From Playground to Podium – Exploring the Power of Sports to Transform

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An elite athlete’s life requires focus, discipline, tenacity and sacrifice – as well as having access to a supportive team.

Participants agreed it was crucial for government ministers at both federal and provincial/territorial levels to advocate for values-based sport as part of their remit, either financially or through programming or both.

Athlete running


What is the Power of Sports to Transform?

Sport can serve as an important vehicle to encourage, unite people from diverse backgrounds and build hope. Furthermore, it can serve as an effective force for good in society to address critical societal issues like education, empowerment, gender equality promotion health promotion and peacebuilding.

Jesse Owens famously challenged racism in Nazi Germany while Mo Salah managed to build acceptance among British football fans for Muslim communities through sports. Athletes promote discipline, self-control, and teamwork that can translate directly to everyday life and help empower marginalized communities by inspiring tolerance and diversity among their fans.

Aspiring high performance athletes and coaches lead an exhausting lifestyle that demands sacrifice, from playground to podium it requires dedication, perseverance, and determination – something embodied by the Vision International Sports Centre motto “Success in Sport and in Life”, evident at their recent Family Day event when many elite athletes brought family members into their world-class training facilities for training sessions. It more exciting than seeing a last-minute game from near the durable baseball windscreens.

Sports has the power to transform society, while society also influences it through institutions like sports. ESPN+ series Skin in the Game shows this, exploring how racial stereotypes that resurface in sports affect both players and viewers, from how Simone Biles and Colin Kaepernick are seen for advocating mental health awareness to Latino baseball players juggling cultural traditions against pressures of playing America’s pastime; showing how sports influence culture by challenging stereotypes that surface through stereotypes that emerge during games themselves.

Sports is a powerful unifier that transcends borders and cultures. From its beginnings as a tool of diplomacy between the United States and China to today’s cross-border friendship between Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea players, sports has long been used as an instrument of peace between countries – helping overcome tensions while building mutual understanding, respect and dialogue between players from both regions.

Athletes’ Journeys

From recreational to elite levels of competition, athletes often face transitions throughout their sporting careers that they were unprepared for and that are either planned (ie moving onto senior or performance pathways) or unanticipated (non-normative ie injury/deselection).

At every level of sport, athletes strive hard to turn dreams into tangible achievements. Their journey from athletic academies to the highest levels of success exemplifies courage, commitment and perseverance – qualities which should inspire us all.

However, this journey does not come without its challenges. Athletes must learn how to train with focus and concentration for extended periods of time with mindful repetition in order to master skills, as well as ways to balance sport (often multiple sports) with life outside it.

Transitioning into competitive athletic careers can be a difficult challenge for young athletes still developing psychologically. Support systems may prove vital during this transition period; Sophie and Jamie, whom you heard about in Activity 1 and 2, both experienced this as part of their transitions into their respective sports careers.

Preparation and support are both key for athletes looking to navigate transitions successfully, as evidenced by research on this subject and athletes discussed throughout this course. You will see this play out both through interviews with them as well as research findings. Support can come from various sources ranging from coaches, parents or friends; those better prepared and supported can more successfully transition through change events with greater likelihood of adapting successfully while making positive contributions in their sporting careers as a result.

In this session you will investigate some of the normative transitions athletes must go through within their sports careers, from moving up to senior or performance pathways and retiring, to moving between levels or retiring altogether. These transitions will be examined using a lifespan perspective while considering any psychological implications they might carry. Furthermore, two course authors Candice Lingam-Willgoss and Caroline Heaney will share personal accounts about their respective journeys, along with any normative transitions they have undergone themselves.

Serena Williams

Sports’ transformative power goes far beyond winning matches: it also shapes who you are in your personal and professional lives, just ask Serena Williams – perhaps the greatest female tennis player of all time. Serena’s strength and tenacity has inspired generations of female tennis players worldwide, continuing even today as she prepares to compete in her last U.S. Open match.

Serena set out from the outset to leave her mark on tennis history. She championed women’s rights both on and off the tennis court, using her platform to advocate for gender equality and social justice causes.

As well as dominating on the court with 23 grand slam singles titles and 14 doubles titles, she was also an early pioneer in race relations on tour. Her protest against South Carolina’s Confederate flag flying above their statehouse created much conversation while speaking out against sexism following being deducted a point for smashing her racket out of frustration at an U.S. Open event was noteworthy as well.

Together with her sister Venus, Serena ushered in a new era of female dominance. Between them they won 30 Grand Slam tournaments and held onto their ranking position for an unprecedented length of time in Women’s Tennis Association history.

Serena epitomizes leadership with humility and believes in lifelong learning. From her mentors and coaches, peers, and even strangers helping her reach success on and off the court, Serena’s humble yet perseverant attitude ensured she made use of every resource available to her to ensure she never stopped developing as an individual. Recognizing and seeking assistance for weaknesses is critical to any leader.

As Serena prepares to play her final match, CSSW faculty and alumni who work directly with athletes reminisce on her significance in both their lives as athletes as well as beyond. We speak to leaders from various industries who have seen how sports has altered them for good.

Eekeeluak Avalak

As we look around the globe, sport’s transformative power is evident: transcending cultural, economic and political barriers it unifies communities like nothing else does and creating unifying experiences for all types of people with one common goal in pursuit of excellence.

Eekeeluak Avalak, an 18-year-old Inuit wrestler from Nunavut, experienced this firsthand. At last year’s Canada Summer Games he won Nunavut’s inaugural gold medal. A video that went viral showed Avalak dedicating it to his late brother while explaining that wrestling had saved his life.

As the first Inuit athlete ever to medal at the Canadian Games, Avalak’s story served as a powerful testament to how sport can transform lives – yet for Avalak it was just the start of his journey.

This week, Avalak is competing at the North American Indigenous Games in Halifax and hopes to build on his success at 2022 Canada Summer Games by winning another gold. Additionally, he’s gearing up for next month’s world championships in Edmonton.

Chris Crooks understands the challenges involved with coaching athletes, including Avalak. As a wrestling coach for Nunavut Amateur Wrestling Association in Cambridge Bay, Chris coached seven of his students who competed at this week’s competition including Avalak.

Crooks emphasizes the importance of coaches listening to their athletes and giving them enough space to develop. He gives as examples two of his athletes who had experienced loss but used sports as an outlet to cope with their grief.

Coaches that prioritize cultural safety are also integral to Inuit athletes’ success in any sport – but this presents a major challenge in Canadian sport, since research reveals that most professional, amateur and community sports organizations do not currently have culturally safe training programs or policies in place; something which must change if we want more Inuit athletes competing at high levels.