Last summer, I had the opportunity to facilitate a wheelchair lacrosse coach development clinic in New Hampshire. Our goal was to help local leaders gain the knowledge and confidence to start their own wheelchair lacrosse team.
We embraced collaboration as a solution to the dual challenges of (a) educating the disability community about lacrosse, and (b) educating the lacrosse community about disability.
First, we identified the typical barriers to fielding a sustainable program — equipment, facilities, athletes, etc. — and made an intentional and proactive effort to collaborate with various stakeholders in the community. We decided to partner with a local adaptive sport organization which offers other competitive sports like wheelchair rugby, sled hockey, and power soccer.
This was important because the local organization already had access to sport wheelchairs, an accessible playing venue, and a community of potential athletes with disabilities. We then invited youth and high school lacrosse coaches, therapeutic recreation providers, and some sled hockey athletes to attend the training as well. Between coaches and athletes, roughly half of the attendees self-identified as disabled.
Coaches from Wheelchair Lacrosse USA were on-hand to provide technical expertise, but the real magic was creating a local connection between the adaptive sport coaches, lacrosse coaches, and disabled athletes who attended the clinic. We left space in the training for the various groups to network, share experiences, and discuss strategies with each other.
As the governing body of wheelchair lacrosse in the United States, WLUSA provided the “formal” education, but the “informal” education that happened organically between sessions was just as valuable.
Adaptive sports show us that each athlete — disabled or non-disabled — is truly one-of-a-kind. There is no correct way to accomplish a skill since every athlete has unique abilities and therefore a slightly different approach.
Over time, I’ve found that the most important strategy for increasing participation in sport for disabled athletes is fairly straightforward: collaborate with, listen to, and learn directly from people with disabilities themselves.
The New Hampshire program is just one of over a dozen programs nationwide that WLUSA has helped to grow since 2009. To recognize and celebrate that growth, the organization will be hosting its annual Nationals competition this week (Aug. 26-27) in Denver.
For more information about increasing sports participation for athletes with disabilities, please click here.
Shawn Maloney is the Mountain Region Manager for USA Lacrosse. He also serves on the board of directors for Wheelchair Lacrosse USA and plays wheelchair lacrosse competitively with the Colorado Rolling Mammoth. Maloney experienced an incomplete spinal cord injury in 2015 and earned an M.A. in Sport Coaching from the University of Denver in 2019.