Monday, April 15, 2013

Special Needs Kids And Youth Sports: A Public Service Announcement

Not sure where this thought came from today, but it's important.  I'm a parent of a special needs kid who plays four sports.  I am also a volunteer coach for one of these sports, and my husband for another, so we have personal experience with both sides of this coin.  In the interests of having the youth sports experience be as good as it can be for everyone involved, and as all-inclusive as it can be, I'd like to offer the following suggestions.

For parents of a special needs child:

1) Don't assume that your child can't participate.  Set up a time to talk to the program director in advance, so they can plan to give the conversation the attention that it deserves.  Explain the situation, and ask if it's possible for the child to try a class or practice session upfront to see if it is something that they can do safely and enjoy participating in.

2) After you've spoken with the director, it's also really important to tell the coach/instructor/teacher directly (if this is a different person) about any issues that your child has and how best to work with them.  They can usually make accommodations if they understand the situation.  That kid who the coach thinks is just ignoring all the directions?  Maybe she has a language processing problem, and would be doing a lot better if her parents had told the coach ahead of time to make eye contact and keep directions simple.  Maybe she has a hearing problem.  Maybe he has ADHD and comes off his meds on the weekends, making it harder for him to focus and listen at that Sunday afternoon soccer game.  Maybe he's autistic, and that routine the coach finds odd when he's coming up to bat is necessary for his peace of mind.  Whatever it might be.  Explanations go a long way in furthering patience and understanding, which in turn will improve your child's experience.  

3) Ask if you can participate as well.  It's very common for parent helpers to sign up because they want to keep an eye on their child and step in to help where needed.  For very young kids, sometimes it helps to have their parents right next to them on the field or court at practices, for redirection, explanations and demonstrations.  I've seen it happen in soccer, baseball and basketball.  Parents of older special-needs children often serve as assistant coaches, so that they can provide on-the-spot guidance.  The taekwondo program my kids attend allows the parents of special-needs children to take the classes right alongside them; they move through the belt ranks together.  Often there's only one adult in a whole class of kids, and that's okay, because the presence of that parent is what makes his or her child able to participate.

4) If the coach, teacher or director has reservations about your child's participation, please do consider what they are saying, as hard as it can be to be objective in that situation.  If they are *legitimately* concerned about your child's safety or the safety of the other children, it may be that another sport would be better for your child.  

And to balance it out, suggestions for coaches of special-needs children:

1) Ask for help.  Start with the parents: ask them what works and doesn't work with their child and then listen to what they say.  Why reinvent the wheel?

2) Be patient.  (This goes for all kids!)

3) Get the child as involved as they can be.  To the extent that you safely can, play them like you would play any other team member.  And remember that progress for all kids is the difference between where they start the season and where they finish the season, wherever those two endpoints may be!

4) Let their parents be involved, to the extent that you can without it being too disruptive.  If they want to help with practice or serve as an assistant coach, try to be accommodating.  Often parental involvement will be less necessary after an initial transition period, also.

Youth sports should be fun for everyone, and a little understanding and cooperation between coaches and parents goes a long way!

Readers: Any other thoughts or suggestions??


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I stumbled upon it while Googling this very topic.

    As a youth coach, I've had two different players with developmental issues where the parents didn't tell me upfront and I had to figure it out myself. I spent the first half of the season pulling my hair out because "Sally" wasn't listening to me. I now know her strengths and limitations, but the parents could have made all of our lives much easier with a little communication.

  2. Communication in both directions is so, so critical. As you can probably tell, this is a subject very close to my heart. I'm glad you liked my post!


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