“So what was the coolest thing about Paralympic National Soccer Camp?”
This was the first question that I asked my 13 year old son Shea, upon his return from the United States Men’s Paralympic National Team Training Camp in Carson CA this past October.
Shea’s response was “We have a one armed (use of one) goalkeeper and he is coolest guy you could ever meet and he saves everything”
There were a lot of answers that I was anticipating but a goalkeeper that can only use one arm was not high on the list.
Shea’s journey to his first Paralympic National Team training camp was not planned nor was it expected. Until 6 months ago we didn’t even know that a team of stroke, CP and traumatic brain injury survivors even existed.
Serendipitously, Meg, Shea’s mum,read an article on the BBC website this past summer about the CP World Cup which was taking place in England at the same time as the much talked about Women’s World Cup was playing out across Canada.
A far cry from the Canadian Rockies, the CP games in England played host to hundreds of players and spectators throughout the games, not the tens of thousands that the women’s games boasted. Fierce competition in England eventually saw the US team win enough games to clinch a berth at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Upon clinching, wild celebrations ensued for the US team which is made up of traumatic brain injury victims, stroke survivors and men with CP as the team clinched a 2016 summer fling at the Brazil Olympics in Latin America.
At 13 years of age Shea was the youngest invitee at one of the most recent camps in Carson California. Training camps for the team are held frequently to prepare the team for major events such as the Olympics, Pan Am Games and World Cup. Eligibility for the team begins at age 15. With 18 months until he’s even eligible, Shea prepares with a daily training regimen that consists of a mixture of ball work, gym time and PT. This along with a full school load makes for a tired lad who usually retires to his slumbers at 8:30pm each evening.
As proud as we all are about Shea’s athletic accomplishments at the camp, it is when we listen to him, that we gush and beam as he describes the men that he competed with and now regards as friends. Shea shared that some of the players became eligible because they were injured on active duty in places like Afghanistan. He also said that “when you hear the stories of these very brave men it make my issues seem less important.” A lesson for all about perspective.
It his here that we jump back to the history or time line of Shea’s progress from a young boy that could barely run to a potential Olympic athlete.
Like so many other families the shock of discovering a neurologically generated disability is both scary and traumatic for the parents as the initial fear related to the unknown finds a cavernous playground in your mind.
When Shea’s orthopedist explained to us that his condition was neurological, both Meg and I were floored. We took small comfort in the knowledge that we eventually established that Shea was not pre-disposed to stroke but instead had what would hopefully be only one.
His in-utero or at birth right brain stroke was explained to us as a left sided impact with Shea having hemiparesis on his left side. Our journey to the orthopedist was brought about because we noticed that Shea limped and held his arm in a crook position which worsened as he became more tired. At 5 years of age when this became pronounced we suddenly realized that we had likely missed identifying his condition by a considerable margin.
Like so many families Meg stood tall and undertook a lengthy ongoing study of Shea’s issue and how we as a family were going to help him and try to deal with it. Shea was oblivious to the situation.
At 4 years of age Shea journeyed with me and his older sister to Africa to play and work at a soccer camp that we had set up for children in Botswana. Shea did this for the next two years also and each year I would film him running around the field in Maun. His disability became more noticeable as each year passed. Because we video taped much of our African project we were able to see more noticeably the physical issues that Shea was dealing with. This filming was in part our prompt to seek more guidance on Shea’s condition.
“Don’t pick him up”
Watching any child suffering is for most people one of the hardest things to do and seeing this suffering usually generates one of the most visceral reactions from any parent. Watching Shea try to compete at a young age in any sport was extremely difficult, not least of which was because of the ease with which he was pushed down or he lost the ball. In all activities he was the weakest and least likely to have the ball passed to him. He never left any playing arena without severely bruised knees and elbows as a breath of wind would take him down head first, knee first or face first.
Resisting the urge to run to a fallen child in pain requires a manual override of the visceral emotional reaction and desire to run and help. Even today when Shea goes down I still find myself taking off only to stop abruptly once I remember the rule “DON’T PICK HIM UP.”
“Unless you are bleeding or there is a bone sticking out I am not coming out there for you” is my pre-game speech to all players, but it is extremely difficult to resist going on the field when your own son goes down time and time again.
