Teaching Sports to students with special needs: A tripod of influences

Feb 07, 2011
Tagged with:

In 2002, Harvard University Professor Robert Ferguson was interested in understanding why some students seemed to underachieve at school – especially boys from different ethnic backgrounds. Ferguson initiated the Tripod Project to evaluate a “tripod” of influences that he believed were essential for successful learning: Content – what you teach; pedagogy – how you teach it, and the importance of relationships in the life of the student.  A simple logic underscored The Tripod Project: Each “leg” is important and balances the other.  When applied to a sports coaching and teaching context the implications were clear: You may be a coach with a deep knowledge of sports (content), but if you don’t know how to effectively teach this content, the tripod is unstable.  You may have excellent teaching skills but if you are poor at building and developing relationships with your students (athletes), again, the “tripod” is not balanced.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will discuss the importance of each of these “legs,” as they relate to the participation of athletes with special needs in physical activities. I would like to start with “content.”

When you think of sports content, the words drills, skills, technique, plays, tactics probably come to mind; but I believe it is a mistake to view sports content as just the activity itself. If you expand a working definition of “content” to include knowledge of the sport – its history, how it developed, its rules, and how it is refereed, etc, you create many ways for an athlete to access the sport.  Why is this important?  Some physical skills in a sports activity may limit the chance of success (in a stereotypical sense) for a young athlete with a disability; however, they may excel if they have different ways to access this content and showcase their capabilities.  Howard Gardner – the famous Harvard educator – described these as “Entry Points,” this is a belief that all students (or athletes) can find success when an activity is presented in a manner that draws on their strengths and interests.

Example: When I teach running to my young athletes in Islanders Running Club we practice our physical skills, play lots of fun games, identify a few rules of the sport and finish with a story or sports anecdote. This is how I would like to conclude this blog….

During the time of the ancient Olympic Games, there was a King called Aethelius. He loved sports and was a great patron of running races. He was so deeply admired by his citizens that participants in his games became known as “Aethletes” to honor him. Today, we still use his name; no matter how fast we run or play, we are all athletes!

Author: Gary Barber