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Sport is the most watched, celebrated, supported, and engaging social endeavour in the world (Hulteen et coll., 2017). Sport is inherently emotionally and narratively captivating, embodying and upholding principles of positive and sustainable human, social, and environmental development. But the potential for sport to do good for participants and society more broadly relies on sport cultures and environments that centre participants and uphold positive social values.  

Cultural change is not as difficult as we may believe, and we all have the power to shift and strengthen the culture of our sport environments. Cultural change begins with understanding the mechanics of culture in organizations and the relationship between organizational climate, structures or artifacts, trust and engagement. Next, one must access the tools to “audit” the organization for cultural fractures. Most importantly, identifying accessible mechanisms to personally affect cultural change within your program or organization equips you to do the work.

In this blog, I outline the mechanics of cultural change and provide tools and resources for sport leaders and administrators looking to change the culture of their sport. 

The blueprint and materials

Part of the enduring challenge facing sport leaders who are struggling to address violence, cheating, abuse and discrimination in sport is that the cultural norms that bind sport structures have not changed. To change culture, we need to first audit the culture by peeling back or drilling down through the layers of values and beliefs in order to expose, and then challenge and change, some of the governing assumptions within sport. Typically, leaders re-examine goals, values and priorities without examining the fundamental beliefs and assumptions driving them.

Schein’s (2010) theory of organizational culture provides a useful lens through which to view sociocultural forces within sport. Schein compares culture to an iceberg or onion (Figure 1).

On the surface one will find:

Operating below the surface, however, linger:

Figure 1. The abusive sport environment: A cultural onion of hierarchy, control, and exemption

For instance, currently, we see abuse in sport. Artifacts of abuse on the surface level include discriminatory behaviours, rules, team policies, and actions. For example, Figure 1 illustrates how a person in authority may demean an athlete, discriminate against them based on their appearance or behaviour, humiliate them in front of their peers, exclude them from team activities, punish them for mental or physical injury or illness by prohibiting them from further training and development.

This abuse is justified as valuing “grit,” coupled with a belief that a specific body type, or pushing through injury and illness are a sign of that grit. An individual’s capacity to endure abuse is seen to be the path to grit and high performance. These beliefs represent the fundamental assumption that high performance can only be achieved via 1 path, and that abuse is not only okay, but necessary, to reveal true strength within an athlete. Within this example we also see a narrow-minded assumption that athletes are born, not developed.

Roberts, Sojo and Grant (2020) and Thoroughgood and Padilla (2013) describe the organizational artifacts, values and assumptions that lead to abuse as a toxic triangle (Figure 2). A destructive leader’s abuse of power can lead to a climate of fear, instability, and lack of accountability as well as the valuing of dominance, abuse, control and compliance. To endure such an environment, followers tend to rely on conformity (complying with the norm) or collusion (exploiting norms further for one’s own benefit).

Figure 2. The Toxic Triangle of Abuse in Sport (Padilla, Hogan, Kaiser, 2007)

The tools and skills

Cultural change in sport must begin with revealing and challenging the assumptions of exceptionalism that have become common in sport leadership but are at odds with the true potential of sport for society. Replacing existing hierarchical assumptions with the foundational principles of duty (of care) and responsibility (to lead and model social values) would reconstruct the foundation of sport and manifest the values of respect, friendship, and excellence through artifacts of equitable structures and policies, developmental practices, and caring behaviours.

Through his work with Own the Podium, alongside partners the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee, University of Ottawa professor and mental performance consultant Dr. Kyle Paquette offers a promising model that places people and performance at the foundation of sport (the “culture of excellence” model). These values in turn shape the cultural artifacts (attitudes, structures, behaviours, and practices) of an excellent sport experience for all participants.

Tips for getting down to the cultural work:

  1. Identify space and time to conduct a thorough audit using tools like the Barrett Values Assessment, or a facilitated workshop
  2. Revisit organizational core values to ensure the values are shared
  3. Engage relevant audiences to participate in the audit
  4. Remind the groups that identifying cultural incongruities and fractures are essential: “cracks are where the light comes in”
  5. Ensure that all artifacts, practices, and behaviours across the environment reflect the shared values
  6. Establish a regular review and re-alignment process

Cultural audit “check in” exercise:

Engage in a cultural audit “check in” exercise by answering 3 questions with your colleagues or teammates:

  1. What do we value?
  2. In what ways do we contradict our values?
  3. How can we bring our behaviours into alignment with our values?

