Introducing the Safe Sport + Lab at UofT

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This month we invited one of our fantastic Grantees to write a guest blog for the site. Read on to get to know the UofT Safe Sport + Lab and learn about the incredible work they are doing in the space.

Who we are?

We are the Safe Sport + Lab, in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto directed by Dr. Gretchen Kerr and Dr. Ashley Stirling. Our scope of work extends beyond sport and integrates dance and other forms of physical activity. Our work combines perspectives from psychology and sociology and uses a rights-based approach to address issues of safety, violence, abuse (sexual, physical, psychological), neglect, discrimination, bullying, harassment, integrity, and inclusion in sport and dance environments.

Our lab includes graduate students, undergraduate students, Post-Doctoral Fellows, Research Associates, and Research Assistants. Our mission is to advance and promote safe, healthy, equitable, and joyful sport and dance environments through research, innovation, advocacy, education, and collaboration.

Introduction to Gender-Based Violence in Sport

Sport can be an excellent way to improve physical, mental, and social well-being, and can be a source of fun and belonging for people across their lifespan. Unfortunately, there has been an increasing number of reports from athletes who have experienced various types of gender-based violence, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, harassment, and discrimination. These types of harm can come from coaches and trainers, teammates, parents, sport administrators, and spectators. Gender-based violence is also disproportionately experienced by equity-deserving groups including girls and women, and those who identify as racialized, LGBTQ2AI+, and/or with a disability.

Sport can be a vulnerable space because:

  1. There is a power imbalance in the relationship between a coach and athlete
  2. Sport is often unsupervised by other adults (e.g., closed gym practices)
  3. There is an emphasis on winning that can result in a win-at-all-cost mentality (i.e. choosing winning over well-being and safety)
  4. Masculine traditions of sport, with common phrases like “man up”, “it’s all about being tough enough”, “you throw like a girl.”

Current Projects

With the support of Silver Gummy, we are conducting a research project that seeks to address gender-based violence in youth sport. We are conducting a two-part study. First, we will assess the current quality of sport experiences at the youth and young adult populations, which includes rates of physical, sexual, psychological violence, neglect, harassment, and discrimination, as well as positive experiences (e.g., supportive environment, being able to reach
potential). Additionally, we seek to relate these experiences to outcomes such as enjoyment, retirement, physical and mental health.

Following the survey, we will be interviewing athletes of equity-denied groups to understand their experiences in sport. Previous research has demonstrated these groups are the most vulnerable to maltreatment, as such, we are trying to understand the nature of their experiences, in what ways they experience violence, their disclosure and reporting experiences (if any), and recommendations for prevention and intervention. Additionally, while we are researchers, our mission is to ensure that our data is translated to practice. Through the support of Silver Gummy, we are developing educational tools for sport participants, coaches, athletes, parents, and spectators, to ensure that we can create environments that are high-quality, as well as physically, psychologically, and socially safe sport experiences.

If you would be interested in reading more about the work we do, these are some of our recent publications:
Willson, E., & Kerr, G. (2023). Gender-Based Violence in Girls’ Sports. Adolescents, 3(2), 278- 289.

Willson, E., Kerr, G., Stirling, A., & Buono, S. (2022). Prevalence of maltreatment among Canadian National Team athletes. Journal of interpersonal violence, 37(21-22), NP19857- NP19879.

Willson, E., & Kerr, G. (2022). Body shaming as a form of emotional abuse in sport. International journal of sport and exercise psychology, 20(5), 1452-1470.

Kerr, G., Willson, E., & Stirling, A. (2020). “It Was the Worst Time in My Life”: The effects of emotionally abusive coaching on female Canadian national team athletes. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 28(1), 81-89.