Why are youth sports important?

The easy answer to the question, supported by significant research, is that participation in organized sports provides a unique opportunity for young people to gain feelings of independence while exploring their physical and emotional boundaries and building friendships. 

Similarly, participation in sports and recreation programs can also improve the physical fitness, mental health, and social inclusion of people with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Speaking directly to that point, US Lacrosse’s regional manager Shawn Maloney served as a presenter at last week’s Project Play Summit, hosted virtually by The Aspen Institute. 

As part of his presentation, entitled “Coaching to Support Inclusion of Young Athletes with Disabilities,” Maloney discussed strategies that coaches can utilize to foster a more inclusive and adaptive environment. 

He suggests that coaches begin with an examination of their own implicit biases, with a reflection on their perceptions of ability and disability. Traditionally, youth athletes with disabilities have been excluded from organized sports due to misconceptions about ability, or uncertainty about how to coach them.

“People think they need specialized training to coach kids with disabilities, but in truth, 90-percent of the time, all you have to do is follow the basic positive coaching principles,” Maloney said. “Patience, empathy, and some adaptability are the keys. We know that the best coaches are able to adapt to the needs and abilities of individual kids.”

One of the key points for coaches to remember is that, first and foremost, they are trying to develop youth athletes as people. A young athlete’s disability is not the only unique thing about them, so taking a little time to more fully understand an athlete as a person can be beneficial. Maloney encourages coaches to ask questions and engage with families to better understand the athlete’s goals and motivations for participating.

Once that has been done, creating a fun and safe environment may require some adaptation or modification to the environment, equipment and other aspects of play in order to help athletes with disabilities participate as independently as possible. 

“You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. There are plenty of local resources and organizations in most areas that can provide some guidance,” Maloney said. “Reach out to them.”

Clearly, some impairments are visible, while others are not as obvious. Maloney noted that there are many kids involved in mainstream sports that have invisible disabilities, meaning that coaches are already working with these young players and don’t even know it. According to government statistics, 14% of U.S. public school students receive special education services.

One of Maloney’s suggested strategies focuses on the concept of Universal Design. He cites the example of the curb cut effect.

“The curb cuts at intersections were initially designed for people in wheelchairs, but they also benefit so many more people,” Maloney said. “Elderly persons, parents pushing strollers, kids riding bikes, or skateboarders. As coaches, if you meet the basic needs of kids with disabilities, it will actually help everyone else too.” 

Maloney shared some of his own personal journey as part of the discussion. Due to a spinal cord injury he sustained in a climbing accident five years ago, Maloney was paralyzed from the waist down. He has now regained some mobility, but still walks with a cane due to weaknesses on one side of his body. It was his eventual participation in wheelchair lacrosse that helped restore his feelings of being an athlete once again.

“I can walk, but I can’t jump or run,” he said, “and wheelchair lacrosse is the best version of lacrosse for me. I’ve seen the benefits of participating.”

Maloney wants others to experience those same feelings of empowerment through sports.

“There are lots of stigmas associated with disabilities, and people with disabilities are often marginalized,” he said. “But the same benefits that other kids get from sports apply to kids with disabilities too.”

Resources from US Lacrosse

Athletes with disabilities benefit from the same training and conditioning as athletes without disabilities,

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