Reframing sport: From dominance and privilege to partnership and excellent sport experiences for all

Sport at its centre is for the purpose of developing human beings (mentally, physically, emotionally, socially) for the sake of developing society as a whole. Sport delivery is therefore a partnership between participants (athletes, volunteers, and fans) and sport leaders (coaches, officials, administrators and practitioners) working for a shared goal of excellent experiences for all (Walinga, Obee, Cuningham & Cyr, 2021). By placing “excellent experiences for all” at the centre of our shared purpose in sport, gold standards (not gold medals) will return sport to the shared values of respect, friendship and excellence.

Excellent experiences in sport can look very different for each participant in sport: fun for the recreational, friendship for the young, having one’s best race for the high-performance athlete, helping an athlete achieve a personal best for a coach, a clean and safe game for a referee, or an exciting tie breaker for a spectator. With excellence for all at the center comes partnership and with partnership, a more global perspective of sport. With human and social development as the central governing principle of our sport culture, we are inspired to be caring of ourselves and one another, open to innovation, inclusive of newcomers with potential, aligned in our focus, trusting in our process, and committed to our relationships, our community and sport as a whole.


You’d be hard pressed to visit a large Canadian city these days and not see a billboard for sports gambling. Maybe you’ve noticed a similar trend while watching TV, of athletes and celebrities telling us not only which sports books to use, but how easy it is to bet on games across different sports and leagues. If it seems like these ads popped up overnight, they kind of did!

It’s been less than 2 years since Bill C-218, an Act to amend the Criminal Code (regarding sports betting) became law, paving the way for provincial and territorial governments to regulate single-event sport betting, and providing consumer protections and increased economic opportunities.

Betting operators were up and running quickly, and the numbers tell us that Canadians have enthusiastically taken to this new way of gambling on sport. iGamingOntario reported that total wagers in Q4 of 2022 were $13.9 billion, which brought the total wagers for the year to $35.5 billion and $1.4 billion total gaming revenue (dollar amounts represent a combination of sports betting and casino play). During the same timeframe, just over 1 million player accounts were active, and 1.65 million accounts were active over the course of the year. For reference, Ontario’s population is just shy of 15 million.

For betting operators and gaming websites, this is all good news, over a million Ontarians are placing bets and revenue is high. But with more betting comes the increased likelihood of competition manipulation and other threats to sport integrity. Several sport integrity services are in the business of monitoring suspicious activity around online betting, watching for “suspicious matches.” Why is this important? Because a “suspicious match” indicates that a betting irregularity was detected and there’s potential that the match, or an element of it, was manipulated. In plain language, it means that someone involved with a game, match, or race did something contrary to the rules to affect its outcome. That someone could be an athlete, support personnel or an official. 

In 2022, Sportradar Integrity Services saw a huge jump in suspicious matches. According to their annual review of data gathered by their Universal Fraud Detection System, Betting Corruption and Match-Fixing in 2022, they detected a 34% increase in suspicious matches from 2021. In total, 1,212 suspicious matches were detected in 92 countries on five continents, and across 12 sports.

On home soil

The bulk of these suspicious matches were detected in Europe, Asia and South America, but Canada is not immune to competition manipulation. We have a cautionary tale of our own. In 2016, an investigation found that over 40% of Canadian Soccer League (CSL) matches had been manipulated. The semi-pro players were receiving nominal compensation to supplement their day jobs and, as a result, they were targeted to fix games that were broadcast in Asia and were bet on primarily in unregulated Asian betting markets.

According to Interpol, over $100 million was bet on CSL matches over a 3-year period and every club in the league was involved. Canada Soccer (formerly the Canadian Soccer Association) cut ties with the league.

No league, match, or competition is too small for match fixers. In fact, small-scale competitions, contested by poorly compensated athletes, are the most susceptible to competition manipulation.

