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“At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that the sport sector thrives and is united in offering positive sport experiences for all Canadians. For sport to do good, it must be good. For people to realize the benefits, they have to have an opportunity to play. I think that’s what it’s all about.” Karri Dawson, Senior Director of Quality Sport at the CCES, discusses the new True Sport report and next steps to ensure that sport is living up to its full potential in Canada.
Struggling to keep participants with intellectual and developmental disability and autism spectrum disorder engaged in your exercise program? Research suggests the following motivational and verbal encouragement strategies: use of chants and songs, tapping into their imagination (e.g. competing in a race while on the stationary bike or treadmill), and exercising alongside the participant.
P.R.A.I.S.E. is a tool to help teachers remember the key ingredients for making physical education experiences meaningful and motivational for high school students. The acronym stands for perceived competence, relatedness, autonomy, individuality, social support and enjoyment. Teachers can use these constructs to help increase students’ motivation to participate in physical activity.
For community sport and recreation programs to be inclusive, they need to be built to support the participation of children and youth on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For this reason, researchers from the Canadian Disability Participation Project partnered with Ausome Ottawa to create A Blueprint for Building Quality Participation in Sport for Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Blueprint identifies 22 strategies to improve access to and inclusivity in sport and recreation programs for children and youth with ASD.
Physical and health education teachers and coaches are experts at helping kids learn new skills. By patiently walking students through each learning step, they build the blocks of learners’ physical literacy. However, sport and recreation experiences aren’t built on physical skills alone. Instead, the experiences are wrapped in life lessons, personal growth and a few hard knocks. At the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), we designed a new True Sport resource with those teachable moments in mind. This resource provides educators with a series of activities that focus on developing physical and ethical literacy, side by side.
Called The True Sport Experience – Volume 1: FUNdamentals, the new resource is endorsed by Physical and Health Education (PHE) Canada for educators, coaches and recreational leaders of children, aged 6 to 9. It presents a series of energetic and fun activities, featuring at least 1 of the 7 True Sport Principles, for use in classrooms and on playgrounds or community sports fields. Using this resource, teachers can help their students discover the values at the heart of sport.
The 7 True Sport Principles are: Go for it, Play fair, Keep it fun, Stay healthy, Respect others, Include everyone, and Give back. The principles promote the kind of sport experiences that most Canadians already believe in and practise. That is, sport that’s fair, promotes excellence, fosters inclusion and is fun.
Why ethical literacy?
In short, The True Sport Experience is a blueprint intended to create positive sport and recreation experiences. It marries physical literacy activities with ethical literacy learning objectives.
Many of us are familiar with physical literacy, described as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life” (International Physical Literacy Association, 2020). But, ethical literacy may be a new concept. At the CCES, we define ethical literacy as “the ability to collect and evaluate information, reflect on one’s own moral values, identify the potential outcomes of various options and their impacts, make reasoned decisions about which options align with one’s values, act consistently with one’s values, explain one’s decisions, and take responsibility for one’s actions.”
That sounds like a concept for adults, but the activities in The True Sport Experience are developmentally appropriate for kids in the FUNdamentals stage of Sport for Life’s Long-term development (LTD) in sport and physical activity. Kids will explore, apply and evaluate how their personal values influence their ethical decision-making, in real time, through structured and unstructured play environments.
For example, the Heart Healthy Bingo activity mixes tasks like doing 20 jumping jacks and telling a peer the reason it’s important to drink enough water. Such tasks should get kids talking about how to stay healthy in both mind and body. In the “Include Everyone” chapter, the Musical Hoops activity reinforces the idea that inclusive games can increase health and enjoyment for all. In that activity, you remove hoops from the game, but the players stay. No one is left out of the game and instead the players team up inside the remaining hoops!
A Minds On pre-game discussion helps educators set the stage for each activity. Minds On also includes a set of post-game questions to guide educators through ways to draw out learnings from the participants.
What’s more, when physical literacy and ethical literacy are developed at the same time, kids gain additional life skills. For example, they strengthen their executive functions, a family of mental processes. Executive functions enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions or rules, see things from a different perspective, respond to novel or unpredictable circumstances, and juggle multiple tasks successfully (Diamond, 2013).
