My motive for writing this piece is to plant a seed, to kick start a generation of new ideas and join the dots in a sector of professional sport that appears to be slightly fragmented. I experienced a dramatic misunderstanding during a football tournament – A spiral of events, which left me, as well as the rest of the performance team, emotive and feeling frustrated that such a vital aspect of learning disability sport has been abandoned. With the backing of managers and sporting professionals, it is time we progress this and work towards building a more comprehensive, supportive system of players, officials and management teams within learning disability sport.
On two separate occasions within a recent game, red cards were handed out to key players in a squad as a result of their “inappropriate behaviour”. The players’ interpretation of these decisions was that a black mark had been placed against them as men as well as sportsmen. In their eyes and for days after, they felt like they were at risk of being deselected. The way their behaviour was dealt with made them feel rejected and reading between the lies of the official’s decision was hard. They felt there was no way of bouncing back. There is little room for reasoning with the players and for weeks after, talking the players through understanding the sequence of events is a challenge. It is right or wrong, black or white, yes or no. This may sound like any other competitive environment, and essentially it was, but in the lead up to the players being sent off and for the enduring game, there was a lack of understanding to behaviours symptomatic of challenging conditions such as Aspergers, Autism, ADHD, Tourettes and Hypermobility. In response to the officials’ decisions throughout the game, the players in the squad felt powerless and misunderstood. During follow-up sessions, players described the experience as “haunting” and one player “feels cheated” in his reflection of the game.
No one on, or around the sports field has a smooth ride. This makes it even more essential for management staff and officials to be cognisant of players’ and team’s circumstances, especially in learning disability sport. As psychologists, a duty of care is expected and this can spread to an education for managers, coaches, officials and players on learning disabilities if required. I include players because during the two years spent with the squad, it has been hard for some of the players to accept and understand individual differences in communications style and behaviours. As a result, more awareness around their own conditions as well as others may be beneficial for their sporting and personal development.
An investment in educating players and professionals on learning disabilities will be vital for progressing the delivery of Sport Psychology support. Not only will this be an “education” and step towards more mental health awareness but an opportunity for management, performance staff and officials to discuss ways of creating environments that support learning disability athletes to perform at the best of their ability.