Disability in Sport

This  entry  presents  an  overview  of  the  psychosocial  research  conducted  at  both  ends  of  the  spectrum  of  sport  engagement.  First,  we  examine  the psychosocial  benefits  of  recreational  youth  sport involvement for adolescents with disabilities. The next section discusses the psychological challenges and  mental  preparation  at  the  highest  levels  of sport involvement for athletes with disabilities: the Paralympics.

Youth Sport Participation

This  section  will  report  on  two  areas  within  the area of youth sport. First, the research on common sport self-perceptions, such as physical self-concept, thought  to  be  influenced  by  sport,  is  examined. Second, the sport as a setting where children can develop  social  connectedness  and  reduce  loneliness  is  discussed.  It  is  commonly  thought  that individuals  with  disabilities  may  experience  low self-esteem because their disability may limit their ability  to  experience  sport  success.  At  the  same time,  sport  can  be  a  vehicle  that  increases  competence  if  children  participate  and  improve  their abilities.  Unfortunately,  researchers  have  shown that poorly coordinated children are less active at play, spending more time watching other children play than better coordinated children do, thus limiting their opportunities to improve. Additionally, researchers  have  shown  that  children  with  movement difficulties may fail more in sport relative to children  without  movement  difficulties  and  as  a  result  have  lower  perceptions  of  athletic  competence  compared  to  children  without  developmental coordination disorder (DCD).

In addition to reduced feelings of pride and satisfaction from limited mastery experiences, significant others may withhold positive feedback and be critical. Children with DCD have reported feeling anxious and humiliated because they were teased. Although  accomplished  youth  athletes  with  dis- abilities  view  themselves  as  serious  athletes,  they often perceive that others do not.

disability-in-sportIn   contrast   to   the   above   findings,   other researchers  examining  the  self-esteem  of  children with  disabilities  have  found  self-esteem  scores comparable  to  that  of  able-bodied  athletes.  In  a rare  intervention  study,  children  participating  in a  4-week  wheelchair  tennis  program  enhanced their  general  perceived  and  tennis  competence but  did  not  increase  overall  self-esteem.  In  a  second  intervention  study,  the  impact  of  a  12-week sport intervention on motor skill development was examined.  Students  with  and  without  disabilities were  randomized  into  intervention  and  comparison groups and the intervention group participants showed increases in object control and locomotor skills  compared  to  the  comparison  group.  Other researchers   examining   both   wheelchair   sport and  wheelchair  dance  have  reported  favorable increases  in  self-perceptions  ranging  from  global self-esteem to self-confidence and control.

The motivational climate that youth sport athletes perceive can also have an important influence on  perceived  competence.  For  example,  children with  disabilities  who  perceived  a  strong  mastery climate in physical education had higher levels of competence compared to children who viewed the climate as less mastery oriented. Social support by significant  others  is  also  important  as  adolescent athletes’  self-efficacy  is  positively  related  to  three different  types  of  social  support:  listening,  emotional  challenge,  and  technical  challenge  support provided  by  friends,  parents,  and  coaches.  These findings suggest that sport self-efficacy may partly be the result of encouragement and social support coming from diverse relationships.

The  social  nature  of  sport  makes  it  a  potentially  important  vehicle  for  psychosocial  development.  For  example,  adolescents  perceive  that their involvement in sport increased the favorable impressions able-bodied others had of them. Given that  children  with  disabilities  have  fewer  friends and are lonelier than children without disabilities,  sport offers a tremendous opportunity to promote social connectedness while simultaneously enhancing health outcomes. Jeffrey Martin and colleagues have  found  that  youth  athletes  with  disabilities derived a variety of social benefits from having a best friend on their sport team. Gender differences were apparent with girls, compared to boys, indicating  that  their  best  friend  looked  out  more  for them, they had more common interests, stuck up for each other more, and were more encouraging after  mistakes.  Girls  involved  in  formal  disability sport  receive  more  social  support  for  their  sport engagement  compared  to  girls  participating  in more  informal  sport.  Girls  engaged  in  more  serious  high-level  formal  sport  had  role  models  who provided  shared  social  reality  support,  emotional support and challenge, and technical support and challenge.

