A Journey To Safe And Thriving Sport

By LJ Bartle and Tia Wintre

Two years ago, we made one of those big life decisions to leave an organization we both cared about deeply.  As leaders of HIGH FIVE, a national quality standard for sport and recreation, we both felt pulled to work differently, while still trying to make a difference in a sector we both loved. That is why we joined the Sport Law & Strategy Group as we believe that what we have come to learn about a safe, quality, and ethical sport and recreation experience can be of help to those that are struggling to find the best way through this complex environment.

With our decade-long experience with HIGH FIVE, and from years of working in other organizations, we realized it all came down to creating safe environments.  Participants who feel safe can thrive, grow and achieve their potential. Without it, performance falters and people leave. It’s that critical. This cemented our desire to share our knowledge, expertise and lived experience with anyone on a journey to safe and thriving sport.

This is a tough time for sport organizations.  Most people working or volunteering in sport chose to do so to pass along their love of sport to others; not to deal with complaints, harassment and abuse. But this is an important part of the journey; we have lessons to learn and priorities to shift. As the Minister of Science and Sport, Honourable Kirsty Duncan has said numerous times, “protecting the health and safety of our athletes must be our top priority…our collective priority.”

While no one would dispute that, it remains to be seen exactly how that is all going to happen.  There are many moving parts and many opinions on the most effective and sustainable way to ensure safe sport.  The Coaches Association of Canada (CAC) in partnership with others worked its way across the country holding Safe Sport Summits culminating in a national summit a few weeks ago.  Seven consensus statements came out of it including creating a harmonized Code of Conduct for all of sport.

Some National Sport Organizations (NSO’s) are developing their own frameworks and/or creating a new position such as Safe Sport Director, to support their commitment to implementing policies and programs in support of safe sport.  Within that, many leading initiatives are included, such as the Responsible Coaching Movement (RCM), the True Sport Principles, Quality Sport and Respect in Sport.  However, some organizations especially those smaller NSO’s and those at the Provincial/Territorial and local levels are struggling to see how they’re going to have the budget and/or capacity to manage it all.

Where to begin?

We think it is best to take a broader holistic approach and look at how it all fits within your current priorities such as your strategic plan and your business model.  Every organization is unique and may have specific needs to practically implement safe sport.  But the most critical piece is the ‘So what?’ You want to know that whatever you end up doing will actually be successful and ensure athletes are safe!

We have outlined below our 4-step Safe Sport Implementation Strategy to help streamline your process.  This is designed to help you connect the dots by taking into consideration all the moving pieces and trying to align with as many existing effective resources as you can.

Step 1: Analysis

We encourage you to begin by taking stock of where your organization is currently.  Getting a baseline now will help you see improvement in the future and give you the evidence to know you are raising the bar and doing the right things. Examples of questions to assess your current state may include:

  • Policies: What policies related to safe sport do you have? When were they last updated? How do you know they are working?
  • Strategic Plan: Where are you in your strategic plan cycle? What is there related to safe sport? What results do you have? How are you evaluating what you are doing?
  • Budget: How much of your budget is dependent on funders’ priorities? Can you influence those priorities? Do you have a budget line item related to safe sport? Does it need to increase?
  • Ethos: What do your values say about your commitment to safe sport? What do you want to be known for as an organization? What do your stakeholders want? What kind of climate are you creating for athletes and coaches on the field of play?

From experience, we believe the best way to answer many of your questions is to go straight to the source and engage your athletes. They are the ones who know if your policies and values are being communicated and adhered to on the ground.  Depending on your organization’s level of trust with your athletes there are a variety of ways to engage from surveys to interviews to focus groups. Simply asking ‘do you feel safe’ and getting their perspective on how well your organization is doing, can provide you with the gap analysis on where you need to focus.  Important point: If the trust level between athletes and the organization is low, then using an independent, credible third party to manage this aspect can go a long way in building back this relationship.

Step 2: Development

Once you have determined where you need to focus, then it is important to leverage all available resources.  You do not need to recreate the wheel.  And don’t do this alone.  Look at aligning with others in your sport or in your community to pool knowledge and expertise.

The best way to find out how to align is to have conversations...outside of your silo.  Collaborate with other like-minded individuals and organizations.  Ideally, bring all your stakeholders together for a day of discussions and consensus-building around the way forward.  At the end of the day you are looking for consensus on at least some of the following as you prioritize safe sport:

  • A commitment by your organization to actively listen and engage with all stakeholders regularly
  • A commitment by all stakeholders to engage openly and honestly
  • Jurisdictional alignment around policy, training and resources
  • A clear, effective process to manage complaints and investigations
  • Identified mandatory and optional training for all stakeholders
  • Adoption of leading evidence-based practices
  • A commitment to measurement and a process of continuous improvement
  • A Communication Plan to enhance awareness and keep everyone on the same page

If you get agreement at this stage, it will be much easier when you come to the next step: implementation.

Step 3: Implementation

The most important aspect of implementation is communication.  It is crucial that people understand what you are doing and why you are doing it that way.  This is where all of your stakeholder engagement pays off because you can connect the key ideas you heard from them to how you are moving forward.

Create reasonable timelines for this step.  It is not going to be easy for everyone and you need to be flexible and adaptable. Ideally all of it is laid out in a Safe Sport Implementation Guide that allows templates and ideas to be shared and promotes alignment.  You may want to stagger your implementation based on priorities to ensure your stakeholders do not get overwhelmed.  Your implementation strategy may include:

  • Safe Sport Policy Suite
  • List of Required/Recommended training
  • Safe Sport Checklist (ie: RCM)
  • Safe Sport Handbook (as part of your Communication Plan)
  • Safe Sport Expectations Webinars/Workshops (as part of your Communication Plan)

Whatever you end up implementing, the most important aspect is that you have a plan and you communicate that plan.

Step 4: Measurement

This is where you find out if everything you implemented is working.  Ideally, your safe sport strategy is not a one-time initiative.  It is a model of continuous improvement where you check back regularly (perhaps annually) and see how everyone is doing.  Your system gives you the evidence you need to update your strategy and manage your change.

If you are engaging your athletes as part of your measurement process, this will give you a number of benefits along with direct evidence from the field of play.  Engaging athletes helps organizations:

  • Manage risk
  • Live by values
  • Provide evidence-based decision-making
  • Increase performance and retention
  • Increase communication and accountability
  • Make athlete safety your top priority

This is a proactive approach that many believe takes too much time and energy.  But you will likely spend time on this one way or another, either proactively or reactively.

Risk of not being proactive

If you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of being reactive to an incident or situation related to safe sport, you’re not alone.  Organizations have found out the hard way that pretending they don’t have a problem does not solve the problem.  We all have issues that are likely going to be presented through various means (ie: social media in a manner that may not reflect the full truth).  By having a risk management plan in place that helps you identify high level risks, by coordinating and prioritizing your safe sport commitments, and by communicating proactively with your stakeholders, you are less likely to be managing through crisis and more likely to be seen as being ahead of the issue.

Commit to doing something

You don’t have to do it all right now.  Just start the process.  Think about where you are now and where you want to go.  Start talking about it.  Review your values and think about how you can incorporate them more intentionally into your decision-making processes.

As you consider ways to move forward, we want to highlight the closing comments at the National Safe Sport Summit earlier this month by Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed el-Awadi.  “To create the cultural shift needed in sport, organizations need to be brave, courageous and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

If you need support in your safe sport journey or just want to have a conversation, please feel free to contact us: TEW@sportlaw.ca and LJB@sportlaw.ca

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