The Sport Information Resource Centre
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The Sport Information Resource Centre

Participating in sport can have many benefits for lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) youth. Sport has the potential to bring joy, distraction and mindfulness that frees LGB youth from worry and fear in other domains of their lives. Sport can also provide important social connections and support for LGB youth as they negotiate coming out.

In this blog, we explain why LGB youth often feel unsafe in sport. Aligned with a movement to understand the nuances of different gender and sexual identities we focus on LGB identities. We also recommend 5 strategies that coaches and other sport leaders should consider to create more inclusive cultures in their teams and organizations for LGB and transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ+) identities.

Feeling unsafe

Unfortunately, many LGB youth miss the benefits of sport due to a variety of constraints and barriers that lead to a decrease in sport participation compared to heterosexual youth (Greenspan et al., 2017). For LGB youth who remain in sport, their experiences may be negatively affected or they may seek out other activities in which they feel less stigmatized.

Young athletes and participants experience sexual stigma from multiple stakeholders (for example, coaches, teammates, teachers, parents and guardians). Sexual stigma may not necessarily lead to obvious homophobic behaviours and violence toward LGB athletes and participants. However, that stigma is ever-present in their stories. Sexual stigma affects all young athletes and participants, regardless of their sexual identity.

Female athlete struggling with mental health after trainingAn important reason LGB youth don’t participate in sports is because they feel unsafe. Obvious homophobia often happens in locker rooms with young people using harmful language (Greenspan et al., 2019). By linking words such as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to either weakness or mistakes, then individuals are displaying homonegative and heteronormative acts. Humour and anti-gay physical aggression are forms of obvious homophobia that create unsafe spaces for LGB athletes (Smits et al., 2021).

How an organization, team or coach prevents or responds to these acts plays a significant role in whether LGB youth feel safe in sport. But not all coaches feel equipped or prepared to support LGB youth. And, organizational resources to guide coaches aren’t always available.

Strategies for coaches and organizations

In an upcoming chapter in the Routlege Handbook of Coaching Children in Sport (in press), we recommend 5 strategies that coaches and other sport leaders should consider to create a more inclusive culture in their teams and organizations. Here, we summarize those strategies and link them to helpful resources:

  1. Group of football fans holding soccer ball coloredRecognize that participation alone doesn’t mean inclusion: Don’t define ‘success’ by how many LGBTQ+ athletes and participants are taking part in sport. Some may be questioning their identities or haven’t disclosed their identities to others. Safety is reflected in formal rules and policies as well as the more subtle ways we shape our interactions (Canadian Women & Sport, 2017). It’s important to develop an environment in which everyone feels safe, respected, equal, and like they can have a positive experience.
  2. Engage in education and self-reflection: Be an ally and do your homework. Learn about sexual stigma and work to find ways to counter these negative beliefs in your own actions and those of others. Remember that we may unintentionally express homonegative attitudes or insinuations within our sport or coaching practice (Krane, 2016).
  3. Develop partnerships: Seek out and build relationships with local and national LGBTQ+, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) advocacy groups. They can help you find the resources and training you need. You can also find resources that are free and easy to download. In many instances, these organizations are already doing this work and you can invest in their efforts (for example, YouthREX 2019Queersmart 2018The Trevor Project 2020).
  4. Recruit and support individuals who identify as LGBTQ+: The intentional recruitment of LGBTQ+ young people as well as LGBTQ+ parents or guardians in leadership positions (for example, as coaches or directors) is a way to build safe and inclusive environments. They can provide diverse perspectives and raise questions about exclusionary policies and practices. However, be careful not to tokenize, that is recruit LGBTQ+ people as a symbolic effort. Be aware not to expect these individuals to contribute inequitably to work being done in your organization. Always being the one to educate and ‘wave the flag’ leads to burnout and fatigue (Trussell et al., 2018).
  5. Evaluate organizational policies and practices: Evaluate if your organization and leaders (for example, coaches) are using inclusive language. Examine if your policies and practices reflect and respect the diversity of the broader community. Consider policies and practices involving statements on websites, inclusive language on registration forms, LGBTQ+-friendly images and promotional materials, special events, and more. Websites and the language used on registration forms are often an important marker for families to decide if an organization will be a welcoming space or not (Trussell, 2020). Secondly, establish clear guidelines and codes of conduct for how instances of abuse will be treated. Athletes, participants and families need to know how they can report incidents of abuse and if they’ll be supported. 