Parental  encouragement  has  also  been  related to physical ability perceptions and sport commitment among international level adolescent athletes with  disabilities.  Athletes  reporting  more  encouragement from their parents reported stronger perceived  physical  ability  and  a  greater  commitment to  sport,  compared  with  athletes  reporting  less parental  encouragement.  In  contrast,  children  in a  therapeutic  martial  arts  program  received  lots of  parental  encouragement,  but  it  was  unrelated to  their  perceived  physical  ability.  Because  mean levels of support were high, the researchers interpreted their findings positively as parents did not limit  their  support  to  higher  skilled  children  and ignore less-skilled children.

Youth with disabilities who played in an after- school  disability  sport  program  mentioned  the importance  of  connecting  with  other  youth  who had disabilities. This sense of connectedness helped them feel more authentic. The researchers conducting the study speculated that the specific adapted nature of the sport program versus a nonadapted sport program was instrumental in creating a cli- mate  that  allowed  the  participants  to  be  person- ally expressive. Other sport psychology researchers have reported on enhanced social integration during  sport  because  of  increased  opportunities  for children to interact with their teammates. A benefit of this increased interaction is greater social bonding and a broadening of children’s social networks.

Interviewers of 20 Swedish children participating in disability sports programs have also concluded that sport provides a means for the development of new friendships. The 36 adolescents participating in an adapted sport program who had the highest positive affect also reported the strongest peer relationships.  Thus,  a  potential  outcome  of  positive peer relations in a sport context is enhanced quality of life (positive mood states).

Some research suggests, however, that the experiences  of  children  with  disabilities  in  sport  are sometimes  less  than  positive.  For  instance,  some individuals  feel  as  if  their  physical  abilities  are denigrated and their sport participation trivialized. Even  good  intentions  can  go  awry.  For  example, children  with  disabilities  sometimes  see  offers  of assistance in sport settings from able-bodied children as a negative assessment of their ability. Their self-esteem  is  threatened  when  they  perceive  that help is offered based on a negative assessment of their ability. Sport participants also report feelings of frustration and inadequacy when attempting to accomplish activities that they are inexperienced in or lack the skills to be successful in.

In  summary,  it  should  be  clear  that  the  sport setting  is  not  inherently  a  context  that  promotes well-being among all participants all the time. As such,  sport  settings  cannot  be  labeled  as  exclusively positive or negative. Adults, youth without disabilities, and youth with disabilities themselves, exert  influence  on  the  outcomes  they  experience in  sport.  The  potential  for  positive  experiences  is greater  when  adults  with  emotional  attachments (parents)  or  with  sport  expertise  like  coaches  are actively engaged with the children in ways that are supportive  and  promote  skill  development.  The potential for negative outcomes is reduced if peers are  not  allowed  to  engage  in  discriminatory  and unkind behavior.

Elite Sport Participation

The  Paralympics,  like  the  Olympics,  are  considered the highest level of competition that an athlete with a disability can aspire to. The increased attention that the Paralympics get and the importance that governments, coaches, and support staff attach to Paralympic performance have the potential to make the Paralympic experience both exciting  and  stressful.  Research  with  U.S.  Paralympic coaches reveals that they believe athletes encounter pressure to perform well and win. Coaches also believe that the increased media and family attention increases stress.

Many researchers have substantiated the value of  athlete’s  feeling  confident,  developing  optimalmood  states,  and  employing  psychological  skills. Researchers examining elite amputee soccer players,  Paralympic  wheelchair  basketball  players, international-level  wheelchair  road  racers,  and swimmers  have  all  supported  the  value  of  psychological  skills.  Well-developed  psychological skills  help  athletes  manage  and  cope  with  stress. Sources  of  stress  among  athletes  with  disabilities reflect common sport sources of worry (e.g., lack of  fitness),  sources  of  stress  unique  to  disability sport  (e.g.,  wheelchair  or  prosthetic  concerns), disability  (e.g.,  pressure  sores),  and  the  nature  of the  Paralympic  experience.  We  next  focus  on  the unique challenges presented by the Paralympics.

