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An investigation by CBC Sports of key positions in Canadian university athletics departments revealed only 10% were held by BIPOC individuals. Other research has demonstrated the underrepresentation of BIPOC student-athletes in every sport and team. Learn about anti-racism efforts at the University of Toronto.

George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and D’Andre Campbell are names of Black men and women who were killed this past year. Their tragic deaths sparked a global conversation about anti-Black racism, police brutality, white supremacy and the systemic challenges that Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) face every day. Within the Canadian sport system, this racial reckoning is demanding that organizations examine how policies and practices perpetuate systemic racism within their institutions. As student-athletes, we recognized this social movement as an opportunity to initiate a hopeful revolution at the University of Toronto (U of T) that could spread throughout the Ontario University Athletics system, and on campuses across the country.

In June 2020, eleven former and current BIPOC Varsity Blues athletes banded together and submitted a letter to the U of T Athletics department, signed by more than 100 BIPOC student-athletes at U of T. The letter demanded support to address racial inequities persistently experienced by BIPOC student-athletes, outlining several examples of student-athletes feeling unsafe and unfairly treated, despite recommendations from the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s (KPE) Task Force on Race and Indigeneity in 2018 and subsequent efforts as reported in the Faculty’s 2019-2020 Equity Report. Holding decision makers accountable was paramount to our vision. The athletics department’s willingness to listen to our ideas and collaborate to move forward has resulted in ground-breaking programming and a commitment to redressing anti-racism on campus for BIPOC Varsity Blues athletes.

The creation of the BIPOC Varsity Association

One of the most significant outcomes of this process was the creation of the BIPOC Varsity Association (BVA), an official student-led group for Varsity Blues athletes who identify as BIPOC. The BVA was established to ensure equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism in the U of T Varsity Blues program, and to provide a platform where BIPOC student-athletes could voice their concerns, share their experiences, and form a community of BIPOC Varsity Blues athletes. The stories, captured in our BVA video, illuminate some of the heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating experiences of BIPOC student-athletes in Toronto – one of the most recognizable multi-ethnic, multi-racial cities in the world.

University action plan

black female varsity athlete throwing a pitch during softball competition

A special report from CBC Sports released in July 2020 shared findings from a visual audit of key positions at 56 Canadian universities under the umbrella of U Sports, including athletic directors and head coaches. Analysis concluded only 10% of the nearly 400 positions examined were held by BIPOC individuals. Only one university had a non-white athletic director. Findings of a 2018 analysis of student-athlete demographics based on website photos from nine Canadian universities conducted by researchers at U of T’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies showed BIPOC student athletes were underrepresented in every sport and team in comparison to their numbers in the student population at their university. While these reports have helped bring attention to persisting issues, visual audits do not accurately capture demographic data nor racialized experiences.

To truly move the needle required to fight racism in athletics, the BVA is collaborating with KPE to create a strategic plan supporting several important initiatives:

These types of actions were designed to hold the Varsity Blues program (players, coaches, staff, and faculty) accountable for the experiences its BIPOC members face. Other universities have reached out to the BVA looking for guidance on addressing racism and bettering the experiences of BIPOC student athletes within their own institutions. The BVA has worked with many to establish groups with similar mandates to the BVA.

Research on BIPOC experiences

Another important priority for the BVA is the collection of race-based data. The BVA is heavily involved in the OUA Anti-Racism Project, led by Dr. Janelle Joseph at U of T’s Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) Research Lab. The project aims to collect data of demographics and experiences in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference. Only extremely limited race-based data has been officially collected within university athletic departments.

two female varsity basketball players reach for the basketball during a game

The project involves a survey on the experiences of racism amongst student-athletes, coaches, and sport administrators. This will be followed by focus groups and interviews. The project aims to use this data to inform strategies and projects to make the OUA a safer, more inclusive space. In a U of T News story about the project, Dr. Joseph spoke about the potential impact: “With 9,500 student athletes, 200 coaches and 2,000 athletic staff, OUA is an ideal focus of research and action on anti-racism in sport and in education…By looking into the demographics and experiences of student athletes, coaches and sport administrators with racism, we are hoping to contribute to the development of anti-racist policies, practices and trainings within the OUA.” This project was in part inspired by the recommendations set forward in October 2020 by the Black, Biracial, Indigenous Task Force of the OUA.

To break down the barriers that systemic racism poses on our student-athletes, we must first listen to their experiences and dispel the myth that sport is an institution free from the barriers of racism. This ground-breaking project will serve to do just that. It is time to create a future in which BIPOC student-athletes feel safe and supported within Canadian sport.

Personal impacts

While there have already been so many successes on this journey, we know there is still much work to be done. However, the personal impacts from our involvement with the BVA have already been life-altering.