Coaches and other sport leaders play an important role in creating safe, welcoming and supporting contexts for athletes and participants. They can also be important allies in LGBTQ+ young peoples’ lives. All stakeholders in sport need to think critically about inclusion and how to create a more just and equitable sport system that serves all youth. 

Over the past 6 months, we’ve seen ongoing news of alleged maltreatment of athletes who compete at national and international levels. These reports of maltreatment in artistic swimming, gymnastics, bobsleigh and skeleton, and most recently boxing have sparked increased discussion by both the sport sector and the public. These reports also led to action by the Government of Canada and countless calls to meaningfully engage stakeholders, specifically athletes, to collaboratively evolve the sport system for the better.

Sport administrators are working in earnest to ensure that sport is safe, welcoming and inclusive. They’re working to that end despite facing heightened demands in terms of increased mandates, podium expectations, stagnant funding, dropping participation rates and intensified public scrutiny. To make positive changes, we must understand our organizational environments and the needs and interests of our stakeholders. Program evaluation and analysis methods are traditionally used by sport and recreation organizations to gain this understanding. However, real-world data and real-world evidence offer another format for understanding the environment and responding to these needs.

Applying real-world data to sport

computer with data analysisThe health sector has begun to use real-world data (RWD) to inform its practices. RWD is an umbrella term for healthcare data collected from various sources in the routine delivery of care, as opposed to what’s collected from strictly conventional randomized control trials (Birkmeyer, 2021; Makady et al., 2017). These RWD sources include patient, clinical and hospital data, public health and social data, and others (Makady et al., 2017). By looking across these data sources, they can use analytics to transform that aggregated data into real-world evidence (RWE) through analytics. In turn, that results in rich and holistic insights that can be used to inform changes in policy and make meaningful decisions about daily practice (Birkmeyer, 2021).

Sport organizers have traditionally used demographics, registration and retention data to inform decision making. They’ve also conducted formal evaluations after finishing programs and events. Although this information is useful, analysis can take considerable time. Plus, the analysis may only happen annually or at a few key points throughout the year, such as between seasons of play. To this end, the concepts of RWD and RWE offer a different perspective in how the sport sector could interpret data and respond to stakeholders’ needs and trends. Incorporating new and different types of data into analysis could allow sport organizers to bridge the real-world experience of stakeholders and respond in real time.

Stakeholder engagement is one RWD source that could present sport organizers a fuller picture of their organization. Stakeholder engagement is the process of listening to, collaborating with or informing stakeholders. These stakeholders would be the groups of people who have an investment in the organization, such as participants and athletes, parents, guardians, caregivers, coaches, officials, volunteers and administrators, partners and sponsors (Ferkins & Shilbury, 2013). This engagement could happen in various informal and formal ways. For example, those ways could include but not be limited to, surveys, focus groups, interviews, personal conversations, polls or simple one-question check-ins.

The various stakeholders who contribute to stakeholder voices include: •	Athletes and participants •	Parents, guardians and caregivers •	Coaches and sport officials •	PTSOs and clubs •	Staff •	Board members

Considerations for doing stakeholder engagement well

  1. Receive feedback openly, without response

To engage in stakeholder engagement well, it’s essential to truly hear stakeholders’ perspectives. It’s equally important to gain a full understanding about all that the stakeholders have to share. It’s best to listen with open hearts, without judgment, and not respond to what’s offered. It can be difficult to receive constructive or critical feedback. It’s also tempting to correct what seems misunderstood. However, reserving comments and rationale for a later point in the process builds an open environment. In an open environment, all perceptions, both positive and negative, are welcomed. That environment lets stakeholders feel heard, which ultimately builds trust.

  1. Consider the format carefully

Consider who will conduct the stakeholder engagement and what their relationship is to the topic of engagement or the organization. Some stakeholders perceive direct involvement of an organization as a conflict of interest or an influence of power. Others won’t feel safe sharing their honest opinions without assurance of anonymity. Therefore, it can be wise to seek facilitators who are independent to the topic or organization.

  1. Develop a plan for reporting back

Your message is heard above social media network noise in speech bubble copy space background.An important part of doing stakeholder engagement well is to develop a process for reporting back on the feedback received. This can happen in a variety of ways, including circulating a summary report, publishing an article in the organization’s newsletter or on its website, posting videos on social media, holding a town hall, or directly contacting those who participated in the engagement.

