“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space, for everyone” – George Dei
Over the past few months teams from various regions across our country have been partaking in the Play Better Program. During this time coaches and family members have shared a number of success stories with us. With that said, one team from British Columbia’s interior recently highlighted a subject worth exploring.
Like countless youth soccer teams in our country, their team is composed of an array of youth at differing mental and physical developmental levels. In fact, this particular team has four or five children with cognitive learning disabilities.
Again, this is a totally realistic occurrence which volunteer coaches have to deal with all over Canada. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 14% of Canadians have a sensory, intellectual or physical disability. Whether their aims are recreational or competitive, a person with a disability deserves to have access to quality sport and physical activity programs.
Being a volunteer coach can be daunting enough on its own, but having the added challenges of creating an inclusive environment for children at various levels in their mental and physical development will add to the workload.
“There can be significant and noticeable rifts within a team simply because children are still learning about the societal pecking order, haven’t fully developed their social skills and/or compassion, and are still trying things out. U10-U11 seems to be the point where their insecurity and/or immaturity express itself in a demeaning way” stated a youth coach in BC’s interior.
But there’s a silver lining, the Play Better Program can facilitate the challenges of inclusiveness, within a diverse team , by setting individual metrics for a child no matter what his/her physical or mental developmental level.
Furthermore, spoke the youth coach from BC’s interior, “I think where the Play Better concept is a real benefit to teams like mine is that it provides everyone – coaches, players, parents, siblings, other family members –with a specific focus point around which they can rally. The targets on our team have been set at a level that forces them to stretch themselves individually (skills & physical literacy) and collectively (tactics, etc.) and in order to realize their joint targets they have to have the weakest link in the chain perform along with them. The stronger players might at first get frustrated by their teammates’ inability to play at their level and/or avoid involving him in the game for lack of lack of trust in him, but then it’s the task of the coach to direct the individuals to accept and support their ‘weaker’ teammates more on the one hand and to guide the boys to become the best they can be collectively on the other. It’s a subtle shift, but if done right over time – and it will take time – I think the burden of expectation can be shifted onto the shoulders of the stronger players to support the weaker players more, which consequently lowers the frustration levels and increases acceptance/support levels.”
As a coach you need to establish goals and objectives that are realistic, but not limiting to the person with a disability, when they enter a sport program for the first time. It is important for the coach to discuss with the person how those goals will be established and realized. Goals have to be realistic and achievable, but not limiting for the individual. Everybody has the right to take risks and to fail, and this applies to persons with a disability as much as to any other athletes. There are many types of special needs – both cognitive and physical – and children with the same disability may have different needs depending upon their abilities, their skill levels, their past experiences and their attitudes towards physical activity. For this reason, it’s useful to have a broad understanding of different cognitive and physical disabilities, but to keep in mind that each player will require a unique approach.
“A truly inclusive physical activity environment is not one where children are all doing the same thing,” says Lorraine Holt, In-School Support for Programs teacher at Kenollie Public School in Mississauga, and the Lead Writer of Ophea’s Steps to Inclusion resource. “Instead, it’s one where children are participating at their own ability levels in a shared activity session. All children are active, and all children are enjoying the benefits of physical activity.”
This is exactly what Play Better aims to achieve. By setting not only team goals, but furthermore individual goals, you as a coach will be creating a truly inclusive environment. In such an environment, all students feel included and appreciated, and there’s an inherent understanding that everyone can succeed in their own way. This will mean that activities sometimes have to be modified and that, when necessary, expectations vary so that all students can experience success.
“Our strongest players played at a level that was at times a couple of years beyond their actual age; and our weakest player often got into supporting positions to receive passes and even made one or two decent ones himself!” described the youth coach from BC’s interior.
What’s more, when an educator makes accommodations that benefit students with special needs (including cognitive or physical disabilities) they’re likely to have an unexpected and profound effect on the learning outcomes of every student in the class. In much the same way, ensuring inclusion in all physical activity settings will provide children of all abilities with immeasurable benefits. For the child with a disability, inclusion provides an opportunity to socialize while developing fundamental motor and communication skills. Meanwhile, for the child with no identified disability, inclusion teaches tolerance; patience and mutual respect (coaching kids with disabilities).
“Inclusion makes students better students. It also makes teachers better teachers” – Lorraine Holt
The Play Better philosophy is our response to a sporting landscape that needs a paradigm shift – away from a singular definition of scoreboard success, and towards empowering children to discover their full potential. Creating an inclusive environment for children from all walks of life is one of our targets. We encourage all coaches (teachers) to start establishing individual developmental metric for your students. This will reinforce the notion of inclusion within your team culture.
The outcome will be better people, better players and a better community.
What are you waiting for? Sign up today and join the movement!