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Embracing a can-do attitude key to reversing mainstream malaise towards disability coaching | Inclusive Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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Embracing a can-do attitude key to reversing mainstream malaise towards disability coaching

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Some young children are given some tennis tips by visually impaired coach Rosie Pybus

  • Many coaches consider themselves unqualified to safely and effectively coach people with a physical impairment.
  • This mindset, borne out of fear and a lack of confidence, is endemic and needs to change if the coaching industry is to fully deliver on its commitment to embed a culture of accessibility and inclusion across the entire sector.
  • Tennis coach Rosine Pybus (pictured above) provides some tips on including people with a visual impairment (VI) in your sessions to emphasise that you do not need to possess specialist knowledge, simply a willingness to step into unfamiliar territory and challenge yourself.
  • ‘It is inside all coaches to be able to coach someone with a visual impairment,’ says Rosie, who is visually impaired herself.

It is one of the golden rules of performance development that all coaches wholeheartedly endorse. The need to step out of your comfort zone.

Athletes are advised to become familiar with this unpleasant psychological state, which is essential to the systematic process of improving strength, speed, endurance, mental toughness, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances… the list goes on.

How ironic then that a significant percentage of coaches do not follow this sage advice where their own coach development is concerned.

When it comes to coaching people with a physical impairment, too many refuse to take that all-important step outside of their comfort zone, preferring to stick to their cosy, regimented routine rather than face the fear of the unknown, take risks and open themselves up to new opportunities and challenges.

There are far reaching implications to this type of circumspect attitude, which is rooted in self-doubt.

If you feel you can’t do something, invariably you won’t. And this places a huge obstacle in front of disabled people looking to join a mainstream club.

Seven in 10 disabled people (who make up 20% of the population) want to be more active. This includes more than two million VI people in the UK (the umbrella term for blind and partially sighted).

Rosie says that if coaches can be made to realise they can coach VI and other disabled participants, thereby eradicating their self-limiting beliefs and apprehension, the outcome will be a sharp increase in the number of coaches who embrace a more inclusive approach to their work – transforming the ‘can’t do, won’t do’ vicious circle into a ‘can do, will do’ virtuous circle.

‘The main thing I want to get across to coaches (from one coach to another) is that the mechanics of coaching a person with a VI is no different. Every day a coach will adapt their style, manner, technique or lesson… from one adult to another, from a child to an adult, from an experienced participant to a less experienced participant, from ideal space to limited space. Adapting to coach somebody who is vision impaired, on a one-to-one basis or within a group, is fundamentally the same.’

Effective communication

Rosie has a number of visual impairments: A congenital condition characterised by  involuntary rapid eye movement, where her eyes flicker from side to side; a misalignment of the eyes (strabismus), which causes her to squint more than usual; and astigmatism, which is an imperfection in the shape of the eye that glasses cannot completely correct.

A self-employed coach, who works with both mainstream and VI participants, she understands precisely what adaptations are required to make sessions more inclusive.

Her first piece of advice: be descriptive with your communication.

‘I recognise the importance of clear and concise verbal communication,’ she says, ‘because I know the level of detail I myself have needed as a participant growing up. I have become proficient at putting my demonstrations into words.’

Talking – and being sure to listen – to participants before their first session will not only help you understand their needs (after all, they have the best knowledge of what their body can do), it will also give the participant a chance to express any concerns they may have – while helping you strike up a good rapport to boot.

You can never ask too many questions, but as a priority, ask your participant where they sit on the VI spectrum.

  • Are they severely or partially sighted?
  • Are they able to see you from a distance?
  • How does the percentage of sight loss, or their particular condition, impact on their participation?
  • How can they be supported to understand or take part in an activity?
  • Will it help to bring certain types of equipment with you to a session?
  • Is the venue’s lighting adequate?

Ideally, as different coaching methods may be needed for people with different levels of sight, a sensible first step would be to hold a one-to-one taster session for the new club member – a dummy run if you like to flag up any unforeseen issues.

Certainly, if it is your first experience of coaching a VI person, this planning and preparation strategy would relieve some of the pressure attached to integrating them into a group setting, and make the first session less daunting for coach and participant.

Rosie Pybus delivering a tennis session to some young players

As a rule, never assume

I ask Rosie if there are any false assumptions that mainstream coaches are prone to making in their training sessions.

‘I think we are all guilty of making assumptions,’ she says. ‘And this is another reason why a coach should speak to the person face to face to find out the level of support they need. For example, if a VI person joins your rowing club, ask them if they have rowed before or if they have grown up watching the sport. Don’t assume anything. If they have seen it on television they will be aware of the motion and have that visual memory to work from. Or they may have never seen the actions before. Their answer will affect how you coach them.’

Coaches may also assume that people with a VI cannot access a demonstration. Rosie says the starting premise should be to assume they can. Less than 3% of people with a VI have no vision at all, so more than likely they be able to benefit from a demonstration.

‘Spell it out to the players: “In the session I am going to demonstrate a tactical or a technical drill. By all means watch it and listen to the description but, if you need further guidance on it let me know and I can come over and help you”,’ says Rosie.

