Authors: Anthony Battaglia1, Ph.D., Gretchen Kerr2, Ph.D., and Stephanie Buono2, Ph.D.

Corresponding Author:

Anthony Battaglia, Ph.D., CMPC 

Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education 

University of Toronto 

55 Harbord Street, ON, Canada, M5S 2W6 

Email: anthony.battaglia@mail.utoronto.ca 

Anthony Battaglia, Ph.D., CMPC is a Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto. His research interests focus on youth athletes’ sport experiences, relational dynamics in sport, athlete maltreatment, and strategies for advancing developmentally appropriate and safe sport.  

Gretchen Kerr, Ph.D. is a Full Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. She is also a co-Director of E-Alliance, the Canadian Gender Equity in Sport Research Hub.

Stephanie Buono, Ph.D. is a research associate in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto and an instructor in the Department of Applied Psychology & Human Development at the University of Toronto.

Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education 

ABSTRACT

To combat growing concerns of sport being unsafe for athletes, compulsory safe sport education has been developed worldwide. Much of this education has focused on the role of the coach, largely due to their position of power, prevalence rates that highlight coaches as common perpetrators of harm, and their direct contact with athletes. However, there is a lack of research examining the impact of such education for coaching-related outcomes. The purpose of this study was to explore the influences of safe sport training on coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. In an online survey, 1365 coaches reported completion of any of 12 possible safe sport training courses and their knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. Regression analyses indicated that completing any of the 12 safe sport-related training courses was related to perceived increased efficacy to support others. Completing a higher number of safe sport training courses was related to perceived increases in efficacy to support others and knowledge and confidence, but not stress related to safe sport or athlete well-being. All 12 courses were related to increased knowledge and confidence, and several courses were related to increased efficacy to support others and reduced safe sport stress, while one course was related to reduced stress about athlete-well-being. Future research is needed to examine whether improvements in coaching outcomes associated with safe sport training translate into practice.

Key Words: Safe Sport; Coaches; Education; Coaching Outcomes;

Over the last several years, numerous reports of concerning behaviors in sport, such as maltreatment have emerged worldwide (15, 25). Maltreatment, which refers to “volitional acts that result in or have the potential to result in physical injuries and/or psychological harm” (12, p. 3), which include psychological, sexual, physical abuse, and neglect, harassment, bullying, and discrimination. To combat such concerns, policies and educational initiatives have been developed and implemented under the term ‘safe sport’ (26). The term safe sport initially emerged in response to scandals involving sexual abuse but has since expanded to refer to participation in sport free from all forms of violence, abuse, discrimination, and harassment (21, 39). More recently, broader conceptualizations of safe sport have also considered issues of environmental and physical safety (e.g., dysfunctional equipment, performance enhancing drugs), and the optimization of the sport experience (i.e., inclusive, accessible, growth-enhancing, and rights-based participation for all) (18). To advance safe sport, compulsory education has been developed; examples of existing safe sport education programmes include Australia’s Play by the Rules, U.S. Center for SafeSport Training, and the UK’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (24, 26).

Although safe sport education is needed for all sport stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, parents, administrators, officials and support staff, to-date, education has focused largely on coach-athlete dynamics, addressing issues such as harmful coaching practices, power relations, and duty to report harm (24, 26). There is a strong rationale for safe sport training focused on coaches. Consistent across many bodies of research in sport is acknowledgement of the presence and effects of the position of power and authority held by coaches over stakeholders in the sport ecosystem, including subordinate coaches, parents, athletes, and administrators (23, 38). When used inappropriately, these positions of power leave others vulnerable to experiences of harm. For example, psychological abuse (or what some refer to as psychological violence), the most prevalent form of athlete maltreatment, is most often perpetrated by coaches (42, 45, 48). Given their direct contact with other coaches, support staff, athletes and/or teams daily, coaches also significantly impact the type of culture promoted (e.g., win-at-all-costs versus caring or athlete-centred) and the nature and quality of athletes’ experiences (32). Coaches who are provided professional development and educational opportunities regarding positive sport practices are more likely to create environments where athletes experience enjoyment, competence, meaningful relationships, learning, satisfaction, reduced anxiety, and sport maintenance (6, 16, 36).

