Former NHLer and Co-Founder of Respect Group, Sheldon Kennedy, has been a champion for respectful behaviour for sport stakeholders since 2004. We sat down with Sheldon to discuss the Respect in Sport Parent program, the evolving role of parents in sport and how we can all become agents for positive change.
What is the Respect in Sport Parent Program?
It’s an on-line tool designed to educate parents on all the pieces of the game beyond the game itself. It’s a vehicle designed to help make good parents, which I believe are the vast majority of hockey parents, even better sport parents. The program helps define standards for behaviour with a focus on how your behavior affects your child. The other key aspect of the program is helping parents to understand how critical the role of the bystander is, and how they play such an important part as empowered bystanders.
When you say being a better sport parent, what topics do you think encompass that meaning?
We cover a long list of topics that include things like how to treat your child that is involved in sport, being a positive role model, creating realistic expectations and how to react under stressful situations that sport can often present. We also discuss other key subjects that all parents should find informative, things like, Long Term Player Development (LTPD), nutrition, injury management, head contact rules, concussion awareness and the prevention of abuse, bullying and harassment. We spend a lot of time discussing the need for good parents to step up, individually, or, as a group, and not be silent bystanders to negative behaviour or interactions.
Where did this idea of creating a program for parents come from?
We deliver the Respect in Sport Activity Leader Program for all coaches in the province of Manitoba. All 70 sports. After our first year of implementation, we held a coaching conference attended by hundreds of coaches and Sport Manitoba. In the open forum discussion the coaches and sport administrators said the coaching program was awesome, but we need to develop one for parents.
So this was something driven from coaches?
Yes, it was the coaches that were telling us to develop a similar program for parents. To get them on the same page. So, that’s what we did. We went out and worked with different partners including coaching organizations, the Canadian Red Cross (our curriculum partners), sport parents, sport psychologists and we developed the parent program.
Would you say that this was a jumping off point for your programs?
Absolutely, the parent program was the first of its kind and has the greatest potential to positively impact a child’s sport experience. We are not focusing on the 2% of questionable parents but trying to give the 98% of good parents the tools to be the best they can be. A lot of times we don’t see or hear what goes on during the ride home. So we touch on important things that sometimes even good parents might forget like using guilt to improve your child’s performance, living through your child’s accomplishments, all those types of scenarios that have an impact on kids. I think our goal is to make people aware of some of the things that they don’t think can negatively impact their children which actually may. The result can often lead to their child leaving sport and, often, we are not getting them back.
Do you think this program is going to help curb this trend?
This is all about social change. I’m sure if there was an instant solution that organizations could find to fix inappropriate parent behaviour, with the snap of a finger, everyone would implement it. The way I see it, and our team at Respect Group sees it, is that this about social change. If we look at how far we have come with the coach education over the last seventeen years and what’s evolved from the Speak Out Program and Respect in Sport for Coaches, I think it’s going to be no different with parents.
It's tough for parents to have a clear conversation about behavior and expectations without knowing and defining what the standards need to be. The way we have gone about social change over the last seventeen years, I think it will absolutely make a difference.
What are the different courses offered by Respect Group?
We have the Activity Leader program which is Respect in Sport for Coaches, Bench Staff, Managers, and Officials. The program crosses the country in hockey, gymnastics, other National Sport Organizations and is mandatory for all coaches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. We train upwards of 50,000 leaders a year in all different sports across the country.
The important thing about this is that it is a consistent message across all sports. So, the gymnastics coach gets the same message as the hockey coach. If you coach gymnastics and you coach hockey, you are able to transfer your information from one sport to the other and it is valid in both without having to retake the program.
We also have a Respect in School Program that educates school leaders such as teachers, parent volunteers, bus drivers, etc. on the same subject matter contained in the Respect in Sport Activity Leader Program. We recently signed an agreement with the Ontario Ministry of Education to implement Respect in School as a pilot program for 10,000 school leaders. This is very exciting. We work closely with the Ontario Soccer Association who have implemented our Respect in Soccer program, which is transferable with the Respect in Sport Activity Leader Program. We also have Respect in the Workplace which educates adults on the prevention of workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination. That program is expanding with organizations like the University of Calgary and BF Lorenzetti in BC signing on. In the coming months, Respect Group will be introducing a Respect in Sport for Players program for 7-year old entry level players. This will be another, first of its kind, designed to provide valuable, age-appropriate education about respect, good sportsmanship, etc. Like the parent program, the player program came about as a result of requests from within hockey.
