By Tim Binning
In 2000, my wife, Allison, read an article in the East Valley Tribune about an organization named Mesa Association of Sports for the Disabled, which now operates as Arizona Disabled Sports (AzDS). They provided many sports opportunities for athletes with disabilities. My son Stephen, who was born with spina bifida, was six years old at the time and we were looking to get him involved in sports. And just like it has with so many other young people, it changed his life’s trajectory.
Stephen got involved in track and field and wheelchair basketball. It was the first time he was able to play sports with other kids who were using chairs. They provided examples of how to do things in a wheelchair; they could joke about their disability and relate to each other in a way Stephen couldn’t with his able-bodied friends. Being part of a team boosted his confidence, and he proudly wore his team gear to school. He made friends on those teams with whom he still remains close today. He also met many adults, both athletes and coaches, who used wheelchairs. They modeled behavior my wife and I felt was important for him to see, such as having a career, a family, and being completely independent. These positive influences were some of the many unexpected benefits of disabled sports.
Whether your goal is to be a recreational or an elite athlete, improved fitness is valuable for many reasons.
Physical benefits include increased strength and endurance, improved coordination and balance, and a decrease in body weight that can lessen the chance of developing serious secondary conditions. The reduction of physical education programs in schools has only proven to increase the likelihood that a child will develop a sedentary lifestyle; therefore, getting involved in community-based programs is now more important than ever.
The emotional benefits can be even more important. Involvement in sports can improve self-esteem, increase the desire to be independent, help one to develop better social skills, reduce the risk of depression and provide an environment in which to make new friends. Having the opportunity to be around others who also use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, or prosthetics is not something many kids have the chance to do. These interactions are critical; it demonstrates to them that they are not alone with a disability. If other kids can do it, so can they!
Now that I am the wheelchair track coach for Arizona Disabled Sports, I have seen these physical and emotional benefits first-hand. Many young people come out to Mesa High for our annual Sportsfest and are very hesitant to get in a track chair and try it out. It takes some coaxing and encouragement, but once they overcome their initial fear of trying something and realize they can do it, you can witness the change come over them. The smile starts, slowly at first, and grows quickly. Soon they are talking more and interacting with the other team members. When the time comes to finish their turn, the chair that they were hesitant to get into becomes the chair they are reluctant to leave.
Parents often come back to me and tell me that their child couldn’t stop talking about their cool experience. We tend to participate in activities that interest us. As Ben Scanlan, father of AzDS athlete Gabe, says, “Starting Gabe in wheelchair sports through AzDS is the best decision we have made. It gave him the opportunity to be competitive at sports despite his birth defect and he has grown tremendously as an individual.” I have heard from parents who have shared that their children’s attitudes toward life improve with greater participation in sports activities. It helps them be more confident at school and brings their personality out little by little.
Involvement in sports teaches traits that will last a lifetime, and prepares an athlete for success after athletics. Sports requires athletes to set goals, and work to achieve them. Working with a coach to set long- and short-term goals involves planning and creating timelines. The athlete and coach establish a partnership with both sides accountable for achieving the desired results. The coach can provide the road map through training plans, but the athlete must do the work. As a coach, I am as excited when they achieve their goals as they are!
There is a secret benefit of involvement in sports: it provides parents with leverage. When the possibility of not going to practice can immediately change behavior, you know that the sport has become a very important part of the athlete’s life. ‘You can’t go to practice until your homework is done’ can be one of the best motivators in a parent’s toolbox.
I often wonder how different Stephen’s life would have been had he not become involved in disabled sports fourteen years ago. He has been able to compete all over the United States, as well as France, England, and Puerto Rico. He is now a member of the University of Illinois wheelchair track and road racing team.
We are not alone in our experience. Joe Underwood, a teammate of Stephen’s on the Banner Wheelchair Suns basketball team and one of his best friends, has also been able to continue his athletic endeavors at the college level. Now, he is on scholarship at the University of Missouri as a member of their wheelchair basketball team. Joe has also experienced great success in the pool and is one of the best swimmers in the U.S. in his classification. Joe’s mom, Susan Underwood says, “Without disabled sports, Joe would be a very different person. The opportunities and experiences that disabled sports have opened to him are priceless.”
At Arizona Disabled Sports, we are proud of our athletes that can compete on the national and international stages, but we are just as proud to work with the athletes that come out to improve their fitness, have fun and make friends. Our motto is Let No One Sit on the Sidelines, and we focus on getting everyone involved no matter what their level of ability or personal goals.
I want to stress this to the parents who are reading this: give your child the gift of involvement in sports.
Whether it’s through AzDS or another community-based program, it will be a decision you won’t regret. There are many different sports to choose from, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on the track, the court, in the pool or on the archery range, your child will find something they will enjoy doing, and coaches who devote their time and energy to helping them do it. As Ben says: “If you have a child with a disability, AzDS will help make it an ability.”
Tim Binning is entering his third season as the wheelchair track coach for Arizona Disabled Sports. As a father of two grown boys, one who has been involved in wheelchair sports for nearly 15 years, Tim knows the important and potentially life changing experience that adaptive sports can offer. Tim lives in Ahwatukee with his wife Allison and dog Sadie.