How to support young footballers with hidden challenges and disabilities

posted in: Coaching News, News

Many children are missing out on team sport opportunities because they have hidden disabilities or are misunderstood by coaches and the sporting community.

But how can clubs, schools and other organisations help these young people get the same health and social benefits from sport?

This is the first part of a special feature aimed at improving understanding about the many children who are missing out on team opportunities.

PART TWO; Tips and suggestions for coaches working with autistic kids >>>> 

The parent of an autistic football player, who has chosen to remain anonymous as their child has not publicly shared their diagnosis, has shared their knowledge and experience in this two-part feature to help shine a light on the subject.

This feature deals mainly with autism, and the story has been reviewed by Autism NZ.

The challenges faced

Coaching children requires patience, flexibility, and commitment.

Coaching children with differing abilities requires dedication to creating an inclusive environment.

This can be a difficult thing to do, especially for volunteer coaches who are time-poor, and even more challenging when the differences are the result of hidden disabilities.

Here we are taking a look at autism, and offer some suggestions on how football coaches can support autistic players.

Most of the examples and suggestions are aimed at younger, junior footballers (5-12 years old).

Neurodivergent is a nonmedical term that describes people whose brains develop or work differently for some reason.

This means the person has different strengths and struggles than people whose brains develop and work more typically.

Some examples of conditions that are under the umbrella term Neurodivergent are Autism (ASD), Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Social Anxiety and Tourette Syndrome. Conversely, those whose brains work more typically are described as neurotypical (NT).

The medical system that provides these diagnoses labels them as disabilities.

Some neurodivergent people prefer to think about them more as natural variations in brain styles. The word disability is used by autistics to describe a disadvantage in a society that is structured for people who think differently.

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is referred to as a spectrum because it encompasses a wide range of traits and support needs, and each autistic person is unique.

It is generally characterised by challenges in social interaction and communication, and/or sensory challenges. It can sometimes be helpful to view these as differences in the ways we interact with the world and those around us.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

Differences in social interaction can include things like difficulty in understanding and responding to common social cues, and struggles with nonverbal communication (eg reading body language, or verbal language that doesn’t match body language).

Autistic people may not make eye contact as it can be too intense or physically uncomfortable for them. They may also communicate very literally and not understand metaphors or sarcasm.

Some autistic people may need more time to process instructions or may only be able to remember one instruction at a time.

Autistic people can also have sensory challenges, being uncomfortable with what the average person might consider a reasonable amount of background noise, light, smell and taste.

Autistic people may engage in repetitive behaviours, such as stimming (e.g. hand flapping). This can be a way to block out a sensory overload and to self-regulate.

They can have specific interests that they dedicate an intense amount of time to. Some can have difficulty forming and maintaining friendships.

Many autistic kids love routine and structure, and having a plan. Understanding what is coming can help reduce anxiety. (e.g. they are NOT go-with-the-flow, or able to deal with changes quickly and easily)

Note: autism is not directly related to any physical disabilities, but many autistic children can have co-morbidities (additional diagnosis) that can affect things like fine motor control and coordination.

Many autistics will have challenges with proprioception (the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body) and their vestibular systems (a sensory system that creates the sense of balance and spatial orientation).

These are part of their sensory systems and can cause physical challenges, such as poor coordination or balance.

It’s important to note that autism in girls can look different to autism in boys. Girls can be better at masking (hiding traits while in public, trying to present like their peers). Masking is more than ‘pretending’ for an autistic person. It is a constant mental battle, and it is extremely exhausting.

For example, while some autistic boys may not make eye contact when you are talking to them, autistic girls can look outwardly more social, make eye contact and have typical friendships — but can be struggling a lot on the inside.

What does autism look like in football?

Autism can provide an advantage in sports: people with autism can be extremely passionate about a single subject and be willing to pursue it with an incredible intensity and dedication. They can also enjoy and thrive on rigid routines. These traits are perfect if you want to become a professional athlete

If you have an autistic child who has a hyper fixation on football, then football can be used to teach how to relate to the world around them through the lens of football.

If football is their special interest, they may spend more time studying football and practising. They might be good at understanding tactics (some autistic people are especially good at recognising patterns). However, they may also have fatigue from working harder to fit into social situations.

They might be amazing with the ball and find space on the pitch, or make runs splitting the defence and waiting for a pass with ease identifying a tactical edge.

But they might also find it harder to get along with teammates, or be on the same page and understand what those players are thinking.

They might find playing at a consistent level hard due to constantly changing circumstances. They might struggle with last-minute changes or after-match interactions with the other team.

