Just causes on their plate

ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

Olympic hockey champion Hayley Wickenheiser's appearance at a Calgary school this week didn't hurt her on-ice performance -- and in fact, such involvement may even help her achieve more in sport.

That's according to new research that suggests athletes who are involved in causes they care about -- outside of their own sporting performances -- enjoy better results in their athletic careers.

"There are tons of requests and demands on your time," said Wickenheiser. "Everybody wants a piece, and if it works and I can accommodate it in my schedule, I try to do as many as I can, but if I can't, I just don't. I never compromise the rest or the training."

In recent years, more and more athletes have taken on responsibilities beyond the playing field or ice. Over the last decade there has been a rise of athlete advocacy organizations such as Right To Play, Team Darfur and Play It Cool.

A cultural shift is underway, says former national team cyclist Erin Carter, who retired from the sport in 2006. For two years, Carter researched athlete social responsibility -- a phrase she coined -- and in July finished her masters of communication thesis on the topic. What Carter found was fascinating. After interviewing 14 athletes, Carter concluded that those with a passionate involvement in a cause that's bigger than themselves do not suffer from distraction, but end up performing better in their sports.

"I think what surprised me was how similar the stories were," said Carter. "In the beginning, a lot of the athletes talked about the play, and the fun and the social. Then they made a choice to pursue the one sport, made sacrifices, gained skills, but a lot of them talked about how sport became meaningless on its own over time.

"There was a key moment in their careers where there was a catalyst experience, where they realized their sense of responsibility as an athlete."

Carter believes this pivotal shift among the athlete population is not well understood by the sport community and contradicts the pervasive belief that athletes should limit distractions and focus only on performance.

Perhaps Wickenheiser and the Canadian women's hockey team know this instinctively. In the early weeks of a busy season that has them on pace to play more games than an NHL team, they launched a Right To Play athlete ambassador school mentorship program in Calgary. About 10 to 12 schools will have two or three female hockey players visit in October and January. Schools have agreed to raise a minimum of $3,000, with a quarter of that going to local charities and 75% going to Right To Play.

"If you give an hour and a half or two hours of your time, and that's the only initiative our team is focused on, it works out to be six hours of an entire six months of being here (at camp in Calgary)," said Wickenheiser. "It's not really that much."

Wickenheiser also devotes about five to six hours a week to other personal causes, such as raising money for a new rink in her hometown of Shaunavon, Sask., and organizing an international women's hockey festival in Burnaby, B.C., for April 2010.

Carter has presented her findings at two conferences so far and this weekend will speak at the AthletesCAN conference in Richmond, B.C. The yearly athlete forum will also feature a "speed dating" type of setup, with several organizations on hand to pitch their causes.

"While it's great that we're creating great athletes, we want to be creating great people as well," Carter said. "That's what my research was about."

ALISON_KORN@HOTMAIL.COM


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