Although growing awareness of athlete maltreatment and the role of the coach in preventing these experiences has resulted in the proliferation of safe sport education initiatives for coaches globally, little research exists on the impact of such education for coaching-related outcomes (24, 26). In 2013, McMahon (28) investigated how a narrative pedagogical approach (i.e., athletes’ stories) might help swim coaches from amateur and elite levels understand the welfare implications for athletes subjected to emotionally or physically abusive coaching practices. Findings revealed that coaches gained increased empathy and undertook a more athlete-centered approach to coaching post-education, however, dominant cultural ideologies (e.g., winning) persisted in the coaches’ thinking and practice. Likewise, in 2018, Nurse (30) examined child sexual abuse prevention training for adults who work with children in schools, churches, and athletic leagues; with regards to coaches specifically, the training improved coaches’ knowledge on the topic and increased their confidence in their ability to identify abuse. These preliminary findings highlight the potential benefits of training for coaches; however, it is important to note that the education programmes were restricted to specific populations, sports, forms of harm, small sample sizes, and the effects of long-term behavioral change remained unclear. Further research examining the impact of safe sport training for coaches is required.

In Canada, the country of interest in this study, safe sport educational modules (e.g., NCCP Make Ethical Decisions, Safe Sport Training) (7, 9) have been developed by the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), which is responsible for certifying and educating coaches across Canada. The CAC has also promoted safe sport standards and expectations for organizations and its coaches, including the Responsible Coaching Movement- a pledge to learn and apply consistent safety principles. The pillars of the Responsible Coaching Movement include the Rule of Two, which attempts to ensure all interactions and communications are in open, observable, and justifiable settings; background screening; and ethics training (8). In the province of Ontario, the Coaches Association of Ontario- an independent, non-profit organization that supports coaches from community level to high performance across all sports in Ontario- has adopted similar safe sport efforts and developed resources, such as Safe Sport 101 and the Ontario Coaches Conference (10). The goals of such initiatives include but are not limited to improving the knowledge of coaches with respect to safe sport, increasing their confidence in enacting desirable coaching behaviors, creating positive sport climates, and facilitating the holistic development of athletes. To-date, the extent to which these educational initiatives meet these goals for Canadian coaches has not been examined.

While safe sport education for coaches has commonly focused on enhancing knowledge of harmful or prohibited conduct, enhancing confidence in using desired behaviors, and supporting stakeholders’ (e.g., athletes, coaches, support staff) development and well-being, there remains a lack of research examining the influence of safe sport training on coaching-related outcomes (24, 26). In this study, the constructs of knowledge, confidence, efficacy, and stress were of interest. Despite recognizing their influential role, many coaches admit inadequate knowledge to cultivate safe sport environments (25); as cultivating safe sport environments is also a collective effort, it remains important that coaches feel efficacious in their ability to support all participants (31). Given the prevalence of mental health challenges in sport, coaches have expressed stress related to supporting athletes’ mental well-being (1, 3). Further, in response to the public attention paid to cases of athlete maltreatment and the focus on coaches as perpetrators of harm, coaches have reportedly felt stress about potential false accusations; specifically, concerns of negative touch have been identified in research and practice, resulting in coaches and sport personnel being fearful and unsure of how to be around athletes with whom they interact (40).

The purpose of this study therefore to explore the influences of safe sport training on Ontario coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. Specifically, the first objective was to examine whether safe sport training improved coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. The second objective was to examine whether the effect of safe sport training on coaches increased with the number of safe sport training courses. The third objective was to examine whether certain courses were related to coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues.