It can be helpful if teammates and the coach are open-minded and willing to interact and communicate in ways that are perhaps a little different to what they’re used to. Relationships go both ways.

You may not know that a player is autistic. They or their parents may or may not share it with you (and given a diagnosis can take up to two years, they may not have a diagnosis to share).

There can be a lot of stigma around a diagnosis, and some families choose not to even seek a diagnosis, as they do not want a “label” for their child.

Some parents may not want you to treat their child differently to others.

Autism may look like BEHAVIOR challenges or a ‘bad attitude’:

  • It might look like the kid who stands apart from others in the group talk (the noise is too loud).
  • It might look like the kid who won’t look at you when she is talking (eye contact is intense and they feel physical pain).
  • It might look like the kid who refuses to shake hands with the other team at the end of the game or come into the team huddle (he can’t do the physical contact).
  • It might look like a kid walking off the pitch in frustration at the end of the game and having a meltdown (overwhelmed by the different directions and needs to regulate).
  • It might look like the kid who is overly emotional, and cries at training often.
  • It might look like a kid who needs more frequent breaks, or to sub off the field more often to regulate.
  • It might look like the kid who takes everything seriously (“can’t take a joke”. Autistic people are often literal thinkers and have a hard time telling when something is a joke and when it isn’t).

These things may happen to any kid. Sometimes a bad attitude is just a bad attitude.

Sometimes, it’s something else.

In the words of Ted Lasso: “Be curious”.

Making accommodations — how you can help

For someone with a disability, an accommodation is a way to accept that they’re different or have challenges, and then give them a tool or a way to succeed.

Examples for physical disabilities might be having ramp access in a building for those in wheelchairs, or allowing a diabetic who needs to regulate blood sugar to bring food into a no food area.

While every autistic child may have unique challenges, there are things you can do to help create an inclusive and supportive environment that can help them thrive in a team setting.

Sometimes, these accommodations might be valuable for the whole team, not just for the autistic kids. They can help all kids feel included and valued, and contribute to the positive development and enjoyment of football for every child.

Other times, the accommodations might look like “special treatment”. It’s important to recognise that each child is unique and may require different approaches.

Some coaches struggle with this idea, and think they “need to treat everyone the same”.

You don’t. Not everyone needs the same thing or the same approach.

Please don’t be afraid to treat children differently based on their needs. Aim for equity, not equality.

Photo credit: Elyssa Fahndrich / unsplash.

Equality ensures that everyone is given the same opportunities. It is the assumption that everyone starts at the same place and therefore benefits from the same resources, supports and opportunities. In an equality model, a coach gives all of their players the exact same shoes.

Equity means catering to individual need. It recognises that everyone doesn’t begin in the same place in society and strives to give everyone what they need in order to have equal access and to enjoy those opportunities. In an equity model, the coach gives all of their players shoes that are their size.

Some children may benefit from one-on-one instruction or simplified explanations of drills and strategies.

Some may benefit from being subbed off more often, to have time to regulate on the sideline.

One mother said that two things made a huge difference to her autistic daughter having a positive experience and wanting to continue playing

1. Forming and playing all-girl teams.
2. Having a coach who was open to making accommodations.

She shared that the girls-only teams were a more inclusive environment. Previously, on mixed teams she had found an overly competitive environment where other kids would not pass to her because they knew she wouldn’t be able to control the ball as well and would likely lose it.

She described the positive effect of working with the coach to create situations where her daughter was set up to succeed, as well as minimising possible triggers to an emotional meltdown.

For example, being in goal and letting six shots past might affect an autistic child much more than you might expect a NT child. It can affect the whole day or weekend, or longer, and affect the entire household.

A coach who understood these challenges would only play her in goal against a team where that was less likely to happen.

Next: How to coach autistic children

The second article in this series will look at specific suggestions to help coaches to successfully work with autistic children.

PART TWO; Tips and suggestions for coaches working with autistic kids >>>> 

Recommended reading

Former English Premier League defender John O’Kane retired from football at 29 due to his mental health and diminished appetite for the game.

In truth, he had never been truly satisfied with his career because his autism and naturally questioning nature led to clashes with authority, a cardinal sin in the world of football then.

He’s shared his story in his book Bursting the Bubble: Football, Autism and Me: Football, Autism & Me, in which he tells of his days with Manchester United, where he shared a pitch with legends like Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona.

“I’ve received the hairdryer treatment from Fergie and partied with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe. I’ve roomed with David Beckham and knew him inside out.”

Click on the book cover to learn more, and to order a copy (Kindle or paperback) from Amazon.



Learn more about autism

April is Autism Acceptance Month.

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