Adapting Sports For Inclusion

I learned the concept of INclusion at a very young age. At the age of four, I was diagnosed with a learning disability that was both retrieval- and language-based. The diagnosis opened the floodgates to a series of judgments from teachers and classmates as to what I could or could not accomplish in life. I felt like an outcast in school. However, on the courts, on the fields, and in the pool, I excelled, and, as a result, I was always picked first. I loved sports and fitness and, to this day, still do. My insecurities and self-esteem issues became an afterthought when I was participating in a sport. However, because I didn't feel INCLUDED in day-to-day (academic) activities, my confidence suffered.

That all changed when I began attending the Eagle Hill School, a school for kids just like me. A school that specialized in helping kids with learning disabilities attain their maximum potential. I participated in academic and sports programs that emphasized play, inclusiveness, and a level playing field. This was the first time in my life that I felt like I belonged somewhere. I felt INCLUDED!

I’ve taken the concept of inclusion and have injected its core principles into my everyday life, especially with the kids and families I work with. Sports and fitness can be intimidating to many children depending on their ability; I believe they should be used to promote inclusion. In fact, sports and fitness are a gateway to building self-esteem and confidence. I adjust my coaching style to that of the child/adolescent in order to maximize the needs of that individual. My definition of inclusion is being a part of what everyone else is, and what they can be. It’s about embracing diversity and looking beyond “typical” ways of becoming a valued member of society. It’s ultimately about providing children/adolescents with an authentic sense that they belong.

Here is how I work:

1) Redefining Play: Instead of expecting my athletes to adhere to traditional sports rules and regulations, I create new ways of playing that allow them to shine. I make sure that the games and exercises they participate in are filled with creativity and conform to individual differences.

2) Knowing The Athlete’s Interests: I’m not referring to their sports interests. I’m referring to the smorgasbord of interests that entertain them. Incorporating personal interests (TV shows, movies, superheroes, video games, etc.) outside of traditional sports themes is the key ingredient to success with my student athletes. Once I understand what motivates them, it’s simply a matter of embedding that into the creation of the games/exercises.

3) Becoming a Mad Scientist: One example of how I became a mad scientist is by combining one child’s love of baseball and some characters from the Avengers. Instead of using traditional baseball equipment, I incorporated elements of superhero powers. For example, the Hulk doesn’t use a baseball bat to hit a ball, he uses his Hulk fists to smash the ball. In addition, his teammates, Captain America and Iron Man, use their super powers as well when we play "Avengers Baseball." The entire theme of the game (outs, innings, etc.) can all be customized to the student athlete’s interests and passions. Which brings me to the next concept.....

4) Forget The Rules: In order to embrace the concept of inclusion and tap into an athlete’s interests, I focus on the creativity and strengths of the individual. So Avengers Baseball is one game my athlete loves to play. Does this mean we use a regular sized baseball, traditional baseball bats, and bases? NO! We utilize multiple balls (different sizes and colors), each with a specific purpose. For example, the red ball is the fireball and the blue ball is the ice ball. Also, I’ve included a 9 foot long crawl-through tunnel to the field so that he can "warp" through a worm hole like Thor and get from first base to third base in the blink of an eye. As time goes on, and with maturation, the creativity can be scaled back to resemble more of a traditional baseball game, but the goal is to keep them focused and entertained, and, most importantly, have fun!!!

In summary, my methods may seem crazy, unorganized, and chaotic, but if you had your choice of learning anything, anything at all, would you like it to be via an assembly line method or the "mad scientist" method? Therefore, I utilize sports and fitness as the vehicle to connect with my athletes. Rather than focusing on their differences, I'm interested in what they’re passionate about; by focusing on their unique interests, I give them a sense of  "community" and of belonging.

Posted on March 7, 2016 .