In addition to the resource’s activities, there’s a summary of physical literacy, ethical literacy and LTD in sport and physical activity. Specific connections are made to each within the activities, which align with current Canadian physical and health education curriculums. Every activity includes discussion prompts, assessment tools and special considerations, where applicable.
Gaining the industry’s quality stamp of approval
PHE Canada’s endorsement of The True Sport Experience is an instantly recognizable stamp within the physical and health education sector, certifying and communicating quality. PHE Canada’s endorsement process involved consultation with an advisory team of experienced educators and sector experts from across Canada. That team recognized the resource for its support of quality physical and health education programming and the promotion of healthy learning environments for students.
“I truly believe everyone deserves and should expect a positive sporting experience,” says Grant McManes, a retired educator, True Sport Champion, and a PHE Canada board representative for Manitoba-Nunavut. “Through this resource, educators, coaches and others may set the stage for introducing the True Sport Principles in a fun and interactive way to children as they’re beginning to explore sport. This will allow them to both understand the principles and embody them throughout their daily and sporting experiences.”
Educators play an important role in the development of physical and ethical literacy of Canadian children. Physical literacy is a cornerstone of physical education and sport development, but ethical literacy is often an afterthought. Lessons in The True Sport Experience bring ethical literacy development to an equal footing with physical skill development.
By using The True Sport Experience in the classroom, community and beyond, educators can unlock the potential for a lifetime of positive sport and recreation experiences. Their students will be more likely to value physical activity and to seek out and nurture similar experiences throughout their lives. In turn, they could help form a generation of Canadians who recognize that good sport can make a significant difference.
About True Sport
The True Sport Principles define Canada’s commitment to values-based sport. True Sport is an initiative of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. It gives people, communities and organizations the means to leverage the many benefits of good sport from a platform of shared values and principles. Learn more at truesport.ca.
Children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) can benefit physically and psychosocially when they take part in sport (Baran et al., 2009, 2013; Weiss & Bebko, 2008).
Unfortunately, their needs are often neglected, which leads to various physical, social, communication and policy barriers to their involvement (Shields & Synnot, 2016). These obstacles may affect how frequently children wish to be involved in sports and the quality of their participation.
This blog discusses 3 blueprints for how program providers can build sport programs that foster quality participation for children, youth and adults with disabilities. After releasing its first blueprint, the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP) released 2 others in 2020, together with partners Special Olympics Canada and Ausome Ottawa.
Groundwork for quality participation
Quality participation is achieved when athletes with disabilities enjoy participating in sport, and consider their involvement in sports to be satisfying and their experiences to be important (Evans et al., 2018). Quality experiences are built from 6 building blocks: autonomy, belongingness, challenge, engagement, mastery and meaning (Martin Ginis, Evans, Mortenson, & Noreau, 2017).
Consistent exposure of athletes to those building blocks can lead to quality experiences that should contribute to lasting quality participation (Evans et al., 2018). However, the building blocks need a foundation consisting of physical, program and social environments that are safe, welcoming and inclusive (Evans et al., 2018).
Tailoring a blueprint for adults with IDD is a priority area for future partnerships. As the CDPP works toward refining strategies that promote quality participation for adults with IDD, practitioners can rely upon the building blocks to guide their programming. The CDPP research suggests the building blocks apply across age groups, disability groups and performance levels.
In the meantime, the CDPP’s existing partners identified the need for blueprints specifically for programming for children and youth with IDD. Going beyond the sport context, the CDPP conducted a systematic scoping review to increase its understanding about children (ages 2 to 12 years) with IDD and their quality of participation in leisure, education, and rehabilitation programs (Bruno et al., 2021).
Throughout the review, the CDPP consulted with Special Olympics Canada, the largest national organization dedicated to enriching the lives of Canadians with intellectual disabilities in sport.
The CDPP determined that the building blocks for quality participation also applied to children with IDD. The review identified and synthesized a list of 30 practical strategies underpinning the building blocks and the outcomes associated with quality participation.
