Access to sport has improved since the early days of COVID-19 but a new report suggests that a “lack of social ties” post-pandemic is creating “a very significant and growing barrier” to participation for some Ontario youth.

MLSE, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, released the report Wednesday through their foundation.

The report detailed the findings of a race-based study conducted by the foundation, in collaboration with the University of Toronto Centre for Sport Policy Studies.

The “Change the Game” study’s findings, based on the responses of approximately 8,000 youth, showed that the pandemic lockdowns had a negative impact on mental health by preventing many youth from participating in sport.

The study also looked at the many barriers youth are still faced with when participating in team sports and how those barriers change based on race, gender and economic background.

The foundation says the findings will “help shape MLSE LaunchPad’s strategic plan for scaling programs and coach training initiatives into more communities, a new government partnership for Ontario-wide youth programming and recommendations to the 2023 Canadian Sport Policy.”

“This research was launched as a campaign to raise and invest over $30 million to address issues of youth sport access, engagement, and equity through the power of sport and the opportunities that sport can provide in communities and elsewhere,” said Bryan Heal, the study’s research lead.

The study found that having no one to play with was the number one barrier to participation by youth in sport, followed by affordability.

“Youth increasingly have no one to play with. A lack of social ties and social contact is creating a very significant and growing barrier to sport participation,” said Marika Warner, Director of research & evaluation at MLSE LaunchPad. “Even post pandemic, without restrictions remaining, we have smaller circles of friends and family and we’re seeing others less frequently. Youth are spending more time alone and are often inactive.”

Marika WarnerWarner says that many youths, specifically Black, Indigenous and people of colour, reported not having anyone to talk to when they have negative experiences in sport.

“This trend impacts all youth but it’s most marked among our Black youth, Indigenous youth, young women and girls and most strikingly, Black and Indigenous girls,” said Warner.

“Over 80 per cent of youth told us that they have no one to talk to in their sport context when they experience racism, discrimination or other forms of maltreatment.”

More than one in three Black youths and one in four Indigenous youths reported having directly experienced racism in sport, the study found.

Youth also reported a lack of trust in coaches and authority figures in sport, with many saying they believe nothing will be done if they come forward with concerns about mistreatment or that they’ll face negative consequences if they speak out.

However, the study says that hiring more diverse coaches can improve feelings of trust for underrepresented youth.

“For hiring practices and workforce development, groups such as Black and South Asian youth and girls, for example, were more likely to list ‘coaches that look like me’ as an important way to improve sport. Black youth specifically were 370 per cent more likely to prioritize this factor compared to white youth,” the study says.

Despite this, the study showed that the majority of youth across racial and economic categories felt frustrated during the pandemic when access to team sports was restricted, not just because they lost out on the ability to play, but because of the loss of social opportunities.

“Sport and play are widely understood across our demographic groups as something that can improve mental health,” Warner said. “Almost 60 per cent of youth told us that they supported sport programs being used to teach and develop life skills and emotional skills – youth are not just there to play.”

Youth who had participated in sports within the past two years were 91 per cent more likely to list a very strong sense of belonging to their community, according to the study.

Simon Darnell, director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto, says that communities need to focus on building a strong and healthy sport culture because doing so contributes to healthier and happier youth.

Simon DarnellHowever, he says that policy makers need to commit to creating safer and more inclusive youth sport spaces.

“There absolutely needs to be an ongoing commitment to organizing sport for youth in ways that are safe, inclusive, diverse and free of abuse and also in ways that are transparent and accountable to these issues of safety and inclusion,” Darnell said.

The study said that with organized sports being shut down in Ontario due to the pandemic, there was a unique opportunity for parents and youth to experience what life was like without sport, helping them to evaluate and reflect on what is important and to reimagine a better way for youth development through sport.

MLSE is partially owned by Bell, which is CP24’s parent company.