Episode 1:

Real Lives (part 1)

Date released: June 2013. Updated: January 2015; July 2015; September 2017

In this episode we look at (1) systematic approaches and models of inclusion used to support coach and teacher education, (2) sporting pathways for children with disability, and (3) real lives – some guidelines based on coach and participant experiences.

It’s my very great pleasure to bring you this first episode for The Inclusion Club. Let’s get into it. In 2009-10 I was researching for a book chapter called ‘Coaching Children in Sport’. My chapter was entitled ‘Coaching Disabled Children’ and I looked at three specific areas:

  • systemic approaches and models of inclusion used to support coach and teacher education;
  • sporting pathways for disabled children – physical education to community to performance, and
  • real lives – some guidelines based on coach and participant experiences.

This latter section was based on a series of interviews and questionnaire responses from athletes, coaches and specialists in adapted physical activity and disability sport. Some of these comments were incorporated into the chapter; however, space restrictions meant that lots of other material was not used. Until now! These comments, based on perspectives on coaching disabled children and adults, are grouped together in three parts; the experiences of disabled athletes, those of coaches, and those of others involved in a variety of roles in inclusive physical activity and sport.

The athletes

Those consulted ranged from former athletes, some of whom who had achieved at the highest level in their sports, to younger athletes near the start of their careers. They covered a wide range of physical impairments. When asked what they needed, and expected, from a good coach, common responses included:

  • technical knowledge;
  • analysis;
  • motivation, and
  • training programs and schedules.

However, they also felt that coaches needed to possess the ‘soft skills’ needed to help them to maximise their ability and empathise when issues and obstacles got in the way of this basic goal.

In this respect, a good coach had to be:

  • Flexible
  • A good communicator and listener
  • Knowledgeable
  • Patient
  • Prepared to share ideas
  • Trustworthy

Another athlete commented that the coach had to be ‘someone you could get along with’ or in the long run it ‘wouldn’t work out’.

Someone who doesn’t think that they know everything; someone who wants to learn; someone who talks to athletes about their goals. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE, five-time Great Britain Paralympic athlete, winner of 11 gold medals, now retired.

Tania Grey-Thompson

Tania Grey-Thompson

I was interested to discover how athletes had got started in sport. What difficulties had they faced and who had encouraged them to first become active, and then embark on a sporting career?

Experiences in school varied, and this sometimes depended on whether they were educated in a mainstream environment or in special provision. Compare the experience of Jayant Mistry, former Great Britain wheelchair tennis player, holder of 68 titles, including wheelchair doubles at Wimbledon, and Amy Winters, Australian Class 46 track athlete, winner of 5 Paralympic gold and 3 bronze medals.

Both felt that their school physical education programmes had introduced them to competitive sport, but their wider education experience differed.

Jayant commented that:

Jayant Mistri

Jayant Mistri

Sport was great as I had many other similar disabled pupils to compete with but I feel my education suffered as the curriculum wasn’t diverse or challenging enough. The emphasis was on rehabilitation rather than education and I never mixed with able bodied people until I went to college.

Amy seemed to have a much more rounded experience, saying:

Jayant Mistri

Amy Winters

Being a naturally sporty kid, involvement in PE & school sport was second nature to me. I was heavily involved in organised athletics and netball throughout school while also participating in various other school sport activities.” She added: “PE helped me to identify activities that I enjoy and wanted to continue pursuing. It also developed my competitiveness from an early age!

The important social aspect of educational integration can have a positive effect on the attitudes of disabled individuals and those of the peers with whom they interact. However, many young disabled people do not share this experience and may be de-motivated to play sports by being left out of physical education and school sport or through feelings of inadequacy induced by lack of empathy on the part of teaching staff or fellow-students.

Jayant’s first experience of competitive sport was as an 11-year old at the Stoke Mandeville national junior wheelchair sports where it ‘was a real eye-opener’ to see so many other disabled children.

Amy, in contrast, took part in a school carnival at the age of 6, and was representing her school in athletics from the age of 9, and mainstream Little Athletics from 12 to 15 years of age. Segregated sport came later. As she recalls:

My first ‘disability sport’ event was the NSW Sports Council for the Disabled State Championships in 1992 when I was 14.

The role of physical education varies according to individual experiences. Some athletes questioned did not feel that physical education had impacted on their later sports careers. Others felt that they had been included at primary level, but in the more competitive sport-specific environment of secondary school they spent more time on the sidelines.

On this issue, Wade McMahon, a current Australian Paralympic javelin athlete said:

I had to fight to be included in the Talented Sports Program at high school.

The attitudes of physical education and other education staff could make a huge difference to a disabled person’s later involvement in sport. Hamish MacDonald, specialist in the shot and currently in training for his 6th Paralympic Games in London, emphasised the importance of positive attitudes.

