Twenty years ago, John Weaver would never have imagined he would be a special needs soccer coach. In fact, when he was first asked to take on his current role, he declined.
Despite his doubts, he became director of the Outreach For Soccer program at the Delaware Youth Soccer Association, where he now coaches soccer players with intellectual, emotional and physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and hearing impairment.
This spring, he saw an opportunity to add to his coaching arsenal and provide better opportunities for soccer players with visual impairments.
“What I learned on this program is that I get more out of it than the players,” Weaver said. “If I had known then what I know now, the first time I was asked I would have said yes.”
Weaver attended the first American Blind Football Coaching Education Summit on June 22 in Staunton, Va. There he joined 25 coaches in a two-day training program designed to teach them about blind football and how to incorporate the sport into their organisations.
Clemson University’s Adaptive Football Program, Maryland School for the Blind, Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind and the American Association of Blind Athletes collaborated to organize the summit. Throughout the program, Weaver learned specific training strategies for visually impaired players, as well as information on how to start a football program for the blind.
He also played a football game with the other coaches while wearing a blackout mask to help him gain perspective from blind players.
Blind football is currently the fastest growing Paralympic sport in the world and, since its debut at the 2004 Paralympic Games, it has spread to more than 60 countries. The sport is similar to traditional soccer but has a few key differences that cater to blind athletes.
The ball contains a device that makes a clicking noise and allows players to locate it, and sideboards surround the pitch to prevent the ball from going out of bounds. Players are allowed to have guides, who can shout instructions from the touchline, and goalkeepers can be sighted players. All other players must wear blackout masks to maintain an even playing field. The football field is also much smaller; approximately 43 yards by 21 yards compared to a traditional field of 125 yards by 75 yards.
There are important technical differences that blind football players should use. They need to keep the ball close while dribbling in order to maintain control.
In the past, the special needs soccer program where Weaver coached included an hour-long training session held once a week and broken into 15-minute increments to accommodate the short attention spans of some of its participants.
Each player with special needs is paired with a volunteer coach buddy from local youth soccer clubs and participates in soccer drills and a competitive game at the end of each session.
Weaver, who leads each session, has coached a handful of blind players in the past, but the program didn’t quite fit the needs of a visually impaired player, as the majority of its participants are sighted.
Now that Weaver has learned the knowledge from the National Blind Soccer Coaching Education Summit, he wants to create a program specifically for blind players.
His first step is to spread the word to people in the Delaware community with visual impairments and bring together a group of gamers. Weaver will also need to find an installation that could host such a program.
Most of the other coaches at the National Blind Football Coaching Education Summit came from schools for the blind, where they could easily raise awareness and gather participants for a new blind football program.
For Weaver, finding blind players will be a difficult but necessary task.
“What I’ve set out to do is find ways to spread the word about programs that help parents with visually impaired players,” he said. “That way they will know that the program will help them, that we can teach them skills and that we know what we are doing.
With a program created specifically for blind players, people with visual impairments will have the chance to learn and compete in a fair competitive environment and trust that the instruction they receive will be professional and designed specifically for them.
Weaver has a few hurdles to overcome before a blind soccer program is operational in Delaware, but he’s determined to give all kids the chance to play the sport, regardless of their disability.
Contact Siera Jones at SLJones@delawareonline.com and follow her on Twitter @sieraajones. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.