Do you think that it helps that it is not sport specific?
For us, it’s not about hockey specific training, it’s about the common issues facing all sports. No sport is unique! To me, whenever there is an adult and a child involved, it doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, the message is the same.
We have been successful at creating a simple language for behaviour change within organizations and the parent program is no different. If you asked most parents "Give me the definition of abuse and harassment or even the new head contact rule" the odds of getting the right answer are not very good. Our goal is to give people the tools to understand, recognize and act appropriately.
Why are parents being asked to take the course?
In our discussions with the OMHA, and other sport organizations, there is a growing concern about overall respect, recruitment, retention and child protection. These organizations believe that by providing foundational education for parents, as we do other stakeholders in sport, they can create a standard and a common language to drive accountability, instill confidence and promote healthier conversation. It is a bold step for organizations like OMHA to make the decision to implement the parent program. I applaud those organizations and tell them “good on you for showing leadership and putting the safety and well-being of your players first”.
What kind of positive reactions have you received from other organizations?
I think if you want to look at the types of positive reaction that has occurred, you don't have to look any further than the Mount Royal University (MRU) research. It was a three year independent study done on our parent program in Calgary with 15,000 parents. The results were very positive and of the greatest surprise to us, and I believe for Hockey Calgary as well, was that the majority of parents thought the program should be taken every 1-3 years and by each adult involved in the player’s hockey experience. Another piece of feedback, from our most recently published user surveys from over 90,000 certified parents, which stood out to me, was that 80% of those parents felt the program had made them a more child-centred sport parent! We are very pleased with that type of feedback.
What do you say to people that say it’s punishing good parents while not actually changing the hooligan parents that go over the boards at the arena?
I don't know how many of those parents took the program.
I am not sure they would say the same thing after taking it. I think they may be just making assumptions about the content and the intent. Let’s face it, parent training is a new concept and change is not easy.
People sometimes have a mindset that "here's another program", no different than in Calgary, people initially saying things like "You can’t make us take this". The reality is once they took the program they came out saying, “that was actually pretty good, I can be a little better in some areas”. I think that the positive content, the language and the engaging way that the program was developed, turns a lot of people around. There's a small percent that we may never change but the majority of parents, across this country, want this type of training and that's exactly what the research is telling us.
Can you explain why there is a cost to taking the course?
There are costs associated with all of our programs because we provide a lot. Things like both French and English versions, a 24x7 1-800 technical support line, local client support, frequent curriculum updates from subject matter experts to keep pace with changing issues, and we do full database management including an interface to the Hockey Canada Registry (HCR). Some people have the mindset that because something’s on-line it doesn't cost anything but when you deliver solid and credible programming over the internet, there is a cost to build and support that.
Do you think that is a reasonable cost?
We believe, as do our many clients, that $12 per family is reasonable. We fully understand that there are many costs associated with participating in sport but, from our perspective, child protection should be a priority and we have kept that in mind when trying to ensure that our program is affordable.
If you could say one thing to a parent that was objecting to take the course, what would you say?
I guess I would have to ask them why they would object to taking it. My question to them would be why would you not want to be an even better sport parent? We often expect our children to do everything in their power to be a better hockey player. When I look at sport, there has to be more responsibility for parents. Parents expect coaches to be the best they can be, they expect referees to be the best they can be and to take the necessary training to ensure that. Is it unreasonable to expect that parents should be the best they can be? I was always told that “the game is 75% mental” so a little quality time spent here, 60 minutes to complete the parent program, should benefit everyone.
Why do you think parents should be accountable for their behaviour?
It’s not a right to play hockey, it’s a privilege. It’s like wanting to play at most golf courses, you need to have a collared shirt and certain length shorts to be able to walk on that course. I think it’s no different than the standards that the OMHA, and other sport organizations, are putting in place to drive accountability and create a positive sport culture. “If you want to be a part of our organization, where we put the safety and well-being of your child first, these are our expectations.”