Winning, Losing, and Disabilities: Finding a Context for Participation in Sport

Jan 18, 2011
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Sport is taken very seriously by our society with enormous financial rewards available to those that reach its highest levels of achievement. Yet the vast majority of us – with or without disabilities – will never come close to reaching those standards. Our participation in sports is almost certainly for other reasons; whether it is fun, friendship or fitness, understanding these motives and then shaping programs around them will likely determine the degree of personal success that a young athlete experiences. There is, of course, a tendency in our sports culture to evaluate success using a win-loss record. While this emphasis is understandable for professional athletes and teams; to what degree should its influence apply to children with disabilities?

The inherent structure of many games is built around winning or losing and to deny that would defeat the purpose of some of these games. We should never assume that young athletes with disabilities are any less driven by the desire to win a game. The passion for competition is joyfully evident at so many events (Paralympics, etc) that to suggest it is not important is demeaning. But for some participants winning a race or game may not be a realistic goal. How can we balance the purpose of the game with the capabilities and interests of such athletes?

Understanding this athlete’s motivation for playing and their aspirations will help guide a coach in matching the type of competition to the athlete’s needs.   Sometimes I think that the word “competition” is used as a perjorative to describe unattractive qualities in someone: “that person is too competitive!” But it is the manner in which competition is designed and presented to sports participants that shapes the reactions of athletes that lose the game. Coaches that present competition as a wonderful opportunity to apply skills, build friendships, and a focus for achieving goals, etc, will likely nurture the needs of athletes with challenges. Conversely, using competition to criticize effort and ability undermines this athlete.

Competition for young athletes with special needs: Is it appropriate? I believe it’s all in the manner in which it is designed and presented.

Author: Gary Barber



  • Jack

    Gary makes a lot of good points. I think that all sports activities can be placed in the facts of honestly trying to get each athlete to focus realistically on where they are at in their development of the sport they are pursuing, or want to pursue. Each of us has different interests, needs, desires, abilities and time for what we would like to achieve. But we must first assess what we are capable of doing right now where we are at. If we want to run a marathon, we are not going to expect to finish first unless we put in the time and effort to better ourselves and have the God given talent to do so. There are thousands of runners at some of these races, and only a few really believe they have what it takes to win it at that point in time. So should the other concede and just quit before it starts. No. Winning is for a few individuals and teams who have the talent, drive, know how, and ability to win at this time. . On a given day it can be different ones, but there are some at that level. The rest are at a different level. Some may reach that level in the future, but most won’t. What I try to impress upon anyone starting or participating in sports is find out where you are at. That can be your baseline to build upon. Then find ways to improve yourself in the sport. Again with track for instance, one may start with a 100 yard dash and lets say it takes 20 seconds to complete when you first try. Maybe after a period of time it goes down to 19.5. That is a PR ( personal record) for you. As you keep it up your times will most likely drop until you reach a point where they no longer drop but plateau. You may still at some point have another PR or you may never get back to that point. It could be for a number of factors, health, age, ability to practice, perform, etc. that your times may start going back up. Each individual can assess that for themselves, or with the help of others, as to what is best for them. They may do better at some other event in that sport, or another sport. We all can’t be, nor should we be quarterbacks. We need different members to make a team. That is the way it should be. If they want to improve it will take more time and effort. But sometimes all the effort or time will do no good in getting a goal. At that point they can decide if they want to keep trying to improve or be satisfied with the amount of effort and time they can give to it and be happy with it. They may choose to do something else with their time. I know I will never make the Olympics because I am not going to put the effort into it to see if I’m good enough. My interest is in other things for my time. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be good enough. I just happen to like doing many other sports and at what level I’m at with each one. If I want to get better at one, I know I have to do more of it and may improve.

    These things happen all through life in more things than just sports. For those that want to pursue the highest levels and rewards for that, so be it. They most likely need help in getting there and a coach who recognizes their talent can lead them in the ways to help them achieve those goals. Sometimes it does take a little prodding and getting the ire up to do that, but that comes with the territory. We all know coaches and trainers who achieve success with their athletes and many have a different way of getting there. A good coach knows how to get the most out of them and what works and what doesn’t for each individual. Not all athletes react the same to way to the same coach, and most coaches don’t treat everyone the same. Nor should they. That is what being a good coach is. Getting the best from each individual athlete, no matter the ability. Respect can go both ways for athlete and coach,or it may not. The athletes have to decide if their coach is getting the best out of them or not, and stay or leave. I see not much difference in how an athlete who has a disability, or those who don’t, can perform in this manner. Many want to be coached exactly like everyone else at that level. They will go as far as they can or are allowed to go.

    The main differences are probably not the playing of the sport, but the opportunity to get to play it. It is the biggest obstacle for many with disabilities. The opportunities are for more costly, less available, and takes most of the time more effort to do it. Plus many sports require that you have several other to play . If it takes 10-15 to play basketball and it costs a few thousand dollars for each to have a sports chair to play in, It can be too expensive to try to even start. Or there aren’t the numbers in the area that you live, then you just sit. If given the chance, most athletes with a disability love to try different sports and can do amazingly well. I think if we give them the opportunity, encourage everyone to do the best of their own abilities, no matter what level they are at, they will see success in the effort they put out. And should be rewarded according to that effort.

    I also think competition is a great way to go, with the emphasis put on not JUST winning or losing but how they performed individually based on their expectations. The rest will sort itself out along the way and they will take it to what ever level they decide on for their own future. We just need to be there as coaches and spectators to encourage them to do their best, and provide the opportunities and instruction to help them. Most athletes, with a disability or not, just want to play and love the chance to do so. And many reap the rewards given to many of us athletes no matter what our level is.

  • NG

    Great points Jack!

  • BobLujano

    Sometimes the issue with disabled kids and sport participation can be parents. Yes, parents and their child should come to a decision to either participate in competitve sports and/or to participate in recreation endeavors only. Both are great discussions to have. However, many times more ofter than not the parent is unaware of the committment level of the said sport/recreation endeavor. Now, recreation can have a subtle commitment level,..that’s fine, unless the child has obese issues then the commitment level needs to be serious. However, with competitive sports it is emcumbent that the parent stresses the importance of making the practices and developing good habits of training and nutrition. Unfortunately, many parents themselves may not be educated enough about the seriousness of disabled sports. At times, they do not enforce the commitment level or adhere to the importance of training and nutrition. This could possibly lead to a negative experience for the child, which could disrupt the attudinal growth about disabled sports and basic recreation.