I have been hearing the word inclusion more and more these days. Organizations are sharing stories of how they are welcoming those who have been traditionally excluded and celebrating their acts of inclusion. But is simply welcoming someone enough?
As a coach to athletes with intellectual and physical disabilities, inclusion requires me to meet each athlete where they are and coach them from that place. My goal is never to have a standardized program, or to have all the athletes strive to be the same. My goal is to personalize my interactions with each person so they can move forward from where they are and work toward where they want to be. By approaching coaching this way I am creating a space where no one is left behind, and everyone can be there best possible self.
So what does inclusion look like in the swimming pool?
During a session with Meliah, an adult swimmer with Down syndrome, we needed to work on her push-offs and swim as part of her goal to swim a 200 fly. As I coach Meliah I need to recognize that she learns in different ways and at a different pace than I do. I also need to recognize that she is prone to saying she understands when she doesn’t. This is likely a bit of a protective layer for Meliah. Years of people telling her she is wrong daily after not being provided instruction that meets her where she is has likely taken a toll. She has cleverly learned to hide when she doesn’t understand and as part of this does not seek clarification.
Here’s what the workout looked like
The main part of the workout was broken into 4 sets of 25fly / 25 recovery with each set being slightly different. The goal of the set was to teach Meliah to swim streamline underwater for the first 5 to 10 metres and then take on stroke without breathing and then breath every 2 strokes the rest of the way to the wall. A lot to remember for anyone!
- underwater streamline to mid pool, one stroke without breathing, coast to the wall
- underwater streamline to mid pool one stroke without breathing, breath, 2 more strokes, coast to the wall
- underwater streamline to mid pool one stroke without breathing, breath, 7 more strokes breathing every 2, coast to the wall
- underwater streamline to mid pool one stroke without breathing, breath, breathing every 2 to the wall
My hope was through repetition and gradual learning Meliah would be able to retain all of the things she needed to know to swim 25 meters fly in preparation for her 200.
Here’s what happened
I am always so grateful to the athletes I coach for teaching me. I think I learn more from them then they do from me.
My first mistake in set 1 was not explaining to Meliah what coast to the wall meant. She swam fly; I meant easy free. I apologized to her after the first 25 for not telling her as I did not want her to feel she had done something wrong. The remaining 3 were spot on!
My second mistake was on set 2. I did not take the time to physically demonstrate what without breathing, breath, and then 2 strokes. This set was more complicated than the first with more to remember. I find it helps to repeat the steps out loud with Meliah to help her focus and retain the information. We shared this exchange before swimming the second 25. Again, I was careful to not have Meliah in a position where she felt she made a mistake.
My third mistake was on set 3. I assumed it would be easy to go from 2 to 7 strokes and skipped the part where I had Meliah repeat the set out loud. I now know that any little change can actually be a big change for another person. We worked on this a few times until Meliah was able to swim the set.
On the final set I reserved my comment for praise.
There are many lessons I learned from Meliah on that day, but the most important one was that inclusion does not mean asking a person to change to fit into my world, it means me changing how I approach things so my world can include them.
How about you?