Methods

Procedures

This study was conducted in partnership with the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO). CAO is an independent, non-profit organization that supports coaches across all levels and sports in Ontario. Ontario has the largest population of all provinces in Ontario with over 15 million people and one in four Ontarians have coached in their lifetime (10). The CAO selected the safe sport-related courses of interest for evaluation (see Table 1). As such, within the context of the current study, a broad perspective of safe sport (i.e., from injuries to drug-free sport, planning appropriate practices, and maltreatment) was adopted. Upon receiving approval from the University of Toronto Health Sciences Research Ethics Board, coaches were contacted through the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) email listserv and social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Recruitment communication provided details about study eligibility/requirements, the purpose of the study, the voluntary nature of the study, confidentiality and anonymity, and the link to the online survey. The survey was administered with RED Cap electronic data capture. Participants were required to meet the following eligibility criteria to complete the online survey: 1) Ontario resident; 2) over the age of 16; and 3) had coached in the last two years. Following the confirmation of eligibility, participants were able to complete the survey, which took approximately 15-25 minutes (M=19.25) to complete.

Table 1. An overview of the Safe Sport Education modules evaluated in the current study.

CourseOverview
NCCP Emergency Action Planning https://coach.ca/nccp-emergency-action-planUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: describe the importance of having an EAP; identify when to activate the EAP; explain the responsibilities of the charge person and call person when the EAP is activated; and create a detailed EAP that includes all required information for responding to an emergency.
NCCP Planning a Practice https://coach.ca/nccp-planning-practiceUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: explain the importance of logistics in the development of a practice plan; establish an appropriate structure for a practice; and identify appropriate activities for each part of the practice. To receive full credit for this module, coaches must also complete NCCP Emergency Action Planning.
NCCP Making Head Way https://coach.ca/nccp-making-head-way-sportUpon completion of this module, coaches will understand how to: prevent concussions; recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion; what to do when they suspect an athlete has a concussion; and ensure athletes return to play safely.
NCCP Leading Drug-Free Sport https://coach.ca/nccp-leading-drug-free-sportUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and demonstrate their role in promoting drug free sport; assist athletes to recognize banned substances and the consequences as identified by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport; reinforce the importance of fair play and the NCCP Code of Ethics; educate and provide support to athletes in drug testing protocols; and inform athletes on nutritional supplements.
NCCP Prevention and Recovery https://coach.ca/nccp-prevention-and-recoveryUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: identify common injuries in sport, prevention and recovery strategies; design and implement programs/activities to optimize athlete training, performance and recovery; and support athletes’ return to sport through awareness and proactive leadership.
Commit to Kids https://protectchildren.ca/en/get-involved/online-training/commit-to-kids-for-coaches/Upon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and recognize child sexual abuse and the grooming process; ways in which to handle disclosures of sexual abuse; the implications of sexual abuse; how to create a child protection code of conduct; and ways in which to enhance child and youth safety in sport.
Standard First Aid and CPR https://www.redcross.ca/training-and-certification/course-descriptions/first-aid-at-home-courses/standard-first-aid-cprUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and apply vital life-saving knowledge/skills essential for meeting a variety of workplace/professional requirements.
HeadStartPro https://headstartpro.com/coach-course/Upon completion of this module coaches will be able to: understand and develop a set of coaching tools to improve team performance and injury-prevention; and assist athletes and/or teams in achieving their full potential with performance-driven injury prevention training.
NCCP Making Ethical Decisions https://coach.ca/nccp-make-ethical-decisionsUpon completion of this module coaches will be to: analyze challenging situations and determine the moral, legal, or ethical implications; and apply the NCCP Ethical Decision-Making Model to respond in ways that are consistent with NCCP Code of Ethics.
NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) https://coach.ca/nccp-creating-positive-sport-environmentUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: describe the characteristics and benefits of participant-centered coaching; explain the types of harm that may occur when a coach misuses their power; respond to suspicions or knowledge of maltreatment; and implement positive coaching strategies to foster learning, performance, and create a safe sport environment.
CAC Safe Sport https://coach.ca/safe-sport-trainingUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand the critical role of all stakeholders in promoting safe sport, how the misuse of power leads to maltreatment, and principles of the Universal Code of Conduct; understand types of maltreatment and how to recognize signs and symptoms; and respond when maltreatment is suspected and create a safe sport culture for all participants.
Respect in Sport https://www.respectgroupinc.com/respect-in-sport/Upon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: recognize, understand, and respond to issues of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.