Evidence suggested that if program providers combine the strategies, participants may experience various outcomes like empowerment, independence and inclusion. Informed by that review, the CDPP co-developed 2 more blueprints adapted from the original blueprint.
This resource is tailored for children and youth, ages 2 to 6 years and 7 to 12 years, in Special Olympics Canada’s Active Start and FUNdamentals recreational programs. This resource identifies 30 strategies for building quality participation in such programs. It can also help to encourage national availability of high-quality, evidence-based sport programming for children with intellectual disabilities.
Belongingness, mastery and challenge rank as the most important building blocks for Special Olympics programming and athletes. At a minimum, these 3 building blocks should be used in this type of programming.
Targeting the remaining 3 building blocks (autonomy, meaning and engagement) may also be ideal. Strive to go beyond the minimum by adding these other 3 building blocks to enhance program quality.
Children and youth with autism spectrum disorder
It isn’t enough for community sports and recreation programs to allow children and youth on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to join, if these programs aren’t built to adequately support their participation.”
This blueprint provides coaches, instructors, sports associations, school boards and other groups and individuals with 22 strategies for quality participation. If used, these strategies mean children and youth with ASD would have more access to and inclusivity in sport and recreation programs. By reflecting on their programming, strategy adopters can determine strengths and areas for improvement to ensure children with ASD experience quality participation in sport.
Interestingly, exactly the same takeaways apply to children and youth with ASD as to those same age groups with intellectual disabilities.
The CDPP encourages program providers, coaches, sport organizations, and other groups and individuals involved in program delivery to consider quality participation priorities within the context of their programming. The CDPP also recommends they refer to the Quality Participation Strategy Guides within the applicable blueprints.
Key considerations for program providers:
Understand your program’s and athletes’ unique needs to help you identify which building blocks you should focus on and prioritize.
Use strategies that align with your program’s priorities and athletes’ needs.
Implementing a strategy, as described in the blueprints, could influence many building blocks of quality participation.
It may be impossible or unnecessary to use all the strategies in the blueprints. However, implementing more strategies will likely increase the potential for creating a quality experience for your athletes.
True Sport is based on the values of fairness, excellence, inclusion and fun; and driven by the seven True Sport Principles: Go For It, Play Fair, Respect Others, Keep It Fun, Stay Healthy, Include Everyone and Give Back. But what does this look like in practice? Gymnastics Canada’s new Values-Based Sport Module is designed to help coaches put these values into practice.
Paradoxically, Masters sport is equally celebrated and ignored. Masters athletes are celebrated because they are motivated, goal-oriented, and determined to thrive at ages when sport participation has traditionally waned – they defeat stereotypes and allow us to rethink possibilities. Yet Masters athletes (MAs) can also be an “after-thought” in sport organizations, receiving scarce attention. Our pan-Canadian research team has been exploring this paradox and its implications during the past decade. We commend researchers that came before us, starting in the 1980s, who studied the physiological implications of sport participation into older age. However, we noted the relative lack of attention to social and psychological motives of MAs and the needs of adults seeking ways to be active in sport for life, leading us to explore how MAs are different than other athletes and what this means for sport programmers and coaches.
Masters sport is advertised and organized specifically for adults who are beyond the typical age of peak performance. Typically, Masters sports cater to athletes beginning at age 35 (e.g., athletics, cycling), although some begin as young as 18 (gymnastics, artistic skating) or 25 (swimming). It is rule-governed and competitive. MAs, by definition, report having a regular pattern of practice/training in advance of competitions, and the majority in individual sports like track and field and swimming have dedicated coaches. They range in serious-mindedness, from the recreationally competitive who devote two to six hours weekly to their sport, to those who compete in national and international events and devote upwards of 10 hours weekly.
Recently, various Canadian and international sport organizations have reached out to us and asked for evidence-based insight to help support their Masters sports programs. The result has been increasing dialogue between researchers and practitioners on how to enhance a Quality Masters Sport Experience, and about unique approaches to organizing and coaching middle-aged and older adults in sport. This article provides an overview of what we have learned about programming for enhancing MAs’ sport experiences, focused on themes that have resonated with sport programmers and coaches in our recent webinars. We specifically discuss the valuable role of a coach and adult-tailored coaching approaches, and the emergence of practical tools for coaches to hone these approaches in their craft.
