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Supporting Specific Needs

Signs are Good for the Future of Deaf Hockey

Wendy Russell is helping to revolutionise the coaching of deaf hockey in Britain, and the accolades are flying her way faster than a sweetly struck slap shot. Blake Richardson spoke to the former UK Coaching Awards Disability Coach of the Year

This article was originally published on our online community ConnectedCoaches in December 2015. We have provided updates on some of the key milestones in Wendy’s coaching journey at the bottom of the article.

Lady Luck is finally starting to smile on 2015 UK Coaching Awards Disability Coach of the Year Wendy Russell.

Wendy has been dogged by more than her fair share of misfortune over the years, but if you ask the hockey players she coaches, they will tell you they feel very lucky to have her in their lives.

In Wendy’s 'empowering women' coaching story Dreams Do Come True: A Story of Pleasure, Pain and Perseverance, we learnt of her battle against arthritis, which threatened to wreck her chances of playing and coaching hockey, and the traumatic, high-speed collision with a car that damaged ligaments and tendons in her ankle.

The feature also touched on her pioneering scheme to set up the country’s first deaf hockey club.

Since the story was published, her already hectic lifestyle has cranked up another couple of gears.

She was was shortlisted for the Community Award in the Sunday Times and Sky Sports News Sportswomen of the Year Awards, won the Sportivate Project of the Year for her Hockey Hot Stars sessions in the 2015 Sussex Sports Awards, and then crowned a fantastic year by winning the Disability Coach of the Year prize at the 2015 UK Coaching Awards.

But the biggest development involves the rapid progress she is making with coaching hockey to deaf and hard of hearing children.

And on the back of the club’s success, she is now working on a brand-new project to set up a sports-specific sign language course for coaches.

Ground-breaking

I asked Wendy – who coaches at Brighton and Hove Hockey Club and teaches PE at Steyning Grammar School – why she decided to branch into disability coaching. She divulged that she was partially deaf herself.

“I have 20% hearing in one ear and tinnitus in both ears so I am considered partly disabled,” she explains. “It just happened overnight. I woke up one day thinking I had a cold and a bit of hearing loss, but two weeks later, it was still there and so I thought I’d better get it checked out. Apparently, it happens to five per cent of the population.

“I just tried to take it in my stride. When it first happened, I was devastated as I didn’t know if it was going to affect my teaching, but I’ve adapted and become more visually aware.

You do rely on your hearing a lot when you play team sports, and when you are teaching or coaching, so visually, I have learnt how to position myself better.”

Her hearing impairment provided her with the motivation to launch the ground-breaking deaf hockey sessions for 8–14 year olds at Blatchington Mill School – the headquarters of Brighton and Hove Hockey Club.

She adds: “Statistics show only 11.5% of young deaf people take part in sport outside of school, and I was shocked at that.

“Figures produced recently show 33% of disabled people take part in sport, and the amount of those who are deaf is up 5%. This research shows how limited the opportunities are for deaf people.

That’s a big reason why I set up the deaf hockey club, to create that safe environment so young people feel nurtured and can build their focus, confidence and self-esteem. From my past experience with other coaches, I know they feel very daunted about joining a non-disabled club. My club provides them with that stepping stone.

“It isn’t surprising deaf people don’t feel comfortable going out into hearing clubs as even able-bodied people, when they turn up as novices, are generally quite nervous. Young people are very good at understanding and accepting other people, but they don’t necessarily know how to interact with someone who is deaf.”

As a coach mentor working for Active Sussex on the Lottery-funded Sportivate initiative, Wendy knew there was funding out there for projects involving disability groups, so she applied for a grant – and was successful. She hasn’t looked back since.

I remember the problems I had when I was told my deafness wouldn’t get better, and what it was like when I was playing hockey and people were calling for the ball and I couldn’t hear them. They would get frustrated with me. I wondered how I might be able to help others in the same position.

“I researched what was out there and was shocked that, firstly, there was no other provision for people deaf or hard of hearing to play hockey and, secondly, how limited sporting opportunities in general are for them. They can do either football or cricket, but, basically, you are expected to go along to a normal hearing club, and they will provide for you.”

