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Data now plays a role in changing Canadian sport culture

Data science is holding a mirror up to Canadian sport.
Canada's Tammara Thibeault, right, fights Netherlands' Nouchka Fontijn during their women's middleweight 75-kg boxing match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Themba Hadebe

Data science is holding a mirror up to Canadian sport. 

Boxing Canada and Sail Canada were among the first half a dozen national sports organizations (NSO) to adopt a Culture Audit and Assessment Tool, which crunches data to reflect the health of the NSO's culture.

Athletes, coaches, support staff and leaders answer questions anonymously about people and performance in their organization.

Respondents give numeric values to questions such as: 

- Do you feel valued in the high-performance environment?

- What's the leadership like?

- What's the daily training environment like?

- What's the competitive environment like?

The data is fed back to the NSO on a bar graph with people on one axis and performance on the other. 

It shows, numerically, alignment or misalignment in beliefs and opinions within the organization.

"The topics, the subject, it's not like we've talked about culture," Canadian world champion boxer Tammara Thibeault said. "It was new in the sense that we had a say in what we want it to look like. A lot of the questions were things we should be asking, but we don't."

The Culture Audit and Assessment Tool, or CAAT, arrives amid what Canada's former sports minister called a safe-sport crisis.

Tearful elite athletes have testified before parliamentary committees about physical, emotional and sexual abuse they've experienced, and fears of career repercussions if they reported it to their sport leaders. 

How sport operates in Canada is under the microscope, and there have been calls for a national inquiry.

Thibeault and Canadian teammate Wyatt Sanford, who will box in the Pan American Games opening Friday in Santiago, Chile, answered CAAT's survey questions earlier this year. 

"We've been centralized as a team now for about seven years," Sanford said. "This was the first year … that we actually talked about the culture of being with the team, so it was a very new, very different thing when we actually got introduced (to) it."

The two boxers can't pinpoint specific changes CAAT data wrought in their lives because recent changes in Boxing Canada's leadership make it difficult to separate which caused what.

Kraig Devlin was named Boxing Canada's new high-performance director in July 2022.

"You don't have to look too far into the media in the early part of 2022 to see the type of press the organization was getting and the challenges it was facing at the time," Devlin said. "CAAT gave us a starting point."

One of Devlin's first moves after seeing CAAT's data was to hire former national-team rower and Royal Roads culture and communications professor Jennifer Walinga to run a two-day workshop with centralized athletes, coaches and support staff in Montreal.

"What you're doing when you're auditing the culture is you're measuring how aligned we are with our values, in terms of our behaviours, our practices, our processes, and our structures." Walinga said.

Sail Canada high-performance director Mike Milner said of the 32 people in his organization who were sent the CAAT survey, 70 per cent responded. 

He saw in the data a problem he could tackle immediately: athletes didn't know how to report injuries.

"I thought it was all crystal clear," Milner said. "It's all written down, but there's a difference between something written down and communicated."

Vancouver laser sailor Fillah Karim, another Canadian competing in Santiago's Pan Ams, says he was probably among the athletes inputting zero when it came to medical support knowledge. 

Sail Canada held a team call after the CAAT's data was analyzed.

"They really emphasized this is important to them," Karim said. "They were short a couple of people actually filling it out and you could tell how upset they were because they really wanted to do this.

"It gave a sense that the organization really wanted this data, and wanted this feedback in order to make changes." 

CAAT was developed by Own The Podium using Innerlogic software. 

Innerlogic co-founders Bryce Tully and Mike Bawol have both worked on Canadian team mission staff at Olympic Games, but their data analytics company also works in corporate culture as well as sport.

"Culture has been historically unagile," Tully said. "Our job is to empower organizations to be culturally agile.

"The human experiences people have inside the sport organizations they perform in are strongly related to how they continue to engage in that sport community for life.

"Culture is a really high-leverage area to get right. We set out on this mission to create a way to measure it at scale, to measure it in a valid way and hopefully make the measurement of the quality of the environment normal in sport."

OTP joined forces with Innerlogic in the spring of 2022 to develop CAAT, and rolled it out a year ago.

"The questions are entirely related to the high-performance context," said OTP director of sport science, medicine and innovation Dr. Andy Van Neutegem.

"This is not a crisis intervention tool. This is not here to rescue an NSO. This is all about maintaining and working on your cultural health. If there are things slipping, this is a way of identifying it, but doing so in a safe environment and doing it in a way that everybody can have a voice."

Given the level of mistrust in leadership in some quarters of Canadian sport, anonymity of responses is a CAAT linchpin. 

"All the people that filled the survey out, it's all anonymous," Milner said. "We don't know who is writing what."

Advisors trained in data analysis help NSOs sift through CAAT results and draw attention to trends and gaps.

It's been common for sports organizations to address problems by hiring a third-party law firm to conduct a review and write a report. 

CAAT can be executed often and inexpensively. Milner intends to use CAAT annually as a cultural checkup.

"I'm sure it cost someone, but it doesn't cost me," he said.

Van Neutegem stresses CAAT is simply one tool that can start powerful and delicate conversations around changing culture, if people are willing to have those conversations.

Thibeault understands that.

"A tool is just a tool," the boxer said. "It just collects data. At the end of the day, it's what we do with this data that matters."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press