Quality Masters sport experience
Asking sport programmers and coaches to reflect on characteristics of a Quality Sport Experience is a great way to initiate dialogue about MAs. During webinars and other learning sessions with various sport organizations, we asked, “what do you believe are the hallmarks of an adult athletic experience that has integrity, is worthy of investment, and likely to generate fulsome benefits for participants?”. This question really gets coaches and programmers talking, causing them to reflect on the needs of MAs, which are often different than those of youth, adolescent, or younger high-performance athletes. Although answers can be quite individualized, respondents commonly share perspectives that fit into several identifiable themes based in research in the domain. In Table 1, we present these themes as the seven Hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience. These hallmarks are derived from our interpretation of a broad body of evidence on Masters sport, including work on the psychology of the MA (Young, 2011; Young, Callary & Rathwell, 2018), profiling of MAs (Larson, Young, McHugh & Rodgers, 2020; Rathwell, Callary & Young, 2015), and reviews dedicated to coaching MAs (Callary & Young, 2020). The table includes descriptions of each hallmark, and questions to help coaches think through these important considerations.
Table 1: Hallmarks of a quality Masters sport experience
Example Questions for Coaches to Ponder
MAs have multifaceted perspectives on competition, and competitions provide a framing that can enrich sport activity.
Do you emphasize the opportunity for MAs to meaningfully translate their hard work in training to competition? To use lessons from competition to enhance training?
Do you motivate MAs to self-compete, to better their own standards?
Do you set up opportunities for MAs to engage in competitive activities during practice?
MAs derive feelings of competency when they fulfill goals related to learning, improving, and giving effort.
Do you set up progressions that become increasingly more complex over time, and increasingly demand more effort?
Do you encourage MAs to monitor, reflect upon, identify, and celebrate instances of mastery?
Do you set up instances where MAs persevere to eventually overcome a skill acquisition barrier?
Testing and Assessing Oneself
MAs like to push themselves to learn or refine facets of sport and appreciate being held to account for outcomes.
Do you set up opportunities for MAs to test themselves on criteria for sport skills?
Do you collaborate on criteria for assessment with MAs? At an agreed difficulty level?
Do your MAs have opportunities to succeed and fall short in trials? Do they get retests, and suitable training so they can improve?
MAs are motivated to search for, and benefit from, social connections, and a sense of belonging among relatable people.
Does your club have a close-knit climate where MAs feel they belong to something special?
How do norms in your club encourage MAs to share in the “good times”?
Do you show an interest in each MA? How do you connect on sport and non-sport matters?
Fun and Fitness
MAs want to have a good time and enjoy the idea of being an athlete, while being supported by a program that gets them in great shape.
Does your program make MAs fitter using “sporty” approaches that differ from exercise/gym routines?
Do your MAs experience an “adult sporting lifestyle”? Which aspects of your program and/or coaching allow participants to call themselves “athletes”?
Do you know which aspects of your program MAs find most enjoyable? Do you sufficiently plan for them?
MAs are inherently interested in obtaining knowledge about their activities and becoming a “student of their sport” is rewarding.
Do you know which aspects of your program MAs find most informative? Do you sufficiently plan for them?
How do you make your adults smarter for when they do things on their own?
Do you use approaches that challenge MAs on what they don’t know, in ways that motivate them to learn?
MAs want to feel their sport pursuits stem from their decisions, informed by collaborations.
Do MAs show pride in their decisions to commit to sport? How do you encourage this?
Do you know which aspects of your program and/or coaching give MAs self-direction? Do you sufficiently plan for them?
Is your decision making and practice planning informed by two-way communication with MAs?
MAs need to feel that their investments in sport are being reciprocated and legitimized by the quality of practice/programming and coaching they receive.
Do your athletes believe that they are getting value for their money?
Does your coaching respect that busy adults have dedicated their little free leisure time to your practices?