Pilot project and competition manipulation policy template

When considering these developments (the legislative change, billions in revenue, and the reports on the suspicious matches) as a complete package, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) sees competition manipulation as a very real threat to the integrity of sport and athlete safety. If sports fans start to think the results of games have been manipulated and are predetermined, they’ll lose faith and eventually tune out. If athletes are accepting gifts and favours in exchange for throwing a match or sharing information about their team, they risk their personal safety and retribution from match fixers if things don’t go as planned. Neither of these outcomes are good for athletes or sport at large.   

To address another major threat to sport integrity, the CCES administers the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), a national program to detect and deter doping that incorporates international best practices, including an extensive education program. With this model in mind, the CCES partnered with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) on a pilot project to combat competition manipulation that features a template policy for national sport organizations (NSOs). To date, five participating NSOs have implemented a customized Competition Manipulation Policy that is consistent with the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of the Manipulation of Competitions (IOC Code).

To support the policy, the CCES rolled out an e-learning course called Understanding Competition Manipulation that explains the basics, including who’s involved, what’s at risk, and how to recognize if you’ve been targeted for a manipulation scheme. This course is available to anyone and has been completed more than 20,000 times!

Reporting competition manipulation

A policy without a method for reporting wrongdoing or enforcement has little value, so every organization in the pilot project must provide a mechanism for athletes and members to report competition manipulation. In early 2023, the CCES Integrity Hotline launched to provide a means for secure and confidential reporting of both doping and competition manipulation, which NSOs in the pilot project were invited to use. The hotline is managed by the CCES’s intelligence team, who can use reports to start investigations when warranted.

While new to the competition manipulation game, the hotline (formerly known as Report Doping) is a proven tool in the fight against doping. In fiscal 2022, it received 91 tips, 5 of which led to anti-doping rule violations, and there’s already been reporting activity on the competition manipulation side as well.

What comes next?

From a global perspective, Canada is playing catch-up on this issue. The CCES is focused on learning new approaches and best practices from government organizations, international sport federations, and sport integrity experts who are actively addressing competition manipulation.

Representatives from many of these organizations and more will be at the 2023 Symposium on Competition Manipulation and Gambling in Sport, May 30-31 in Toronto, Ontario. The CCES and McLaren Global Sport Solutions, with support from the COC, are co-hosting the symposium. The goal of the event is to develop a common way forward that will protect sport and benefit the gaming industry, and to develop a comprehensive national program for all national and multi-sport organizations.

Follow @EthicsinSPORT in sport for more information.

Since the legalization of cannabis in Canada in 2018, it has become imperative for sport organizations to communicate research and policy regarding cannabis usage to athletes. This article summarizes what athletes and organizations need to know about the current state of cannabis in sport.

Earning a roster position as a nationally carded athlete is no easy task (“carding” refers to financial assistance from Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program). Athletes spend years working on their craft to represent Canada on the international stage. The length of time spent in the role as a national athlete varies across sports and between athletes, however, 1 commonality is every athlete’s inevitable retirement from sport. For some, the exit from sport is voluntary, while others may retire involuntarily due to roster deselection, injury, or life circumstances.  

Athlete retirement has been associated with numerous psychological, social, physiological and emotional consequences. Recent research suggests that high performance athletes should proactively prepare for life after sport by engaging in sport-life balance. Athletes can work towards this by investing in areas of their life outside of sport such as education and family, as well as financial, social and professional development. Engaging in practices that promote sport-life balance does not imply an athlete should decrease their focus or commitment towards their pursuit of sport excellence. Rather, the concept of balance positions the athlete to have higher life satisfaction while perceiving positive sport experiences as they train for excellence (Alfermann et coll., 2004; Lavallee 2019).

For Canadian high performance athletes, Game Plan offers free support for carded athletes to foster an improved sport-life balance, optimize sport performance and plan for their post-sport career. Available to active and retired athletes, Game Plan’s resources include education, career, community, skill development and health support. Despite the curation of world-class retirement support, Game Plan’s resources are underutilized. The reason for this remains unclear.  

After over a decade of servicing Canadian athletes, researchers examined Game Plan’s usage data from 2019-2021 to garner an understanding of how active and retired athletes in national sport organizations (NSOs) use Game Plan’s resources. The data outlined Game Plan’s usage rate from the following services domains: career, education, health, education, networking, skill development and other. All users were listed as unidentifiable randomized codes that solely indicated their NSO affiliation, and the year and frequency in which specific resources were accessed.