Note. For further detail on course descriptions and/or objectives see the corresponding webpages indicated in the table.

Participants

Participants were 1365 coaches from the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO). Of the respondents, 61% identified as men (n=823), 38% identified as women (n=514; n=28 did not disclose), 86% identified as White (n=1087), while 4% (n=53) identified as Black, 4% (n=51) identified as East/Southeast Asian, 2% (n=31) identified as Indigenous, and less than 2% identified as Latinx (n=19), South Asian (n=18), Middle Eastern (n=16), or another race category (n=27). Coaches reported working in a variety of contexts including grassroots (e.g., recreational, community sport, house league, intramural; n=273, 22%), school sports (e.g., primary and secondary school; n=141, 11%), development (e.g. competitive, club, travel, city, all-star; n=600, 49%), post-secondary (e.g., Support, CCAA, OUA, Inter-university; n=74, 6%), provincial (e.g., Canada Games, National Championships, OHL; n=90, 7%), international (e.g., International Competitions, Worlds, Pan Am, Commonwealth, Olympics; n=36, 3%), and masters or professional (e.g., Senior, NHL, NBA, CEBL; n=20, 2%). Coaches’ tenure in their current position ranged from 1-10 years (n=804, 65%), 11-20 years (n=238, 19%), and more than 20 years (n=194, 16%). Training in safe sport was required for 78% of coaches (n=782) and provided free of cost for 51% of coaches (n=535).

Measures

Safe sport training was measured with a “yes” or “no” response from coaches to indicate whether they had taken each of the following courses: NCCP[1] Emergency Action Planning, NCCP Planning a Practice, NCCP Making Head Way, NCCP Leading Drug Free Sport, NCCP Prevention and Recovery of Injury, Commit to Kids, Standard First Aid and CPR, HeadStart, NCCP Make Ethical Decisions, NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments), CAC Safe Sport Training, Respect in Sport.

Knowledge & confidence to create a safe sport environment was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.7), which asked coaches about their knowledge of safe sport concepts and their confidence in creating a safe sport environment. Example items included, “I am confident in my abilities to create a safe sport environment” and “I am familiar with the responsible coaching movement.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Safe sport stress was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.68), which asked coaches about the stress they experience over creating a safe sport environment. An example item includes, “I often stress about being the subject of a harassment or abuse claims”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Stress about athlete well-being was measured with 2 items (a=.59): “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ mental well-being”, and “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ physical well-being.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Efficacy to support others was measured using a 5-item scale (a=.87), which asked coaches about how confident they feel in their ability to support athletes and other coaches. An example item includes “I am confident in my abilities to support my athletes with performance issues”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).



[1] NCCP refers to the National Coaching Certification Program offered by the Coaching Association of Canada.

Safe sport stress was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.68), which asked coaches about the stress they experience over creating a safe sport environment. An example item includes, “I often stress about being the subject of a harassment or abuse claims”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Stress about athlete well-being was measured with 2 items (a=.59): “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ mental well-being”, and “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ physical well-being.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Efficacy to support others was measured using a 5-item scale (a=.87), which asked coaches about how confident they feel in their ability to support athletes and other coaches. An example item includes “I am confident in my abilities to support my athletes with performance issues”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Data Analysis

To investigate the first research objective, an initial correlation analysis was conducted to examine whether having any safe sport training was related to increases in coaching outcomes. The safe sport training variable was transformed so that coaches who answered “yes” to completing any of the safe sport training courses were coded as 1 and coaches who had answered “no” to completing all the safe sport training courses were coded as 0 (i.e., no SS training=0, any SS training=1). This variable was included in a correlation analysis with all coaching outcomes: knowledge & confidence, safe sport stress, stress over athlete well-being, and efficacy to support others. To investigate the second research objective, four separate linear regression models were constructed with the sum of completed safe sport training courses (range =1-12) as the independent variable, and the following coaching outcomes as respective dependent variables: knowledge & confidence, safe sport stress, stress about athlete well-being, and efficacy to support others. In all four models, the coaching context, whether training was required (0=no, 1=yes), and whether training was free (0=no, 1=yes) were included as covariates. To address the third research objective, ANOVAs were conducted with individual safe sport courses as independent variables, and the following coaching outcomes as dependent variables: knowledge & confidence, efficacy to support others, safe sport stress, stress about athlete well-being and efficacy to support others. All analyses were conducted using IBM SPSS Statistics (Version 28) (20).

