Special Needs Kids and Parents Involved in Sports Jun 1, 2013

Tom Curry

Be flexible in terms of supporting the team. Keep a perspective that's grounded in doing what's right for kids' development as people and not focused on winning and losing.

(From EP Magazine – June 2013)

By Tom Curry

As summer approaches and vacation plans are being made, it is also a great time for a family discussion on your child's participation in sports for the next school year. What sports are available? What are the best sports for your child? Is it realistic to participate? What about time and resource commitments?

I recently spoke to colleagues whose children have special needs. The one young man is 10 years old, in elementary school and has ADHD. The other student is a senior in high school and suffers from a learning disability and communication issues. Both sets of parents felt it was important for their sons to participate in some type of sport. The benefits were clear, but the implementation for the child and the rest of the family would be a struggle at some times, positive at other times and an overall demanding process that, in the end, took more time than both parents had believed. The elementary kid's parents are teachers and coaches and knew that the challenges that lay ahead for their son were not going to be easy. How would he blend into a team setting? How would a volunteer coach handle the many issues surrounding their son's participation?

Their son had a good deal of difficulty focusing and maintaining attention for periods of time. He also struggled with following directions. This presented problems in some sports. He participated in youth soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming and karate. His most challenging sport was soccer. This was where the most participation was in terms of numbers. This also made it difficult for him to concentrate and stay focused for an entire practice or game. Baseball was also quite difficult, due to the number of kids on the team and the amount of down time during practices and games. The son experienced most of his success in karate. There, the sensei focused on self-discipline and consistent practice regimens. This greatly helped the young man's participation and growth. There were fewer distractions and a more individualized practice regimen. The sensei was a licensed instructor and could adapt his practices to their son. Yet, because of the high structure surrounding the sport, their son did quite well, both at practice sessions and at competitions.

The other young man in the high school setting was a different challenge. His mom encouraged participation because she felt her son needed the activity to stay in shape and be part of something in the school. He would withdraw quite quickly from any social situation and mom and dad felt strongly that this could change with involvement in athletics. He started out as a manager on the football team and, after two years, an assistant coach who worked in the special education department encouraged both parents to let their son participate on a limited basis in football. The coaches would monitor him very closely. With his teammates urging him on, the young man grew socially and in stature on campus as well. He gained acceptance from his teammates and even though he never fully participated in a varsity or junior varsity game, he did play a few downs at the junior varsity level. In his last junior varsity game, the head coach and opposing coach did something that helped this young man grow leaps and bounds. The offense ran a play where he was able to carry the ball for a touchdown, much to the delight of our team and the opposing team as well. A big moment in this young man's life was made even more special by his reaction to the whole thing. The "Ho-Hum...I've been there before" reaction was priceless and the team's reaction was one of real support and encouragement for their friend and teammate.

After chatting with both moms, it was apparent that they both felt their children greatly benefitted from their sons' involvement in sports. Both agreed on some ideas that would help any parent making the decision to have their child participate in athletics.

  • Be upfront and honest with your child's coaches, right from the start. Explain the entire situation – what works for your child, and what doesn't. Be clear in what your expectations are for your child.
  • Have real expectations with regard to any accomplishments and achievements. Share these often with your child and other members of your family. Be honest with your child and yourself in every way possible. Only then can there be growth for everyone involved.
  • Explain to other parents on the team the "what and why" of your child's involvement in the program. Understand your child's limitations and how they fit in on the team or in the program.
  • Be flexible in terms of supporting the team. Keep a perspective that's grounded in doing what's right for kids' development as people and not focused on winning and losing.
  • Maintain a dialogue with the coach. Many coaches at the high school level are better able to deal with a special needs player than a youth sports volunteer coach. Ask your town recreation commission or director for some assistance in helping volunteer coaches learn to coach children with special needs.
  • While encouraging your child to participate, do WAIT for them to reach out for help! It's not a great idea to be constantly reminding them to learn more or practice more. Archie Manning, father of NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli, never gave his sons advice. He insisted that they ask him when they were ready and only then would he help. He knew that despite his years of experience as a highly successful NFL quarterback, his sons had to really want to improve and be ready to accept what he said to them.

My last thought is for you to remember to thank the coach who takes the time to work with your child. It takes a great deal of patience to coach a child with special need. I saw, first-hand, how important our coaching staff was in the life of the high school special needs student. I saw the remarkable growth in maturity, physical and mental growth, socialization and confidence that came about because of the efforts of the young man and the football coaches who accepted this student on their team. What a wonderful experience for everyone involved. With the right plan and people involved ...everyone wins!

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