Engaging Athletes – the value of involving your most underrated stakeholder

Published November 4, 2018

By Tia Wintre and LJ Bartle

In life, people want to shape their experiences and feel empowered to be part of the decision-making process. It makes people happy to feel connected, appreciated and valued - leading to a healthier way of being. While in theory it seems like such a simple concept to implement, in practice the process of engaging people is commonly forgotten or overlooked.

Take athletes, for example. They are at the centre of the sport experience…the reason why people watch, why coaches coach and why sport organizations exist. Yet when it comes to decision-making, sport organizations don’t have systematic methods of engaging athletes.

Importance of Engagement

A key priority for sport organizations is to ensure the safety of participants. In fact, the federal government has recently mandated that sport organizations have specific policies and procedures in place to ensure athletes are safe. Many of these organizations are now scrambling to put training in place, update policies and ensure their risk management plans reflect the new standards. We are curious to know how many of these plans include engaging athletes?

In our opinion, ensuring you are providing a mechanism for your key stakeholders to have a voice is no longer a ‘nice to have’.  In today’s day and age, the idea of pushing information out to people no longer works. If you want to be successful, then engagement and collaboration are critical to your bottom line.

In business for instance, companies seeking a competitive advantage have made client experience their top priority.  They’re engaging with their customers online and in-person as often as they can.  They know they’re gaining valuable information about their preferences and experiences that they can use to keep their customers coming back.

How to engage athletes?

Sport organizations can do the same thing with athletes. Their lived experiences provide meaningful and relevant data to assess quality and determine key areas of improvement. Providing a feedback loop for athletes to inform how well policies are being implemented is a highly effective risk mitigation strategy.

But if you never invite athletes to engage and give them meaningful opportunities to contribute, how will you know if any of your strategies, including your safe sport measures, are working?  Intentionally engaging your athletes will give you insight into what’s really happening on the ground and you’ll gain advocates for shared values and vision. Most importantly, you’ll give your most underrated stakeholder, the athletes, a voice to help shape a better experience.

We invite you to consider your process when making decisions that affect athletes and whether providing them with ways to share their ideas and experiences can help you mitigate risk and implement your values.  Here are some tips to more intentionally engage your athletes:

  1. Acknowledge them by inviting them to share their experiences
  2. Review the data they give you and communicate back what you heard from them
  3. Prioritize the most important findings and share how this will impact strategies, systems and programs
  4. Evaluate the impact of engaging athletes more deliberately and your ability to identify and address gaps

While everyone is busy putting out fires, we encourage you to pause and remind yourself why you are involved in sport.  What are your goals?  And who will help you achieve them? If you’re counting on athletes to bring your vision to life, don’t just tell them about it… engage them in the process.

We will be discussing this hot topic during our free webinar on November 27. If you’ve been part of great engagement strategies with your athletes, and/or if you want to learn more about how to engage athletes, we would welcome your attendance.

If your organization would like some support in mapping out a process, drop us a line at LJB@sportlaw.ca and/or TEW@sportlaw.ca. Together we can strengthen your organization by Engaging Athletes.


LJ Bartle and Tia Wintre were colleagues for more than a decade leading a national standard focused on quality assurance, risk management, and healthy human development. While working with hundreds of sport and recreation organizations across Canada, they always felt a piece was missing…the voice of the participant! LJ and Tia are honoured to have joined the Sport Law & Strategy Group to continue their journey and help organizations connect with their athletes.

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