For some athletes, moving beyond sport can be completing their education and finding a job. For others, the transition may evolve into a full-blown apocalyptic, existential crisis. Leaving competitive sport behind is a tough pill to swallow.

During the weeks and months following an Olympic Games, many athletes fall into a post-Olympic malaise characterized by a letdown after the intense build up to what is often the biggest event of their careers. Regardless of whether one returns home as a newly-minted Olympic medallist or a disappointed competitor, unease about the future emerges.

This post-Olympic period can be fraught with changes at an organizational level, in coaching staff and in program structure. This, combined with an athlete’s inner search for clarity and the desire to continue competing, can make for a tumultuous period.

In anticipation of this phase, the 2016 Game Plan Summit was held this past last weekend to explore each of the five Game Plan elements: career, education, health, network, and skill development. Game Plan is a collaboration between the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network (COPSIN), Deloitte and Sport Canada. This second event of its kind, brought together the Game Plan partners and national team athletes at the recently completed Deloitte University, a learning campus at the Deloitte building in downtown Toronto.

The Summit presented opportunities for athletes to network with alumni and industry leaders, reconnect with athletes, attend skill development workshops, and leave with concrete tools and experiences. The theme of the event was ‘Breakthrough’ and the goal was to provide athletes with access to knowledge and resources to perform at their best in and out of sport.

Jessica Zelinka, a two-time Olympian in heptathlon and CSI Calgary athlete, fell just short of her goal of competing in Rio. With lingering feelings of disappointment and love of sport, she’s not quite ready to walk away yet. While she works through what comes next in her life, she continues to train and has taken on two jobs.

In addition to the sessions and workshops at the summit focusing on the practical aspects of transition, what Zelinka appreciated deeply about the experience was the ability to connect with other athletes. “It was a really good opportunity to see everyone and hear their stories, to know that I’m not alone and that there is a lot of support out there.”

This sentiment was echoed by 2016 Olympic Champion in wrestling and CSI Calgary athlete, Erica Wiebe. While Wiebe’s schedule is currently overflowing with appearances and public speaking, leaving little time to address future plans, she welcomed the chance to connect with her fellow athletes.

“I’m so inspired by my peers,” she says. “We are all doing the same thing but we all have a unique story. It’s amazing to learn about how everyone handles the challenges in their lives.”

Cara Button, Director of Stakeholder Relations at the CSI Calgary, was a presenter at the summit. She observed was that the event provided a new connection for many athletes. “It exposed the athletes to the Game Plan program and the wealth of resources available to them as they develop their plans for the future,” she says.

The challenge of transition is not unique to athletes. One of the recurring messages at the summit was the idea that transition happens to everyone throughout their lives and the necessity of embracing it is infinite and universal. For some athletes, difficulty arises in being frank and honest about how they are truly feeling.

“The summit helped open up the conversation I was afraid to have with myself, to learn about the options and resources that are available to me,” says Zelinka. “I know there are some other things I could love but I don’t know what those are yet.”

The Game Plan program is having impact developing mentally stronger athletes who apply what they have learned as leaders in the sport to the betterment of themselves and their communities.

Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover

Partner, Sport Science Solutions, Game Plan, Performance Services, Canadian Sport Institute Calgary Team, Sport Canada, Cara Button, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Canadian Olympic Committee


Scratch lightly at the surface of female sport participation in Canada and you will find grim and disheartening statistics. Despite the benefits, which are widely reported, most young girls and women simply don’t take part in sport or exercise. It simply isn’t right.

That’s precisely what Chandra Crawford, a CSI Calgary alumni and 2006 Olympic Champion in cross-country skiing, thought over ten years ago when a girl she was babysitting said she wasn’t happy being a girl because “girls don’t get to do fun things like skateboarding and instead have to worry about their appearance all the time.” Crawford thought, ‘this has to change.’ Fast and Female was born.

Founded by Crawford in 2005, Fast and Female seeks to provide a positive and empowering environment for girls in sport. The organization’s mission is to keep girls healthy, happy and active in sports through their teens by introducing them to inspiring athlete role models.