Pilot scheme

The fledgling club she set up continues to grow steadily and has caught the attention of disability charities nationwide.

The publicity she received escalated after she devised her own unique set of sign language signs specific to hockey.

Wendy used some of the funding from Sportivate to create videos of the sign language, which have been adopted and promoted by the National Deaf Children’s Society, England Hockey and UK Deaf Sport, and rolled out across the country.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Wendy realised that there was still a lot more mileage in this pioneering project.

She now works closely with the Brighton and Hove Sensory Unit run by the city council and Albion in the Community (AITC).

The sensory unit provides children with opportunities to play sport and AITC is the charitable arm of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, who organise deaf football sessions within the community.

Wendy explains: “They promote my club, and I promote theirs. The idea is to try to give as many young deaf people as many sports opportunities as possible.”

She has also joined forces with Hamilton Lodge deaf school in Brighton and is keen to showcase her initiatives in mainstream schools across the county.

And there’s more.

She has also taken it upon herself to learn sign language in order to run a sports-specific sign language course, which UK Deaf Sport is keen to pilot.

This is still in its formative stages – it hasn’t even got a name yet – but she is hoping the course could eventually be adapted and endorsed by other sports, not just hockey.

"Not everyone with hearing loss uses sign language but, for me, there is a big need for people to have at least the basics that cover aspects of sport.

“It will provide coaches with a little bit of a background so that, if someone who is deaf joins their club, even if it is a hearing club, they can ask their name, find out how they are doing, simple things like that.

“I use some of the sign language as a teacher at my school and it is amazing how hearing kids pick up on it as well so it will be useful in clubs where there are mixed levels of hearing too.”

Creativity the key

Wendy can look forward with enthusiasm to a bright and busy future.

More accolades may well come her way, and if they do, they will be treasured. But they will always play second fiddle to the primary objective of raising awareness of her coaching projects.

Of her most recent success at the UK Coaching Awards, Wendy admitted: “What I do is only a very small part of all the great work that goes on by a huge network of people who work in disability sport.

I just hope the award will help promote awareness that disabled people can play sport perfectly well, while making people aware that there are sports out there for them and that it is not that difficult to cater for disabled people; the secret is to be creative with it.”

I got back in touch with UK Coaching Ambassador Wendy in April 2022 to check up on the progress of her many projects.

PE teacher Wendy now works at Blatchington Mill School – HQ for Brighton and Hove Hockey Club – and lives nearby too, allowing her to easily connect her profession with her passion and save precious time travelling.

Her deaf hockey sessions stopped when she was accepted onto England Hockey’s Advanced Coaches Programme, but after graduating this summer, “if all goes to plan”, she is hoping to relaunch the sessions.

“I have been chatting with the hockey club and we are thinking about making it a disability coaching session rather than just deaf only, because of my interest in coaching people with all types of special needs.”

Wendy’s interest in promoting use of sign language to raise deaf awareness now stretches to running classes for her pupils.

“My students love it, to the point where I’ve got eight or nine pupils who are learning sign language independently, as well as with me. I’m trying to organise someone to come into the school to run a foundation sign language course. My students think like I do, that you are going to come across someone who is deaf or hard of hearing at some point, so an introduction to sign language is a valuable skill to have. A few are learning sign language for their Duke of Edinburgh too.”

Regarding the pioneering deaf friendly hockey YouTube page she helped set up after devising her own unique set of signs specific to hockey, Wendy adds: “I have become known as ‘the sign language lady’ and there is a lot of interest. Some hockey coaches who work with people with Down Syndrome have asked me for a link to the page (which contains videos showing how to sign common hockey terms) as sign language is used as a way of communicating with people with Down Syndrome and other types of communication needs other than deaf people.”

Wendy is also involved in Flyerz hockey, which continues to grow in popularity. There are now more than 50 clubs with Flyerz sections in Britain. Access Sport launched the grass-roots disability hockey initiative in 2011 as part of its Disability Inclusion Programme ‘to support local community sports clubs become more inclusive of disabled young people’.

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