This method of evaluating a player’s health in sport was not common when Annie, Shea’s sister, played for me many moons ago. The updated version of the rule now includes “except” for any perceived head trauma. Instead when Annie played, coaches, mostly male, would allow boys to pick themselves up but girls were always attended to quickly. We made it clear to Annie and her team mates that they were not going to be picked up and that they were definitely not getting me on the field for anything less than blood.
Luckily Annie passed this knowledge onto Shea as he embarked upon his soccer career in the local recreation-league: “Shea if you fall down, don’t expect Ash to pick you up. You will be lucky if he even steps on the field. I promise you that you will get no sympathy so you might as well just get up.”
Shea proudly shared with his sister after his first fall in a game that he got up on his own.
Whether foolishly or ignorantly we never placed restrictions on Shea’s use of his head and even today he is a prolific player with his head. We try hard within his training today to minimize the heading aspect of the game but as pointed out by Shea at National Camp, “We did heading every day.”
Shea has for the most part played on teams that I have coached and luckily for both of us he has always been around players and parents that never outwardly commented on his playing time or seemingly endless ability to fall down in the game.
- Age 4 Shea started playing soccer in clinics and mini training sessions
- Age 5-6 Recreation soccer
- Age 7 Played for a travel team based in our local town.
- He played U8, U9, U10 on the C team. The C team only existed because I was willing to coach it and I really wanted to find a place for Shea to play travel. I STRONGLY recommend parents becoming actively involved with teams that their child is on!
- At U11, 12, 13, Shea was promoted to the B team.
- At U14 Shea now plays for the B and the A team
Throughout his U8-U11 years Shea played little in the games and was upset about his perceived lack of opportunity on the team. Fortunately for Shea he hit an unexpected massive growth spurt at the mid point of the U12 year and suddenly he went from the smallest to the tallest. With this growth spurt came significant structural issues and in the summer at the end of his u11 season/year Shea tore the meniscus ironically on his right leg and stronger side.
Missing half of his u12 year was very difficult for Shea but he remained very fit by swimming and he started to take an interest in the gym. The knee injury was not from soccer but from a pool slip.
In the second half of his U12 year Shea suddenly became a very powerful player. He matured quickly and gained some speed that previously had eluded him. The bedrock of skill that he had in his right foot and side suddenly started to develop on his left side and despite his significant continued left sided atrophy he simply dealt with the pain with hard work.
Shea has significant differences in the way he uses his left foot. Gym work and on going skill work has made a significant impact on his balance to the point where he no longer falls down as often or as spectacularly. (And when he does we still don’t pick him up)
Having now played half of his u14 year Shea gets time on the B and the A team and today is a top player on the B team.
Shea’s current regimen includes at least two sessions per week in the gym with athletic trainers who offer him a very specific work out routine including stretching, weights, and resistance work. His soccer training consists of at least 3 training sessions per week and a daily touch of the ball on skills assigned by me or the National Coach. This along with one or two games per weekend is a demanding work load.
Shea’s diet is not restricted by us but he chooses a very careful diet eating very well. He is however sure to balance it with a fair share of sundaes and cookies. Steak, pasta and broccoli are favored foods but Shea has always had a unique desire and ability to try ANYTHING, unlike two of our other sons who only eat yellow or white food!
Shea sets his own bed time which on school nights is almost always no later than 8:30-9pm or as soon as he has showered and eaten after a late work out. Socially Shea is very lucky because his teammates offer him an automatic group of friends and his team mates are very special young men that have been incredibly supportive of Shea’s endeavors.
Academically Shea is a good, although sometimes an unwilling student; he reads well and seems to have a penchant for writing.
Community wise, Shea is an avid coach of young and special needs players, working for the family business and volunteering at school and special events whenever special needs programs are going on.
Other community work that Shea does includes work on wild life conservation projects with me and his younger brother. We are involved in snake and salamander rescue and preservation programs in New Jersey and spend many hours helping to conserve said creatures across New Jersey.
Starting at 10 years of age Shea spent and still does spend many nights during the spring rains walking up and down highways in Northern New Jersey with conservation experts crossing frogs and other amphibians over busy roads to avoid them being hit by cars. This is a cold wet and exhausting endeavor and one that is done night after night throughout the spring.
