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Participation in organized sport activities has been shown to increase self-confidence, social skills and peer acceptance. Young people with “invisible” disabilities (e.g. learning, emotional/behavioural, and speech/language) can often be overlooked because they have no outward physical characteristics that suggest they have diverse learning needs. As a coach, there are many ways to foster an effective and inclusive sport environment so that everyone can have a great team sport experience.

Focus on a player’s ability – Discover what your player can do rather than focusing on what he/she can’t do. If you are unsure, ask them to tell you their capabilities, skills, interests and goals and then work together to plan challenging and engaging sessions that are geared to the person’s needs.

Be ready to adapt – Possible adaptations include changing up your teaching style (more demonstrations, less verbal instruction), rules, equipment and environment (quieter may mean less distractions).

Communicate effectively – When providing directions, gain eye contact with your player(s), keep explanations concise and re-state if necessary. When providing demonstrations, break down specific drills one step at a time and build up slowly.

Set the stage for success – Some athletes with “invisible” disabilities may be aware of their difficulties and be anxious about situations that are unfamiliar, unknown, or perceived as difficult. To lessen anxiety, try providing an overview of the practice activities and the order in which they will occur. Routines also provide structure and predictability which can allow a stressed player to relax and become more engaged.

Promote social acceptance – Sometimes it can be challenging for players with “invisible” disabilities to have positive social interactions with others. A coach can address this by calming insisting that everyone follows the rules, takes turns and in general have players be aware of others. Organized sport can be a great platform for youth to develop social skills without negative consequences like teasing or ridicule; therefore, it’s important to be sure to provide positive feedback and lots of support.

Coaches can encourage participation in sport for a person with a hidden disability by taking a pro-active approach, not worrying about making the occasional mistake and reminding themselves that every player just wants to be respected and valued.

References from the SIRC Collection:

1. Abraham A, Collins D. Taking the Next Step: Ways Forward for Coaching Science. Quest. November 2011;63(4):366-384.
2. Beyer R, Flores M, Vargas-Tonsing T. Strategies and Methods for Coaching Athletes with Invisible Disabilities in Youth Sport Activities. Journal Of Youth Sports. June 2009;4(2):10-15.
3. Hassan D, Dowling S, McConkey R, Menke S. The inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in team sports: lessons from the Youth Unified Sports programme of Special Olympics. Sport In Society. November 2012;15(9):1275-1290.
4. McMaster S, Culver D, Werthner P. Coaches of athletes with a physical disability: a look at their learning experiences. Qualitative Research In Sport, Exercise & Health. July 2012;4(2):226-243.
5. Pine S. Inclusive coaching course opens minds and doors. Sports Coach. 2005;28(2):18-19.
6. Young J. The State of Play: Coaching Persons with Disabilities. Coaching & Sport Science Review. April 2010;50:9-10.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.