‘It’s about making yourself available to someone in the group, just as you would if it was someone of a different age, standard or level of experience. It might mean working one-to-one with the person for a couple of minutes to support them.’

Every problem has a solution

On the subject of one-to-one help, coaches may feel under pressure from parents or other participants over additional time spent supporting a colleague who has a VI.

Rosie says such problems can be averted by having realistic expectations.

‘If it is only a couple of minutes each session, is that really significantly impacting on the rest of the group? If it is, are there any other solutions you can put in place rather than tell the player you can’t come any more, or that the sessions aren’t for them? Like integrating a buddy system – almost like a mentoring programme – whereby each week one of the higher level skill players spends some time working with them.’

Or you might propose they invite a friend or family member along to the sessions free of charge to help put them at their ease.

Such simple time-saving techniques would free you up to concentrate your attention on the wider group.

‘Have realistic expectations of the player as well,’ adds Rosie. ‘If it turns out that you are repeating yourself over and over again in every single drill just to get this person up to speed with the rest of the group, then actually it may be best, depending on the sport, to suggest you do some individual sessions outside of the group “to build on the great work that you’ve done”. Then monitor their progress.’

Rosie is part of a coach mentoring programme and believes harnessing the power of a mentor is vital in supporting the ongoing development of coaches – which, of course, will have a positive knock-on effect for their participants.

‘It’s about sharing expertise and experiences because at the end of the day, the more people you can coach confidently, the better you are at coaching.

‘It doesn’t have to mean a mentor spending a whole day with a coach, it can be getting in contact once in a while or popping your head around the door to see if they have any questions.

‘I’d also suggest learning from other groups, other sports, asking questions on online forums from other coaches and joining online communities like ConnectedCoaches to build up that understanding.

‘So if you are coaching athletics, and a VI person comes and asks if they can join your sessions, you might find you learn a lot by talking to a judo coach about what challenges they faced and the solutions they found. It’s about tapping into the whole coaching community.’

Rosie Pybus delivering a tennis session to some young players

Accessible eLearning module

To give an example of the value of informal learning, you might read about a coach who found it hugely beneficial to wear a blindfold in training to simulate what a typical session, game or activity was like for their VI participant. The insight this provided may have prompted certain adaptations in their coaching. It may have brought home to them, for instance, the value of learning how to guide people with a sight problem.

Or you might read in a forum about a coach who had learnt an important lesson about the arrangement of equipment during sessions. How they had been in the habit of scattering balls and cones on or around the periphery of the playing field; and how they found that, while this did not divert the attention of the rest of the group, it proved an unwelcome distraction for the VI participant during practical sessions.

‘Whereas some coaches might have quite a cluttered practical space with equipment on the floor, I will tend to make sure the environment is clear of obstacles,’ says Rosie. ‘If I do need to put equipment courtside, I will make sure it is not in the sightline of anybody who might need to use their remaining vision to track any moving objects.’

Using bigger balls, sound balls, brighter colours, more distinctive activity lines on multi-use sports halls, fixing tactile markers to obstacles like nets or posts. These are all techniques to consider, and which UK Coaching’s online course, ‘Coaching People with a Visual Impairment’, produced in conjunction with British Blind Sport (BBS), does a fantastic job of describing in more detail.

Rosie was one of the first people to take the learn at home course, which is designed to upskill the coaching workforce and help coaches feel more confident including people with a VI in their sessions.

And she is full of praise for the inclusive experience each component delivers.

‘The neat thing about it is that it is modularised, so you can sit down and do it a bit at a time,’ she says. ‘It might be that you come back to it between coaching sessions, do some during your lunch break or sit down on a night for a quick refresher.

‘It’s a well-packaged learning platform with a mix of videos, reading, interactive sections, quizzes. And it really does underline what I truly believe, that it is inside all coaches to be able coach someone with a VI.’

Closing thoughts

The priority for the coaching industry is not to develop more specialist coaches, but to develop the excellent community sports coaches that are out there so they become more confident and open-minded to the idea of including VI people in their sessions.

We already have the coaches in place, it would be remiss not to use them.

‘There will be coaches who voluntarily track down the learning resources out there. Then there will be those who think it’s not their job, or is too much effort. It’s about capturing those coaches,’ says Rosie.

Hopefully this blog will activate coaches’ interest, to the extent they enrol on the UK Coaching course, which, in taking over the baton, will further cultivate a more positive mindset.

‘It’s about trying to inspire these mainstream coaches and hopefully that will start to slowly change people’s perceptions as they will in turn go on to influence their colleagues.’

So I guess all that’s left to say at this point is, are you ready to step out of your comfort zone?

Next Steps

Inspiring best practice in coaching, UK Coaching Learn at Home courses help you to get up to speed quickly – any time and anywhere.

Complete the ‘Coaching people with a visual impairment’ online course mentioned in this blog and you will feel more confident including people with a visual impairment in your sports and activity sessions.

Further reading

Read the Coachwise blog with British Blind Sport on the initiatives that are accelerating the drive to establish a more inclusive coaching system.

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