With PhD in hand, KPE grad and former Olympian aims to tackle athlete abuse

Erin Willson, who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games with Team Canada, is graduating with a PhD from the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (photo by Hannah Kiviranta)
Erin Willson, who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games with Team Canada, is graduating with a PhD from the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (photo by Hannah Kiviranta)
04/06/2024

Erin Willson was a synchronized swimmer for 14 years – half of which were spent as a member of Team Canada, including competing in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Yet, despite her triumphs, Willson's long career at the pinnacle of her sport also caused her to realize just how many athletes experienced emotional abuse, and how little awareness there was around the issue.

“There was some conversation about sexual abuse, but notably, experiences of body shaming and emotional abuse were missing,” says Willson, who is graduating with a PhD from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) this spring.

“This was important to me because I had known from my experience – and the experiences of other athletes that I had spoken with – that emotional abuse can have a lot of really negative effects, but these were being ignored or dismissed as ‘part of sport.’”

When Willson began weighing up options for graduate school, she was drawn to KPE due to the research being done by Professor Gretchen Kerr and Associate Professor Ashley Stirling – dean and vice-dean, respectively – on emotional abuse and body image issues in sport.

Willson says few people were talking about abuse in sport at the time, and the work of Kerr and Stirling resonated with her due to her own experiences. She decided she wanted to contribute to increasing our understanding of athlete abuse as well as shed light on positive coaching approaches.

“As cliché as it sounds, I knew I couldn't change my own experience, but hoped I could change the experiences of future generations so that other athletes would not have to go through what I did to reach their goals,” says Willson.

Her doctoral research took a positive approach to addressing maltreatment in sport. While increased attention to the issue has led to the implementation of codes of conduct and new mechanisms for reporting and investigating abuse, Willson identified an important gap in research and practice.

“Something that’s been missing is teaching coaches and sport organizations what to do instead of focusing on what not to do,” says Willson. “A common reason we've heard from coaches who are hesitant to adopt more positive coaching methods is that they don't elicit performance results like abusive tactics do.”

For her dissertation, Willson interviewed Olympic and Paralympic medalists and their coaches who had a positive sport experience to provide evidence that positive coaching styles elicit performance and to outline what positive coaching can look like.

She says the biggest challenge she faced was the intensity of the subject matter she was studying. “I felt this especially when my personal story of what I had experienced as an athlete became public,” says Willson, noting she was “really lucky” to have the support of friends, family and her supervisor.

Willson said she also received plenty of support for her advocacy. For the past three years, she has been the president of AthletesCAN, and has advocated for athletes on issues like safe sport, representation and funding. “While I have been very fortunate to be able to pursue multiple passions at once, at times, it was difficult to balance both interests,” says Willson. “I was very fortunate to have the support of my supervisor and the faculty of KPE, who supported and celebrated the work that I was doing in both areas.”

Her research-to-practice approach was also encouraged through a Connaught PhDs for Public Impact Fellowship, which supports public scholarship. With the help of the fellowship, Willson travelled to several international conferences and completed a month-long seminar at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia, Greece – the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.

Willson is conducting post-doctoral research with Kerr in KPE’s Safe Sport lab, where she’s working with the Coaching Association of Canada to translate her dissertation data into a practical toolkit for coaches. This summer, she started teaching an undergraduate course on maltreatment in youth sport.

“It’s an exciting time for women's sports in Canada, which aligns with my research interests of gender-based violence and gender-equity as a solution to violence, so I can see myself being involved in this, either through research, practice or a combination of the two in the near future,” says Willson.

Reflecting on her time thus far at KPE, Willson credits her supervisor Kerr and committee members Stirling and Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd for creating a nurturing and supportive learning environment.

Her biggest piece of advice for students interested in following in her footsteps? Pursue your passion.

“Graduate school can be really difficult, but if you're passionate about what you're doing, it makes it so much easier,” she says. “Even on the hardest days, I always woke up feeling so grateful that I got to do something that I loved.”