How do we develop athletes with disabilities in Canada?

By Blair

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.

Coach Education
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.

Cultural Change

“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?

8 thoughts on “How do we develop athletes with disabilities in Canada?

  1. Monster topic…

    To answer the question first: We live in a world where 4 out of every 5 countries would probably be happy with any type of “sport system”, let alone one that has as many specific provisions as ours does for disabled athletes. It isn’t perfect and likely won’t ever be unless as a country we win some sort of World Lotto.

    The one topic that I’d like to focus on (maybe because it’s a bit easier to wrap my head around) is the concept that Pro sports are a huge drain on resources. I think this could be heavily debated as they are also a huge source of revenue in that they inspire thousands of kids and adults to participate. (Nevermind any direct financial trickle down or numerous participatory programs that the NHL (for example) provides to NSOs like Hockey Canada.)

    The best recent example is Tiger Woods expanding the game of golf through his play on the PGA. Yeah, the PGA probably sucks the lion’s share of golf dollars that could go toward participatory programs but there would be a lot fewer people wanting to sign up for those programs without the PGA… and Tiger in particular. Additionally, a lot of the “pro money” wouldn’t be going anywhere near golf without the Pro level of play. So it’s more like the whole pie got bigger than the pro slice got bigger. I would imagine this is consistent throughout most sports.

    It seems that pro sports and elite sport sometimes gets bashed around these parts (on this blog) but performance and competition is what sport is built on. When was the last time you saw a few people getting super excited about totally crappy play in any sport.

    The best are inspiring and they draw others into the game.

    Great post!

    • Meyrick, thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point, which I should have acknowledged in my post about our privilege living in a country that has resources and will to put toward a sport system, and on top of that one that is inclusive. My post was intended more as a way of capitalising on the resources we’ve put into the CS4L LTAD so that it doesn’t just remain a planning document. I think the LTAD is an excellent blueprint for a healthier society and I think that is worthy of attention.

      It is a bit hypocritical of me to criticise pro-sports when I enjoy and have benefited from being part of elite sport. I agree that this high level of sport is entertaining, inspiring and an important outlet for those at the highest skill level. My concern is the impact that the dominance of one pro sport has on the development of athletes across a broad spectrum of sports. Yes, there are trickle down benefits from the NHL, but most of those financially flow through minor hockey. Minor hockey draws a huge number of athletes who are increasingly being asked to commit to year round training at earlier ages. This early commitment has a knock-on effect to their long-term development and participation in other later developing sports. The drive for the heavy training at early ages is to prepare a select few to have the opportunity at major junior hockey and the NHL where the trend has been to players entering younger and smaller. I don’t think this is beneficial for our overall sport program and the view taken to other sports (including disability/para-sport). All that being said, I don’t think my blog post or any others for that matter will likely change that culture in Canada, but maybe it will shift over time:)

  2. Blair – I love your point about coaches and fostering creativity. My experience with adaptive sport is that creativity and ingenuity are absolutely essential and go a long way to determine (1) if the athlete will enjoy the sport and continue and (2) how successful they will be. Every impairment is somewhat different and is going to require specific adaptations to technique or equipment. Having a coach that is able and willing to experiment and innovate is absolutely essential (they also need to be willing to include the athlete in the proces – the coach might know the sport but it is the athlete who knows what he/she needs and brings valuable knowledge from past situations). But your post raises a great point – how do we foster creativity? I think too often we assume that this is an attribute people either have or don’t have – rather than realizing it is a skill that can be developed.

    Personally I would love to see more curriculum in the coach training to foster creativity and problem solving. We will never be able to teach a coach how to deal with every possible situation by using a manual but if we teach problem solving we will give them the tools and confidence needed to be able to support athletes with a variety of impairments. I saw this first hand at a camp this fall where the coaches spent hours and hours looking at different models of sit skis and asking a few different athletes to try them out. They were sharing tips on padding, straps, etc. – all sorts of modifications that they had successfully used with their own athletes to find the position that allowed the athletes to reach maximize their power and efficiency while skiing. It was great!

    My own (limited) experience coaching adaptive rowing also reminded me of another reason we should be fostering creativity. When working with athletes with a disability you are often forced to innovate – if you don’t find a solution the athlete won’t be able to row. But it is also an opportunity as a coach to try to zero in on what are the fundamental principles of your sport – what is good technique? what are you trying to achieve? and what is just style? For example, most coaches (myself included) tend to have an image in our heads as to what good technique looks like. But we forget that the objective is to reach the finish line first – by whatever means possible. Sometimes this means adopting unorthodox styles. In rowing our objective is to minimize ‘check’ on the boat – allowing the boat to run out level without rocking bow to stern during the stroke. This is a fundamental concept that applies in able-bodied and adaptive rowing. How exactly the athlete achieves this is highly dependent on a variety of individual factors (height, weight, core strength, reach, etc.). Essentially there is no one stroke that will work for everyone – but most of the coaching curriculum suggest that there is! The curriculum is based on a ‘idealized’ body – and every rower – tall, short (like me….), able bodied or with a disability is expected to try to achieve this one stroke or at least get as close to it as possible. This is a waste of time and talent… We should be teaching coaches the fundamental principles of the sport and then focusing on creativity and innovation – this would make them far more effective coaches for athletes with a disability AND for able-bodied athletes.

