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Putting People First, Wellness, is Now a Part of Sport’s DNA

“Obviously performance and winning is a big part of it, but so is coming out of your athletic endeavours just feeling good. Because at the end of the day if we’re not here to help people to enjoy their experience, to gain from it, then what are we doing?”
— Mick Lizmore, national wheelchair curling coach

Every so often, Kyle Paquette finds himself returning for grounding to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s influential 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation.
In pyramid fashion it explains human needs in a five-tier model of physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
“Today, it’s pretty basic stuff,’’ says the PhD turned national director of Canada’s wheelchair curling program. “But I like to go back to it because 20 years ago we were missing some of the foundational levels in high performance sport.
“But we’ve come to a place where we’ve checked off so many spots on the Bingo cards that there’s only one or two left in terms of advancements.
“We have so much information now as it relates to physiological change and adaptation, strength and conditioning, and with AI on board, we’re mastering video analytics.
“So now it’s really that person piece.”
The drive towards emphasizing that people piece in Canadian sport culture, spearheaded by Own the Podium’s Pursuit program, is a priority for all.
Back in 2019, before assuming his current role with wheelchair curling, Paquette, for example, undertook an examination of culture of excellence for Own the Podium. The initiative started with a review of all available literature centred on cultures of high-performance sporting organizations the world over.
That deep-dive was followed by more than 60 interviews with various Canadian high performance directors, coaches and athletes.

“From that, we created a culture framework that then turned into sort of a matrix to sort programs in relation to where they were at in relation to a culture of excellence,’’ he recalls.
“The logical next step was to actually create a tool to be able to plot people onto that matrix. So, we went back to the all interviews we’d collected from those initial round of interviews, had some follow-up interviews and were able to put together an assessment tool that had about a hundred items.
“Two dimensions of culture, the person dimension and the performance dimensions.”
The key purpose of the project was to “de-mystify” culture and create a more standardized and aligned people-first/wellness model across the national spectrum.
“The really interesting thing is that when we put that model together, the one question that I kept landing on was: So, what is excellence, anyway?’’ recalls Paquette. “Because the whole topic was the culture of excellence.
“I went back to the majority of interviewees and asked them how they define excellence? And they defined it in two ways. Not just performance but the journey of the individual and the support of the surrounding people.
“That was a bit of surprise - for me, anyways. And really all we’ve done is, I think, put the focus squarely back on the people at the heart of this sporting journey: Are they having a fulfilling time, and doing it for the right reasons?”
Andy Van Neutegem, PhD, was brought on as OTP’s VP of Performance Sciences, Research and Innovation, and helped Paquette work with the data. For Van Neutegem, the “pièce de résistance” of the initiative was OTP seeing the essential benefit in hiring and training their own culture and wellness facilitators to work alongside the National Sports Associations.
“They are kind of the gas that makes the car go,’’ he explains. “We have people who have organizational psyche backgrounds, people in business … when I selected them I wanted diversity. I didn’t want the same person times five. I wanted them to work in dyads that allow different strengths to help the National Sports Organizations. Obviously, it’s a big investment but it’s worked incredibly well.”
The facilitators, working for OTP and not the NSOs, provide essential outside-the-inner-sanctum perspective, unbiased expertise in wellness matters. They’re now deployed, as Van Neutegem mentioned, in pairs alongside 27 sports organizations across the country.
“Most importantly they help the NSO’s put together an action plan to try and make changes, addressing where the biggest gaps are. We call it CAAT, the Culture Assessment and Audit Tool,’’ he continues.