One way this goal is accomplished is by hosting events where girls come together learn, have fun and spend time with some of Canada’s most successful female athletes. Fast and Female’s next event is the Calgary Summit on November 6, 2016 at WinSport. Programming for the day ranges from physical literacy stations to nutrition seminars to yoga and dance, as well as spending the entire day with Fast and Female athlete ambassadors.

Rachael McIntosh, a CSI registered athlete, is an aspiring Olympian in the heptathlon and this will be her second Fast and Female event as an athlete ambassador. McIntosh, now 25 years old, participated in many sports as a young girl but switched to track and field in high school. “The only reason I started out in track and field was because of my coach; she made it fun for me,” recalls McIntosh. “I think a lot of girls are missing out on that – they need a leader to make it fun. Sport is important and what keeps girls in sport is more than that.”

Through events like the Calgary Summit, the organization strives to provide a non-competitive environment for girls to learn and have fun. Leah Lacroix, Fast and Female Executive Director, says the summit is an opportunity to gather girls together and let them know about their options in sport.

“Some girls are at a point where they are trying to figure out if they want to continue in sport and we are there to help them see that they are not alone and that there are many options,” says Lacroix. “They can move to another sport, or shift gears to a recreational program. Sometimes they need that extra inspiration to keep going or try something new.”

While inspiration is available in high doses there is a focus on practical lessons too. Kelly Anne Erdman, CSI Calgary Performance Dietician, will provide nutrition seminars to each age group as well as to the parent and coach session. “The emphasis is on how nutrition is important for performance and also teaching the girls to listen to their bodies and connect with any signs and symptoms they might be feeling,” she says.

Ten years on, what keeps Crawford going is the feedback from parents and girls after an event. “You can’t always see on the surface just how deeply a girl is absorbing everything,” she says. “But afterwards the testimonials and letters we get are amazing.”

Another benefit, an unexpected one, is the impact these events have on the athlete ambassadors themselves. “The athletes really get a lot out of being ambassadors,” marvels Crawford. “It helps bring more meaning to what they are doing in sport. It’s been amazing to see that.” McIntosh agrees, “The day is really inspiring for me too!”

It turns out if you dig a little deeper you will find that although the statistics on girls in sport may be grim, there is growing hope for young girls in Canada thanks to organizations like Fast and Female, whose programs reach over three thousand girls every year. When girls learn that they have many options, the world becomes a better place.

Sign up today for the Fast and Female Calgary Summit November 6, 2016 Calgary Summit 2016 - Fast and Female.

Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo by Dave Holland: @csicalgaryphoto

Partner, Fast and Female, Canadian Sport Institute Calgary Team, Community Engagement, Kelly Anne Erdman

Better Together

Scattered about the country, Canada’s best up and coming ski cross athletes have historically been going it alone. The skiers have been isolated from one another, training solo and paying out of pocket for access to specialized programs and facilities.

It’s hard and expensive to follow a solitary path, and not overly conducive to fostering team dynamics and building a strong, competitive team. Thankfully, all that is changing.

Alpine Canada Alpin and the Canada Ski Cross program have created a Centralized Training and Education Program in Calgary, which allows athletes to simultaneously pursue post-secondary education and high performance sport. The program targets ski cross athletes from across Canada with potential who are three to six years from Olympic success.

Leveraging Calgary training facilities, including the CSI Calgary and local ski resorts, athletes will take advantage of integrated services while completing their education.

The CSI Calgary strongly supports this new initiative. Jason Poole, Director of Performance Services, says, “We are here to help and offer the team everything they need to achieve a high quality training environment,” he says. “Proximity to the National Sport School and the local universities and colleges also helps with supporting their education goals.”

Willy Raine, Ski Cross Athletic Director at Alpine Canada Alpin, has been working toward achieving this goal since starting in his role two years ago. For him it’s about more than just getting the athletes training together. “One of the key components of this program is education,” he says. “My goal is to get 75% of the team into post-secondary education. This model will help create better athletes, and help them have better balance in life.”

In addition to a focus on education however, the benefits of centralization include training together, which improves team dynamics and creates an environment where athletes support each other.

Kevin MacDonald, a Next Gen team member, says that with the team now training together they are pushing each other in workouts, something they weren’t able to do before. “We really push each other in the gym,” he says. “If I see one guy lift a certain weight I’m going to try and match or better that, it helps us work harder.”

