A new campaign launched this month in conjunction with Pink Shirt Day is aiming to get rid of bullying in sports, a world in which power struggles and high pressure can shove the fun out of the games we play.
ViaSport, a non-profit organization created by the provincial government to promote and develop amateur sport in British Columbia, recently issued a call to action for individuals and organizations to sign a Declaration of Commitment to erase bullying in sport throughout the province.
One of the faces of the campaign is Canadian Olympic hero Jennifer Heil, a viaSport board member who now calls North Vancouver home. Most people will remember Heil as the high-flying Olympic moguls gold medallist in 2006, as well as the first Canadian medallist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics where she scored silver on Cypress Mountain. What almost no one knows, however, is that Heil faced bullying when she first made the national team as a teen phenom out of Spruce Grove.
“I was almost a decade younger than my teammates, and there was a small fraction – and a specific individual – that bullied me,” Heil told the North Shore News. “I was very focused on performance and wanting to be my best, and then I was confronted with trying to navigate the World Cup team, trying to qualify for Olympics and having this other side issue of bullying going on at the same time. … As a young athlete and someone who was much younger than my peers at the time, it was a very challenging first season.”
Heil persevered, and eventually found the support she needed, but the experience left a lasting impression on her.
“I wish I had known what I know now. There’s a lot of research that says all you have to do is confront bullying and it stops within 10 seconds,” she said. “It also taught me very quickly how I wanted to act. It taught me a lot about the way you treat other people. Sport is hard because it brings all the emotions to the forefront, everything is so extreme – it’s winning and losing, it’s black and white. It’s extreme emotions, it’s challenging, it’s trying. And I think it’s an environment where those types of behaviours can come out quite naturally. And so I think the fact that as a whole we’re taking a stand against it and trying to change that experience – it’s needed.”
Heil’s story highlights one of the central tenets of viaSports Erase Bullying campaign: that bullying can occur at any age and at any level, from school yard play right up to the senior managers of elite programs. The Alberta native said she was lucky to get hooked on sports at an early age, long before she faced any bullying.
“I basically did every sport possible that I had enough time for,” said Heil, listing off swimming, track, volleyball, basketball, dance, gymnastics, and skiing as some of the games on her early career resumé. “In my early years I had such a positive experience everywhere I went and just had a deep passion and love for sport. And I’m pretty grateful there was no major experience that derailed that early on.”
Making sure that kids have a great experience in sport is of the utmost importance, said Heil, given what we know about the positive effects of being fit and healthy.
“There’s all the research and scientific evidence that shows that kids that are active are not just healthier, they do better in school, they have better relationships, they’re more community orientated, they have better moods, they have better control of their emotions – it’s a very, very long list,” said Heil. “We need to look at sport in a different light, as a foundational piece in raising healthy kids. … If kids haven’t learned physical literacy by the age of 12, the evidence shows that most kids won’t be active later in life. I see it as a cornerstone of healthy development.”
Though she grew up to be an Olympic champion, that was never a goal for her when she was a young athlete, said Heil.
“I never got into sport to win, I got into sport because I loved the joy of that expression, and trying to be my best. I couldn’t put it into those words, but that was something I felt at age nine. I just loved being in motion, and the joy in playing that game and challenging myself.”
Heil is now hoping to pass that love of sport – free from intimidation and bullying – on to the next generation, which includes her own two sons, both under the age of four.
“I think with all these other layers, and things like bullying and all the pressure we’re putting on kids, we take that (joy) away, and so I want my kids to participate in an environment where they can challenge themselves, they can support their teammates, they can learn how to win and, more importantly, how to lose in a respectable way in a safe environment,” she said. “All these skills have to be learned. It’s not easy to lose, it’s never easy to lose at any age, and that’s why sport is so amazing. In order to learn all these skills, you have to have the right tone from the top about what’s acceptable, and then you have to make sure there are people on the ground who are helping to create those positive environments. You look around and unfortunately that’s not the case for a lot of people.”
That’s where the Erase Bullying campaign comes in, according to viaSport CEO Sheila Bouman, who also calls North Vancouver home.
“Sport is a powerful catalyst for personal growth and community pride; those participating in sport, at any level, should feel safe and encouraged,” Bouman stated in a release. “Power in numbers can lead to real change. Everyone in this province can have a hand in building a thriving sport community – taking the public pledge on our website is one step in helping us get there. Together we can ensure no child or athlete is bullied while participating in sport.”
It can be a sensitive subject, but Heil said that the more bullying is talked about, the more power we all have to combat it.
“We have to speak about it. I’m just one voice of many,” she said. “These are things that people don’t always want to speak about, certainly not publicly, and it’s often very hard to confront. So this, in my mind, is such a positive thing because the stories are coming out and the sports organizations have been real leaders recognizing that there are a lot – too many – experiences of bullying in sport and we need to do something about it.”
Information about the Erase Bullying pledge can be found at viasport.ca/erasebullying.