Jada Roach: My involvement with the BVA has been one of the most significant and impactful experiences of my life at university. I found myself having many deep conversations about my experiences as a Black woman. What emerged was an overwhelming desire to be a part of something that could make meaningful change. When I came across the job posting for the Head of Communications for the BVA, I was unfamiliar with the association but immediately knew I wanted to get involved. Being a part of the BVA has given me a new sense of purpose. I finally feel like I am contributing something meaningful both to the U of T community and beyond. It has also brought a great group of people into my life. It is incredible to be connected to a group so passionate about change, and it is so exciting every time we get a big project started or check something off our list. I know I will be involved with the BVA for years to come.

Devon Bowyer: Overall, being a part of the BVA and the IDEAS Research Lab has been an amazing experience for me. To think this all started from drafting a letter to our athletics department and garnering the support of over 100 BIPOC Varsity Blues athletes. I would have never imagined the BVA would be in the position it is now. The BVA will continue to be available to other BIPOC student-athletes looking to create a similar association at their universities. While I am happy with what the BVA has accomplished thus far, there is still a lot of work to complete. Dismantling systemic racism is not an overnight fix, it will take time to make meaningful change. I encourage others to speak up and use their voice to fight for systemic change within their own university. You never know where it might take you.

Alcohol misuse represents an important mental health issue for student-athletes – even moderate consumption can have negatively impact athletic and academic performance. Research has shown an athlete’s perception of their coach’s approval of alcohol use was strongly associated with drinking behaviour.

The Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association’s (CCAA) Female Apprentice Coach Program (FACP) is designed to facilitate the transition of student-athletes into coaching roles. Now in its 15th year, the program builds the coaching skills and confidence of student-athletes, and enhances the leadership skills of mentor coaches. Learn about the 2019-20 season apprentice/mentor duos, and access the Female Coach Mentorship resources from CAC and CAAWS.

“Deselection,” or being cut from a team, can have negative emotional, social and physical consequences for athletes. These include loss of friends and social circles, reduced self-esteem, decreased physical activity, and impacts on long-term engagement in sport. Learn how coaches can improve the experience for athletes, and consider alternative participation models, in the SIRCuit.

With varsity teams stepping onto fields across Canada, the risk of hazing is undeniable. However, research indicates that coaches can be the largest influence in changing the culture of hazing when they are actively engaged in educating and working with team leaders to introduce alternative orientations. Learn more in the SIRCuit.

Overuse injuries are common in volleyball. Research reported in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy discovered that women collegiate volleyball athletes performed twice as many overhead swings, serves, and hits during practice, compared to volumes during games (with both games and practices lasting approximately 2 hours). This has important implications for managing training, especially during the pre-season.

This blog was adapted from a SIRCuit article written by Dr. Vicki Harber. For the full article, click here.

Within Canada, there is some concern that an ethos of “winning at all costs” has infiltrated youth sport, degrading the quality of the sport experience resulting in reduced participation (Brenner, 2016) and increased injury (Jayanthi et al., 2013). Building psychological, cognitive, social and emotional skills are largely ignored, yet these are essential ingredients for successful high performance athletes, particularly for our developing athletes (Bailey, 2012).

Many members of the Canadian sport system are engaged in dialogue about the ways we develop our younger athletes, particularly in the first three stages of Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development Pathway (Active Start, FUNdamentals and Learn to Train). It is during these stages that sport can play a role in developing athletes’ executive functions and social and emotional learning skills – the foundations for “human development.”

What are Executive Functions?

Success in school and in one’s career requires “creativity, flexibility, self-control and discipline” (Diamond 2016). Underlying these attributes are executive functions (EFs) – a family of mental processes that 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).

The parts of the brain that develop these EFs are often compared to an air traffic control system. Busy airports have a duty to safely manage arrivals and departures for many airplanes using many runways, all at the same time. Similarly, our brain needs to operate like an air traffic control tower, seeing and managing distractions, establishing priorities for tasks, setting and achieving goals, while controlling impulsive words and actions (Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University).

These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of EFs in real world situations requires them to properly orchestrate their operations with each other. It is generally agreed that there are 3 core functions:

Developing Executive Functions through Sport

Diamond (2015) reviews the effects of physical exercise on EFs and identifies preferred types of activity that promote positive impact. These include cognitively-engaging exercise, activities requiring bimanual coordination and eye-hand coordination (e.g. social circus), and activities that require frequently crossing the midline and/or rhythmic movement, such as dance or drumming, particularly when moving with others. Our knowledge about the mechanisms that underlie improved executive functions is growing and includes both structural and functional changes to specific regions of the brain (Cotman et al 2007). While our understanding advances, Diamond (2015) further postulates that executive functions are improved by activities promoting physical fitness, but also those that “(a) train and challenge diverse motor and EF skills, (b) bring joy, pride, and self-confidence, and (c) provide a sense of social belonging (e.g., group or team membership).”

