“Lenny Levine was a great kindergarten teacher. And he ran his class by this one rule. It means that if another kid comes along, you need to include them in your game. That’s it.”Seth Godin in his You Can’t Say You Can’t Play blog post
Recall that a key aspect of the Hustle and Attitude philosophy is that every kid plays. That means every kid. While many leagues have dedicated divisions/teams for children with special needs (e.g., Little League Baseball’s Challenger Division), you might find yourself coaching a team with a player with some sort of special need. My experience is that any youth recreational sports coach can be successful in this situation so long as they include the special needs player in all activities and have a good deal of patience.
The first year my boys played baseball in California, they had a teammate, we’ll call him Jake, that was receiving occupational therapy at school and seemed to be just a bit slower at processing than the rest of the children. For instance, when a coach would give direction to the entire team, in order for Jake to fully understand the direction, the coach would have to look Jake in the eye and tell him again. Sometimes, it would take even more direction. I did volunteer to be an assistant coach. During practices, I noticed that the head coach sort of abandoned Jake to do his own thing. It was clear to me that Jake needed special attention to learn how to play baseball and enjoy himself. I took it upon myself to include Jake and provide special instruction whenever I could.
Following the season, my wife recognized my frustration with how the head coach seemed to ignore Jake’s need for additional attention throughout the season. She gave me wise counsel, “You know, the only way to ensure that the kids get the attention and instruction you know they need is…”. I finished her statement, “If I coach the team myself”. She just smiled and nodded.
The next season, I volunteered to be the head coach and Jake was again on our team. I recognized that he needed additional instruction and rather than getting frustrated or ignoring him, I provided the additional guidance Jake required. Further, I made sure – without highlighting anything potentially negative or embarrassing about Jake – that Jake’s teammates understood Jake was just another one of their teammates and deserved the same instruction, playing time, and respect as everyone on the team. Demonstrating this as a coach made it easy for the rest of the team to recognize and understand Jake’s situation. I found that the team often helped me out with additional instruction.
There are two things I think are most important when coaching players with special needs: inclusion and patience. Inclusion is key. Children with special needs should have as much opportunity to take advantage of all the benefits of youth recreational sports as all other children. During my career, we’ve coached and volunteered in a couple of youth baseball leagues for players with special needs. I am a big supporter of these types of dedicated leagues. Seeing these athletes compete in a safe and fun environment affirms all that is best about youth recreational sports. As my story with Jake highlights, inclusion isn’t just including these special needs children in youth sports broadly, but it could also involve integrating them into the rest of the league. In either case, this requires the second important characteristic of a successful coach dealing with special needs children: patience.
Many young players will struggle to learn the proper technique or execute it in practice or games. This is especially true of athletes with special needs. Coaches with players with special needs have to demonstrate an extra amount of patience in order to include the entire team. When teaching a skill or demonstrating a drill to the entire team, recognize that the players with special needs might require additional accommodation in order to get what you’re teaching. When the rest of the team starts the drill, the coach might have to spend additional time with the player with special needs to work through the skill or technique. It is a boom to your coaching staff if you have an assistant coach that wants to take on that role for you. Whether it is an assistant or yourself, whoever is working with the player with special needs requires a healthy dose of patience.
One of my fondest coaching memories is the first time Jake hit a ball in fair territory. For the majority of the season, Jake tried his best but struck out most times at the plate. The first time he made contact and fouled a ball off, we all cheered. But that was nothing compared to the reaction later in the season when he put a ball in play in fair territory. Jake swung and the ball dribbled toward the pitcher. You would have thought we won the World Series. The players on my bench erupted in cheers. We all started yelling for Jake to run; he forgot what to do when he put the ball in play. He was thrown out trying to get to first, but he got a hero’s welcome when he returned to the dugout.