KPE’s Erin Willson awarded Connaught PhD for Public Impact Fellowship

Erin Willson (photo by Hannah Kiviranta)
Erin Willson (photo by Hannah Kiviranta)

Erin Willson, a doctoral student in the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), is a recipient of the newly launched Connaught PhD for Public Impact Fellowship. The funding, offered through the U of T School of Graduate Studies, supports collaboration and communication that advances research for the public good.

“It is such an honour for me to be recognized with this public impact award,” says Willson, whose research is focused on understanding maltreatment in sport from the perspective of athletes. 

Willson’s interest in abuse in sport was sparked by her own experiences as a Canadian National Team athlete.  A former Olympic synchronized swimmer, Willson and several teammates suffered dangerous eating disorders during their time on the national team as a result of emotional abuse. She chose to study the issue to raise awareness and bring change for future generations of sport. 

For her dissertation, she partnered with Canada Games Council, which hosts a multi-sport Games every two years. On top of assessing the rates of maltreatment among youth athletes, she is also exploring factors related to disclosure and reporting of abuse. 

“From the studies we’ve done so far, we know abuse is very under-reported by youth athletes for a variety of reasons, including fear of repercussions, not knowing where to go and the normalization of abuse in sport,” says Willson, who is currently on the athlete advisory committee helping the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) implement an independent mechanism for disclosing, reporting and investigating cases of abuse. 

“I hope that the findings from my study can be used to inform the implementation of this mechanism to ensure that athletes feel safe and supported when using a service to report abuse,” she says.

Willson is also making use of her role on the board of directors of AthletesCAN, the association of Canadian national team athletes, to continue to push for change. At a recent event hosted by the Canadian Olympic Committee with sport administrators from across Canada, Willson led the discussions on the next steps to address the safe sport crisis in Canada. 

“In these conversations, I am able to use the knowledge from my own graduate research and that of Professor Gretchen Kerr and Associate Professor Ashley Stirling, both renowned experts on abuse in sport, to challenge sports administrators to be more proactive in protecting their athletes,” says Willson.

Along with her dissertation work, supervised by Kerr, Willson is currently working on research projects to explain what "good" looks like in sport from a variety of perspectives, including coaches and athletes. 

“A lot of the conversations about safe sport right now include what not to do,” says Willson. 

The Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS), for example, defines abusive behaviours, but Willson would like to have more insight on what constitutes good behaviours.

“I believe this is a critical component of educating all stakeholders to create a safe environment in sport, which is more than just the absence of abuse,” she says. “To have the support from the university to be able to continue trying to make change in sport is incredible.”