For Raine, the primary objective is continuing to dominate on the world stage, no small feat for a program that is already number one in the world. “Ultimately centralizing the team will give us an advantage – the stronger the team is collectively the better we will be against the world. When one of us wins, we all win.”

Part of the rationale for centralization is financial sustainability. Having a centralized program that brings gym and on-snow training into one region, greatly reduces the costs to the athlete and the organization. According to Raine it’s just not economically feasible to create programs at multiple ski hills across the country. “We have to bring them together to get them the development they need. We need to push from below to keep the program growing.”

One of the goals of this new program is to develop athletes to the point where they are progressing from NorAm and Europa Cup competitions into World Cup competitions already at a high level. “We want to compress the development phase so that when the Next Gen athletes step up to the Word Cup level they are ready to start in the top 16, to make it into finals,” says Raine.

MacDonald is grateful for the opportunity to train with his team and go to school. “Now we are all doing the same thing, we can relate to each other, it makes the team better.”

Raine is equally happy to see his brainchild come to fruition. He passionately believes they are on the right track to developing both champion ski cross racers and successful students. “We need to help set them up for life, not just sport.”

Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo: Alpine Canada Alpin

Sport Science Solutions, Jason Poole, Integrated Support Team, Game Plan, Performance Services, NextGen, Strength and Conditioning

To Sleep, Perchance to Win

Lying awake, staring at the clock, heart pounding, tossing, turning and worrying about not sleeping... Oh, the despair! A fitful sleep the night before a big race is disconcerting for any athlete. While this experience can be unsettling, what is more critically important when it comes to sleep is quality and duration over the long term.

According to Dr. Amy Bender, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Calgary and Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, missing a few hours of sleep the night before competition is unlikely to impact performance. Rather, it’s the persistent lack of adequate sleep throughout a training block or whole season that can negatively affect an athlete. “Chronic deprivation is the main concern and we are trying to manage that across an entire season,” she says.

“Ongoing research points to an association between performance and sleep duration and quality,” says Dr. Bender. Studies in the literature support the link between sleep and performance. However it’s difficult to control for every variable as performance improvements can be attributed to other things, such as practice.

Jess Kryski, CSI Calgary Sport Physiologist for Canada’s Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon teams, says she’s noticed a potential association between sleep and performance with her athletes. In one instance, two athletes were going through periods of decreased sleep quality and quantity during the race season. “Their performance was not good and although we can’t attribute that just to sleep issues, it definitely seemed to play a role,” says Kryski.

The lack of recovery from training and racing due to sleep issues is challenging to overcome. In Kryski’s experience, with some athletes suffering from periods of poor sleep it didn’t matter how much their training was adjusted, she couldn’t successfully load them the way she wanted to because recovery were simply not there.

Additionally, Kryski says, “over the years working with the teams and using the monitoring tools we have, it seems that when things aren’t going well in training or racing it tends to line up with sleep quality and duration.”

Dr. Bender is the primary investigator for a number of ongoing studies examining sleep and its relationship to recovery and performance in CSI Calgary athletes. She works with athletes and teams across Canada to assess baseline sleep and the impact of sleep optimization strategies. Additionally, Dr. Bender works with teams to implement jet lag management strategies, which consist of a travel plan, both pre-trip and at the destination.

Using the Athlete Sleep Screening Questionnaire and a wrist-worn activity monitor, Dr. Bender evaluates an athlete’s typical wake and sleep habits and patterns. The athlete will then implement sleep optimization strategies, for example more nighttime sleep, naps and reducing exposure to blue light before bedtime.

Finally, Dr. Bender will assess athlete sleep during the optimization period and compare it to the baseline. While sleep duration is typically measured with the wrist-worn activity monitor, sleep quality is primarily a subjective measurement achieved via questionnaires. Data is currently being analyzed and preliminary results indicate less reported fatigue and improved moods, as well as improved satisfaction with sleep quality during the optimization phase as compared to baseline.

One of the most challenging habits for athletes to change is their exposure to blue light from electronic devices in the hours before bedtime, which can negatively impact sleep. “The blue light tells our brain to wake up, which can impact how long it takes to fall asleep and waking up during the night,” says Dr. Bender. “It decreases melatonin secretion, the hormone that makes you sleepy at night.”

