Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Youth Soccer: Meaningful or Menacing?

If you go to any large, flat, grassy field in early fall or late spring, you will find yourself surrounded by literally hundreds of children ages 4 and older screaming, running, falling, kicking and “participating” in soccer drills and games. This setting is where children and families begin to form lasting relationships. Most families and children take for granted their involvement in this energetic, chaotic scene. However, if you are a parent of a child with a disability, you wouldn’t think twice about soccer and in all likelihood would choose not to have your child play.

All children should have an opportunity to be exposed to sports, however; many children with disabilities are often not afforded this experience. When questioning youth sport organizers about including children with disabilities, the typical reactions are they are a liability; what if they get hurt; they cannot keep up; the equipment they use to move is dangerous to other children; and we can’t change the rules for just one child.

When questioning parents of children with disabilities as to why their child does not participate in the community soccer program we hear it is way too dangerous; he/she cannot keep up; and coaches are unwilling to modify the game to include my child.

I introduced you to Noah in my first post. In this story, he is five-years-old and walks independently with braces on both legs but falls consistently. His left arm does not do much work and if he falls to the left, he has difficulty catching himself.

As his physical therapist, I suggested to his mother that he get involved in community activities and interact with his peers for both socialization and for physical activity that would help improve his daily functioning. As expected, she responded with a panic stricken look and gasped in disbelief. Just like the other parents, she said just about every answer given above as to why a child with special needs doesn’t participate in a sport. But, after much discussion and reassurance (and begging from Noah), she pensively signed him up for a local youth soccer league. I promised her that I would also attend the first practice to make sure the coaches were aware of Noah’s “abilities”.

Noah’s coaches were two college students volunteering their time to the local organization. They knew very little about kids but a lot about soccer which was to Noah’s advantage! I spoke to them about Noah and cerebral palsy and shared that no adaptations were needed while he played. Sure, he is slower than other children and he wears braces. Yes, he runs funny but he knows as much about soccer as the other children, which would be nothing! They were all in the same boat in learning how to play so no child was better than the other, which helped Noah. The coaches thought maybe he would make a great goalie, but I explained to them that he would probably not do well at that position because of his compromised vision and slow reactions. However, his chances of getting hurt were no greater than that of his peers, actually less since he moved slower, so a position on the field would be perfectly fine.
Once practice started, Noah’s mother stood nervously on the sidelines, watching as he engaged with his teammates of 4 and 5 year-olds, laughing and slapping hands. When the ball would come toward him, he got mowed over by the pack of children chasing the ball, but he got up, brushed off his hands, replaced his glasses and took off after the ball just like the other children.

As Noah grows into adolescence, he may need to find another sport as reality predicts that the things that make him “differently abled” at 5-years-old (lack of speed, strength, agility, coordination) will become more emphasized as he and his peers mature. For now though, Noah is just another youth soccer player, who is a part of a team, learning new skills, developing friendships, making his parents proud, and like most of the children in the league, has no idea of wins and losses and will be awarded a medal …for trying.

*Noah is a fictional name to protect the real child.
About the Author: Deborah Thorpe, PT, PhD, has been a pediatric physical therapist, academician and researcher for 25 years. Her research focuses on fitness, physical activity, and health promotion for persons with cerebral palsy (CP) across the lifecourse. 

27 comments :

  1. What a sweet story! I love learning more about Noah!

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  2. Both of my special needs kids (er.. teens) participate in modified sports. My daughter couldn't care less about baseball, but really enjoys bowling and swimming. My son loves swimming, bike camp, and has also recently started sled hockey. We're fortunate to be in an area that has a wide variety of sports offerings for special needs children.

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    1. That is awesome that they are involved in sports! I think it is important to expand their interests and abilities :)

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  3. This is such a great story! I'm sure sports may seem really scary and intimating to parents of children with special needs, but I think they are great for them to get out there and learn about being on a team and all that.

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    1. And not only are parents scared for their own child but sometimes their teammates or opponents are afraid of how to play around them. It is a learning moment for everyone.

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  4. Omg this is a great story!!! Love hearing positive stories like this!! I actually know a few people with kiddos with special needs and my hubby and I are always saying how we wish the parents would put them in sports!! Any kinda group activity is fantastic for any kiddo!!

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    1. Share our post with your friends!! They could read about Noah and his activities.

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  5. Great post! I think all children can learn so much by taking part in team sports!

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    1. Totally agree :) I also wouldn't have the friends I have today it if wasn't for sports. Those friends seem to last forever

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  6. That is a wonderful suggestion that you gave Noah's parents. I love that you gave his coaches advice on how to make soccer a fun experience for him. Soccer should be accessible and fun for every child.

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    1. The coaches were just as unsure of him playing as his mom but he did it and loved playing!!

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  7. I think it was a great idea to get Noah involved in soccer! We encourage the families that we work with to get involved in sports and exercise. Most join the mainstream teams but we are fortunate to have special needs soccer and basketball leagues in our area, as well.

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    1. That is so great to hear! We love that kids of all abilities are encouraged to participate.

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  8. Such a sweet story. Good for little Noah!

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    1. I know!!! Isn't he such an inspiration?!

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  9. It's wonderful to hear that everyone gets to participate in a group sport, they are so beneficial to all children!

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    1. I know :) I am glad the coaches were so open to letting Noah play too!

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  10. All children should have the option of participating in youth sports. What a great story.

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  11. What a beautiful story of inclusion! I am determined to teach my little girls that everyone of us is just as special as each other x

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    1. I am right there with you in teaching that lesson. One of my daughter's best friends has a sister who is autistic and my little one plays right along with her and includes her in their fun. Melts my heart!!

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  12. I am looking forward to the day that our little guy can play sports. Just to see him having fun is what I'm looking forward to. I don't care what the scoreboard says!

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  13. Great story. Love that he was able to join in and that the coaches were willing to take on advice about how to include him.

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  14. Hey lady! Saw that you entered another FP giveaway on another blog and wanted to share this one with you also that I’m hosting through Monday. Good luck!
    Giveaway: FP Giveaway

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