What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy describes a group of disorders that impact the way a person moves. It occurs when there is damage to the brain when it is developing, and it affects a young person’s ability to control their muscles. It is the most common physical disability in childhood.
A young person with cerebral palsy may experience muscle weakness, stiffness, slowness and/or shakiness of movement. They may need support with balance, coordination and walking.
Every young person with cerebral palsy is unique and the condition can affect different parts of the body. For example, some young people may need support with motor control on one side of their body, while others will need support controlling both sides. If muscles in the face, mouth, and throat are impacted, talking, eating and drinking can be challenging. They might use communication methods such as computer technology or pictures, instead of speech.
Young people with cerebral palsy may need support across other areas, for example, with hearing or vision. Some may have intellectual disability or learning disability. It is important to get to know each young person with cerebral palsy, so you know how best to include them in footy related activities.
About one third of young people with cerebral palsy also have epilepsy, which means that they have recurring seizures. Epilepsy affects people in different ways. If a young person in your team has epilepsy, ask their parents about how you can recognise a seizure and what to do if this happens at the footy.
By providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help keep young people with cerebral palsy engaged and safe. With a little planning, you can ensure they have enriching opportunities to make friends, learn new skills and participate in the footy fun.
What might this look like on the footy field?
Players with cerebral palsy will differ in how much their movement is impacted. Some can walk independently, while others will use mobility aids, such as a walking frame or a wheelchair.
A player with cerebral palsy may need support with coordinating movements when learning to play footy. They also have different ways of communicating, such as through computer technology such as iPads, through pictures or gestures.
Strategies and tips
Before the session
Communication is key
- Sometimes, people may assume that young people with physical disabilities need support with thinking, understanding, and learning. This is often not the case and should not be assumed.
- Some young people who don’t use speech will be able to understand others, and use communication methods, such as computer technology or pictures, to respond.
- As a coach, learning how to communicate most effectively with a player who uses communication methods other than speech is important so that the player has every opportunity to participate and have fun. Coaches should speak with the young person’s parents if they are unsure about how much of what they say is being understood.
Parents know their child best
- It’s always a good idea to talk to parents to find out the best way to communicate and work with their child. Parents can help you understand a young person’s unique strengths and areas they need more help.
- See the Getting to know your Auskicker page for some example questions you could ask before starting to coach the player.
- Remember to check with the player if it is okay to speak with their parent first.
Consider the playing surface
- Think about the surface you’re holding your session on. Is it safe for players who use mobility aids including crutches, walking frames or wheelchairs?
- When the footy oval is too muddy or not appropriate for players using mobility aids, consider running the session using an alternate surface like the car park or clubrooms so that young people who use mobility aids can play too. You could even talk to your local council about making the footy oval more accessible.
Consider the weather
- Bad weather (rain, too hot, too cold, stormy) might make it uncomfortable for some players to play outside. Have a weather plan that includes identifying a place indoors like the clubroom to run your sessions.
During the session
- Change the activity, not the player: If an activity seems difficult, don’t attribute the problem to the player, instead, attribute it to the strategy. For example, you could say, ‘Looks like this activity might be difficult. I think we chose the wrong size target, let’s try it with a larger target’.
- Allow alternate ways to play: If a player needs support to kick a drop punt, you could allow them to kick the ball off the ground, or practise kicking it off a stand.
- Change the rules so everyone can play: Make changes to the rules where appropriate so everyone is involved and has the opportunity to play. For example, in wheelchair tennis, the ball can bounce twice before being hit. In a footy context, handballing drills might be difficult for young people with stiffness in their arms, so you may allow them to use 2 hands or to throw the ball.
- Offer all roles: There are many roles on the footy field. Young people can do other roles if they don’t want to join the game as a player, like throw the ball back in or umpire.
- Modify activities so everyone can play: Adapt the size of the target or the distance the player is from it. For example, you can use a bigger target for handball drills or allow the player to be closer to the target. Consider allowing the player to carry the ball between two points instead of kicking or handballing.
- Modify equipment so everyone can play: Consider using a different type of ball such as a soccer ball, bean bag, balloon, tennis ball or beach ball rather than an AFL football depending on the activity.
- Be aware and recognise the signs of fatigue: Some young people with cerebral palsy may get tired more quickly. Signs that they may need a break include slowing down, looking tired, having difficulty catching their breath, or showing signs of frustration.
- Shorten activities: Shortening activities can help limit fatigue. The length of an activity may need to be tailored to the individual player.
- Schedule frequent breaks: Having frequent, short breaks ensures players have time to recover. Multiple short breaks can be more helpful than less frequent longer breaks. Provide a chair or a bench for players to sit on to catch their breath.
- Give young people time: When communicating, allow time to let players with cerebral palsy comment or respond to you. When doing activities, don’t rush the young person, as they may take more time and practise to learn to kick, catch or run. Remember to praise every effort!
- Make eye contact at the player's level: Think about how to have good eye contact with players who may sit at a lower height, such as in a wheelchair. You can kneel down or sit on a bench when you are communicating. Check that you have the young person’s attention before giving instructions.
- Allow parents or siblings to help: Ask the player if they would like a parent or sibling to help. This might encourage the player to be more involved and feel safe at play. But remember, some players (eg. young players) might be okay with this, while others (eg. older players) might not.
After the session
- Check in with the young person and their family: A discreet and brief chat post session with a young person with cerebral palsy and their family can help identify what activities they enjoyed, and whether some activities can be further modified for next time.
If you are coaching a young person with cerebral palsy, you may also be interested in reading about:
Footy stories. Footy stories are a great way to assist young people with anxiety to become familiar with the wonderful world of footy. You can find all of our footy stories on the Parent Information Page.
Further training. If you would like further information and resources, you can visit play.afl/coach/ You can also learn more about how to be an inclusive coach by completing the AllPlay Footy Online Coaching Modules in Inclusion. This course provides you with tools and resources for creating inclusive environments at footy.
AllPlay Footy is a joint initiative by Monash University and the AFL. AllPlay Footy was founded at Deakin University in 2015 and has been part of Monash Education since 2021. The AllPlay Footy content and resources presented here have been developed with people with lived experience of disability, consultants from National Sporting Organisations for People with Disability, psychologists and researchers, and are brought to you with funding from a Department of Social Services Information, Linkages and Capacity Building: Social and Community Participation Stream (2020-2021) grant. We aim to use language that is respectful to everyone.
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