BADD2014 – A challenge to coaches

Today is May 1st – also known as ‘Blogging Against Disablism Day.’ BADD was first organized in 2006 by a UK disability activist blogging under the name ‘Goldfish’ (check out Diary of a Goldfish). The concept is very simple – one day of the year, bloggers around the world take time to write a NEW post on the topic of disablism or more generally on the topics related to (dis)ability. They send the link to their post to Goldfish who uses her blog, a twitter account, and Facebook page to create an online listing of all the posts written that day. She and her partner ( aka Mister Goldfish) categorize the posts by topics so that readers can easily see the range of issue being written about. A few of the topics this year are employment, education, web accessibility, disablism in literature/media, relationships, art and SPORT.

There are many reasons I like the idea behind BADD and have chosen to participate: (1) it’s a chance for great blogs to find new readers and great readers to find new blogs, (2) it’s a simple and low tech but with huge potential – it ‘leverages’ the affordances of digital technologies, (3) it makes me actually take the time to write a post rather than putting it off for another day.

Here is my contribution to BADD2014. I’m not going to claim it’s my most eloquent writing but it’s a conversation I’ve had a few times in past weeks with various people (and more than a few times in my head) and today seems like a good day to write about it. My thoughts on this matter are still evolving so I encourage you to consider this post as the start of a conversation rather than the final say on the topic.

Does coaching athletes with disabilities require ‘specialized training’?

Premise: I’ve been involved in disability sport (or para-sport or adaptive sport) for six years. Though my involvement has most often been as a guide for nordic skiers who have visual impairments, I have also spent a fair bit of time volunteering and coaching for various ski and rowing programs. I’ve also served on a couple of committees and boards for organizers responsible for ‘para-sport’ development. One of my tasks has been to recruit coaches and volunteers for our programs. One comment I hear frequently is ‘I don’t have the training to coach athletes with a disability or volunteer for a disability sport program.’

My concern: The people I hear this from are often very experienced coaches or sport volunteers. When they say they don’t have the experience or training to work within a disability sport program I don’t think they mean they are unfamiliar with the sport – they mean they are unfamiliar with disability. My concern is that this position makes an assumption that coaching an athlete with a disability requires specialized training or different skills than coaching an able-bodied athlete. It doesn’t.

WAIT! Are you saying that coaching does not require training? Isn’t that endangering athletes?

Not at all – coaches and volunteers should be educated and have training appropriate to the program they intend to work with. This education can take the form of formalized certification, self-directed study, on the job experience, working with other coaches and ideally a combination of all of the above. Being a coach – a good coach – means learning to apply knowledge in order to recognize and meet the needs of athletes. Not every athlete requires the same thing from a coach or can be coached in the same way. If that were the case there would be no need for coaches at all – athletes could download a standardized training program off the web, analyze their own technique using automated software, and listen to a podcast of stock inspirational speeches prior to a big race.

When someone says they can’t coach an athlete with a disability (or equally that their club/program can’t accommodate athletes with disabilities) they are focusing too much on the differences between athletes with impairments and able-bodied athletes and forgetting that what all athletes have in common – the need for a customized program. These coaches are also doing themselves a disservice by failing to recognize the skills they do have. Any coach who can work with a sprinter and a long distance runner, a goalie and a forward, or a 12 year-old and a master athlete already knows how to be adaptable. Working with an athlete with a disability is no different – you start by applying existing knowledge and then you work with the athlete to figure out the rest. It might take a bit of trial and error, but not only will the athlete get the coaching they deserve but the coach will obtain a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of their sport. For example, working with an athlete who has a lower limb impairment or an amputation will force you think differently about balance and weight shift and coaching an athlete with a visual impairment is great way to practice ‘verbalizing technique’ rather than relying on demonstrations.

Being a good coach is not about knowing everything, it’s about about having a deep understanding of a sport and using that understanding to guide your practice. It’s the difference between knowing a piece of music by rote or knowing how to improvise on an instrument. It’s the difference between memorizing a textbook and being able to apply the theory outside the classroom.

Saying ‘I don’t have the training’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m afraid to learn.’

My contribution to BADD2014 To find more BADD posts visit Diary of a Goldfish or check out the hashtag #BADD2014 on Twitter.