Friday, July 19, 2013

Special Education, grassroots coaching and the youth soccer player.

special education
Soccer is for everybody.

This post was inspired by my conversation with Joe Talarico before we both officiated the same game.  Joe works in the "Brain Injury" business and we got to talking about how people discover, much later in life, that they had treatable and addressable issues in their learning and living, with respect to what happens between your ears.

Before I start, please know this is not a lecture or preaching.  This is me sharing with you what I learned
WAY TOO LATE in my coaching career.

For most of my coaching days I've been fortunate enough to have worked with Coach Rino Berardi .  Rino is an elementary school teacher and I was always impressed with how he handled players, and he is also a very good technical coach.  But he knew something that I learned very late in life... that each player's mind lock had a different combination.  Well, I know that everybody is different and I tried to address that, but he knew MORE.
"Being close minded might result in a great athlete slipping through your fingers."
Since 1988 I've been running tryouts in one form or another.  I had players who were hyper, shy, inattentive, talkative, not very coordinated, chronically late, confused, needed more water breaks, etc.  To be honest, most of these players did not stick.

But this is not only about tryouts. It also pertains to house league, camps, training, etc.
Added July 24, 2013 after a conversation with Coach Andrea Keus from Pelham SC.  I completely forgot to add that players who might fall under the Special Education also include those identified as "Gifted".  These players require just as much attention as you have a whole set of characteristics unique to them.  It's not the same as "genius".  Some gifted children have the similar social and interpersonal issues as other who fall under special education.  It may surprise you that it is possible to be gifted and have a learning disability.  We were always reminded that one might hide the other.  I found this excellent resource that addresses that very subject. Parents might be hesitant to run up to you and say "hey, my child is gifted" so it will take some intuition on your part and hopefully a conversation or two might bring that out.  Some people fear gifted students more than others who are unique.    
Soccer is about inclusion, especially at the grassroots level.  EVERYBODY understood, accepted and allowed to play.  Being close minded might result in a great athlete slipping through your fingers, or denying a young person a chance to build some confidence to carry with them into another facet of life (school, social, etc) .  Let me step back a second.  ALL SPORTS are about inclusion.

There are two people to blame here.  I, Frank DeChellis, am "person to blame" #1.  Many coaches are.  I will tell you who #2 is later.

In 2010, I decided to go to Technical Teachers College at Brock University, Hamilton Campus.  This was to certify me to teach technical subjects in High Schools in Ontario.  During my journey towards certification I took two Special Education courses.  This involved learning about different obstructions to learning and how to work around them.

Everybody in Technical Teachers College is older.  You can't get in without significant work experience and most people were in their late 30s and early 40s.

With each passing week, as we learned more, there was always talk during lunch about kids that we went to school with and coached who may have had our "learning disability of the week".  There was a LOT of guilt in that room.  When I was in school they were just called knuckleheads, day dreamers, "stupid", troublemakers, dopes, etc.

During tryouts I just considered them too much work, disruptive, "not soccer players", didn't want to be there, etc.
"The only thing equal about all of your players is that they all deserve 100% of your program."
So, one half of the blame game is the coach who thinks every kid is the same and should be treated as such.  The other half of the blame is placed squarely on the parents.  Many parents know their child is identified and on an IEP (Individual Education Plan) at school, meet with school officials semi-annually, yet fail to inform their coaches, the person their child spends 3-4 nights/week with.

In hindsight, I've watched parents of kids with IEPs watch their child get blasted by coaches for
special education
issues directly related to their situation.

My new thing, since Teachers College, is probably the biggest non-technical advancement I made as a coach.  Every program I run I ask, in writing, for parents to let me know if there is anything being done for the child at school that would help me be a better coach to their child at soccer.

  • "Please tell us if there is anything we should know about your child that will help us understand how they learn best. "
  • "If your child has a special learning situation at school, please share it with us so we can make their experience better"
  • or, more directly, "If your child is on an IEP at school that would positively affect the coach-player relationship, please let us know"
It is super-important to exercise extreme discretion and maintain privacy at all times.

Now that I know more, it's no longer acceptable for a parent to not tell me.  Some people tell me that they don't want their child to be judged.  Well, if you don't tell the coach, your child may have a terrible experience because the coach may demonstrate a lack of patience or deliver a completely decipherable message.  Is that better?

Frustration, Anxiety and Tension are major obstacles to learning.  Learning more about your players may help alleviate those and make your time together more productive.  Isn't that what we want?  Consider this; if you run a program that is less tense, frustrating and anxious, would you not be setting the stage for every athlete to blossom?

The child with a special need may or may not make your team during tryouts, but you can certainly enhance their experience and that may encourage them to continue and return.

  • Ask parents for information, directly.
  • Don't just ask for the diagnosis, ask what teachers do to work around it, what has worked, what hasn't, etc.
  • Do not diagnose or assume a learning disability, especially if you are not qualified.  If you suspect, you better craft your question to the parent very carefully.
  • Ensure you vary your teaching methods during training between "command", "Question and answer" and "guided discovery"
  • Take some time to familiarize yourself with the term "differentiated instruction".  Every child doesn't learn the same way so you have to mix up your message
It may be as simple as the child has poor hearing, colour blindness or needs you to look make eye contact when speaking, or walking up to them when they arrive and welcoming them personally. 

When you know a player has a uniqueness about them, watch how you let the group develop.  A boy who is not listening will quickly draw the ire of teammates.  If you let it spread then the boy will display the usual side effects of unique individuals.  Do not pick on them as a coach and ensure they are an equal part of the group.  You know what I'm talking about, right?  "OK boys, because XXX is not listening we're all running a lap".

LTPD says to know who you're coaching.  Knowing of and working with possible learning disabilities and special needs just might unlock a kid who might be the next D-Ro .  This video says it all.

Before we wrap up, some tips:
  • Present a safe and inclusive atmosphere so parents know they can confidently share information with you.
  • If you are informed of a uniqueness about a player, ask for or seek more information.
  • Do not fear the uniqueness.  Terms like ADD, ADHD, Autism, Learning disability, Asperger, etc become less intimidating when you have more information.
  • Absolutely, positively DO NOT share the information with anybody.  Tell the parent you will share with your assistant and that's it.  A leak will only drive that parent to keep it a secret from the next coach and hurt your credibility.
  • If you're "competitive" in nature, you might find that those children can actually excel in some areas, to a point where you can't get other kids to.
The only thing equal about all of your players is that they all deserve 100% of your program.  Before you decide that a player just "ain't gettin' it" you make sure you've exhausted all coaching/teaching methods and know everything about that child.

Looking back, a lot of players passed through my sessions since 1988 who would have appreciated a different, more informed approach.  A lot of friends who struggled in school would have appreciated a different, more individualized approach to their classroom experience.  People tell me we were working with the information we had.  It's a poor excuse that is not good enough anymore.

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