Results

Safe Sport Training & Coaching Outcomes

Range, mean, and standard deviation scores for all variables included in subsequent analyses are included in Table 2. Of the coaches in this sample, 65% (n=890) reported completing at least one of the education courses, while 35% (n=475) reported not having taken any of the education courses. Results of the correlation analysis (Table 3) demonstrate that having any safe sport training was significantly related to increases in efficacy to support others, but not knowledge and confidence, safe sport stress, or stress about athlete well-being.

Table 2. Descriptive statistics for all variables

RangeMeanSD
Coaching Context (0=Grassroots)0-71.811.37
Training Required (0=No)0-1.59.49
Training Free (0=No)0-1.49.50
Any Safe Sport Training0-1.6.13
Number of Safe Sport Training0-123.643.42
Knowledge & Confidence-4-201
Safe sport stress-4-201
Stress over athlete well-being-4-201
Efficacy to Support-4-201
n=1365   
Table 3. Correlations between any safe sport training and coaching outcomes
Any Safe Sport TrainingKnowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Any Safe Sport Training1.00.06*.04.002-.03
Knowledge Confidence.06*1.00-.02.00.29**
Safe Sport Stress.04-.021.00.34**-.09**
Athlete WB Stress.002.00.34**1.00-.20**
Efficacy to Support-.03.29**-.09**-.20**1.00
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

Number of Safe Sport Training & Coaching Outcomes

Figure 1 demonstrates the number of safe sport courses taken by coaches in this sample based on influential covariates such as coaching context, training requirement, and training accessibility (i.e., whether the training was provided free of cost). Significantly more safe sport courses were completed by coaches in Post-Secondary, Provincial, International, Masters and Professional contexts, and by coaches for whom training and education is required and free. 

Initial correlation analysis (Table 4) demonstrated being a coach at a high level of competition (e.g., provincial, international) was related to taking more safe sport courses, higher knowledge and confidence, and higher efficacy to support others. Having access to free training was related to taking more safe sport courses and higher knowledge and confidence. Finally, taking more safe sport training courses was related to higher knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. Safe sport stress and stress about athlete well-being were not related to any of the independent variables.

Table 4. Correlations between number of safe sport training courses, covariates and outcome variables
Coaching ContextTraining RequiredTraining FreeSafe Sport TrainingKnowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Coaching Context1.00-.04-.03.11**.07**.01.00.08**
Training Required-.041.00.11**-.02.08**.06.03-.05
Training Free-.03.11**1.00.09**.08*.00-.06.01
Safe Sport Training.11**-.02.09**1.00.26**.05.01.10**
Knowledge Confidence.07**.08**.08*.26**1.00-.02.00.29**
Safe Sport Stress.01.06.00.05-.021.00.34**-.09**
Athlete WB Stress.00.03-.06.01.00.34**1.00-.20**
Efficacy to Support.08**-.05.01.10**.29**-.09**-.20**1.00
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

The results of the first regression analysis (Table 5) demonstrated that the number of safe sport training courses coaches completed was related to increases in knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others, when training requirements, access to training, and context of the sport environment were held constant. The number of safe sport training courses coaches took was not related to safe sport stress or athlete well-being stress.