This blog provides insight into how Game Plan’s resources are being utilized by athletes across the sport system and identify barriers athletes face in accessing Game Plan’s support for their proactive and reactive retirement needs.

Internal barriers and resource usage

A recent article examined Canadian athletes’ ability to plan and prepare for their retirement (Brassard et coll., 2022). The authors identified 3 environmental styles fostered by coaches, support staff, and high-performance directors that influence an athletes’ ability to plan and prepare for retirement:

Within these styles, athletes experience internal barriers such as a lack of support for activities outside of sport (such as academics, work, family) from coaches, and too few opportunities provided by NSOs to prepare for career transitions.

Beyond these internal barriers, Game Plan usage discrepancies between mainstream and Para athletes indicate there may be other contributing factors. Based on the usage data from 2019 to 2021, able-bodied athletes are accessing Game Plan resources more than Para athletes. Factors like retirement age (for example, mainstream athletes often retire earlier than Para athletes), athletic identity around retirement (for example, self-esteem scores have been reported as lower in Para athletes who retired involuntarily when compared to those who retired voluntarily), and narratives around the topic of retirement (Guerrero & Martin, 2018; Marin-Urquiza et coll., 2018) may be some of these contributing factors. 

How funding influences access

NSOs are non-profit organizations that rely on various forms of funding to support sport advancement in Canada. Most NSOs rely on the Government of Canada, membership fees, and other organizations to provide financial support, such as the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee. In addition, some organizations receive targeted high performance funding from the Government of Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee based on recommendations from Own the Podium to advance the performance potential of athletes through funding staff, coaches, access to competitions, organizational facilities, and high performance organizations. Own the Podium assesses the performance potential of each sport organization, recommending the appropriate amount of funding.

Predictably, there are funding disparities across sport organizations due to different performance potential measurements. However, there appears to be a trickledown effect regarding how funding influences athletes’ access to Game Plan resources. For example, the Game Plan usage data showed high athlete usage from athletes in more highly funded sport organizations compared to athletes in lower funded organizations.

Regardless of sport organization funding, all carded athletes have access to free Game Plan support. However, this latter group of athletes appears to be missing out on opportunities to proactively and reactively receive support to prepare for and adapt to life after sport.  

One leads to another

Among the thousands of athletes who utilized Game Plan’s support, the vast majority accessed Game Plan’s resources on multiple occasions, and at times, for various forms of support, including health, education, community, career or skill development. This widespread repeat usage emphasizes the importance of initiating that first meeting with a Game Plan advisor.  

In order for an athlete to engage in proactive preparation for retirement, communication on the why, where, and how of a positive sport-life balance in transitioning from sport becomes pivotal.

As the first meeting with a Game Plan advisor is designed towards addressing those questions, NSOs can do a great deal for their athletes by facilitating that initial engagement. As such, organizations can do the following to support an athlete in getting to that initial meeting:  

  1. Familiarization
  1. Lean on the experts
  1. Invest in sustainability:
Fig 1: Considerations and strategies for sport organizations seeking to improve athlete engagement in Game Plan resources


It can be incredibly difficult to predict the length of time an athlete will spend training and competing in their sport, the injuries and triumphs they may endure, the levels of success they will achieve, or the exact moment and reason that will lead them to retire. Sport organizations in Canada have made vast improvements to provide athletes with holistic forms of support that address athletes’ technical and tactical performance, as well as their strength, conditioning, mental, nutritional and physical performance.

Progress is needed to minimize barriers athletes experience to accessing proactive and reactive retirement support. With the abundance of athlete retirement research studies that  highlight the mental, emotional, social, professional and physical challenges athletes face due to their lack of retirement preparation, change in how sport organizations perceive, promote, and prioritize retirement is necessary.  

Learn more about Game Plan  

Concussion education can help improve athletes’ concussion knowledge and attitude towards reporting a suspected concussion to a coach or other adult. Research shows that concussion education may be particularly effective when delivered in more than one way, for example, through a video and a team presentation. When planning concussion education for your team or organization, consider using multiple strategies, as it can lead to more comprehensive education and can help reinforce the most important points.

