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Become an Inclusive Coach to Be a Better Coach

Charlotte Potterton speaks to GB Visually Impaired Tennis Head Coach Louise Assioun about progress on inclusivity in coaching, the importance of foregrounding it in coach education, and its wide-ranging positive impact on the people you coach and your own development

With a wealth of first-hand experience of the positive benefits of inclusion, Louise Assioun is passionate about raising awareness so that all coaches recognise the colossal impact of inclusive coaching on people, communities and even coaches themselves.

Twenty-five years ago, Louise started her coaching journey as a PE teacher. Now, she is Head Coach of the GB Blind & Visually Impaired Tennis team; an Adaptive Sport Advisor for the Battle Back Centre, a recovery programme for military personnel and veterans in Lilleshall; and the director of LUSU Sport, an inclusive sports training company. 

In addition, Louise is involved in coach development and does consultancy work. “I’ve got loads of different hats” is not an over-exaggeration.

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that that sounds like a lot of hard work. But for Louise, the overwhelmingly positive impact of inclusive coaching is more than sufficient motivation.

“I’m really passionate about coaching and getting people involved in some form of physical activity,” says Louise.

I just think that, regardless of ability, gender or disability, everyone should be allowed to take part in activity, and they should get the opportunity to have fun, make friends, and learn different skills.”

Recognising different goals central to inclusion

When considering inclusion, Louise first asserts the importance of recognising that everyone is unique, with their own motives for attending. Recognising these individual differences is key to unlocking a successful and enjoyable session for all.

It is also important to recognise that an inclusive session can include some element of competition, whether that’s trying to beat previous scores or playing against others.

“Some people want it to be competitive,” Louise explains, “whereas for others it’s about the social elements, how their bodies feel, and linking into mental health.”

Louise also adds that a person’s initial reason for attending may not remain their primary focus as they gain experience and build their skills, growing as a participant and as a person.

“People may turn around and say that they want to meet friends, but they may also have that competitive side,” notes Louise. To manage this, she welcomes different goals and outcomes, as they all demonstrate an interest in engaging in physical activity. 

“It’s about highlighting to people what activity can do for them within the same session. Different people take different things out of it.”

Putting the person at the centre of inclusive coaching

Louise’s strategy for session delivery is to consider the people who are attending (their interests, motivations and specific needs), and what she can do to ensure that her session is applicable for them.

How can I create an environment that’s going to challenge the people at the sessions and their motivations, and how can I deliver? It’s about creating an environment that challenges and teaches at the same time.”

This is achieved by something seemingly very simple, but undeniably powerful: the humble conversation.

“The first thing I would do is ask them a few questions, such as what other sports or activities they have been involved in and try to relate things to what they’ve done previously, finding that common thread so that they can link in with other people.”

Discovering their motivations generates information and ideas that Louise can use to assist them in reaching their goals. This is then a problem-solving opportunity and a chance to think outside the box – and beyond the constraints of the court.

“I’m a believer in inquisitive coaching,” Louise explains, “and in making it fun.”

Use colourful, sensory equipment, and think about changing your teaching environment. For example, if you’re coaching tennis, don’t just use the lines on the tennis court, but instead extend the court. What happens if you cover the net in sheets? It changes the shape and the parameters of the activity.

“It’s about being creative and creating a safe environment for people to push themselves to whatever extent and in whatever they want to do.”

But what this really comes down to is having fun. Don’t be afraid to try something new, even if it seems silly, because even if it doesn’t play out as you anticipated, you’ve nonetheless created a judgement-free learning opportunity for yourself and the people you coach.

Ultimately, it’s about making sure that everyone’s included. Regardless of the environment, I see my role as a coach as to inspire people, whether they’re a volunteer or someone that’s coming along for the session.”

Make the journey to the session part of the experience

Louise also recommends thinking more broadly when it comes to session delivery by considering how you can incorporate the journey to the session into the positive experience.

“A journey to a session can be active: it doesn’t have to involve jumping in a car and being taken somewhere. If you can find different ways to make even the journey as fun and creative as possible, it just adds a different dimension to the experience.”

How do the people you coach travel to your sessions? If someone doesn’t travel by car, can you meet them at the bus stop, and turn the walk into part of the experience?

“A buddy system works really well,” Louise explains. “It doesn’t have to be the coach and the volunteers: it could be your players that are meeting people. I started doing this quite a lot when I was working with visually impaired players, as we had volunteers that would meet people and guide them to the facilities. All of a sudden, the players started to guide each other.”

As well as making the journey to the session more interesting, this also fostered autonomy.

"The players then really started taking ownership of the session, and drove the club, rather than it just being the coach that does that.”

The impact of person-centred, inclusive coaching

As well as enabling more people to develop their skills and challenge themselves physically and mentally, inclusive coaching can also improve self-esteem and self-confidence, and can have a tangible impact on mental health and well-being.

Activity can decrease anxiety, increase self-esteem, improve sleep and even enhance social skills, which is especially important as people have been indoors and isolated for so long. That mental health link is also massive at the moment.

“Especially with the work that I’ve done with complex needs and military rehabilitation programmes, a lot of people have found that increasing activity has also decreased the amount of medication that they may need.”

These positive outcomes may be different, but they grow from a common source: involvement in sport and physical activity, and the support of an inclusive coach.

Moving on to discuss social skills specifically, Louise recalls that she has seen people at her sessions become more comfortable with maintaining eye contact, which can ease the process of meeting new people and making friends considerably. 

Her sessions also offer an opportunity for people to return to sport, regardless of the length of time that they haven’t engaged in physical activity.