Is your coaching of sufficient quality to legitimize their time away from other activities, including family time?
We have found that coaches without experience in Masters sport typically assume MAs are either engaged to fulfill their social needs, or are hard-nosed enthusiasts looking to satisfy a quench for competition. Our Hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience allow for a multidimensional interpretation, recognizing the remarkable diversity of MAs’ motives, backgrounds, and experiences, while understanding their unique realities in adulthood. Reflecting on Table 1 encourages practitioners to think in new ways about MAs and to think broadly about what is different with Masters cohorts.
What’s different about coaching adults? Their unique psychosocial needs
In 2015, we interviewed Masters swimmers from community clubs in Ontario. Swimmers were asked about their wants, needs and preferences from coaches in their sport. The most important finding was the vast benefits they attributed to having a coach – in essence, they believed that without a coach, their involvement would simply be fitness or exercise. They described instances where their coach enhanced their confidence, skill set, process of learning, lifestyle habits, and shaped a climate that met their social affiliation needs (Callary, Rathwell & Young, 2015). Masters coaches can be exceptional resources who embody the “value” in organized sport programming. By studying the preferences of MAs and how they are satisfied through the approaches of coaches, sport researchers have begun to understand effective Masters coaching. Moreover, in sports like golf where instructors are often sub-contractors who run their own enterprise, a better understanding of how to effectively coach adults enhances “entrepreneurial value.”
Through research with Masters swimmers, several areas of importance in Masters coaching were identified (Callary et al., 2015), including:
Coaches’ professional development, personal attributes and knowledge – Effective coaches let it be known to their MAs they are continually invest in coaching education and gathering new coaching resources. MAs see this as a sign that their coach is credible, cares, and is immersed in efforts to improve.
Instructional behaviors and feedback delivery – Effective coaches know which athletes prefer technical correction and being pushed in front of others, and which athletes do not. There is great variability in the types of feedback to which each MA will respond.
Planning of practices and programs – Effective coaches are remarkably efficient managers of practice time. They justify adults’ presence at practice with well-structured and organized activities, but also collaborate on aspects of flexible programming to allow adults to fit other training in on their own terms. Effective coaches motivate or “ready” MAs to train, but also know when to accommodate MAs’ fluctuations in readiness.
Preparation of and interaction with athletes around competitions – Effective coaches use upcoming competitions to contextualize the technical or strategic aspects that individual MAs need to work on in training.
Research has shown that these areas of coaching can be very different when working with MAs, compared to other cohorts. This has been established in swimming (Callary, Rathwell, & Young, 2017; Ferrari, Bloom, Gilbert & Caron, 2017), sprint canoe and kayak (MacLellan, Callary & Young, 2018), and dragonboat (Callary, Rathwell, MacLellan & Young, 2015), and with testimonials from coaches about the unique nuances of working with adults in sports as varied as touch rugby, soccer, alpine skiing, artistic skating, and racewalking (Callary, Young & Rathwell, 2021).
In particular, the research indicates that the psychosocial skills of coaching – the “relational or people skills” – need to be different when coaching MAs. Literature certainly exists about the biophysical, physiological, and injury risk considerations associated with coaching MAs. However, our emerging body of research advocates for fulsome consideration of psychosocial skills that are essential for establishing quality interactions, social connections, trust and belief in collaboration, and a sense of partnership (Callary, Currie & Young, 2020). Altogether, coaches who effectively consider the relational nuances for how to coach matured adult athletes are instrumental in delivering a Quality Masters Sport Experience.