Energy crises are further impacting the affordability and accessibility of sport. A coalition of nearly 200 sport bodies, health organizations and athletes in the UK has pressed for additional support to pools, gyms and other sporting facilities. These facilities face a reduction of services or even closure due to rising energy costs.


Quality sport. Values-based sport. Safe sport. Positive youth development. Person-centred sport. Athlete-centred sport. Holistic approaches.   

These are just a few of the many terms used within the sport sector to discuss the different ways in which sport delivery, programs, and culture are approached. Whether you are new to working in sport or an experienced staff member, participant, or even sport parent, it’s not uncommon to hear these terms used and feel a sense of confusion. What do they mean? Why are they important? And most importantly, how can you implement them? 

In this article, we explore 3 approaches to sport program delivery that sport researchers and practitioners alike recommend for their potential to optimize the sport experience: Quality sport, values-based sport and safe sport. We define these approaches, what the evidence says about them, and map out how they are similar or different from one another other. 

Quality sport  

Within academic literature, a quality approach to sport participation means ensuring participants view their experiences as enjoyable and satisfying based on their own preferences and values (Evans et coll., 2018). More specifically, researchers define quality participation in sport as repeated exposure to positive experiences, programming, or environments that promote long-term athlete development and participation (Côté et coll., 2014, Yohalem & Wilson-Ahlstrom, 2010). 

There is evidence to suggest when an individual’s needs are satisfied and participants are enjoying their sport experiences, they are considerably more likely to continue to participate in sport (Caron et coll., 2019; Ryan & Deci, 2017). With repeated exposure to positive experiences, they will also be more likely to reap the physical, social, and mental benefits of sport participation (Caron et coll., 2019; Martin Ginis et coll., 2017). This means that prioritizing the quality of programming is important for long-term participation and healthy development 

Figure 1: Sport for Life Society LTD Framework

It is important to acknowledge that organizations apply these definitions in their own way or use slightly different language to express their specific quality sport goals. For instance, Sport for Life uses “quality sport” and promotes the Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity (LTD) framework as a guide for achieving positive experiences in sport and physical activity for individuals over the lifespan. According to Sport for Life, quality sport “is developmentally appropriate, safe and inclusive, and well run.” In other words, quality sport is “good programs, led by good people, in good places.”  

On the other hand, the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP) promotes “quality participation” in sport and physical activity for people with disabilities. According to the CDPP, “quality participation is achieved when athletes with a disability view their involvement in sport as satisfying and enjoyable, and experience outcomes that they consider important.” To achieve quality participation, participants need repeated and sustained exposure to “quality experiences” over time. Six elements contribute to a quality experience (Martin Ginis et coll., 2017):  

To support these elements, appropriate conditions in the physical (for example, accessible facilities, access to equipment), social (for example, coach or instructor knowledge, friendships, family support), and program (for example, program size, funding support) environments need to be in place (Evans et coll., 2018). While the CDPP’s framework was developed for people with disabilities, it can be applied to sport participants in all contexts. 

Figure 2: The CDPP’s blueprint for building quality participation in sport and physical activity.

A variety of practical tools and resources have been created to guide sport organizations and program leaders in fostering quality sport programs. For example, Sport for Life creating a Quality Sport Checklist and a Quality Sport Guide for communities and clubs. Alternatively, the CDPP created the Blueprint for Building Quality Participation in Sport as a tool to help sport programmers foster quality experiences for children, youth and adults with disabilities, which leads to quality participation over time. The Blueprint has also been tailored for children and youth with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Ultimately, creating quality sport experiences involves understanding your programs and athletes unique needs to help identify what values and program components you should focus on and prioritize. 

Values-based sport  

The aim of sport delivery that is values-based is to create an environment that encourages values like (but not exclusive to) good character, physical literacy, community and belonging. Another goal of values-based sport is to create good citizens and well-rounded individuals through sport. However, this approach to sport delivery is more explicit in its use of values and morals to achieve its goal when compared to the other approaches described in this article.  

Adopting and promoting values in Canadian sport has been advocated by communities and organizations like Collaborative Community Coaching (C3)™, the Sport Law & Strategy Group, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), and True Sport. 

