COACHING TIPS: Thinking Ahead When One of Your Players Has a Disability
Alerting Officials When One of Your Youth Leaguers Has a Disability:
Game-Time Advice for Parents and Coaches
By Doug Abrams
On October 7, the Ware Youth U-15 soccer team was locked in a 1-1 tie against the Bengeo Tigers in Hertfordshire, north of London. When the Tigers scored to take the lead late in the game, Ware’s 14-year-old goalkeeper, Owen Thompson, disputed the call, told the referee to “f— off,” and refused to shake the official’s hand after his team lost, 2-1. The league suspended Owen for two games and fined him 25 pounds (about $40) for his abusive language.
The story, however, does not end there.
Owen was diagnosed last year with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations (“tics”). According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), “[p]erhaps the most dramatic and disabling tics include . . . uttering socially inappropriate words such as swearing.” The Mayo Clinic calls these tics “unwanted sounds that can’t be controlled.”
The NIH explains that Tourette “[t]ics are often worse with excitement or anxiety and better during calm, focused activities.” Indeed, Owen told the Daily Mirror that soccer “suppresses my tics, but I cannot control them when I get upset or stressed.
After the swearing incident, Owen’s mother and manager showed the referee a medical card attesting to her son’s condition, but the referee reported the incident to the league anyway. When Owen appealed the initial sanctions, the league declined to reverse itself completely but reduced his suspension from two games to one, and reduced the fine from 25 pounds to 15 pounds (about $ 24).
The Value of Inclusion
To the maximum extent possible, leagues and teams should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise other players’ safety. Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.
When a player with disabilities joins a youth league team with non-disabled youngsters, the player’s parents and coaches need to consider being proactive rather than merely reactive. Owen Thompson’s mother and coach reportedly advised the league and the referees of his newly diagnosed condition, but they evidently waited until after the game, once the swearing incident had already occurred. By then it was too late.
Some disabilities are readily apparent and others are not. Reading about Owen’s case led me to recall a midget youth hockey game I coached on Long Island in the mid-1980s. Our NassauCounty team faced off against a Pennsylvania team that we had not seen before. A few minutes before the game, the opposing coach approached the Nassau coaches and the referees to say that one of his players was deaf. He told us that the player might throw a late hit because he would not hear the whistle and he depended on his teammates to stop him.
The Nassau coaches returned to the locker room and told our players to be understanding. The Pennsylvania player did indeed throw a few late hits, but the game proceeded without incident because everyone understood the circumstances in advance.
A “Really Good Kid”
Children and adults alike often remain sensitive about their disabilities, which they may try to compensate for or hide. When a disability affects performance but does not exclude a player from participation, decisions about whether to disclose the player’s disability rest first with the player and parents. Provided that these decisionmakers inform the coach about the condition, the parents and coach must jointly determine whether make disclosure to the opposing coach and the referees if the disability might affect the way the game is played.
I have coached a few players with disabilities, who always received support from their teammates, the other parents, and opposing coaches. With the consent of the players’ parents, I would often share relevant information confidentially with the league before the season, or with referees before games. The league and referees remained cooperative, and none ever broke the confidence. Opposing coaches were also discreet. Shared information helped make the players’ participation possible and meaningful.
The alternative may be to wait until a predictable incident happens, and then face the much more difficult task of trying to “unring the bell.” According to his team’s manager, Ware goalkeeper Owen Thompson is a “really good kid” who has never been penalized or ejected from a game, and who maintains top grades in school. Owen might have been much better off if adults in charge of the game had informally shared information about his condition beforehand rather wait for attention in the national media.
[Sources: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Tourette Syndrome Fact Sheet; http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/tourette/detail_tourette.htm#220453231; Mayo Clinic, Tourette Syndrome, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tourette-syndrome/DS00541; For *@*!* Sake, Ref! Young Footballer With Tourette's is Banned for Swearing at Referee, London Daily Mirror, Nov. 16, 2012, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/owen-thompson-young-footballer-with-tourettes-1438528]