Differences need not divide

female sprinter
Author:  Graham Cooke
Issue: Volume 27 Number 2

Maybe it was the euphoria gripping the country at the time, but many athletes and coaches agree that disabled sport came of age during the Sydney 2000 Paralympics.

Suddenly it was not a woman propelling a wheelchair around the track, or a spina bifida athlete throwing the discus, but Australians against Americans, French, British — our boys and girls taking on the world and winning.

The national coach for the wheelchair tennis team, Greg Crump, believes there was more spectator interest in the Paralympic tennis tournament than the able-bodied competition; the national championships now draw some 200 players. Everywhere youngsters who might once have thought their disability was an insurmountable barrier to athletic achievement are casting aside their inhibitions and coming forward.

But how is sport coping with the increased demands? Table Tennis Australia’s athletes with disabilities specialist Arthur Wilks disagrees with suggestions that any coach can simply take athletes with disabilities on board. ‘That approach is too simplistic,’ he said.

‘You need to be a special person to handle beginners generally, and especially with youngsters with disabilities,’ he said. ‘By the time you reach elite level, it is all tactics and technical work, but at grassroots you are introducing a young person to a way of life.’

The important first step for a coach with a squad of new players is to recognise that everyone is different. ‘There are ten in front of you and one may be tall, another short, one may be in a wheelchair, another may have an intellectual disability, there will be males and females, younger and older,’ he said.

‘It is crucial to get away from the idea that one size fits all –– that one method of coaching can cover the entire group.

‘Beyond that we may have to look at modifying the rules, the equipment and the environment. For instance, it is pretty pointless me having a wonderful approach to coaching wheelchair table tennis players if they can’t get into the building, or if the table has legs that keep on clashing with their chairs.

‘But that’s nothing more than we have been facing for years. Lack of suitable venues has been the curse of table tennis for as long as I can remember.’

Wilks said his organisation was developing better coaching courses with fully inclusive practices. ‘The aim is to improve the whole situation for coaches and their athletes. I suppose you could say it is a special approach for special people.’

Athletics Australia’s Paralympic program manager and specialist throwing coach, Scott Goodman, has seen a steady change in the attitude towards disabled sport since he was a physical education teacher in Tasmania during the 1980s.

‘It is easier with track and field because in a team sport like soccer or football, it is hard to include a person whose skill level is well below the rest,’ he said.

‘With athletics they are joining a squad rather than a team, and before I bring anyone in, I spend time showing them how to throw, the various protocols and so on.

‘In our squad we have a guy training who will probably go to the Olympics, another younger one aiming for the Commonwealth Games in two years, and Paralympic athletes both male and female, and we train together, sometimes as a group, sometimes on individualised programs.’

He has found that as ‘team spirit’ develops, the more the group socialises and intermingles. ‘For instance, an able-bodied discus thrower might expect to throw a two-kilogram discus more than 60 metres; the male cerebral palsy athlete that follows perhaps a one-kilogram discus 40 metres, then a young female with cerebral palsy 30 metres.

‘The able-bodied athlete will know a throw of 40 metres was good for the cerebral palsy squad member and encourage him, and the same with the others. They support each other and the result is a positive interactive environment.’

As with any group of focused young people, there can be problems. ‘I have had individuals with, shall we say, behavioural idiosyncrasies that can be frustrating,’ he said. ‘I talk to the others and try to put the point that at the end of the day, that guy has the same aim as everyone — to throw just that little bit further — it is an educative thing.’

Goodman also sees his role as helping to educate other coaches about athletes with disabilities. ‘I know from experience in Tasmania that if you have a couple of kids with disabilities in a PE class of 30 at a mainstream school, there is a danger of them being left behind simply because the teachers do not have the experience or skills to deal with them,’ he said.

‘So we talk it through. Obviously a guy in a wheelchair isn’t going to be able to go out and play rugby, but when it comes to tennis, well maybe with some rule modifications — two bounces over the net instead of one, for instance — he’s going to be able to take part. The same might be the case with basketball.

‘It’s really a matter of making some common-sense adjustments.

‘Socially, it is much better to have fully inclusive training at all levels, but that requires every teacher to have a skill base that allows people with disability into their sessions. It is a challenge and some teachers do have a bias towards the top few people in their group who they feel have a chance of moving on to higher levels.

‘That philosophy is very hard to change, but on the other hand if you find teachers who believe their main aim is to improve the health and lifestyle of everyone in their class, then you have got a chance.’

Crump echoes Wilks when he says that a disability is just another factor in any group about to embark on an athletic experience. ‘For example, you would be pretty happy with a guy who was six foot tall and interested in playing basketball,’ he said. ‘But you’d worry if he said he wanted to be a gymnast. His height would be a disability.’

Tennis has been a good sport for people with disability. ‘There’s really not a great deal of difference in your approach,’ he said. ‘First of all, you’ve got to make it fun, because if people aren’t enjoying it they won’t come back.

‘It’s such a worthwhile sport for people who want to keep on playing, even if they never get close to elite level. You can play with your friends or your family and have a barbecue afterwards.

‘And because we are a really strong tennis nation, there are courts everywhere, a lot of the old houses still have a tennis court in the backyard, and it’s seen as part of the Australian way of life.

‘Of course, there are drawbacks. A lot of the older tennis clubs still have mostly grass courts that are not appropriate for wheelchairs, and access can sometimes be a problem simply because they were built at a time when no one gave it a thought.’

Acceptance of disabled sport is no longer a major problem, as government funding is provided and, increasingly, access gained to the best training facilities around the country. Where difficulties can arise is within the Paralympic movement itself, with media attention being focused on wheelchair track races at the expense of other areas.

Goodman says the visual impact of the top men and women in the world charging round the track in their ‘chariots’ cannot be denied. ‘On the other hand, a javelin competition that takes two hours to complete is not so appealing,’ he said.

‘However, it’s exactly the same in able-bodied competition, and no one has found an answer there either, so I don’t think we need panic about it.’


  • Coaching beginners with disabilities is hardest. Resources need to be aimed at training coaches at the grassroots level.
  • Everyone in a training squad is different, and a disability is just another type of difference.
  • Flexibility is important. Rules can be changed and equipment modified to accommodate a range of disabilities.
  • Training a group together promotes team spirit. Social interaction means the individuals will support each other, whether disabled or able-bodied.
  • Disabled athletes have the same likes and dislikes as their able-bodied colleagues. If they are not enjoying their coaching sessions, they will not want to continue.