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Previous Sporting Experiences and Desire to Coach Disability Sport

This is an excerpt from Coach Education Essentials.

By Gordon A. Bloom


To bridge the gap in coaching research and to develop an understanding of coaches in disability sport, Cregan, Bloom, and Reid (2007) offered one of the first examinations of the career evolution and knowledge of elite coaches in disability sport. A total of six swimming coaches (one with a disability) were interviewed and all six of them began by coaching able-bodied swimmers. None of the coaches intended to coach swimmers with a disability and only began doing so when an athlete with a disability arrived at one of their training sessions and asked to participate along with their able-bodied swimmers. Furthermore, the six participants had very diverse experiences in aquatics that ranged from one former Paralympian, to two who competed nationally in able-bodied swimming, to three who had little to no competitive able-bodied swimming experiences.


Falcão, Bloom, and Loughead (2015) recently interviewed seven current Paralympic coaches across four individual and three team sports. The coaches were able-bodied individuals who had extensive competitive sport experiences ranging from varsity to regional and national levels. They had not been Olympic athletes. The participants described different pathways to becoming a Paralympic coach. Some migrated from nondisability sports while others accepted job opportunities based on their interest in coaching athletes with a disability. Another study, from Fairhurst, Bloom, and Harvey (2017), interviewed six male Paralympic coaches from various individual, team, and co-acting sports who averaged 12 years of coaching experience and who were identified by a panel of experts as being among the best in Canada. The coaches were all born able-bodied, played a variety of sports throughout their youth, and reached varying levels of competition. One participant began his athletic career as an able-bodied athlete but sustained a life-changing injury as a teenager, and subsequently competed as a Paralympian. Five of the participants began coaching in able-bodied sport contexts. They were exposed to disability sport through postsecondary adaptive physical activity courses or by having an athlete with a disability approach them about their coaching services. One able-bodied participant began his coaching career in disability sport. He had intended to become a physical education teacher, but was exposed to disability populations during his postsecondary education, which led him to pursue coaching in the disability sport context.


Tawse and colleagues (2012) completed one of the few studies of Paralympic coaches where the majority of the sample had a physical disability. They interviewed four male participants (three with a disability) who were identified as the top wheelchair rugby coaches in Canada. Because wheelchair rugby had only recently emerged as a high-performance sport at the time of the study, previous elite athletic experience in wheelchair rugby for these participants was not possible. However, all of the coaches were involved in elite sport at various times in their lives. Interestingly, one participant in this study had a congenital disability and participated in both able-bodied and disability sports growing up, which included two appearances at the Paralympics. Two participants were classifiable in wheelchair rugby after they acquired a spinal cord injury in their twenties. The one able-bodied participant competed at the University level in basketball. Tawse and colleagues also found that three of the four participants did not initially intend to coach wheelchair rugby. They fell into the coaching role either out of obligation when their current coaches resigned or to fulfill a job requirement at a provincial wheelchair sports association.


An even more unique sample of participants came from a recently published study by Douglas and colleagues (2018) who purposefully selected and interviewed five Paralympic head coaches who had all previously competed as United States Paralympic athletes. All the participants won numerous World Championship and Paralympic medals, ranged in age from 36 to 58, coached both individual and team sports, and had head coaching experience at the Paralympic level ranging from 2 to 12 years, with an average of just under six years. The participants were first asked to coach by their current or former head coaches. Interestingly, three of them were still training and competing as Paralympians when they were asked to be assistant coaches on their national team. While some were hesitant about their knowledge and preparation to become coaches, they all accepted the invitation and they all commented on the positive impact their athletic careers had on their evolution as coaches—both in their understanding of the Paralympic sport context and in the personal connections they had accumulated as athletes that would open more doors for them and help them rapidly progress up the coaching ladder. More precisely, the results found that parasport coaches with a disability who were Paralympians were fast-tracked directly into national team coaching opportunities. Consequently, aspiring parasport coaches with a disability who never competed as Paralympians may need to invest considerably more time and effort toward their coaching evolution and development.


In conclusion, the results from research in this area appear to differ from research on elite able-bodied coaches, where the majority personally sought out coaching careers in their desired sport and that elite athletic experiences were important to their career development and success (i.e., Gilbert, Côté, and Mallett 2006; Schinke, Bloom, and Salmela 1995). It appears that many Paralympic coaches do not initially seek out coaching roles in disability sport. These coaches initially worked with able-bodied athletes and became involved in disability sport as a result of chance (e.g., an athlete with a disability asked to be coached by them), or from personal exposure to disability sport, or due to other connections to the sport, and subsequently became motivated to become successful disability sport coaches, despite not having previous athletic experience in disability sport. The results also suggest that elite athletic experiences in disability sport are not a pre-cursor for coaching success, which may not be surprising since few of them (i.e., 5 of the 23 coaches in the four studies cited in this section—Cregan et al. 2007; Fairhurst et al. 2017; Falcão, Bloom, and Loughead 2015; Tawse et al. 2012) had a disability and/or competed in disability sport. The one difference came from the Douglas et al. (2018) sample, which found that previous sporting experiences as a Paralympian gave those individuals quicker access to a high-performance coaching position in the parasport context. Given the small sample of individuals who are coaching elite disability sport and who have a disability, it would be interesting to continue studying their career paths and to see if changes occur as more people with disabilities begin to purposefully enter this coaching field.