It’s not rocket science!

Occasionally in a search for fresh knowledge and insights you stumble across a goldmine of information that brings with it greater awareness, validation and energy. In The Inclusion Club I found just that goldmine. The Inclusion Club is a collaboration of five experts working in the field of accessible and inclusive sport and recreation based out of hubs in Australia (University of Technology Sydney) and the UK (University of Worcester) and coordinated by Founding Director Peter Downs. The platform they have established brings together excellent interviews with talented academics and practitioners in the field of inclusive sport and recreation.

The website at www.theinclusionclub.com is a feast of content from webinars and podcasts to links and downloads. I want to encourage readers to join their group of over 2000 followers and learn from accessible sport practitioners, and this article will aim to highlight a few of my favourite ‘nuggets’.

‘Labels’

Loughborough University professor David Howe, a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Sport spoke about the negative impact of labeling people and specifically those with a disability.  This theme had occurred in other discussions but David made two comments that resonated:

  1. That labeling athletes with a disability as inspirational or inspiring is both patronising and sets a low bar. For athletes with a disability their enjoyment and participation in sport is just part of their everyday life and by describing it as inspirational it becomes more than it really is. I reflected on the influential Canadians Terry Fox and Rick Hansen and for me the description ‘inspirational’ can certainly be used for the challenge they set and how much they accomplished – how many other people are lining up to run across Canada or wheel around the world. I think a line can be drawn there between what, specifically Rick, achieved during that journey around the world and his current work in business and with his foundation. Without devaluing the incredible work achieved by the Rick Hansen Foundation we have to be careful of the negative connotations when we attach labels to people on a daily basis.
  2. Following on from this point David suggested that there can often be awkwardness around people with a disability because others may not know how to address them and there is a common default to one of pity and using labels such as inspirational become an easy out. How do we, therefore, in our own minds perceive the world famous ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius? Countless articles will proclaim him as ‘inspirational’ and ‘ground-breaking’ but as we know, lives were changed after that evening in 2013 so do those earlier labels change and should we think deeper about the way any athlete is labelled? As Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang, ‘There’s good and bad, in everyone’.

EFDS

In 2018 the English Federation of Disability Sports (EFDS) became the Activity Alliance – a U.K. charity now in its 22nd year that serves as an umbrella organisation and connector for national governing bodies, community groups and municipalities. Their website is full of excellent data and reports on disability sport/recreation and strategy documents. In this interview Chief Executive, Barry Horne spoke about the work of their organization and one comment really stuck with me, particularly as we strive to grow sports such as blind soccer with players in their 20’s and 30’s. We know that engaging children and youth is somewhat easier because parents still play a huge part in their lives but for older people with a disability why is it harder? In one line Barry made it crystal clear. He explained in their discussions with adults that many had not had good sport experiences as children or had possibly not even been given the chance to participate, therefore;

’I never got to do this in school, so why would I start as a 25 year old”.

A daunting proposition and a key reason for sport to be social, fun and satisfying for this particular demographic.

‘The Rodman Theory’

Matt Schinelli is the founder of New Jersey All People Equal and over his many years in the inclusive sport field he has recognised a benefit and need to put athletes with a disability in sport roles where they can experience and achieve success. The way Matt explains this is through what he calls The Denis Rodman Theory.  Rodman was a flamboyant and incredibly successful basketball player with the Chicago Bulls of the NBA. It was widely accepted that Rodman wasn’t the best at passing, shooting or dribbling but he was one of the best at rebounding and Head Coach Phil Jackson played to that strength where Rodman ultimately won seven rebounding titles in a row. Matt firmly believes that by putting people in areas where they can succeed not only will they have more fun but they will feel better about their role in a team sport. A natural side effect will also be the positive feedback from team mates and coaches.

‘It’s not rocket science’

Without trying to sound condescending this has been a feeling I’ve grown more attuned to, the longer I’ve been involved in inclusive sport and the more you experience. It was reassuring therefore to hear an interview with Kathy Tessier and Leanne Carlon who are described in the podcast as ‘both complete legends in the inclusive sporting landscape in Australia’. Kathy had reassured a group of delegates during a workshop that accessible sport is not rocket science and that had resonated with Leanne. The crux of this opinion is not to patronise potential new coaches or volunteers but to help them understand sport for athletes with disabilities is not about catering to every single individual’s specific disability but to address their experience in the sport. Leanne explains that she doesn’t focus on the needs of an athlete with cerebral palsy but rather, how does that individual grip a ball. From a soccer perspective any good coach understands where players are in a continuum moving from learning a new technique and moving that through to skill mastery. A recurring point here is that the better you are as a coach you will cater to every athlete in your group and their sport specific needs, where bad coaches coach ‘to the middle’ or the average athlete in the group and then those stronger or weaker start to disengage because they’re challenged too much or too little.

As experienced coaches it is very important to put ourselves in the shoes of coaches who are exposed to disability sport for the first time, and understand that it can be daunting, but as a good coach, then inclusive athlete development is what you do in every session anyway.

Finally, some reassuring words from Kathy and Leanne who explained that in all their years of experience the idea that ‘You need to know, in order to know that you don’t need to know’ is for them simply not true. Let me explain, they acknowledge that while it’s not rocket science to coach athletes with a disability there ’is still an engineering component to it’ where they have learned about the physiology, bio mechanics and psychology of athletes with cerebral palsy for example, however the knowledge that they learned from these medical model aspects of cerebral palsy are not what helped them as coaches and leaders. Instead it was the focus on a social model where the focus was purely on Individual A playing sport.

I hope these nuggets have been as useful and reassuring to you as they have been to me. We’ll continue to mine for gold and maybe as inclusive soccer programs grow in Canada we may even unearth a few diamonds too.

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