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Coaching Players with Disabilities

By Tom Hart, Director of Recreational Coaching Education US Youth Soccer

TOPSoccer is our community based training and team placement program for young athletes with special needs. The emphasis of this program is on development, training, and meaningful participation rather than on competition. Players are placed on teams according to their ability not their age.
For those coaching athletes with mental or physical disabilities, the question often arises "What do I do different?" Coaching players with a physical or mental disability is not much different than coaching any other player. We should focus on what the player CAN DO rather than what they CANNOT. Instead of using "age appropriate" games and activities we simply substitute "developmentally appropriate" games. A thirteen-year-old player with Down Syndrome may not have much success with activities geared to age but may show success by using activities designed for younger players.
Coaching materials available from your State Association or US Youth Soccer that will prove valuable include the "Assistant Coach" series for Under 6 & 8's and Under 10's. Each booklet is a "practice plan" similar to a schoolteachers lesson plan. You can order these and other coaching materials at:
General Activities for TOPSoccer Players
Warm-up and Fun games- with many TOPSoccer players you will never get past this
stage. Do not worry about a typical coaching progression. Every player should have a ball.
Games include "Red Light- Green Light", "Sharks and Minnows", "Pac Man", "Minefield" and "Tag". Many TOPSoccer players, due in part to fun and in part to their disability, like the repetition and consistency of the same games each week
For more advanced players the coach can introduce cooperative play between partners.
Always end with "The GAME" if possible. Play small-sided 3v3 or 4v4- larger groups result in fewer touches and less fun!
Guidelines for Modifying Play
For children with orthopedic impairment reduce field size, play on a surface that allows easy use of wheelchairs, walkers and crutches, use a "pusher" for children in wheelchairs, if needed. There are methods to make walkers, wheelchairs and other equipment safe for play.
For children with visual impairments increase the size of the ball, use a brightly colored ball, wrap goals with colorful tape, use a "beeper" ball, have helpers to aid in children running around field.
For children with hearing impairment learn a few hand signals, or sign language.
Using "Nerf" or foam balls are another option for any TOPSoccer program.
Coaching in TOPSoccer does not have to follow the "traditional" model of a youth sports team. Small sided, full sided, Indoor, Outdoor, Skills only, Camps are all different methods of running a TOPSoccer program. Unified games allow for disabled and non-disabled players to participate together.
For more information on TOPSoccer in your area contact your State Association.
What activities should you use with your team? Check out "Coaches Corner" on the US Youth Soccer website: We have sample practice plans from the "Assistant Coach Series" posted. The "Assistant Coach" is a collection of twenty practice plans for coaches containing warm-up and game activities for teaching youth soccer players. (Available for U6 & U8's, U10's, and U12's.) Another great resource for training games is "The Peak Performance" also available from US Youth Soccer.


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