What is social and emotional learning?

Establishing a foundation of EFs permits the subsequent development of social and emotional learning skills (Diamond 2013). These include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

“Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Developing SEL through Sport

While much of the work on EFs and SEL has been led by the education sector, we could easily substitute “athlete” for “student” and “coach” for “teacher” and explore the possibilities for community recreation program and sport clubs.

Most coaches would agree that self-management, self-respect, respect of others, an emphasis on effort, and strong decision-making and goal setting skills would be favourable attributes from a competitive sport perspective. Programs that cultivate these values would find their athletes enjoying sport and maintaining their participation over time. Effective implementation of this approach requires “prioritizing the athlete over wins and losses, emphasizing relationships, taking a holistic approach to developing athletes, and understanding that the model is a ‘way of being’, and not just a set of techniques to be followed” (Balague & Fink, 2016).

There are many different ways that this approach can be integrated into the sport environment; one recommended process is described below:

  1. A pre-season discussion with athletes about the kind of culture the team wishes to create. Some questions to help guide this discussion include “What are the things that define us?” or “How do we want to be seen by others?” This can also include season goals for individuals as well as the entire team.
  2. Allow the team to create their own means by which they gather and decide on consequences for players that do not meet the agreed upon standards.
  3. An awareness talk begins each training session to identify the personal and group goals that target the SEL components. For example, the focus might be on Relationship Skills – during the awareness talk, ask the athletes to describe what this looks like in both sport and non-sport situations. This helps to establish ownership and accountability for the practice session.
  4. At the end of each training session, there is a rapid check-in with players to reflect on their contributions and how this might look in other parts of their life. Using the Relationship Skills from point #3, athletes can identify how they managed these skills during the training session, what did they do or say to promote relationship building or what might they do differently next time.
  5. While coaches will facilitate the above, they need to honour and respect the athlete voices by supporting their choices. For example, during training, the coach must integrate athlete ideas from the opening awareness talk.

For more information about teaching life skills through sport, check out this SIRC blog series on positive youth development.

Parents who dream of their children becoming professional athletes, and coaches who believe that single-minded dedication is the only way to reach the top of their sport, have contributed to an increase in early sport specialization. However, there are many researchers, coaches, and athletes who have been pushing back on this trend, citing a range of negative repercussions relating to skill development and the risk of physical and psychological harm.

What is early specialization?

Experts in sport psychology, talent development, and sport medicine have recently reached consensus on a definition for early specialization (LaPrade et al., 2016). This definition includes three criteria:

  1. Involvement of prepubertal children
  2. Participation in one sport, to the exclusion of others
  3. Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sport for more than 8 months per year
What are people saying about early specialization and burnout?

The same experts who defined early specialization also stated, “…there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports. They are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity” (Laprade et al., 2016, p. 1).

The most widely accepted definition of athlete burnout describes it as a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment in sport, and sport devaluation—not valuing or caring as much about sport as they used to (Raedeke, 1997).

There are several reasons why we might see a relationship between early specialization and burnout:

However, a careful review of the literature reveals that many of the warnings about the association between early specialization and burnout are based more on theory than on actual evidence. Most research on early specialization comes from a talent development or injury prevention perspective. Less is known about the relationship between early specialization and psychosocial or behavioural outcomes, like burnout and dropout from sport.

We set out to conduct a study that would add empirical evidence to the literature on early specialization and burnout (Larson, Young, McHugh, & Rodgers, 2019).

Research Design

The research project involved surveys with 137 youth swimmers (ages 12-13) from across Canada and measured their levels of enjoyment, commitment, burnout, and their intentions to continue swimming next season. A check-in at the start of the following season was used to confirm if the athletes were still swimming or if they had dropped out. Parents provided detailed information about each swimmer’s sport background, supporting an assessment of levels of early specialization.

Early specialization was measured in several different ways, using a variety of markers. For example, we looked at the age at which swimmers first reached certain milestones associated with intensive training, such as beginning dryland training or attending training camps. We also looked at the number of years from ages 6-12 that swimmers trained and competed in only swimming for more than 8 months per year.

Research Findings

To the surprise of the research team, results revealed that the relationships between these markers of early specialization and burnout were minimal or non-existent, and in some cases early specialization was associated with greater intentions to continue swimming competitively, and a decreased likelihood of dropout. These results ran contrary to much of the theorizing in the literature, as well as some past empirical studies.

Interpreting the Results

There are a few potential explanations for these unexpected findings:

Key Takeaways

Training contexts are largely shaped by coaches and parents. Regardless of whether or not your athlete is an early specializer, you should keep these things in mind: