We all know playing sport is good for you, but I didn’t really encourage my youngest daughter to get involved in sport at school. Why? Well, it was a combination of reasons. She has a problem with coordination so many sports would not have suited her. I worried about the impact on her confidence if she was the worst at the sport. The last picked for a team, many of us have been there, I wasn’t the first choice. I’m guessing my daughter would have been the last choice. She looks a bit different, so I worried about others making fun of her. She wasn’t as mature as her peers, so I worried about her saying or doing the wrong thing. So basically, I worried about a lot of what if’s.
This may have been different if I had known Lisa Pugliese, from Love Serving Autism. In the latest podcast, she explains how accessible tennis can be for young people with additional needs. Because tennis is a repetitive sport, it suits young people who take time to learn new skills and/or don’t like change. Like all sports, it offers not only physical benefits but also has social benefits. However, because it’s not a team sport, social skills are less essential in the beginning. Part of Lisa’s approach is using tennis as a therapy to slowly build the physical and social skills of the young people on the program. With tennis, there isn’t pressure over letting teammates down. Lisa shows how tennis can be made to fit the young person rather than them having to fit the sport.
If I look back to when my daughter was younger, armed with this insight, I can find other sports she would have fitted into. Now, when I hear from other parents who did take the risk, I know how important sports like football are to their children. Indeed, it’s given these young people more ability to deal with rejection, which makes them more determined, and helps them navigate the social world in a much more mature way.
I’m not saying, of course, I let my daughter do absolutely no physical activity. If anything, I pushed her into other things because she wasn’t doing organized sport. Her physical exercise became walking the dog and walking to places instead of driving. Fortunately, we were able to teach her to ride a bike, all credit to her Dad for that one. In fact, you can download his 9 steps approach to this from the website. And it should have been more obvious from that success why playing a sport would have been good for her. After she learned to ride a bike her confidence soared because this was something she was good at. In fact, we still laugh about when we took her out on her bike and we decided to walk – after all, how fast could she go. We soon learned pretty fast as we sprinted along the track just trying to keep her in sight! We never made that mistake again.
But it isn’t just the physical benefits of sport she has missed out on, it’s the social aspect that is actually more important. Like many young people with additional needs there is a very real danger that she can become isolated. Sport helps with this because you become part of a team, with a common purpose. It builds your sense of belonging. She would have learnt to follow the rules. She would have learnt patience because I doubt she would have been a natural at any sport, so she would have needed to practice and practice some more. She would have developed more resilience as her team won and lost. These are all characteristics she has without sport, but I genuinely believe she would have developed more of each if I had worked to find her a sport that fitted her.
Of course, there are always what if’s in this journey with our children. I have at least one of those each day. The important thing is to recognize when we get it wrong and move on. So yes, I’ve already started looking for a local tennis club so see if they fit her.