Special Needs Coach Education

I recently completed my Canadian Soccer Association National B Audit, a task I had been eager to do for a long time and thankfully, as the CSA launched the new re-certification process I jumped on a recent course in Vaughan, Ontario.

Aside from the physical effort required to participate in many on-field sessions that prepare the candidates for the four teaching formats, there was also plenty of in-depth discussion and small group work in the classroom sessions looking at session planning, principles of play, goalkeeping, soccer fitness and importantly the CSA Game Model which is addressed through the GAG (Global, Analytical, Global) format of teaching.

So what does this have to do with my usual focus on accessible soccer program development?

This is best explained by my three ‘S’s’.


The CSA Game Model is a psychological and tactical approach to team strategy. Simply put, it focuses on quick transition from defence to attack and vice versa while always keeping in mind defence, while attacking. These philosophies are ingrained in the Principles of Play (Attack and Defence) and taught through four distinct models:

  • Small Sided Games
  • Phases of Play
  • Functional Practice and
  • Squad Practice.

Throughout the week long course I spent time reflecting on how this instruction for the 11-a-side game can be transferred to Paralympic soccer (5’s and 7’s) as well as special needs soccer in general. There is a huge gap between the technical content of a National B course and most special needs or para-soccer programming and that is to be expected but there is plenty that can be transferred and already in place, no doubt guided by the excellent Coaches Association of Canada (National Coaching Certification Program). Course content addressed the core skills of any Coach – from the need for varied teaching styles to an ability to understand the learning style of the players. This knowledge is transferable of course and adapted to the age and ability of the group you work with. Typically, I find Coaches new to special needs soccer tend to overthink the situation. There’s no harm in planning thoroughly and preparing for certain situations but commonly there’s a ‘paralysis by analysis’ which stops many good coaches from getting involved. From my first Coaching Disabled Footballers course in 2003 led by the legendary John Ball from Leicestershire FA it was easy to see lots of over-thinking from course candidates when in actual fact we want coaches to take a step back and treat this like many other sessions – it’s simply about engaging players in a fun, learning environment.

Interestingly the four models mentioned earlier that help Coaches transfer knowledge to a group of players were in evidence in June when I had the good fortune to watch the England blind squad at a camp. For example, a phase of play was in evidence with smaller team sizes on a field at regulation width but only ½ or 2/3 in length. While earlier in the session a Functional Practice saw outfield players focus on communication and passing while goalkeepers addressed their positioning and shot stopping.

In summary, current models for training that Coaches use in the transfer of knowledge are also being used in special needs soccer, however there is a great opportunity to learn about nuances that may be more effective within special needs soccer. This is also the finding of a recent academic paper entitled ‘Disability sports coaching: towards a critical understanding’ in Sports Coaching Review (Townsend, Smith & Cushion). Within this paper a quote from Cregan et.al 2007 resonated strongly with me.

“For coaches, the way they position themselves and disability has implications for practice, as the assumptions they hold are implicitly, and explicitly manifested in their philosophy, behaviour, discourse, constructed coaching outcomes, practice-types, beliefs about talent and skill development, and judgements about disabled athletes”



Coaches appear to arrive at special needs soccer from two distinct ways. They are either;

  1. Coaches within a mainstream program and have either been intrigued, inspired or motivated to get involved in special needs soccer. Often I find it’s because they simply want to extend the soccer family, as soccer people we’re always keen to spread the word and share the inherent benefits of team sport (fitness, fun, and socialisation). In doing this, the Coach experiences a reciprocal transfer of knowledge from sharing great tactics and techniques with their new group of players and in the reverse direction they learn more about themselves, about special needs and about soccer in general.
  2. Parents and Professionals who are connected with special needs individuals on a daily basis. Their approach to the sport is a little more tentative and I simply put this down to the intimidation felt by many people coming to a sport for the first time or later in life. Parents are instinctively protective of their children and a fast paced activity such as soccer can be quite different to anything previously experienced. Particularly when time in school for physical education is limited/ non-existent and when many Clubs don’t openly promote their programs as accessible and inclusive.

So where do we take special needs soccer from a coaching perspective in order that the players and their pathway will be best supported and provide a most effective pathway. A simplified pyramid for competition would see three levels with the top of our competitive stream as the Paralympic and Special Olympic movements. Both MUST play key roles in the direction of Provincial and Multi-Sport development at level two, from coach education content to competition format and grassroots models of best practice. At each level there will be differentiation between; ability, age and gender. You’re thinking that this is nothing new in sport, it’s how we divide our competitive and recreational players up after all. Special Olympics are in an enviable position with a strong structure in place right through their competition pathway but Paralympic sport is nowhere near this coordinated alignment. In fact, at a meeting this week to discuss competition in Ontario I was struck by the message from participants at the meeting. At the grassroots level, level one, para sport is only seen as elite sport and isolates them from the conversation. Grassroots soccer in Clubs and Communities is really about Special Needs, a phrase and philosophy that parents, Club Coaches and their community can relate to.

With this in mind, the coaching structure can be best served by a range of education courses that offer an ‘entry level’ experience of special needs soccer for Club and Community Coaches. It would offer a taste of different special needs that a coach might experience in their own program. As the player pool increases then an opportunity arises to align players with international competition formats (blind, amputee etc.). At this point the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Canadian Blind Sport Association etc. would offer sport specific courses for Coaches working or wanting to work in this environment.


A pyramid is a simple concept. Those of us working with special needs, Special Olympics or para athletes know that it’s a bit more complicated than this. However, it has to start somewhere and with someone. There is currently no specific special needs soccer program outside of Special Olympics (for reference their content is excellent and closely aligned with CS4L). Grassroots Clubs benefited from a free Coaching Disabled Footballers course in 2015 which saw 74 people learn from the current English Football Association entry level course and work now must begin on a Canadian model. Experience has taught me that much of the good development in Canadian soccer have been ‘fast tracked’ through the Ontario system from Club Excellence and League One Ontario to the new National C License and Ontario Player Development League. From a coaching perspective the popular OSA Goalkeeping Diploma has filled a void that regularly attracts national interest. Special Needs now needs something similar, watch this space….

Which ball for which player


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