During the sleep optimization phase, athletes are instructed to use blue blocking glasses that block out 99% of the blue light from screens. This can reduce its negative effects on sleep for athletes who are exposed to screen time in the two hours before bedtime.

Ultimately, the goal of Dr. Bender’s research is to improve performance through better sleep. It represents another piece of the puzzle in the quest to enable athletes to achieve their potential in sport. To sleep, perchance to win!

Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo by Dave Holland: @csicalgaryphoto

Sport Science Solutions, Cross-Country Ski Canada, Canadian Sport Institute Calgary Team, Biathlon Canada, Jessica Kryski, Sleep, Sleep for Performance

We Are Ahead by a Century

“The clock is ticking but there is no time for regrets.” These lyrics, from ‘Heroes Tonight’ by Janji, float softly alongside video highlights from the 2016 Paralympics, as current and alumni CSI Calgary athletes look on. The CBC montage prompts goosebumps throughout the audience, and maybe a little fear – or is that inspiration?

The message is a poignant one for these athletes, who came together – along with esteemed members of Calgary’s workforce – for the CSI Calgary’s second industry networking event in downtown Calgary to learn about how they can best navigate the next phase of their lives. Indeed, the clock is ticking and there is no time for regrets.

The goal of these CSI Calgary events is to provide networking opportunities for athletes and facilitate conversation about the challenging transition from athlete to new career. One athlete who committed to a profession very early in his athletic career is Seyi Smith, a 2012 Olympian and an electrical engineer.

Smith shared stories about his career path – a long and sometimes humourous journey that eventually led to a job as an engineer-in-training and now project manager at AltaLink, Alberta’s largest regulated electricity transmission company.

One might assume that it was easy for an Olympian with an electrical engineering degree to find a job, but Smith met endless dead ends before finally landing his dream job at AltaLink. The story is not uncommon – Olympic athletes often have a difficult time finding a job, despite constantly being told they have the attributes that employers are looking for.

Smith earned his degree overseas and was worried when he came back home that it would become obsolete before he could find work, while he took time to train for the Olympics. “I started networking but I couldn’t seem to get a job. After a while I stopped fearing obsolescence and worried more about not having any skills,” he says.

Scott Thon, President and CEO of AltaLink, hired Smith after a series of networking meetings. He is up front about telling athletes why they are so valuable as employees. “The one secret you need to know” he says, “we all dreamed of being you guys. We all wanted to be Olympians.” A comment made in jest, but one that elucidates how strongly athlete traits are admired and sought after in business.

Thon lists those traits he values most – team player, strong work ethic, goal-oriented, resilient. He also admires how coachable athletes are, how willing they are to receive feedback and work to improve. Smith agrees, “athletes always want to get better, it’s how they win.”

Throughout the evening the group of athletes worked together to answer some pressing questions. What are challenges/opportunities to hiring athletes who need a flexible work schedule? What are the top three things athletes should be doing to prepare for their next job? What are concrete examples of transferable skills?

There are no easy answers but one theme emerged: the simple, essential need to take action, in whatever capacity an athlete is able to, towards the career they envision. Thon emphasizes the importance of building a network and putting yourself out there. “If you’re thinking about that career, market yourself – what are those attributes and who do you want to market them to?”

A sense of possibility abounds. In the end, the crucial message that resonates is the same as in sport – do the work and you will see results, eventually.

A second CBC highlight reel closes out the evening – this one from the 2016 Summer Olympics. As clips of Erica Wiebe, Penny Oleksiak and Andre De Grasse induce more goosebumps, the Tragically Hip tell us in song: we are ahead by a century. Sometimes it’s hard to feel this way, given what was learned this night about the long road ahead.

Transition can be overwhelming, but just as athletes persevere and struggle in sport, so too will they do so in life. Despite the challenges that await, we are told by the great Gord Downie himself, “you are ahead by a century... no dress rehearsal, this is our life.”

Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover

Partner, Sport Science Solutions, Game Plan, Performance Services, Crescent Point

Copyright © 2013 Canadian Sport Institute Calgary | All Rights Reserved | Photo Credit : Dave Holland