British  elite  Paralympians  have  reported  that traveling  to  major  international  competitions  is stressful and noted specific factors such as having to  get  onto  the  plane  first  and  off  last  as  adding to their stress. A sport psychologist working with one Paralympian reported that his client’s biggest source  of  stress  was  managing  the  26-hour  flight to the Paralympics. Getting on and off the plane, transfers from seat to wheelchair to toilet and back as well as personal care in general during the flight were  all  worrisome.  Skiers  in  the  2014  Winter Paralympics will compete 60 kilometers from the Paralympic  village.  As  a  result,  athletes  will  have extensive  travel  arrangements  or  have  to  stay  off site  and  miss  part  of  the  Paralympic  experience. Para-equestrian dressage riders at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics  competed  off  site  in  Hong  Kong. All  the  riders  reported  that  they  missed  the  main Paralympic  experience.  Hence,  it  seems  wise  that Paralympians  psychologically  prepare  for  either extensive travel, depending on their event, or pre- pare to not spend all of their time in the Paralympic village.  According  to  British  Paralympians,  being away from home for a long time period is stressful. Athletes miss their significant others and the social support they receive from them.

Paralympians  spend  a  substantial  amount  of time  in  the  Paralympic  village.  For  athletes  who compete at the end of the games, they must spend a critical amount of time in an unfamiliar setting and sleep in a bed they are not accustomed to. In a study of Brazilian Paralympic athletes participating in the Beijing Paralympics, a majority of them had poor sleep quality during the games. Anxiety was  linked  to  poor  sleep  as  72%  of  the  athletes exhibiting  poor  sleep  quality  had  medium  levels of anxiety, whereas only 28% of the athletes who had  good  sleep  were  anxious.  British  National team  members  have  also  reported  that  they  were concerned  with  whom  they  would  share  a  room and how well they would be able to compete after a poor night of sleep.

Paralympic  support  staff  need  credentials  to access  the  Paralympic  village  but  these  credentials  are  limited.  As  a  result,  compared  to  non- Paralympic  competition,  athletes  may  have  less access  to  their  sport  psychologists  and  coaches. When  available,  coaches  and  support  staff  are often overworked and tired. The ability to see doc- tors,  therapists,  masseurs,  and  athletic  trainers  is similarly constrained.

Athletes with disabilities are functionally classified, which determines who they compete against. Being  classified,  which  occurs  prior  to  competition, can be stressful because athletes may anticipate  being  reclassified  at  a  different  level  than they  were  previously.  If  athletes  are  reclassified, they may have to compete against better athletes. Clearly such a scenario can reduce confidence and increase anxiety at a crucial time.

Drug  testing  occurs  at  the  Paralympics  and may  be  a  new,  and  therefore  stressful,  experience.  Testing  at  the  Paralympics  can  potentially be  more  involved  and  complicated  compared with  the  testing  done  by  able-bodied  Olympians. For  instance,  many  athletes  urinate  via  catheters. Other  Paralympians  may  have  to  file  exemptions because of the medications they consume related to their disability. Some Paralympians endure chronic pain and may manage it with medical marijuana, which,  although  legal  at  home,  is  a  banned  sub- stance at the Paralympics.

In summary, most elite athletes are affected by the  events  and  conditions  of  their  sport  world. However,  Paralympians  have  to  deal  with  many unique conditions and challenges that can be barriers to optimal performance.

References:

  1. Goodwin, D. L. (2001). The meaning of help in PE: Perceptions of students with physical disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 18, 289–303.
  2. Hedrick, B. N. (1985). The effect of wheelchair tennis participation and mainstreaming upon the perceptions of competence of physically disabled adolescents.
  3. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 19(2), 34–46. Martin, J. J. (1999). A personal development model of sport psychology for athletes with disabilities. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 11, 181–193.
  4. Martin, J. J. (2005). Sport psychology consulting with athletes with disabilities. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 1, 33–39.
  5. Martin, J. J. (2006). Psychosocial aspects of youth disability sport. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 23, 65–77.
  6. Martin, J. J., & Smith, K. (2002). Friendship quality in youth disability sport: Perceptions of a best friend. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 19, 472–482.
  7. Martin, J. J., & Wheeler, G. (2011). Psychology. In Y. Vanlandewijck & W. Thompson (Eds.), The Paralympic athlete (pp. 116–136). London: International Olympic Committee.

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