Table 5. Linear Regression Analyses for General Coach Training
Knowledge & ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
BSEBSEBSEBSE
Coaching Context.03.02.01.02.00.02.08*.02
Training Required.09*.07.06.07.03.07.04.08
Training Free.08*.06.01.06.06.06.001.06
Safe Sport Training.31**.01.05.01.003.01.12**.01
  
Adj. R-Square.12.01.00.03 
n=1365
**Coefficient is significant at the 0.01 level
*Coefficient is significant at the 0.05 level

Individual Safe Sport Courses and Coaching Outcomes

The results of the final analysis demonstrated that all courses were significantly related to improved knowledge and confidence. NCCP Emergency Action Planning, NCCP Leading Drug Free Sport, Commit to Kids, HeadStartPRO, and NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) were significantly related to reduced safe sport stress. Commit to Kids was significantly related to reduced athlete well-being stress. Finally, NCCP Planning a Practice, NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport, NCCP Prevention and Recovery, Commit to Kids, HeadStartPRO, NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments), and CAC Safe Sport were significantly related to efficacy to support others (Table 6).

Table 6. Effects of Individual Safe Sport Courses
Knowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support Others
FSig.FSig.FSig.FSig.
NCCP Emergency Action Planning60.97<.0015.67.0171.45.2293.75.053
NCCP Planning a Practice53.82<.001.13.722.44.5097.23.007
NCCP Making Head Way64.15<.001.10.754.08.772.35.557
NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport72.82<.0015.65.018.25.61822.49<.001
NCCP Prevention and Recovery47.18<.0013.29.070.08.77714.21<.001
Commit to Kids35.88<.0015.16.0238.91.00311.29<.001
Standard First Aid and CPR17.96<.001.31.580.69.4069.73.002
HeadStartPRO7.08.00810.31.002.06.8149.15.003
NCCP Making Ethical Decisions22.26<.001.17.680.01.931.01.91
NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments)15.21<.0017.92.04.315.57516.42<.001
CAC Safe Sport89.17<.001.16.6903.91.5328.41.004
Respect in Sport32.62<.001.07.797.07.7973.64.056
n=1365

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to explore the influences of safe sport training on sport coaches’ knowledge and confidence, safe sport-related stress, efficacy to support others, and stress about athlete well-being. Specific focus was directed towards examining the relationship between the number of safe sport courses completed and the effects of specific safe sport courses for these coaching outcomes. The results of this study demonstrated that having any training or education was related to increased efficacy to support others. Having completed a higher number of safe sport training courses was related to increased efficacy to support others and knowledge and confidence, and all safe sport courses were related to increased knowledge and confidence.  

Although a plethora of safe sport education exists to-date, a prominent criticism has been the lack of empirical evaluations examining the impact or effectiveness of such training (24, 26). The findings of the current study help to address this knowledge gap by providing preliminary, empirical evidence regarding the influence of safe sport education. According to the results, coaches in more professional contexts took more safe sport training courses, which supports the notion that at elite levels of sport, coaches may have more access to professional development opportunities and/or devote more time improving their coaching skills (11, 27). Coaches who were provided access to free training in the current study also took more safe sport courses. These findings suggest that when provided the opportunity, coaches engage in professional development, however, as issues of cost and accessibility remain prevalent barriers, the advancement and development for many coaches remains limited (19, 43. Online modalities have been advocated as a cost-effective, time efficient, and readily accessible way to educate coaches (13, 14) yet, for many coaches, online professional development opportunities still present financial demands. For example, of the twelve courses examined in the current study, only three (e.g., NCCP Emergency Action Planning, CAC Safe Sport, NCCP Making Headway) are listed as online and free for coaches; in the current study, it was not known if affiliated organizations where coaches instruct reimbursed education/training and, if so, for which courses. Access or lack thereof to safe sport-related education may impact the extent to which safe, inclusive, and welcoming spaces are promoted by all coaches (22, 47). This is particularly important for coaching at the youth sport level where the delivery of sport programmes is highly dependent on volunteers who, despite recognizing their critical role for nurturing developmentally appropriate and safe environments, often lack the requisite knowledge to do so (2, 44, 46).

