Reflection: Grassroots special needs soccer programs

A meeting last month got me reflecting long and hard on the role of accessible programs within our communities. The meeting with the passionate and knowledgeable staff of Community Living Ontario (CLO) focused on the role of community based soccer (and sport in general) program. After summarising the wide and excellent variety of community based special needs soccer programs that where available in Ontario we focused on an example of a young boy who uses a wheelchair.

Dick Howard takes his blind soccer shot

The story was interesting because I was hearing it from a different angle. The story relayed to me was of a mother, championing her sons inclusion in a local recreational soccer program, the concern from local Club officials to make sure they ‘did things right’ and the subsequent joy that had been experienced by this boy from not simply participating but also taking a ball or two to the head.  As the story was relayed to me I realised that I already know how this ended, in fact I already knew about this situation. The Club had reached out to me at Ontario Soccer looking for some advice. A Personal Support Worked (PSW) had approached them looking to register a young man who uses a wheelchair and the Club, quite rightly were concerned about liability and the risk of other players and the young man getting hurt. We all agreed that he had to play, the question was how. The first recommendation was to set aside a zone on the field, an area possibly 10 x 10 yds where the player and his PSW could safely move without the risk of a clash with other players, should the ball enter this zone he could play the ball with his wheelchair or intercept a pass by blocking it with the wheelchair, or his body. The response was that this wasn’t inclusive enough and still created a barrier between the young man and the rest of his team. The next option was for a circular zone around the boy, sort of like a force field, enabling him to move freely up and down the field but still reducing the risk of a crash. This still wasn’t felt to be inclusive enough so at this point we took a different approach. The following guidelines were sent through to the Club in an effort to enable full participation and to manage the perceived risks.

  1. The PSW wore a team jersey to also identify him with the team and as an extension of the player.
  2. The player was placed on a team with a Coach that had awareness of the situation and a manner that would encourage sportsmanship rather than a win at all costs.
  3. The team mates were also known to be a supportive group that would be encouraging and encourage a positive experience.
  4. All Match Officials involved in the League were addressed at the start of the season. They were informed of the player needs and how the game should be managed.
  5. The opposition Team and Coach were addressed prior to the game to ensure they were not reckless in their tackles.
  6. Parents, if necessary, were to be addressed by their own Coach.

With these steps in place (one could argue they’re common sense) the young man has participated all season and by all accounts his having a blast. Now, that is inclusion.

However, I was challenged in my thinking by the staff at CLO who felt this was how special needs players should be included if we are to break down the barriers between disability sport and mainstream competition. This is where I had to reflect. Was the success of 20 soccer club programs in Ontario a bad thing? Had we been getting it wrong all this time? Were we creating a huge hurdle for progress in the future?

I think we’re fine. I think there are two reasons for this, one at the top of the competition stream (Paralympics, World Championships etc.) and one at the very grassroots. If we consider the Paralympics, they are not offered to ‘pan-disability’ or ‘special needs’ sports groups, they are in fact divided by ability group. In Rio we will see 7-a-side parasoccer for athletes with cerebral palsy, stroke or a recorded brain injury as well as the 5-a-side blind soccer for athletes with a visual impairment categorised as B1 or Legally Blind. So even if we threw all the kids participating onto one field at the grassroots level, they would at some point be streamed into competition based on their ability. In fact we already do this with Recreational, Development and Competitive soccer! There will no doubt be a player that crosses over at some point in the future from a Paralympic competition to the Olympics (they may have done so already).

The second reason that I think community based special needs Club programs can be fine is that many players, parents and coaches are intimidated. Starting any new sport or program is daunting;

  • Will I be good enough?(player/coach)
  • What if I don’t fit in? (player)
  • Will someone get hurt? (player/coach/parent)
  • Will they keep up? (player/coach parent).

The fact is that everyone asks these questions of a program, whether they have a disability or not. What a special needs soccer program offers is a safe starting point. Players can share similar abilities on the field while parents share updates off the field. Good, skilled Coaches know how to include every player and ensure fun and development along the way. Players will be able to decide if it’s really not challenging enough for them or not enough fun and make the move to another program or club. The contact I’ve had with parents is often ‘Can I recommend a Club program where my child can go?’ rather than ‘Where’s my nearest Club?’ Having said that, when I speak with children and youth as part of my presentations I encourage them to find their local Club, to ask about playing and if the answer is not positive then point the Club in my direction.

There are solutions. Not all of them can be solved in an email or a blog and the needs of every player are different. It’s a simple extension of everything we know about Long Term Athlete Development and the creation of programs that are Athlete Centred, Coach Driven, and Administration, Sport Science, and Partners supported.

Canada Soccer: Athletes with a Disability Resource


2 thoughts on “Reflection: Grassroots special needs soccer programs

  1. Matthew.
    This is a terrific piece you wrote on the special needs soccer programs that should be promoted in all of our communities.
    It is a challenge for sure and for many different reasons. But we know that good soccer programs for the special needs people in our communities is a good thing and very doable.
    Let’s keep working at it. We will succeed.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

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