Adult-oriented coaching approaches
One of the critical aspects of relational coaching in Masters sport is the use of adult-oriented coaching approaches. Adult-oriented approaches consider the nuances of organizing, leading, instructing, and collaborating with MAs. These approaches respect adults’ matured self-concept and how it influences their approach to learning, such as their enhanced inquisitiveness and tendencies to want to frame sport challenges in personally meaningful ways (see MacLellan, Callary & Young, 2019). Over the past four years, we have established five essential approaches to adult-oriented coaching and developed an Adult-Oriented Sport Coaching Survey (AOSCS; Rathwell, Young, Callary, Motz, Hoffmann & Currie, 2020) to help coaches self-assess these approaches in their practice. There is also a corresponding athlete version of the AOSCS that allows MAs to rate how frequently they experience adult-oriented approaches from their coaches. Table 2 defines and describes each of these five approaches. The AOSCS provides a valuable tool for coach learning and reflection, which can be used to enhance coach development and performance. Within our webinars, coaches have been reflecting on themes found within the AOSCS and considering how they apply to their coaching philosophy. Moreover, coaches can be taught how to track their AOSCS scores (globally, and for each of the approaches) across the season. Coaches can also use scores derived from the athlete version of the AOSCS to receive developmental feedback based on their athletes’ experiences. Data from MAs’ surveys can be considered alongside the coach’s self-report data to identify any incongruencies, such as when the coach feels that they are using an adult-oriented approach but it is not being perceived by their athletes. Coaches can use the combined data to create their own profile for how they are using each of the five approaches, which ones are being “received” by athletes, and how these relationships change over time. Such a process allows coaches to reflect on strengths, weaknesses, congruencies, and changes related to the relational component of their coaching practice.
Table 2: The five adult-oriented sport coaching approaches
Definition of Adult-Oriented Approach:
Considering the Individuality of Athletes
How a coach considers and tailors their approach to each MA’s experiences and motives in the planning, organization, and delivery of practice
Framing Learning Situations
How a coach frames learning situations for their MAs through self-discovery, problem-based scenarios, modeling, and assessments
Imparting Coaching Knowledge
How a coach shares their own relevant athletic experience, coaching knowledge, and professional coaching development
Respecting Preferences for Effort, Accountability and Feedback
How a coach adapts their approach to consider how each MA wishes to be held accountable for working hard and giving effort, and how each MA wishes to receive feedback at practice
Creating Personalized Programming
How a coach considers and tailors aspects of scheduling (practices and competitions), season-long programming, and support at competitions, to a MA’s needs and abilities
Realizing positive outcomes
Coaches of MAs can apply the five coaching approaches organically – using them in teachable moments or opportune instances, based on need, or can intentionally plan for their use. Our recent research found that by applying all five AOSCS approaches across a season, coaches were able to enhance positive outcomes. This included enhancing their personal relationships with their athletes, and satisfying their athletes’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Coaches’ use of AOSCS approaches was also significantly and positively related to the degree to which MAs reported commitment to, and liking of, their sport experience (Motz, Rathwell, Young, Callary, Hoffmann, & Currie, 2019). In light of the finding that AOSCS approaches are positively associated with MAs’ ratings for positive sport outcomes, we believe the AOSCS can be a tool for coach self-assessment that may foster an empowering environment and can set a precedence for discussion about how coaching approaches meet MAs’ wants and needs. The use of AOSCS surveys in webinars and workshops, perhaps in concert with coach education developers (Callary & Young, 2020), can draw coaches’ attention to areas to nuance their approaches with adults.
Call to Action: Developing quality Masters sport experiences
The evidence-based research that has amounted in recent years, and coaches’ recent responses to this information at webinars, suggests there are real differences between coaching MAs and younger athletes. Undoubtedly, there are intrapersonal, interpersonal and professional knowledges associated generically with coaching all different cohorts, but clearly there are Masters-specific nuances to coaching knowledge and practice that should be given due deliberation if we are to satisfy the Hallmarks of a Quality Masters Sport Experience.
The sport organizations with which we have had the pleasure to interact are asking for information on how to coach effectively within the Masters context. Sport organizations are responding to a need, likely due to the prospect of a growing Masters participant base. This is an opportune time to advance more systematic and evidence-based approaches to Masters sport programming and coach development. It is overdue. When we explored sources of learning to coach MAs, coaches reported much trial and error experimentation, many had never considered the need to develop their knowledge on relational coaching of adults, and almost none had received any coach education on the topic (Callary, Rathwell & Young, 2018). There clearly was a knowledge gap. We are optimistic that sport programmers want to know more about developing adult-oriented coaching practices and see great opportunities in encouraging coaches’ development of interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies (not only their knowledge of sport sciences and sport-specific skills) for the Masters cohort.