“Everyone can just stop, take a break and think about things critically, rather than being so pressed by the tyranny of the immediate. People are defensive because they think: ‘It’s my responsibility, culture.’
“Well, no it’s not. It’s everybody’s responsibility.”
Putting people first, enhancing experience, is now a part of the DNA. The dilemma of course, comes in the results/funding paradox, coaches and high-performance directors feeling on the hot seat to deliver podium and medal performances.
 “Often times,’’ says Paquette, “the most direct route to outcomes, supported by the science and the literature, is to get someone to do what you want by going about it the wrong way.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy to get my kids to clean their bedroom if I threaten them with this or that.
“But that is not sustainable. So, the cultural aspect is changing. The funding is changing. There’s a huge psychological piece to it. I think - I know - that coaches tend to coach the way they themselves were coached, which means we’re always a couple of generations behind in terms of best practices.
“I also they think the system is really short on education in this area. The greatest coaches, the greatest teams, have figured it out. But if you tier down, they’re really still in a place where they’re not aware of nuances and intricacies of dealing with humans.
“They’re only dealing with athletes.”
 Photo Credit: Curling Canada/Michael Burns
One of the unexpected drivers in the ongoing shift towards wellness within the sporting community has, in Canadian wheelchair curling head coach Mick Lizmore's mind, been the COVID-19 nightmare.
 “I think through the pandemic and then coming out of it, what we saw, with the threat it posed to everyone, was a higher prioritization of wellness across the board; less stigma around mental health,’’ Lizmore says.
“I do think it’s in the front of people’s minds more frequently now. Not only mental health but physical health, as well. People are recognizing that if health isn’t taken care of, both sides of that coin, then we’re just not going to have athletes that are able to sustain success for long periods of time.”
The sporting landscape has undergone a metamorphosis over the last number of years, rocked by a series of disturbing revelations.
“There has been a turn towards focus on the rare but dark underbelly of sport,’’ acknowledges Lizmore. “Certainly not dismissing the importance of making sure that we attend to those issues because any of them can serve as a threat to anyone’s sport experience; and that we can never underestimate the importance of making sure that’s being seen and heard.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t also reinforce the good that is going on, too. Focusing on the negative, although important and entirely necessary, can be supplemented, supported, by a focus on all the good things that are happening in sport.”
What’s pleasing to Paquette is that many of those forward-thinking coaches are at last receiving their due.
“Wellness,’’ he acknowledges, “is a pretty complex idea. In the sport system, there’s obviously a few key individuals, like Andy, who’ve been able to break down what wellness means and then provide a series of strategies in each of those areas of wellness to support sports and their programs.
“What is nice to see is that programs doing great things before are now, at last, being recognized. For so long there were so many of these fringe programs or coaches who were doing these things, had best practices, but just weren’t be recognized and now all of a sudden they’re being viewed as leaders.
“They may not necessarily be bringing in the most medals, but they do have some awesome practices in these specific aims - mental health, wellness, culture. We’re seeing more of a spotlight on some of those unsung heroes.”
As one of those heroes, he cites Shawn Riggs, who left the role of National Recurve Coach for Archery Canada in late 2022 to pursue opportunities outside of the sport.
“I loved working, collaborating, with him,’’ says Paquette. “He has a way of connecting with people like no other I’ve seen. And now all of a sudden he’s being asked to do keynote presentations and being asked to support Own the Podium with some of their initiatives.
“It’s so great to see this guy get a spotlight because I’ve had a front seat seeing him in action for the last six or seven years.”
Paquette also believes that he has hit a jackpot of sorts in the program he now heads.

“Honestly, the coaching and support staff we have in place now with wheelchair curling is truly the best,’’ he enthuses. “Mick Lizmore and Dana Ferguson are two of the best curling coaches - not just wheelchair curling coaches - in the world.
“What they do for the athletes, how they make them feel, how proficient they are, is just a pleasure to be around.”
There is ground yet to cover in prioritizing the people-first pledge. Paquette is curious to see what the funding model will look like, say, a decade from today, as it relates specifically to the re-prioritization of wellness.
But the framework, the foundation, has indisputably been laid.
“For a long time, there’s been such a divide between research and practice,’’ notes Paquette. “I saw this going through some of my studies on coach and athlete development.
“But the chasm is shrinking. There are bridges out there to get to the other side now. The more that high-performance sport has been looking for competitive advantages, the more they’re understanding that those advantage won’t be achieved through traditional avenues.
“They’ve come to the realization that they have to be more informed by science, more informed by research.
“They’ve done so in the technical, tactical and strategic aspects and now they’re starting to the do the same in the psycho, social and emotional areas.”

Photo Credit: Curling Canada/Michael Burns

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