Sport Canada (a branch of the Ministry of Canadian Heritage), and more specifically the Canadian Sport Centres, began a process in 2004 to develop a uniquely Canadian, athlete focused, coach driven framework for sport and physical activity in Canada. The plan was for the program to be well-grounded in scientific research about physical development and maturation and guided by the experiences of other successful sporting countries while being attentive to unique circumstances in Canada.
The framework is entitled Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L)and at its core is a Long Term Athlete Development Model (LTAD) — a model that literally describes sport involvement from birth to death with a strong focus on developing physical skills early in life as the foundation for being ‘Active for Life’. From 2005 to 2011, the program was directed by six athlete development experts from the Canadian Sport Centres, but in 2011the program underwent a major release and expansion. The CS4L model is designed to be as inclusive as possible and applicable to every Canadian but pays specific attention to the encouraging participation of among particular groups that are often underrepresented in Canadian sport —disabled people, women and girls, Aboriginal people and disadvantaged inner-city youth. Implementing the CS4L and the LTAD necessitate changes in the coach training and practice, sport administration, program development and delivery and integration of the integration of sport opportunities. This process is now well underway, but much progress remains to be made.
No Accidental Champions is the supplement to the LTAD Resource Paper that addresses the issues related to developing athletes with disabilities. The inclusive and broad nature of the LTAD make it well suited to developing all athletes regardless of physical ability. However, No Accidental Champions does a good job in zeroing in on key challenges specific to developing athletes with disabilities.
No Accidental Champions goes further in analysing the 10 Key Factors in athlete development and 10 Pillars of Support from the perspective of athletes with disabilities. I think the National Sport Organisations (NSOs) have made strong progress in the last 10 years at integrating elite athletes with disabilities into their competitive program. For example, Swim Canada has announced it will host an integrated Olympic/Paralympic trials this year and Athletics, Cross-Country Skiing, Alpine Skiing, Triathlon and Archery already have integrated National Championships. All NSOs have a Paralympic or Adaptive program featured on their websites with information on elite competition. However, the road to the Paralympic level is less clear and I sense the level of integration and sport development for athletes with disabilities varies significantly from sport to sport and province to province.
Four key ideas stand out for me as necessary pre-conditions for changing the sport and recreation experiences of disabled athletes and making the CS4L LTAD an active document.
Integrated Sports Opportunities at the FUNdamental and ‘Active for Life’
“It is critically important that children with a disability have the opportunity to develop their fundamental movement and sport skills. Failure to do so severely limits their lifelong opportunities for recreational and athletic success. Despite this great need, children with a disability face difficulty gaining the fundamentals because:
- overly protective parents, teachers, and coaches shield them from the bumps and bruises of childhood play.
- adapted physical education is not well developed in all school systems.
- some coaches do not welcome children with a disability to their activities because of a lack of knowledge about how to integrate them.
- it takes creativity to integrate a child with a disability into group activities where fundamental skills are practiced and physical literacy developed”
- CS4L Long Term Athlete Development Resource Paper, p.21
The net effect of the challenges noted above is that disabled young people are generally less active and have far fewer opportunities to play sport and participate in physical recreation then their non-disabled peers. Physical literacy is only developed through active participation with appropriate feedback and the long term effects of underdeveloped physical literacy on the participation and level of activity as adults (regardless of ability) is well laid out in the LTAD Resource Paper. Even when disabled young people are given the opportunity to participate, it is often without the requisite feedback needed to refine and modify their skills. This stems from lack of adequate coach training and a persistent attitude that participation is in itself a big achievement so there is no need to comment on technique.
These challenges are also present on the other end of the development spectrum in ‘Active for Life‘ where it can be difficult to find recreational sport programs that will welcome athletes with disabilities, particularly in team sports. Sport is in part a social activity and that social interaction is what helps keep people active. Sport environments that are exclusionary or places barriers on participation for athletes with disabilities create negative social experiences that can be difficult to overcome.
I see integrated sport activities (read the post made by Josh Vander Vies on the pros and cons of integration) as an answer to this lack of opportunity. Disability Sport Organisations (DSOs) and Provincial Sport Organisations (PSOs) could play a stronger role in establishing these opportunities. An example would be the weekly Goalball session offered in Burnaby with support from BC Blind Sports and Recreation open to participants with and without visual impairments. I would love to see more opportunities like this open to a broad range of ages and abilities. All-comers track meets have provided similar integrated opportunities, but how about a recreational sitting volleyball league, boccia play days or 5-aside Blindfold Soccer. I think this could be helped by DSOs and PSOs developing rules or guidelines for play in recreational competition that would encourage fully integrated play and organising subsidised initial sessions. For instance, boccia pairs where one player must play with a ramp or without use of their arms regardless of physical ability. DSOs and PSOs could provide adaptive sport equipment necessary for play in particular sports at certain venues where competitions/leagues are held.