The completion of more safe sport training courses and all courses examined in the current study was related to enhanced coaches’ knowledge and confidence. Exposing coaches to diverse topics which include but are not limited to safety, positive development, harmful practices, and mental health, are critical to improving coaches’ awareness and ability to create safe sport environments (6, 28, 30). The coaches also reported increased knowledge of the Rule of Two and the Responsible Coaching Movement; these safe sport efforts provide additional safety principles for Ontario and Canadian coaches more broadly on background screening, appropriate interactions, and ethics training (8). Findings may be interpreted to suggest that not only does safe sport education positively influence coaches’ knowledge and confidence to create safe environments but also facilitates greater awareness of safe sport efforts in the Canadian sport context, thus providing coaches with a more comprehensive perspective on ways to stimulate safer sport.

Nurturing athletes’ holistic development is a key responsibility of coaches; however, coaches may not have the necessary education and training to adequately support their athletes (41). The current findings indicate that the completion of more safe sport education as well as specific courses (e.g., NCCP Empower+, CAC Safe Sport) may nurture coaches’ expertise and confidence to actively support their athletes with personal and performance challenges. The extent to which athletes report positive coach-athlete dynamics and feel supported in their relationships with coaches has been known to influence whether they experience learning, growth, and safe sport environments (32). Safe sport training also influenced coaches’ confidence to support coaching peers/support staff with personal and performance issues; these findings are particularly important as learning by doing, having a coach mentor, and observing others are important sources of knowledge and development for coaches (43). Collectively, the improvements in coaches’ efficacy to support others (athletes and coaches) suggests that safe sport training may serve as an effective mechanism through which knowledge dissemination and learning amongst stakeholders is achieved.

Many coaches (uninformed on the benefits of positive touch) have adopted a risk-averse perspective when interacting with athletes (i.e., “no touching”) to avoid being accused of misconduct or having their behaviors misconstrued as harmful (33, 34). In the current study, no significant relationship resulted between the number of safe sport training courses completed and coaches’ perceived safe sport stress (e.g., fear of maltreatment allegations). Specific courses were identified as decreasing safe sport stress, however, some of the courses (e.g., NCCP Emergency Action Planning, HeadStartPro, NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport) focus on physical injury prevention and/or drug-free sport and do not necessarily provide broader content on maltreatment that might warrant the reported lower coach stress regarding potential accusations of harm or safe sport issues. Although coaches have commonly reported concerns about touching in sport (33), there has also been growing awareness of psychological harm and toxic cultures in sport (38, 48). The lack of reported stress regarding safe sport concerns may be reflective of coaches being less fearful of false accusations related to psychological forms of harm as opposed to sexual harms. As the survey questions referred to coach stress in relation to abuse and harassment claims broadly, further research attention is needed to assess whether education may impact coaches’ safe sport stress differently depending on the form of harm (e.g., sexual versus psychological).

It is also interesting that while safe sport education was related to coaches’ improved efficacy to support athletes with personal and performance issues, the number of completed courses was not significantly related to stress about managing athlete physical and mental well-being. Only one course (Commit to Kids) reduced coaches’ perceived stress for managing athlete well-being. Commit to Kids focuses exclusively on providing education on sexual harms; while education on sexual harms is needed to advance safe sport, psychological harm and neglect are reported far more frequently by athletes (25, 48) and thus coaches’ perceptions of their ability to manage athletes’ well-being may be limited in scope.

            NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) was associated with enhanced knowledge and confidence, improved efficacy to support others, and lower safe sport stress, whereas CAC Safe Sport Training was linked to improved knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. Interestingly, Commit to Kids was the only course to positively impact all coaching outcomes, despite focusing exclusively on sexual harms. As sexual harm continues to receive the most media and research attention (4, 25), education on sexual harms may be interpreted by coaches and those in the sport community to be most relevant and important for creating safe sport. Further, in Ontario and Canada more broadly, sport organizations frequently identify course equivalents where coaches may complete different courses, including CAC Safe Sport Training, Respect in Sport, NCCP Empower+, and Commit to Kids but still satisfy the safe sport-related requirements needed to instruct. The lack of an integrated approach and the various safe sport education options available may expose coaches to different experiences and levels of learning, thus providing a plausible explanation for the reported influences on coaching outcomes in the current study. To advance safe sport,evidence-informed education for coaches and stakeholders more broadly is needed (5, 47).

