Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Some What Sentimental...

Did you know that in the United States February 1st is “National Girls and Women in Sports Day?” Drawing upon my own experiences in sport and more specifically, field hockey, all the women in my family have taken part. I and my two sisters have all played at the university level and after having played briefly in Holland as a girl, my mother picked up a stick 40 years later to play for the same club where I scored my first goal and never looked back. Initially brought on as an unsuspecting volunteer parent, my father took an umpiring and a coaching course and proceeded to contribute to the development of women’s field hockey for the next decade. I can recall spending weekend after weekend being shuttled all over the Lower Mainland in our family’s minivan as the five of us took part in a sport that, for better or for worse, forced us all to be together. Admittedly, there were times when the sport also came between us as I would refuse to accept the “coaching tips” that my father felt necessary to share and although she may never admit it, I have a feeling that my youngest sister has more than once felt the pressure of the relative success of two older siblings. I could write a book on the ways that sport has changed my life and essentially, I have my mother to thank for that. Had she not seen the advertisement in our local paper for a U12 team perhaps I never would have played. I was not particularly coordinated growing up (think gazelle…) and never played soccer or t-ball as so many of my peers did. In an interesting reversal of sorts I am now coaching my mother and several of her friends whose daughters have played for years. Now that their evenings and weekends are no longer taken up by piano lessons, hockey games and dance recitals, they are taking the opportunity to play on the same fields where they have so many times stood on the sidelines. I am proud of these women who are not afraid to try something new and willing to be coached by somebody 20 years their junior. Stepping onto the field is like entering another dimension, where the pandemonium of life takes a time-out and all of its trivialities are immaterial. Many of the women that I coach have rearranged their daily lives to attend the skills sessions and I have often been told that it is the one night in their week that they can take a break from the chaos of family. Creating opportunities for youth to enjoy sport is just as important as creating opportunities for middle-aged women and often they are the ones facing the greatest barriers to participation. Several studies demonstrate the benefits of physical activity amongst women approaching middle-age, some of which include a lower risk of coronary heart disease, a decrease in depressive symptoms, and even a decrease in the effects of menopause. Overwhelmingly there is a focus upon sport for youth, and not to take away from its importance, but there must be more of an effort to get older women involved in sport. Incidentally, they are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada.  The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport (CAAWS) has highlighted that one of their areas of focus in the next four years will include women between the ages of 55 and 70 – I will take it upon myself to contribute to this the best that I can. Happy National Girls and Women in Sports Day…      

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Our Invisible Athletes

I wrote this editorial for a job application a few months ago and for a long time I meant to get around to posting it but... I guess the holidays happened and I, like most others, went into a sort of holiday hibernation. Anyways, as I re-read what I had wrote back in November I realize just how poignant the title of this post is and just how timely the subject matter happens to be. With the recent passing of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke the lack of awareness of amateur athletes and amateur sport has become even more pronounced. How many of us knew who Burke was and what she had accomplished for not only her country but also for her sport? I hope that this editorial can at least provoke a discussion on what it means to be an amateur athlete in a country that, for the most part, tends to relegate the accomplishments of non-professional athletes to brief, liner note-esque blurbs on the last page of the sports section.

"Recently I came across an article about a high school in Maryland that is considering splitting their required one credit in physical education into two half-credits - one remaining in education and the other in financial literacy. What will happen if schools begin to pare down their physical education requirements? The answer is obvious. I, for one, am tired of hearing about rising obesity rates and declining numbers in physical activity. Courtesy of the federal government's recent "Obesity Report" we all know that one in four Canadian adults are obese and that measured obesity among youths has increased 2.5 times in the last decade. This is the topic du jour and it has occupied government agenda rather thoroughly for several years. In 2008 Sport Canada released a document entitled the "Sport Participation Strategy," a white paper that vowed to increase participation in sport over a four-year span. As we approach 2012 it would be an interesting exercise (pardon the pun) to evaluate the success of some of the objectives outlined in the report. The "Sport Participation Strategy" seeks to: increase levels of participation, enhance the quality of sport programs, and increase awareness and knowledge. Those are mammoth tasks in and of themselves. The paper is practically calling for a societal revolution as essentially, increasing participation in sport must involve changing the mindset of the entire country. Canadians have always harboured a certain apathy towards amateur sport - we know our hockey and to many, that is enough. Neighbouring a nation that worships their "amateur" athletes - Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, and Hope Solo - while providing them with significant financial backing, it would seem that Canada has some distance to cover. In short, awareness of the incredible opportunities in elite sport can be inspiring. Due to new media methods that are now a very dominant part of our culture the amateur sport landscape could be witnessing a turnaround. The most recent "mega event" to take place, the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, is an excellent example of the power of new media. The RWC organizing committee launched a social media campaign that included play-by-play Tweets, Facebook photograph contests, blog posts and a free app that tracked the teams of one’s choice. Social media cannot do the job alone and the 2011 RWC was the first time that international rugby received widespread media attention in Canada. In an exclusive rights agreement, TSN was the sole broadcaster of all RWC games. Partnering with Rugby Canada, they provided advertisements, interviews and sports desk analyses showcasing the Canadian rugby team. In my circle of “non-sport” friends, almost everybody had seen a snippet of the World Cup and more significantly, had caught at least a fleeting glimpse of the Canadian national team. This kind of exposure was unprecedented and came courtesy of a major sports broadcaster giving a lesser-known sport some airtime. The majority of men playing rugby for Canada are amateurs yet they have made a full-time commitment to play for their country and often with little reward or recognition. If the Canadian government proposes to increase participation in sport it needs to come from the ground up. It needs to be an organic process in which we, as a nation, value the athletes that make the choice to practice and train several times a day, every day. Their accomplishments must be highlighted. They are not the ones with multi-million dollar contracts but the ones that put their bodies and their wills to the test for little but the chance that they may one day see themselves on a podium. If Canadian sport is to move forward it must be in partnership with corporations that can provide more funding for amateur athletes. The current Canadian sports model sees federal funding coming from several streams - Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program (AAP), Sport Support Program (SSP) and Hosting Program. A more recent initiative, Own the Podium (OTP), is a union between Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC). Essentially, OTP is an advisory body that decides on where the $70 million in funding from government and non-government sources is allocated. OTP is active in seeking corporate sponsorship yet it is still an imperfect system. Elite sport and participant sport are engaged in a highly symbiotic relationship and now is the time to evaluate the impact of the "Sport Participation Strategy" while eradicating our endemic indifference towards elite athletes in amateur sport."