Of particular note, the CCES is an independent, national, not-for-profit organization committed to making sport better. The CCES does so by working collaboratively to activate a values-based sport system, protecting the integrity of sport from the negative forces of doping and other unethical threats, and advocating for sport that’s fair, safe and open to everyone. True Sport is an initiative of the CCES designed to give people, communities and organizations the means to leverage the benefits of good sport from a platform of shared values and principles. As a values-based sport network leader, the CCES believes that activating the True Sport Principles, on and off the field of play, will contribute to a positive shift in Canadian sport culture.  

Figure 3: The 7 True Sport Principles

Values-based approaches operate on the belief that sport has many physical, social and mental benefits but these benefits are not guaranteed by simply participating in sport (Bean et coll., 2018). The 2022 True Sport Report, commissioned by the CCES, recommends that in order for sport to be “good sport,” values and principles need to be put into action (for example, incorporated into policy, practice, and programs) and work together at all times. Informed by recent research, the report suggests that when this occurs, participants and communities alike will benefit.  

Despite being advocated for and implemented in organizations for many years, values-based approaches have not yet been investigated extensively in the academic literature. Nevertheless, the goal remains similar to previous approaches discussed—that is, meeting the basic human and developmental needs of participants.  

While researchers are still investigating whether the explicit teaching of values is necessary for participants to acquire them (as opposed to them being obtained organically from “good sport”), the morals and principles promoted through values-based sport are universally positive (Bean et coll., 2018).  

The key characteristic of values-based approaches to sport programming is that they are intentional and clear with the values and purpose of the activities participants are taking part in. According to Jones and McLenaghen, a good starting point for an organization or club looking to take this approach is to develop a “values-based agreement.” In other words, come together and agree upon your organization’s values and principles and promote them throughout your programming. Part of the CCES values-based education programming also includes a values-based agreement as an essential step in guiding and clarifying your community’s purpose for athletes, coaches and leaders, and meeting the goal of fostering values through your programming.  

The CCES provides additional suggestions for those wanting to make a positive difference in their sport and community:  

Safe sport  

The safe sport movement aims to optimize the sport experience for everyone in sport, including but not limited to administrators, officials, and support staff. To optimize the experience, stakeholders should have the reasonable expectation that the sport environment will not only be free from all forms of maltreatment (for example, abuse, neglect, bullying, harassment, and discrimination), but that it will also: 

Safe sport extends beyond the prevention of physical, psychological and social harm to include the promotion of participant rights (Gurgis & Kerr, 2021). According to Gretchen Kerr, an academic expert and a leader in the safe sport movement, the safe sport movement does not intend to abandon athletic results altogether, but rather places emphasis on healthy, safe, and inclusive methods for achieving performance results.   

As testimonies continue to surface of discrimination, harassment, abuse, and other forms of maltreatment in sport, the body of literature focused on safe sport and safeguarding in sport has grown substantially. In particular, recent studies have demonstrated how unsafe sport environments and maltreatment are contributing to participants’ mental health concerns and withdrawal from sport (Battaglia et coll., 2022).   

For example, in a recent SIRCuit article, a team of researchers (Eric MacIntosh, Alison Doherty and Shannon Kerr) described the findings of a study exploring athletes’ perceptions of safe and unsafe environments in high performance sport. The researchers identified coach and teammate behaviour (like aggression, exclusion, and overstepping boundaries), as well as a lack of resources and inattentive sport system (meaning, lack of accountability, attention, and/or action) as primary contributors to unsafe sporting environments. In contrast, athletes shared that they felt safest when they had a knowledgeable coach, athlete interests were prioritized, regulations were followed, they had access to ancillary support (like, physiotherapy and counselling), and when there was a sense of community among athletes and coaches.  

According to experts, adopting a values-based framework where inclusion, safety, fairness, and accessibility are promoted alongside strategies to prevent harm and abuse appears critical to optimizing  the experiences of sport participants (Gurgis, 2021). With safe sport in mind, Donnelly and Kerr (2018) recommend that sport organizations engage in the following strategies: 

The Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS) was developed in 2019 by the CCES with SIRC and in collaboration with national and multi-sport organizations, athletes, coaches, researchers and experts in the areas of child protection and safety in sport. The UCCMS 6.0 underwent a recent update by the SDRCC and is a vital tool for communities and organizations when it comes to implementing safe sport practices. The latest version includes prevention strategies for all levels of Canadian sport organizations and guidelines on how to address maltreatment if it occurs.  