An engagement report should include a summary of what was heard and the resulting decisions that have been made. It should also discuss if stakeholders shared feedback that didn’t lead to changes being made. It may also be an excellent opportunity to correct any misconceptions that were raised during the stakeholder engagement. Be sure to also report on timelines of any resulting actions, especially if they’re longer-term timelines.

Without completing this step, stakeholders may assume the organization never intended to act on the feedback received. Reporting back demonstrates transparency and integrity to the process.

Final thoughts

Stakeholders have rich insights to share based on their backgrounds, lived experiences and positions within sport. Compared to traditional data, stakeholder engagement offers the ability to glean insights that may not have been available otherwise. Engagement offers a way to answer the call to become more collaborative and to co-create the sport experience with those who are invested in it. Incorporating stakeholder engagement into data collection and engagement may be a real-world data source that enhances our ability to deliver a better sport environment for all. That is, a sport environment where everyone feels safe, welcomed and included.

In honour of Clean Air Day (June 8), SIRC partnered with Health Canada to present information about air pollution and how it can affect the health and performance of outdoor sport participants. We also highlight the ways coaches, officials and sport organizations can adapt to keep all participants safe during outdoor sporting activities.

In recent years, there’s been a renewed focus to create safer environments for participants in sports activities. While advances in sport safety have primarily revolved around addressing abuse and maltreatment and COVID-19 return-to-play protocols, what’s been overlooked is the aspect of sport safety associated with air quality in outdoor sports environments.

Fortunately, Canada’s air is consistently ranked among the cleanest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. But that’s no reason for us to let down our guard! Even at low levels, air pollution can negatively affect human health and performance.

Understanding air pollution and its effects on human health

In Canada, air pollution comes from: Vehicles (car with exhaust) Industrial facilities (factory with smokestacks) Forest fires (trees burning) Wood burning (indoor wood stove) Construction (machine used to dig foundations and other building projects) Agriculture (tractor) Oil and gas industry (fossil fuel tower) Electricity generation (power transmission tower)
Sources of air pollution in Canada. See the complete infographic created by Health Canada.

Air pollution is a mixture of chemical, physical and biological agents. There are different types of air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), ground-level ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These pollutants can come from many sources, including vehicle, agriculture and industrial emissions.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to lower lung function and asthma flare-ups. Of greater concern, long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and premature death.

While air pollutants from sources like traffic, factories and forest fires can negatively affect the health of everyone, those at increased risk are children, older adults, pregnant people and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions. Although you might not suspect it, people engaging in sports and exercise are at increased risk too.

How air pollution affects sport participants

Sport participants require more oxygen to perform at their best during training and competitive events. To meet this increased oxygen demand, sport participants breathe rapidly and deeply, taking large quantities of air into their lungs. If sport participants are in an area with air pollution, this also means that they’re inhaling higher amounts of air pollutants.

Sport participants are also at increased risk of exposure to air pollution because they breathe primarily through their mouths during strenuous activities. What this means is that the air they breathe bypasses the nose’s natural filtration mechanism, leading to more air pollutants being inhaled directly into their lungs. Some air pollutants, such as gases and fine particulates, can go from the lungs into the bloodstream affecting other organs as well as the lungs.

In the short term, increased exposure to air pollutants can affect sport performance by making breathing more difficult and increasing how hard it feels like you’re working during aerobic exercise (perceived exertion). In the long term, this increased exposure can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects that can get in the way of sport participation. Athletes with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma are even more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

Strategies to reduce exposure to air pollution for outdoor sport 

A cyclist rides near industrial smokestacks

Sport organizations, coaches and officials are responsible for the safety of their participants. Lightning guidelines are widely used across Canada and the world to protect outdoor sports participants from hazards associated with lightning. Likewise, outdoor sport organizations, coaches and officials can protect themselves, athletes and spectators from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. Strategies include:

  • Monitor the news and trusted social media sources for local and regional public health air quality alerts
  • Cancel or reschedule outdoor sport activities on days when air quality is poor
  • Relocate outdoor sport activities to indoor venues when air quality is poor
  • Choose locations for outdoor sport activities away from sources of air pollution, such as factories or heavily used roadways 

Using the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

One tool that anyone involved in sport can use to monitor air quality is the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). The AQHI, which can be found at Airhealth.ca, is a public health tool used to communicate the risks of exposure to air pollution in your area. The AQHI presents the relative health risk associated with the combined health effects of air pollutants, notably NO2, PM2.5 and O3. The risks are based on a scale of 1 to 10+. The 4 categories of relative risk go from low risk (1 to 3) all the way up to very high risk (10+).