Limitations and Future Directions

Although this study contributes to research and practice in safe sport by providing insights into the reported benefits of safe sport education for coaches, the findings must be interpreted within the context of the current study. Considering the CAO selected the safe sport-related courses of interest for evaluation, a broad perspective of safe sport (i.e., injuries, drug-free sport, planning appropriate practices, maltreatment) was required. The data were also collected from coaches in a specific geographic region (Ontario, Canada) and thus many of the safe sport courses evaluated were exclusive to this coaching sample. The courses evaluated in the current study should not be considered an exhaustive list of all safe-sport courses; for example, since the completion of the study, several courses (e.g., Support Through Sport, Safe Sport 101 Playbook) have been revised and/or developed. Additionally, as the sport domain has been referred to one that reinforces toxic cultures, there are several education courses in Ontario and Canada more broadly on creating positive culture and inclusive environments (e.g., NCCP Coaching Athletes with a Disability), that were not included and require future consideration regarding their impact on coaches and advancing safe sport. 

The study findings highlighted a relationship between safe sport education and improvements in coach knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others, suggesting that practitioners should explore ways to make safe sport education free of cost and accessible. However, as this study did not assess knowledge translation, future research is needed to examine if coaches’ improved knowledge, confidence and efficacy from education contributes to behavior change and the use of more developmentally appropriate and safe coaching practices. Organizational influence also remains an area of interest; for example, it would be beneficial to explore how an organization’s cultural values, priorities (e.g., win-at-all-costs vs holistic development), and support (e.g., free training), may impact coach education uptake and subsequently the effectiveness of safe sport education on coaching outcomes. Future researchers may consider a case study approach to examine the impact of safe sport education for coaches within a specific organization; for example, Likert-scales may be used to assess attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions, semi-structured interviews may help to gain deeper insights on coaches’ interpretations regarding safe sport courses, and participant observation may shed light on issues of coach behavior change resulting from safe sport education.

Conclusion

Safe sport education for coaches has been consistently advocated as a recommendation for advancing safe, inclusive, and welcoming environments, however, the influence of safe sport education remains largely unknown (24, 26). The current study contributes to the sport literature by providing an examination of the influences of safe sport training for coaches. Findings revealed a relationship between the number of safe sport training courses coaches completed and increases in their knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. However, the number of safe sport training courses completed was not associated with stress related to safe sport matters or athlete well-being. All safe sport courses were reportedly associated with improved coach knowledge and confidence. Several training courses were also linked to improvements in coaches’ efficacy to support others and reductions in their safe sport stress, with only one course contributing to coaches’ reduced stress related to athlete-well-being. Although the findings suggest favorable influences of safe sport training for coaches, the current study did not assess behavioral change. Future research is needed to explore whether reported improvements (e.g., knowledge and confidence) associated with safe sport education translates to coaching practice.

Applications in Sport

Safe sport education in the current study was reportedly associated with enhanced coach knowledge and confidence to create safe environments and efficacy to support athletes and other coaches/support staff. Unfortunately, as a large portion of the sport sector is run by a volunteer workforce (e.g., volunteer coaches), sport organizations remain reluctant to enforce training requirements for fear of further burdening these coaches who frequently report stress and burnout (2, 35). However, the extent to which sport organizations and their leaders prioritize and support safe sport, has been shown to impact the effectiveness of safe sport efforts (17, 37, 49). In some cases, merely having safe sport education initiatives may have little impact on creating and sustaining safer environments and appear as superficial gestures towards change, further reproducing harms (29, 31). Sport and coaching organizations are confronted with the challenge of maintaining low time and cost demands for many volunteer coaches while also providing adequate education for volunteer (and paid) coaches (19, 46).

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the coaches who participated in this study along with Coaches Association of Ontario who contributed to the design and recruitment of this study.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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