UCCMS violations are investigated and sanctioned by the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC). The OSIC is the central hub within Abuse-Free Sport, Canada’s independent system for preventing and addressing maltreatment in sport. The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) launched the Abuse-Free Sport program in 2022 after extensive research and a national consultation with more than 75 different organizations. The government of Canada selected the SDRCC to develop and deliver this new safe sport mechanism at the national level in 2021.  

Abuse-Free Sport provides access to a wide range of resources, all of it available in English and French, including: 

You can visit SIRC’s safe sport web hub for more safe sport resources, including policy documents and relevant research. For safe sport education and training, the Coaching Association of Canada offers Safe Sport Training, a free online training module. The Respect Group also offers Respect in Sport Training targeted at coaches and program leaders, as well as parents.  


There are several evidence-informed approaches to sport delivery that researchers and sport organizations encourage, and that you can engage with, to promote positive experiences and combat harmful cultures in sport and society. Quality sport, values-based sport and safe sport are 3 common approaches promoted by sport researchers and practitioners to optimizes experiences and outcomes for sport participants. Although they have their differences, each of these approaches recognizes sport as a context for communities and participants to gain valuable benefits. These approaches promote morals and principles that aim to fulfill basic human needs like belonging, safety, and confidence, which encourage healthy development and overall wellbeing for all sport participants. At the end of the day, the goal of each approach is to encourage positive sport experiences that build thriving people and communities.  


“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.


Most of us have been in a situation where we have arrived at an outdoor sporting event only to find that the game has been cancelled or rescheduled due to lightning. But have you ever had the same thing happen because of air pollution? While there is a broad understanding of how to protect sport participants from environmental events like lightning, few people know what to do when the air quality is poor.

To fill this gap, the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) and Health Canada partnered to create and share air quality resources, including an e-learning module, infographics and a policy guide, for outdoor sport stakeholders. In this SIRCuit article, we describe the partnership between SIRC and Health Canada, highlight key information about air pollution and the safety of outdoor sport participation, and outline strategies that sport stakeholders can implement to help protect sport participants from the harmful effects of air pollution.

Throughout the article, we have linked to resources to help you spread awareness and take action in your sport. Together we can clear the air around air quality and the safety of outdoor sport participation!

The partnership

In 2022, Health Canada engaged SIRC to support its initiatives focused on air quality and outdoor sport safety. Health Canada provided SIRC with financial and scientific support for the creation of educational resources and tools for sport organizations, including:

Health Canada and SIRC launched the eLearning module and supporting resources at the Ontario Soccer Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, on February 25, 2023. We will continue to share the resources developed through this partnership via an education and awareness campaign targeting organizations at all levels of sport.

The basics of air pollution

Air pollution is a mixture of chemical, physical and biological agents that contaminate indoor and outdoor environments (WHO, 2022). There are many different types of air pollutants. Some of the most harmful air pollutants to human health include:

Air pollutants can come from many sources. In Canada, the highest emissions of air pollutants have been linked to electricity generation, construction, oil and gas industries, forest fires, transportation, agriculture and wood burning (GoC, 2022a). Environmental events can also contribute to poor air quality. Examples of environmental events that can contribute to air pollution include:

symptoms of smoke exposure

smog symptoms

The effects of air pollution on human health

Exposure to air pollution can lead to a range of short and long-term health effects. While short-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to symptoms such as dizziness and headaches, long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of illnesses such as lung cancer and asthma (HC, 2021). In fact, in Canada, it is estimated that air pollution contributes to 2.7 million asthma symptom days and 15,300 premature deaths each year (HC, 2021).

It is important to note that while the long-term health effects of air pollution can take years to develop, the short-term health effects can occur within minutes of exercising in an environment where the air quality is very poor. This highlights the importance of monitoring air quality when planning or engaging in physical activity.