Bilingual chart showing the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) risk values grouped by:   low risk (1 to 3) in shades of blue  moderate risk (4 to 6) in shades of yellow to orange  high risk (7 to 10) in shades of pink to burgundy red  very high risk (10+) in brown
The AQHI scale and health risk categories. To see the forecasted and observed AQHI values in your area, visit AirHealth.ca.

The AQHI presents the current, observed air pollution risk and it also forecasts the AQHI values for later in the day and the next day. The risk presentation is accompanied by health messages that you can use to help decide if outdoor sport participation is safe in your area or if you should consider rescheduling or cancelling your activity. By providing the forecasted values for the upcoming days, the AQHI can help you plan future outdoor activities.

The optimum time to carry out outdoor sport activities is when the health risk is low (1 to 3). You may still hold your activity when the health risk is moderate (4 to 6), but you should monitor participants for symptoms and change the activity accordingly. Pay particular attention to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, When the health risk is high (7 or above), you should cancel and reschedule the activity for when the health risk is low. Or, if possible, move the activity to an indoor location like a school gym.

If you would like to receive air quality alerts directly to your phone, you can download the AQHI app on Google Play or the App Store

Advancing air quality education and policy in sport

Outdoor soccer on a field when there’s low air quality and smog is visible.

To protect outdoor sport participants, sport organizations must be aware of the effects that air pollution can have on everyone involved in sport, from athletes and coaches to spectators and officials. To this end, Health Canada has initiated, and is providing financial and technical support to, the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) to develop an e-learning module and a policy guide focused on air pollution and sport.

The e-learning module will review the effects of air pollution on outdoor sport participants. It will also identify ways to take action to protect all participants from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. When it’s ready, the module will be housed on the Coaching Association of Canada’s e-learning platform, The Locker.

Health Canada is also working with SIRC to develop a guide to help sport organizations develop air quality policies that will help protect their participants now and in the years to come. The policy guide will be available to download from SIRC’s website.

The free training module and policy guide will be available in fall 2022. Please contact info@sirc.ca for more information.

Recommended resources

You may find the following resources helpful as you work to learn more about air pollution and what your organization can do to help keep your participants safe:

Designing inclusive programs in sport is not an easy task. Inclusion requires intention, honest conversations, flexibility and innovation. It means using individual power and privilege to create safe and accessible spaces for all Canadians to engage in sport. Learn about how Canadian sport policies and programs have evolved to support the development of safe and inclusive sport in the SIRCuit.

The importance of Safe Sport and how it can be further integrated into Canadian Sport is an ever-evolving process for many sport organizations. A key question for many organizations centers on what “independence” means in the context of investigative processes related to Safe Sport. A group of researchers at the University of Toronto led by Gretchen Kerr dive into this issue in a Centre for Sport Policy Studies position paper.

Did you know that an athlete’s decision to report a concussion is influenced by their age and gender? While girls and women aged 13 and older are more likely to report concussion symptoms than boys and men in the same age group, research shows that girls under the age of 13 are less likely to report symptoms of a concussion than similar-aged boys.

Female athletes may be at a higher risk of sustaining a concussion than male athletes. Evidence-informed strategies to help reduce concussion risk among women, girls and female athletes include encouraging them to check their helmet’s fit regularly and incorporating neck strengthening exercises into their training programs. 

When an athlete sustains an injury, it can impact the entire team. When this happens, coaches can maintain a positive group environment by clearly communicating role adjustments, prioritizing the injured athletes’ well-being, and keeping the injured athlete connected to the team throughout the recovery process.

Did you know that women often experience concussions differently than men, including worse symptoms and longer recovery time? Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), researchers from RENITA Medical and the Hospital for Sick Children are scanning the brains of women to learn more about the effects of concussion on women. MEG offers an objective way to diagnose concussions compared to common self-reporting methods.

Having a shared understanding of terms like systemic racism, unconscious bias and microaggressions is important for sport organizations working to create safe, welcoming and inclusive spaces. Respect Group offers definitions and resources to help sport organizations promote diversity and inclusion, while making sure everyone is on the same page.