In the younger age groups, I would like to see more multisport, movement focused programs offered through community recreation programs. I had a wonderful opportunity as a child to take part in a program in my local community, Port Alberni, called Aqua Percept. It was a combination of movement, exercise, gymnastics and sport play along with swimming. In other words, it was exactly the kind of development indicated in the FUNdamental Stage by the CS4L LTAD. At that age, I was having difficulty being part of community team sports because I was physically less coordinated and had less strength than my peers so I often didn’t play as much and lost opportunity to develop further. Aqua Percept was open to everyone and was an excellent foundation for an athletic career that would develop significantly later in life. Inclusive multisport programs for young people where the focus on play and skill development rather than competition would benefit not only disabled young athletes, but others who mature at a physically different rate then peers of the same age.
Sport Science Research focused on Athletes with Disabilities
Throughout No Accidental Champions there are a number of intances where the document identifies challenges or circumstances where the sport experience or physical development might be different for athletes with disabilities than for non-disabled athletes. However, it is often followed by a statement along the lines of “…little is known about…” or “…there is no evidence to suggest…”. Two points are worthy of note with regards to this lack of evidence.
First, human beings are complex individuals and, as the LTAD rightly points out, coaching is as much an art as it is a science. Physical impairments affect people in different ways and it is important that the primary decision-making is done at the individual athlete-coach level based on feedback from the athlete and long and short-term monitoring of progress. In my opinion, the CS4L LTAD has done a good job of identifying the key factors for development in all athletes’ development and where more attention is needed for coaches working with disabled athletes and where further research would be helpful.
However as a sport system, identifying the lack of evidence is not enough. Encouragement and sport science research funding should be directed toward studies of the physical and athletic development of athletes with disabilities. I believe this research would benefit the entire athletic community, not just disabled athletes and their coaches. It is through understanding the diversity in our world that we often come to better understand the shared characteristics. Research would also be beneficial in laying the foundation for a specific set of practical adaptive strategies that could be given to coaches working with children to work on improving the core movement patterns in young athletes with disabilities.
If athletes are going to be developed purposefully rather than accidentally then we need well trained coaches who are aware of the LTAD and have the skills to adapt their chosen sport to include athletes with disabilities. I recently completed my Sport Coach and Club Coach training courses (formerly called Level 1 and Level 2) for Athletics and, other than a cursory mention here and there of athletes with disabilities, there was no attention paid to adaptive strategies. I fear the experience would not be much different in other sports. These are the levels of coaching where this training is critical as it is the level of a coach working with young developing athletes. Any coaches working with disabled athletes at higher levels of performance would likely have specific training or previous experience. In addition, higher level athletes tend to have a better understanding of their own body and the adaptations required for them to succeed.
It is disappointing that despite a number of very positive changes to the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) in line with the CS4L program that inclusion has not been more ingrained in the coach training program. One of the areas identified in the section quoted above from the LTAD is that coaches lack the “creativity to integrate a child with a disability”. That creativity gap will persist unless coaches explicitly see examples of how integration and adaptation can take place. One step toward improving this would be if all technical or practical coaching courses involved a component of working with athletes in an inclusive setting. Bring some young people in, including an athlete with a disability, and have the coaches take turns developing activities for them. Debriefing and discussion could then address any questions coaches might have about inclusion or point them in the right direction of information resources such as those provided by CS4L or the NSO/PSO if relevant.
Necessity often drives change and perhaps the change in coach education will come as more demands are placed by athletes with disabilities starting to show up at sports clubs across the country with the knowledge that Sport Canada supports an inclusive system. Perhaps then coaches will look for the training that they should be getting the first time around.
“I have gone through all the same stages of development as Canada’s other elite athletes. From training hard as a teenager, through learning to compete on the international stage, to standing on the Paralympic podium, my development has taken time and perseverance.”
– Chantal Petitclerc, Paralympic Champion (as quoted in “No Accidental Champions”, p. 12)
We need the cultural shift to continue that normalises the sport participation of disabled people. The Canadian Paralympic Committee and Sport Canada along with the NSOs have started to drive this change with their inclusion of planning and images of disabled athletes as athletes first. However, I believe the cultural change is much broader where we applaud encourage and recognise sport on a community as much more about participation, fitness and health then about competition and elite success. Disabled athletes are the same as any other person in our motivations for taking part in sport and recreation and overall our development follows the same trajectory. An active population is not the bi-product of developing elite athletes; the Paralympians on the top end of the spectrum are the bi-product of society that values broad sport participation.
Professional sports are a large drain on the resources and attention of our sporting community. Hockey in Canada occupies this position, football and basketball in the US, and soccer (or football if you prefer) in the UK. They also do a disservice to disabled athletes by setting an unattainable bar where only the highest, strongest and fastest survive or are worthy of attention. If more options are available and the resources spread more broadly then it is more likely disabled athletes will find a place that welcomes their participation and sport that matches their ability.
Cultural change is extremely difficult to affect, but it would be nice to see municipal recreation departments and local sport providers making more of an effort to feature and program for inclusion of disabled people not in an explicit way, but as integrated part of their services. I also hope that in some small way the discussions that we as disabled athletes have within the sport community, such as on this blog, can contribute to a more inclusive sport system.
CS4L is a valuable long-term process and set of resources, but any plan is only as good as the actions that accompany it. I hope the implementation will bring changes that reflect the valuable information and sound balance in the LTAD.
What do you think about the sporting development of athletes with disabilities and the role of the CS4L LTAD?