“Confidence links to self-esteem. At the moment, I’m coaching a rounders club, and seeing various members join in who haven’t played rounders for years. You see them develop and grow, and really enjoy the sport as well as that social interaction.

“They become more self-confident, their self-esteem increases, and that helps everything else.

The activity is a vehicle to help people make changes. It might be a small change that then escalates into bigger and better changes as they become more self-confident. It might then impact on their sleep, their health and even their nutritional choices.”

Breaking down the barriers to involvement

Taking into account the last eighteen months, Louise notes that it is likely that we will see a larger number of health conditions in communities, such as ‘long Covid’ and poor mental health.

Importantly, she adds, “the time that we’ve been away has also amplified many barriers to sports for people with disabilities.”

To combat this, it is important to again be open to having a conversation.

“I think that it’s really important that we listen to people and do as much as we can to break down those barriers, perceived and actual. It’s about listening, communicating and welcoming people back.”

Recognising inclusion more broadly

While Louise emphasises that a lot of progress has been made, there is still work to be done to change our understanding of inclusion.

“I spend a lot of time trying to get people to think about long-term health conditions rather than just about disability. People naturally think of a wheelchair user or someone who is visually impaired, but there’s a far greater variety of people to reach.

“Dementia is an important one. You might have someone who has been playing in your club for years and who then develops dementia. You can help them by helping with the activity, as opposed to saying that they shouldn’t be coming. 

I’ve seen so many cases where people with dementia have come on to the court, picked up the equipment, and actually started playing. They might have forgotten scoring, or they might not be able to move quite as well as before, but they’re really good at hitting the ball, and you can see the smiles on their faces. You see the person again.”

Learning from the people you coach

Louise notes that one of the other interesting things that she has learned from inclusive coaching is that the skills you obtain are eminently transferable, both to different sports and to the rest of your life.

“As you get older,” Louise explains, “more of the important lessons and movements that you learned on the sports pitch when you were younger become even more relevant, such as when climbing stairs, maintaining strength and doing jobs around the garden and the house. A lot of the movement needed is similar to what you learned in sport.”

Not content with that, Louise has also learned a lot from the people she coaches.

“I’ve learned loads of lessons from the players, especially the visually impaired players that I’ve worked with. 

I think, sometimes, coaches think that we know best, but the participants can bring a whole different layer and dynamic. You just have to match the skills of the coach with what the participants can bring. If you do that, you create a really good environment.”

Louise adds that she considers herself to be a guide, assisting the people she coaches on their journey rather than being the all-knowing font of knowledge. This, she explains, is a privilege. 

Building the confidence to be inclusive

“Inclusion should be at the core of education,” Louise says simply, because everyone deserves the opportunity to engage in sport and physical activity. “For me, there’s no excuse anymore. Coaches need to start thinking about inclusion as part of the coaching process.

If you still need convincing: becoming an inclusive coach can also improve and enhance every element of your coaching, irrespective of your target audience. 

There’s some really good models, like the STEP Model. If you put that at the heart of your coaching, you can use it for everything. You can use it for communication, for delivering sessions, and for all the different target groups. If you fully understand STEP, then everything about your coaching can become inclusive.”

But the onus isn’t just on you. Louise explains that she has received help on her journey, and that it has made all the difference.

“The biggest help for me on my journey has been my mentors, both formal and informal. Having someone that you can learn from and bounce ideas off is invaluable on your journey. No coach is a finished coach. You can always learn.

Louise also recognises the need to build confidence, asserting that coaches need to be supported to think differently.

“If we can get tutors trained and coach education being really inclusive right from the very beginning, then we can give coaches the confidence to be inclusive and to realise that it’s simply part of the coaching process. All that is required are some adaptations and potentially a change in process or communication style.”

The outcome of this, Louise asserts, would be a generation of coaches that are even more effective, “and who are capable of coaching all different areas and who wear a variety of hats.

If you have that inclusive part of your coaching, then you can coach anyone. It makes you a better and more creative coach.”

For more information on STEP, refer to our guide for subscribers, Understanding the STEP Model.

For more on mentoring and its benefits, read our tips for subscribers, Lean on Me: How Mentors Can Provide Support and And Progress.

Flying the flag for inclusive coaching

Coaching has come a long way. Inclusion no longer goes unmentioned, and there are, by all accounts, an increasing number of inclusive sessions taking place across the nation, in a wonderful variety of sports. But there’s still more to do.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, levels of inactivity have come under additional scrutiny, and the last 18 months of restrictions and isolation have undoubtedly raised new and resurrected old barriers to taking part for people with long-term health conditions and disabilities.

What Louise has demonstrated is that inclusive coaches can change that – and become more creative, more imaginative and more effective in the process. 

Inclusive coaching should be fun and enjoyable for all, but it also provides a very real, impactful opportunity to challenge and develop yourself, your coaching and the people in front of you.

The STEP Model

Our animation provides a useful introduction to this popular inclusive coaching model, describing how you can use it with the people you coach

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT STEP

Duty to Care

Earn our free nationally recognised Digital Badge by demonstrating your knowledge of the five pillars of Duty to Care (Safeguarding; Diversity; Inclusion; Mental Health; Well-being)

EARN THE DIGITAL BADGE

Related Learning

  • Inclusive Activity Programme eLearning module

    View
  • Coaching People with a Visual Impairment

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  • Inclusive Activity Programme (Online Classroom)

    View

Related Resources

  • Understanding the STEP Model

    View
  • Ideas for Making Your Sessions More Inclusive

    View
  • Embrace Inclusivity to Identify Fresh Talent

    View

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