Coaching Masters Athletes (coming April 2021) – A foundational textbook resource for all coaches and student coaches who are, or who plan to be, working with Masters athletes.
www.coachingmastersathletes.com – Houses a catalogue of the authors’ work, infographics relating to evidence-based practice, information on the AOSCS tools, and home of the Coaching Masters Athletes Research Network.
In a survey of Gymnastics Canada members and stakeholders, 100% felt adding the True Sport Principles to the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) courses would be an effective strategy to provide coaches with education and training to deliver quality sport experiences. This supported the creation of a new e-Learning course developed to reflect Gymnastics Canada’s commitment to True Sport.
When the initial shock of the COVID-19 lockdown passed, the attention of our sector turned to contemplating what sport and physical activity would look like in an era of public health restrictions. The development and implementation of return to play plans, driven by a commitment to sport organizations’ members and the practicality of long-term sustainability, is a task perhaps without parallel. SIRC sat down (virtually, of course!) with four sport leaders to discuss their return to play approach and key learnings to date. What emerged were five key themes focused on returning to play…better.
1. Safety – the #1 priority
It should come as no surprise that the four leaders identified the safety of staff, participants, and other community members as their number one priority. “We made it clear that compliance with public health guidelines was non-negotiable,” said Stuart McReynolds, CEO of the Abilities Centre, a community hub in Whitby providing universally designed programs and services to support health and wellbeing, social inclusion and economic participation for persons of all ages and abilities. “But we realized that there were tonnes of things that were negotiable – class times, set up, the streamlining of intake processes – where we could be innovative and create the best experience for our members.” Based on public health guidance, organizations developed a range of protocols, practices and supports. For WinSport, the not-for-profit community-based organization that owns and operates Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, this meant daily health screening and temperature checks when programming started in July. Jennifer Konopaki, WinSport’s Executive Director, Sport, reflected, “Some parents may have thought this was over the top; but others appreciated the efforts. In implementing the public health guidelines, it was important that WinSport make decisions in the interests of all our staff and guests.”
All leaders spoke to the considerable time and expertise required to understand and apply public health guidance. Consultation with local and provincial/territorial health authorities helped ensure return to play plans were compliant. For PHE Canada, the national voice for quality physical and health education opportunities and healthy learning environments, providing support to their national network of physical and health education teachers meant understanding the different expectations of health authorities and school districts across the country. To boost her organization’s capacity now and for the future, Amy Walsh, Executive Director of Hockey Nova Scotia, described the creation of a Chief Medical Officer position on their Board of Directors. This new position provided essential expertise during the development of return to play guidelines for Hockey Nova Scotia’s member associations, and boosts organizational capacity long-term to address key issues such as concussion prevention and management.
2. Commitment to a quality experience
Creating quality sport experiences given public health restrictions may seem like a daunting task. However, the sport leaders SIRC spoke with approached return to play with a blend of creativity, innovation, and a commitment to values-based sport. For example, Tricia Zakaria, Director of Programs and Education at PHE Canada, spoke about the need for physical educators and program leaders to be creative with places and programming, such as the use of alternative spaces (e.g. outdoor areas, little-used hallways and multi-use space) and activities requiring little or no equipment. “Driving PHE Canada’s support to our members was a commitment to providing practical ideas and solutions so teachers would feel confident delivering quality programs in this ‘new reality.’” The sport leaders also spoke about new innovations, from ongoing virtual programs, to cameras and live streaming so families can watch games from home, to the development of customer apps to support diverse program delivery.
Beyond programming logistics, the sport leaders described quality experience from a relationship perspective. Staff training built skills to support the social-emotional wellbeing of participants and staff, ranging from new relationship-building strategies that respect public health measures (e.g. with fist pumps, smiles and positive body language), to increasing awareness and empathy relating to the impact of the pandemic on physical and mental health. McReynolds described the Abilities Centre’s participant-centred approach, and the use of staffed contact points (e.g. exterior doors, registration desk, program area) to check in with members and ensure they feel safe and comfortable. Early program feedback from Hockey Nova Scotia revealed that the new small group programming supported stronger skill development opportunities and relationships amongst teammates and coaches.
