EVOLVE: How one organization is tackling culture change

November 25, 2021

By Karri Dawson, Senior Director, Quality Sport, CCES

Everyone is talking about the need for a shift in the culture of sport to ensure all participants are safe and free from maltreatment. This move toward safer sport is long overdue, but I wonder if it will be enough to maximize all that sport has to offer. Will it ensure sport instills character, strengthens communities, and supports opportunities for excellence?

Safe sport policies are a vital first step, but true culture change is a slow process that requires buy-in from leaders and participants to be sustainable. In an effort to understand their cultural and organizational challenges, British Columbia Artistic Swimming (BCAS) held member consultations which found that an unhealthy culture was contributing to coach burn-out, poor retention and morale, and increased conflict at all levels. In response to these findings, BCAS and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) kicked off a partnership project in April 2020 that was funded through the Sport Canada Innovation Grant.

The “EVOLVE” project focused on shifting the culture of artistic swimming in B.C. to create a healthier space for children and youth to develop, for people to swim, work, and volunteer; and one that is collaborative, inclusive, and self-reflective. BCAS set out to understand the current challenges, provide training and development on effective communication and conflict resolution, and conduct formal research to evaluate EVOLVE.

The EVOLVE framework recognized that culture change is fundamentally personal. For it to succeed, sport leaders need to be self-aware of their individual and collective contributions to the culture – both negative and positive. As part of the 18-month pilot project, coaches, club executives, athletes, and BCAS Board members and staff came together to develop new and improved relationships, work through issues, and collaborate on initiatives that would support a better culture in their sport.

EVOLVE’s interventions were multi-pronged and provided training, skills, and resources to nurture change in five specific areas:

  • organizational development
  • interpersonal communications and conflict management
  • nurturing positive coaching strategies
  • creating safe, inclusive, and welcoming spaces
  • empowering members to share learnings in collaborative environments

Once BCAS identified their challenges and initiated solutions, the next step of EVOLVE was to increase leaders’ abilities to activate values-based sport experiences that would support a sustainable culture change. This is where True Sport came in. True Sport is an initiative of the CCES that offers an approach to values-based sport that is underpinned by seven principles.

BCAS recognized True Sport as a platform upon which to build awareness, provide education, and streamline stakeholder communications that reflect a clear desire to not only minimize harm but to strive for sport optimization. During the pilot, BCAS completed a True Sport Activation Workshop, which led to the development of the BCAS True Sport Activation Framework that prioritizes target groups and outlines appropriate True Sport tools and resources for each. In addition, BCAS hosted multiple True Sport engagement sessions for coaches and sport leaders to teach them how to intentionally incorporate the True Sport Principles into their respective clubs.

EVOLVE included an important evaluation component. Acknowledging that culture changes over time, researcher Diane Culver and her team at the University of Ottawa concluded that while there is still work to be done: EVOLVE “has initiated important conversations within the BCAS organization about the need for the creation of a safe and inclusive environment for those in the community. There is an awareness present of changes that need to be made but this awareness has, in general, not yet translated down into measurable action.” The evaluation report also identifies that, “Sustained interventions are necessary for change to occur. BCAS should consider this project an important step in the right direction towards real actionable culture change.”

The research also found that EVOLVE interventions:

  • helped coaches (70%) and club administrators (100%) to communicate more effectively
  • enabled coaches (70%) and club administrators (100%) to better manage issues and conflicts when they arise
  • allowed coaches (100%) and club administrators (100%) to embed positive coaching practices with their athletes
  • helped coaches (100%) and club administrators (100%) to create a fair, safe, open, and inclusive space for athletes

At the end of this 18-month project with BCAS, I am encouraged by what BCAS has accomplished and ignited in a relatively short time. Sport culture never stops changing and shifting, but it gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction when I see what a dedicated group of people can accomplish. We are grateful to everyone who engaged in challenging and sometimes difficult conversations, stretched their skills, and committed themselves to sustainable change within the BCAS family.

Jennifer Keith, BCAS Executive Director, offers the following advice to others wishing to engage in this type of work:

  • Listen to your members and ensure you understand all the factors that are contributing to the current culture before embarking on a culture change initiative.
  • Be patient – there will be early adopters keen for change and there will be even more resisters who are not comfortable with change or don’t understand their contribution to current issues.
  • Engage the services of professionals and experts, including organizational change experts, behaviour experts, and even counsellors to help people to work through issues as necessary. Sport leaders will not have the capacity to resolve or recognize all the issues.
  • Be open to self-reflection, on a personal and professional level. Be prepared for criticism and to accept recommendations for changing how you and your Board lead and govern.
  • Be prepared to put in the time required to (re)build relationships, to give a voice to those who want to be heard and to create new ways to develop trust and transparency.
  • Prioritize the project and discover how you can embed meaningful learning opportunities or change management activities into your regular programming.
  • No matter the challenge, you are stronger together and collaboration is an important means to an end, even though it usually takes longer to arrive at a consensus.

If you are looking to change the culture of your sport, or to adopt a values-based approach in your work, contact the CCES True Sport Team at [email protected].


This project was made possible by the Government of Canada.


See Also...

The CCES Partners with BC Artistic Swimming to Influence Culture Change in Sport

(Ottawa, Ontario – April 22, 2020) – The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and British Columbia Artistic Swimming (BCAS) are proud to announce an innovative partnership project focused on...