You may be wondering: who is at risk of experiencing the adverse effects of air pollution? The answer is that everyone is at risk. However, some groups, including, children, older adults and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions are at an increased risk. Although you might not suspect it, people engaging in sports and exercise are at increased risk too. 

The effects of air pollution on outdoor sport participants

Why are athletes at an increased risk? When a person engages in physical activity outdoors, they require more oxygen (Carlisle et Sharp, 2001; Giles et Koehle, 2014). The harder they exercise, the more oxygen their body needs. To meet this increased need, a person must breathe more deeply and more frequently (Carlisle et Sharp, 2001; Giles et Koehle, 2014; EPA, 2011). If the air quality is poor, this increased air intake during exercise means that a person will also breathe in more air pollutants.

Another reason why outdoor sport participants are at increased risk is because when a person exercises heavily, they breathe more through their mouth than their nose (Carlisle et Sharp, 2001; Giles et Koehle, 2014). This means that that less air is filtered through the body’s natural filtration system in the nose, which means more air pollutants have the potential to enter the body (Bateson et Schwartz, 2007).

To summarize, athletes shift their breathing pattern and style during exercise to inhale greater amounts of air. If they are in an area with high air pollution levels, for example, near a busy roadway, they inhale more air pollutants, putting them at an increased risk of health complications.

Poor air quality can also affect athletic performance. When athletes exercise in areas with high air pollution levels, they tend to have a higher perceived exertion (Sandford et coll., 2020). More simply, exercising when the air quality is poor can make outdoor sport participants feel like they are working harder to do the same task. This can mean that athletes can’t perform at the same level as they do when the air quality is good. As you can imagine, this can have considerable implications in outdoor sporting events requiring endurance, like soccer, or timed events, like those in track and field.

The Air Quality Health Index

At this point, you may be wondering what you can do to help protect sport participants from air pollution. The answer is that you can monitor local air quality and make informed decisions about the safety of outdoor sport participation. To do that, you can use the (AQHI).

The AQHI was created to help individuals understand and make decisions about the safety of the air around them. The AQHI presents the relative health risk associated with the combined health effects of air pollutants, including Nitrogen Dioxide, Ground-level Ozone and Particulate Matter. The AQHI is presented on a scale of 1 to 10+, which is further broken down into four health risk categories ranging from low risk (1 to 3) to very high risk (10+).

AQHI risk chart

The AQHI shows observed and forecasted values, so you can use it to measure air quality before and during your event. The AQHI values are accompanied by health messages. These messages can be used to support your decisions around the safety of outdoor sport participation. When reading the health messages, it is essential to remember that outdoor sport participants are considered a high-risk population. As such, more conservative approaches should be taken to ensure their safety.

how to use AQHI

Below are some general guidelines on how the AQHI can be used for planning outdoor activity. As a coach, sport official or leader it is up to you to assess the needs of your participants as well as your environmental conditions to determine if outdoor sport participation is safe.

To access the AQHI visit or download the WeatherCAN app on Google Play or in the App Store.

Strategies to limit sport participants’ exposure to air pollution

Sport organizations, coaches and officials are responsible for the safety of their participants. Here are a few things you can do stay informed and limit sport participants’ exposure to air pollution:

Final thoughts

We hope that this article helps get you thinking about air quality and the safety of outdoor sport participation. We encourage you to use this information to start discussions within your organization or teams about the importance of considering air quality when planning and participating in outdoor sports. Remember that when air quality is poor, it is essential to modify outdoor activities to protect the health of outdoor sport and physical activity participants, as poor air quality can impact health.

An important next step for sport organizations is to develop air quality policies that support safe outdoor sport participation. The policies should provide guidance on appropriate actions to take during poor air quality events and establish education and training expectations on AQHI for coaches and sport officials. If you have any questions or need any supports as you begin this process, please do not hesitate to reach out to the SIRC team at

Resources to explore for further learning

Below are some resources that you may find helpful as you work to learn more about air pollution and what your organization can do to help keep your participants safe:

Tomorrow is Earth Day and the sport sector has a role in protecting our environment and embracing sustainability. The Canadian Olympic Committee has compiled a list of “Team Canada Climate Action Resources” that showcases how Team Canada is doing its part to protect the planet.