport engagement.

For those more extrinsically motivated, points redemption can take on many forms. We find smaller accessories such as wristbands and bracelets popular among 6-10 year-olds, and sport accessories such as water bottles and t-shirts popular among 11-14-year-olds. Experiential rewards are popular among older youth, such as a movie night donated by a sponsor, admission to a special event, or an earned privilege like choosing what the team eats at an end-of-season dinner. 

5. Learn and adapt

This article provides a framework for how the gamification of youth sport engagement has worked in a youth Sport For Development setting. Every program, culture and population are different, and what works in one environment may not be perfectly adaptable to another. Conceptually, it is helpful to think about a system of gamification through points as a choose-your-own-adventure platform, where organizations have the flexibility to tailor and evolve their system over time against the most pressing engagement goals or challenges as defined by them. People are not static, and as they grow and what motivates them evolves, those of us working with them must keep our approaches fresh, relevant and engaging.  

If you need a sounding board or would like to ideate about what a values-based points currency could look like for your organization, don’t hesitate to reach out to the MLSE LaunchPad Research and Evaluation team. 

Recommended Resources

Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). Engaging youth in evaluation processes. SIRCuit Article.

Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). The gamification of evaluation for non profits and charities. Imagine Canada 360 Blog.

Tri-level mentoring is a model in which coaches mentor youth leaders who then mentor their peers or younger youth. In this way, the benefits of effective mentorship cascade to influence positive developmental outcomes for all youth involved in programming. In recognition of International Mentoring Day, read more about how tri-level mentoring supports youth leadership development in the SIRCuit.

The development of physical literacy is essential to life-long participation in sport and physical activity. Learn how teachers and parents (and program leaders, coaches, and others!) can be allies in ensuring students develop the “motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life” in the SIRC blog.

Research from the Université de Montréal found that children with low or no participation in organized sport from ages 6-10 showed higher emotional distress, anxiety, shyness, and social withdrawal at age 12 than those who participated regularly. The authors suggest that emotional skills learned through sport can help youth successfully navigate the transition from primary to secondary school.

Hockey Canada recommends a ratio of two (or more) practices for every game played — claiming that one efficient practice will provide a player with more opportunities for skill development that 11 games combined. This article from The Conversation explores how the competition-oriented structure and win-at-all-costs culture of minor hockey limits opportunities for players to develop not only hockey-specific skills, but also personal assets such as making friends and building character.