    When you said “It is through understanding the diversity in our world that we often come to better understand the shared characteristics” I’m don’t think this is exactly what you had in mind – but I think it applies! If we, as coaches, understand the fundamental concepts in our sports we will better positioned to help all athletes – not only those who have the ‘ideal’ body for the sport.

    • Actually Andrea, coaching adaptation and focus on the core elements of the sport is one of the examples that I had in mind when talking about diversity and commonality, but you’ve articulated in much more depth. Thank you.

      I’d push farther on adaptation and suggest that the coaching and disability sport communities should be able to work together to develop sport specific resources that provide suggestions for adaptation relevant to each of the major impairment groupings. Coaches working with disabled athletes would then have a starting place rather than relying solely on their creativity to develop adaptive strategies. All of this would be reinforced by the principle that each athlete is unique, which as you’ve pointed out well, is as applicable to non-disabled athletes as it is disabled athletes.

  3. ” 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.”
    Absolutely.
    “Professional sports are a large drain on the resources and attention of our sporting community.”
    Absolutely.
    “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.”
    Absolutely.

    We do not need changes to the NCCP program. We need opportunities to use facilities (we need facilities specifically designed to be inclusive) so people can learn that playing sports is fun, socially exciting, and can be done without the stress of perfecting “fundamental principles of the sport”. Hockey is a good example. Try to find “recreational ice time”. If you are not part of the hockey establishment (one designed to produce NHL players from PeeWee age on) ice time is very scarce, and often comes at 2:00 a.m.

    We need more chances for people of all ages and abilities to have fun playing games in an environment that has as its fundamental principle the notion that moving and playing sports with friends is the goal, not conforming to some Sport Organization’s ideals about how each athlete should “develop”, or about how to make the big leagues.

    Cultural change is indeed difficult. It has been the changes in sport culture created by the business called “Olympics” and its need for elite athletes, along with the Pro sport need for chemical and anatomical freaks to power their businesses (read that as “big money”) that have created a culture of spectators. A broad change in the culture of sport from elitism and opportunities for wealth, to inclusion, acceptance, and the pure joy of playing, especially for young people, is the only ultimate solution.

    I had hoped that, if anyone could do it, disabled athletes would be in a position to reject the existing sport culture. Too many seem determined to just join up. It’s encouraging to hear some dissent.

    • I don’t disagree with you Larry. I would support that broad change you speak of – anything that would encourage or support more opportunities for play and discovery among young people has my vote. I agree wholeheartedly that the only fundamental principal we need is that playing sport should be enjoyable and our ‘goal’ is to move. But… may I suggest that some of us find competition fun? And I don’t necessarily think that is an elitist attitude – I enjoy competition because it brings out the best in me – it pushes me to levels I would never achieve on my own. And my closest competitors have often been my closest friends – who could possibly understand me better? For me the great races are the ones where we both cross the finish line on our last ounce and turn around and thank each other because we know we couldn’t have done it alone. Maybe that’s a romanticized notion of sport. But I would (respectfully) suggest your description of kids at play is also a little idealistic.

      I’m digging around right now trying to find a paper I read a few years back on kids and unstructured play (a.k.a. no parents or coaches telling them what to do). The fascinating thing – the kids competed. But they did so on their own terms. For example (and this is one finding from the paper that I always remember – if I find the actual study I will post the link) – when picking teams to play – children will repeatedly take measures to create teams that are as equal as possible. Rather than picking the strongest players and trying to dominate the other team, children will negotiate so that the teams are balanced. “You can have the strongest player but you also have to take my little brother…” They instinctively seem to recognize that competition can be fun when the teams are well matched. They also take turns – sharing playing time without a coach there to determine who is on what shift. They also create modifications and adaptations to ensure that everyone is able to participate. Essentially they have found a way of competing that respects each participant and gives everyone an opportunity to excel.

      So when it comes to discussing sport development, my answer is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater or to position it as a polarized divide between those who want to compete and those who want to have fun. I’d like to think we can do both.

      • I think your “paper” answers your own concerns.

        What you describe is exactly what I remember happening on outdoor rinks, corner baseball playgrounds, and anywhere else we just “played” any sports. I have never disparaged competition, or the desire to win, because I have never believed it would diminish in any participants simply because it isn’t a coached or “supervised” sport event. If you think competition wasn’t fierce in those outdoor hockey games that lasted 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon with maybe 14 people from 11 to 50 years old on either side, you are sadly misinformed. Competition was fierce, but no one tried to hurt anyone. THAT is a very different culture.

        Any of the participants in our “games” who became highly skilled (and there were quite a few, actually because of the many, many hours of time spent playing) often tended to pursue their interest to the organized levels of the sports, and some percolated to the professional levels. Those who didn’t want that, continued to participate at whatever level of “competition” they desired. It is not at all “elitist” to want to win the game.

        The culture of sport your study describes is what existed in this society for my whole childhood and adolescence. There were certainly elite athletes developed during that time. Lots of them. Some highly competitive ones too. It is a complete illusion that highly competitive athletes with elite skills must have “coaches” and “programs” from their first exposure to the sport that is killing sports. “No Accidental Champions” is a horrific idea. All champions should be accidents; they should never be “products” of a system. They should come out of the joy of sport (and competition) that grew organically in them as a result of loving a game. Intrinsic motivation is the only motivation that makes life worthwhile. In the long run, it is the only motivation that will make people (and sport) healthy.

        A return to intrinsic motivation *is* the cultural change we need.

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