Helping a Special Needs Athlete with the Unwritten Rules of Sport

Mar 07, 2011
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In soccer it is a convention that you kick the ball out of bounds if an opponent has become injured; thus you stop the play. When play resumes, the attacking team is expected to give the ball to the defending team as a mark of good sportsmanship. In ice hockey you must not “spray” the goalkeeper with ice using your ice skates; if you do, you will likely attract the anger of the goalkeeper’s teammates. In a track running race, it is expected that you are two strides in front of a rival before you move directly in front of them (i.e. you are not allowed to interrupt the stride of your opponent).

You will not find any of these conventions in the rule books of these respective sports; they represent “unwritten rules” and would be considered manifestations of bad sportsmanship if you breach them.

Sports have always been full of traditions and rituals. We toss a coin to decide who starts the game, and encourage handshakes to congratulate or thank opponents at the end of it. Some teams and players have unusual superstitions that guide their behaviour. Many ice hockey players will not shave until they have been eliminated from the playoffs. Someone not supporting this norm might be viewed as not accepting the team ethos. Then there are local interpretations of rules, i.e. how the game is played or refereed in one area may be different in another.  There may also be different expectations of good sportsmanship.

These “unwritten rules” can be very confusing and will require a coach or mentor to take the time to carefully explain what they are and how they might guide the behavior of the athlete. This is a particularly important issue for a special needs athlete.  Athletes with an intellectual disability, autism, etc, may have difficulty understanding why an opponent does not behave or play the game in the way the rule book states. Rigid interpretations of sporting behaviour can emerge out of the difficulty some of these athletes have in perceiving the social nuances of the game.

To support a special needs athlete as they participate in sport, I would like to encourage coaches and mentors to role model appropriate responses when an athlete encounters some of these difficulties.  A technique known as Social Stories has had a lot of success in helping students with autism to effectively participate in different social settings. A series of pictures (photos or drawings), combined with clear sentences, inform the athlete of what is happening and what will happen next. For example, a coach may wish to support the athlete in shaking the hand of an opponent after the game. The social story might start with a picture of a soccer game, followed by a picture of the referee blowing the whistle, then one of players walking about shaking hands with each other.  Preparation for this sequence of events will help this athlete understand the convention for behaviour at the end of the game.

Author: Gary Barber