3. Stakeholder communication and engagement
For the leaders, communicating with staff, volunteers, and – most importantly – members, has been essential. This included email updates, virtual town halls, surveys, and consultation groups. Shortly after lockdown, PHE Canada began hosting monthly cross-Canada check-ins, providing an opportunity for their network “to connect, worry and problem solve together.” Similarly, Hockey Nova Scotia hosted bi-weekly calls with association members that grew to 170+ regular participants. Walsh said the organization has benefited immensely from the insight and advice from the 50+ members involved directly in return to play committees. McReynolds spoke about the Abilities Centre’s approach to co-designing and co-producing their return to play plan, and the value of taping into staff (of whom 30% are persons with disabilities) in the testing and refinement of the Centre’s public health protocols and program models.
Stakeholder communication and engagement was particularly important as the organizations prepared to open their doors. First, it ensured staff knew and bought into the public health protocols. McReynolds said, “The public health training and communication with staff created a sense of pride that they work with an organization that had invested resources in ensuring staff and members felt safe.” Second, communication with members ensured they knew what to expect before arriving on site. Konopaki described how WinSport’s “know before you go” guidance for parents and summer camp participants demystified protocols and ensured families felt confident returning to play.
4. Supporting the broader community
Leaders also connected with external organizations and networks to share and learn from promising practices and evidence-based approaches. For example, Walsh participated in regular calls with the executive directors of other provincial ice sport organizations, and the Recreation Facility Association of Nova Scotia; Konopaki connected regularly with the Calgary Recreation Leadership Network; and McReynolds was dialed into Canadian and international partner networks in both the sport and accessibility sectors. Given the challenges everyone is facing, McReynolds commented that it was refreshing to see the open and transparent sharing happening between organizations with the intention of supporting everyone’s success. He said, “Now is the time to throw out the competitiveness that sometimes exists between organizations and share the information so everyone comes back stronger.” Konopaki commented, “It’s OK to not have the answers – tap into your networks to ask questions and access the expertise and insight you need.” Walsh spoke about the new relationships that were built that will continue to pay dividends, long-after the pandemic as ended.
5. An intentional approach
The most important element of the return to play approaches described by the sport leaders was a slow, intentional approach. For example, when WinSport opened its doors in early July, it was with one major offering – mountain bike camps. This is in stark contrast to their usual offering of 50+ camps. “Our team decided the best approach was to start small and not be a hero,” Konopaki said. “Mountain biking, delivered outside with participants’ own equipment, built on our strengths and gave us an opportunity to open our doors and refine our processes in a controlled way.” Similarly, McReynolds, who opened the Abilities Centre doors in late August, said, “We took a long-term perspective and avoided making any rash decisions – we knew getting it wrong could have huge impacts.”
Underpinning the leaders’ intentional approach was a sincere commitment to returning to play…better – more impactful, more inclusive, and more equitable. Konopaki described reopening as an opportunity to “disrupt the status quo,” recalibrating, reprioritizing, and in some cases stopping services delivered by WinSport. At Hockey Nova Scotia, Walsh used the months since lockdown to evaluate services, pilot new offerings, and update processes – such as building a new website for improved communication and encouraging multiple registration points to reduce commitment for the youngest hockey players and their families. For PHE Canada, Zakaria spoke to the creation of safe and equitable school communities that support children’s basic needs. For McReynolds, the opportunity to implement accessible and inclusive design and programming has never been better. Driving decision-making with their organizational values and the priorities of their members, these leaders are committed to returning to play better, providing an inspiring example for others.
SIRC thanks the leaders that contributed to this blog:
Jennifer Konopaki, Executive Director, Sport, WinSport (Calgary, AB)
Stuart McReynolds, President & CEO, Abilities Centre (Whitby, ON)
Amy Walsh, Executive Director, Hockey Nova Scotia (Halifax, NS)