Hamish Macdonald

Hamish Macdonald

I always had a positive experience in PE due to individual teachers who were willing to engage me and could see that I wanted to be involved – my primary school years were at a time when there was compulsory PE delivered – this is no longer the case in Australian Primary schools.

Richard Nicholson, former Paralympic and Commonwealth Games powerlifter, more recently road and track wheelchair racer, wasn’t so lucky.

Richard Nicholson

Richard Nicholson

In primary school my PE experiences were often dependant on the teacher I had for that year, some were more inclusive than others. We did (back in those days) have a specialist PE teacher who would take each class for PE separate from the regular class teacher. Although he tried to include me (I feel his heart was in the right place) he seemed to be lacking in strategies to include me. Thus I was often ended up being scorer or the ‘tally-boy’.

However, things changed when Richard moved into secondary education.

My secondary experience was better as I know the PE teachers tried much harder to include me and were responsible for getting me into my first competitive sport, gymnastics. I still think they lacked some basic strategies for inclusion. I did not continue in PE past Year 8 once it was no longer compulsory study.

Lack of knowledge is often identified by teachers and coaches themselves as a reason for failing to include young disabled people in their programmes. Research carried out in 2006 in Leicestershire, UK, asked 230 young people who had special educational needs about their experiences in physical education in mainstream schools.

53% of the young disabled people who responded felt that if teachers had access to more information their PE opportunities could be improved. Some negative experiences highlighted by pupils stemmed from the lack of knowledge of some teachers in adapting activities.

A key consideration in responding to the needs of disabled athletes is to recognise that they will encounter and become involved in physical activity and sport in different ways. There are often no clearly defined pathways. Sports programmes should provide a flexible interaction with multiple entry points, enabling young disabled people to access sport and physical activity in various ways and appropriate levels.

This can be due to personal, socio-economic or geographical reasons. The International Classification of Functioning and Health (ICF), launched by the World Health Organisation in 2000, emphasises this holistic approach towards service provision.

The ICF takes into account the social aspects of disability and does not see disability only as a ‘medical’ or ‘biological’ dysfunction. By including Contextual Factors, in which environmental factors are listed, ICF allows providers to record the impact of the environment on the person’s functioning – 

As an example, consider the situation of Don Elgin, a former Australian amputee pentathlete from country Victoria. Don participated with non-disabled peers as a result of his rural upbringing. Don sums it up this way:

Don Elgin

Don Elgin

I was from a small country town and missing half my leg was not always a big deal; I played many sports and was in the local footy and swimming clubs.

This notion of being included by ‘default’ was also supported by another Australian athlete, former thrower Damian Burroughs. He said:

I was the only ‘disabled’ kid in my year at school so I had no choice on who I want to do PE with. I did everything in PE or had a go at it. Something I was very bad at but not the worst.” This was not necessarily negative. He goes on: “It made me feel better about myself. I’m sure it would make any teen feel good about themself not coming last all the time.

I was the only ‘disabled’ kid in my year at school so I had no choice on who I want to do PE with. I did everything in PE or had a go at it. Something I was very bad at but not the worst.” This was not necessarily negative. He goes on: “It made me feel better about myself. I’m sure it would make any teen feel good about themself not coming last all the time.

The importance of being treated the same as any other person is frequently mentioned by disabled athletes. Don explains:

I was coached by a lady that was a known swimming coach and was treated no differently. This was similar when it came to footy. The coaches both pushed me and as a result I was able to improve and understand the sport. I was not patronised by these coaches at all.


The ideal coach is someone that knows what they are talking about and knows the best way to deal with the athletes they are coaching; they are flexible in their approach if they need to be. Someone that you can trust.

Most athletes mentioned the ability to motivate as being a key skill component in any successful coach. However, is it a one-way process?

Fred Periac, a former French/Australian Paralympic track and road athlete commented:

Motivation should come from within; if it’s not there in the first place, the coach cannot provide it.

Another athlete, Wade McMahon, supported the importance of self-motivation:

Sometimes when the coach is away for long periods, it can be hard to stay motivated and finish sessions. But training on your own does show how dedicated you are if you finish every session without taking short cuts.

The athletes were asked to share the best piece of advice they had received from a coach. Their answers included the following:

You only get out what you put in – it’s up to YOU!

Richard Nicholson

Control the controllables

Amy Winters

Don’t over analyse – and have fun!

Damian Burroughs

That’s it for this episode.

In Part 2 hear the comments of coaches and specialist practitioners.


About the author: Ken Black

About the author: Ken Black

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

I have worked as a practitioner in the area of inclusive physical activity and disability sport for over 35 years. This has included 10 years working in special education, 2 years for a disability sport organisation (UK Sports Association for People with Learning Disability), 6 years as a disability sports development officer for Leeds City Council sports development team, 6 years as the Inclusive Sport Officer with the Youth Sport Trust, 3 years as Sports Consultant with the Australian Sports Commission, (working in the Disability Sport Unit), and 2 years running a research and development centre on disability sport at Loughborough University.