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Sports are a big part of many of our Lutheran schools. Often when we think of sports and kids with special needs, we think of wheelchair sports, the Paralympic Games, or Special Olympics. While these are all wonderful programs, they are more typically designed for athletes with physical or cognitive disabilities that prevent them from competing with their nondisabled peers. It’s rare to find these types of sports as part of a Lutheran school. Statistically speaking, about one in five children will have some kind of special learning issue; most often, it’s one that can’t be identified by looking at the child. I’m talking about the type of learning issues that we often refer to as “hidden disabilities,” such as learning disabilities, language disorders, autism spectrum disorders, or attention and behavioral disorders. This means that even in Lutheran schools with no special education programs, there will be students with special learning needs involved in the sports programs. The special needs of students, regardless whether in Lutheran schools or public schools, are not always obvious from outward appearances. But those special needs have a significant impact on how those students learn and respond both in the classroom and on the playing field.
Very often, coaches are volunteers who may or may not have information about the special needs of their student athletes. In some instances, it’s not necessary that coaches know all the details of such needs, but very often the information about how a student athlete learns and processes information or regulates behavior and emotions can be very useful to a coach. The more a coach knows about how a child learns, the more effective that coach can be in working with the child. Children with special needs are often active or hands-on learners, thus sports can be a great place for them to build confidence, build relationships, learn self-regulation skills, and create lifelong habits of healthy living.
A variety of learning disorders can affect how people process information. This component is seen in reading disabilities, language disorders, autism spectrum disorders, attention disorders, behavior disorders, and cognitive disabilities. Basically what this means is that children have trouble processing incoming language and information (receptive language) or they have trouble getting the information or language back out (expressive language)—or sometimes both.
Language processing affects much more than just reading and language arts. Imagine a child with receptive language deficits on the playing field or court where the coach is calling out plays or instructions (all language) from the sideline or in the huddle. Soon the child’s eyes glaze over and he or she begins to look like the proverbial deer in the headlights. This causes distress for both coach and player.
Children with special learning needs are sometimes strong kinesthetic learners, and thus the assumption is that they will be good in sports. Being successful in sports involves much more than just moving or mastering a specific skill, especially in team sports. Each sport has its own set of vocabulary and rules (all language based). Some make intuitive sense, some don’t. Next time you watch or participate in a sport, make a list of all the words that are specific to that sport or have a different meaning in that sport than in everyday life. (Example: the term “post up” in basketball has a completely different meaning than it does when referring to putting a poster on the wall.) Imagine the child who struggles with reading comprehension or sequencing.
Think about how many team sports require children to remember multi-step plays with specific vocabulary. None of this means that children with special needs cannot or will not excel at sports; it does mean, however, that coaches who are clued into the learning needs of their student athletes can adjust the way directions are given or plays are taught. Rattling off a list of instructions might make a coach feel better, but it may cause great stress for any athlete with a language processing deficit. Hopefully, prior to games the coach will come up with a system of visual cues or actions to help the child know which play to run or where to be located on the court or field. Or maybe the coach can have a visual aid, like a map of where to go on the playing field or symbols to correspond with specific skills. Children for whom competitive teams that involve complicated plays are too much pressure may wish to concentrate on individual sports like track, swimming, or karate.
We know that regular exercise is good for the brain. It helps with memory, concentration, and mood, among other things. Kids with special learning needs could benefit from a boost in all these areas. Frankly, we all could. It seems, however, that children with behavior or academic problems are often excluded from sports because of missing homework, poor grades, or behavior infractions. I contend that if we could figure out a way to keep those kids involved in sports and find other ways to deal with behavior and academic deficits, the negative issues would decrease and the positive side effects of exercise and being part of a team would increase.
We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. God made us so that our brain and our body would enhance each other. If you’re a volunteer coach or if you coach a team of kids who are not in your classroom, ask the kids’ teachers if any of these students have special learning or behavior needs. Find out how these students learn best in the classroom or if there are accommodations put in place to help the child be successful. Think about how that translates to athletics. Then when your athlete finds success on the field or court, make sure to share it with the classroom teacher. Help the classroom teacher know how to translate that success to the academic setting. My guess is that in the end, both academics and athletics will enrich each other.
Psalm 139:14 (ESV)
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well.
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