It’s time to talk about inclusion in youth sports - Hearing and Speech Agency

It’s time to talk about inclusion in youth sports

This spring, the Kansas City Royals signed Tarik El-Abour, a 25-year-old with autism, as an outfielder. A few years back, the Seattle Seahawks signed Derrick Coleman, the NFL’s first deaf offensive player (he now plays for the Arizona Cardinals). National MMA fighter Matt Hamill, deaf since birth, is a three-time NCAA D3 national champion and has competed in the UFC.

Despite these inspiring success stories, young athletes with mild sensory and communication challenges have historically been left out of team sports.

Overlooking these kids can hurt their growth as individuals and athletes as well as set them up for exclusion in the workplace and other social settings further down the line. The sports community has a unique opportunity to help kids develop interpersonal and team skills, as well as realize untapped athletic potential. As a society, we have an opportunity to broaden our understanding of communication and to model inclusion and acceptance for the next generation.

So what do we do? We start with a willingness to learn and understand. We ask questions. We put in the extra work and time to make adaptations. And we celebrate our differences.

If you’re a coach or a player wondering how you can make a difference and promote a team culture of inclusivity, here are a few thoughts on how to get started.


Commit to awareness and understanding


An inclusive team environment starts by recognizing that communication isn’t one-size-fits-all. When we assume that everyone communicates the same way we do, that’s when exclusion happens.

Commit to learning and understanding your teammates’ and players’ communication styles. Consider that someone on your team might be hard of hearing or have, ADHD, autism, or another sensory challenge. Then, don’t write them off – rather, seek to understand and put yourself in their shoes. It might be different than what you’re used to and it might take a little extra work, but that’s what inclusion is all about!


Don’t be afraid to ask questions


It’s helpful to observe and do research, but the only way you can really know how to support someone is to ask. Each situation is different, each individual is different, and what works for one person might not work for another.

As a coach, this might look like reaching out to a parent and having a conversation about how to best serve their child. Admit that this is unfamiliar territory, affirm that you value their child’s contribution to the team, acknowledge them as the expert, and express a willingness to learn.

As a team member, this might look like asking the coach for some guidance or even asking your teammate – something as simple as “Hey, I really appreciate what you bring to the team and want to make sure I’m being a good teammate to you – what I can I do to be better?” Obviously, it’s important to be respectful and mindful of context when approaching the conversation, but most people will appreciate the opportunity to have an open dialogue. Make sure you create a safe space for the conversation and that you’re respectful of the individual’s privacy.


Communicate via multiple channels


Whenever possible, use multiple channels to get your message across. If you’re reviewing a game, send a note around to the team afterward, recapping what you discussed. If you show a video and the audio quality isn’t great, try to provide a transcript so players can follow along. When you throw plays up on the drawing board, attach clear text labels to the different scenarios. As much as possible, face people when you talk to them. Find creative ways to complement visual communication with audio communication or text-based communication, and vice versa.


Want to learn more? Our team would love to chat with you! We offer workshops that train coaches and parents on how to make the youth sports space more inclusive for players with mild sensory and communications challenges. Please contact Lauren Albers Denhart at for more info!



Did You Know? The crux of team communication – the team huddle – traces back to 1892! College football quarterback Paul Hubbard from Gallaudet University invented it so his opponents wouldn’t see him using ASL to talk to his teammates. Read more about it here, and how the huddle has become an invaluable ritual for sports teams across the world.

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