We were very fortunate to have the aid and support of a local physical therapist, Kevin, who treated Shea week in and week out with stretching and exercise programs. Kevin was tireless and patient with a not always cooperative client. Only in his teen years has the gym become revered and seen as hallow ground along with the subsequent PT. Today Shea is supported by fantastic trainers at the therapy clinic along with guidance from the National Team staff.
One constant for Shea during his younger years was his left-sided toe walking. This phenomenon is common. To counter this EVERYONE that was around Shea was trained and constantly reminded him to put his heel down. This was very difficult for him but the constant badgering about it clearly helped and today aside from flat feet he has only a minor heel strike issue.
One of the best moves that we made was to NOT try and do the gym and PT work ourselves. We believe this was clearly best left in the hands of the professionals.
Issues in sport that families are going to encounter are clearly the inability to compete with most typical kids in the younger years. It does not however, take a dad or the son of professional coach to play at a higher level. It will take you advocating for your child and you WILL encounter unhelpful coaches and clubs. I strongly recommend the “catch more flies with honey” approach when you need something. Typically 3-4 levels of soccer exist in most areas; recreation, travel, some form of elite which means players recruited from multiple travel teams and Academy. Academy is much higher and usually run by professional MLS clubs or higher level private soccer clubs.
Shea currently plays at an elite level for Soccer Domain Football Club in New Jersey.
Some other issues that you will face obviously include your child’s likely inability to compete at least initially at the recreation level. This will be frustrating but hang in there and VOLUNTEER to coach. It offers a far greater ability to influence your child’s training and touches on the ball if you are the coach or manager. Parent coaches often get accused of bias and playing their own child more. This is a very difficult topic and I recommend careful planning for games to avoid this issue.
Games will be tougher than training for your child as the opposition will care less about your kid disabled or not! For the most part your child’s team mates will be wonderful although in the case of boys, we have found that the players will pass less to weaker players and this will cause frustration on your child’s part. Girls on the other hand generally share the ball with everyone willingly and always.
Training, training, training…. Live and die by those three words in your child’s early year; worry less about playing games.
We found it helpful to make sure that under the guidance of a professional that we stretched our son’s affected limbs every day. For us, this effort is a tag team joint project with many tedious hours of pushing, pulling and tears! For our son, on top of actual PT sessions we believe the stretching will increase the use capacity and flexibility of left side.
Is your child equipped to play soccer?
There are many programs for players at many different skill levels. The main body of US Soccer offers a program called the TOPS soccer program. This is a program which has a variety of forms according to the organizers and area that you live in. The children that join TOPS programs have a fantastic time and the program covers a broad spectrum of players with a myriad of disabilities – physical and otherwise.
If you think that your child has the potential to play soccer at a higher level than the local disabled offerings, then I strongly recommend involvement in the traditional town programs as quickly as possible.
As most of you will already the fear of the unknown can occur with even the most logical and thoughtful people. This may translate into a line of questioning about your child’s ability that typical families are less likely to encounter. We have always smiled and understood that for the most part the organizers of such leagues know that they live in a very litigious society and seek only to protect themselves. With this in mind we quietly excuse the probing questions and what can be seen as excessive questioning about the readiness of the player.
We chose not to tell the league that Shea was playing in that he had hemiparesis because we didn’t think that it was relevant to the activity. It is only since Shea’s advancement to the National Team program that most of the families involved with the teams that he plays on became aware of his stroke.
Back to the question of equipped to play soccer? Soccer requires a fairly good degree of mobility and in some instances the use of both arms (throw ins). The Paralympic level game has modified the rules to allow for the ball to be rolled in with one arm to account for players who use one arm.
In the regular game if your child cannot use both arms then I simply suggest that they decline taking throw ins!
As previously written, the Paralympic team has a goal keeper in the squad who uses one arm. I am not suggesting that playing able-bodied soccer with the use of one arm lends itself to goal keeping but I remind everyone that Major League Baseball has had at least one, one armed pitcher, Jim Abbot!
Running is a big part of soccer and as a younger player Shea struggled to keep up and was always in pain after some of the more rigorous work outs that the team was doing. We always ensured that Shea took a warm bath after each session and that we stretched his legs and muscles after the bath.
Soccer is supposed to be a two footed game but for Shea and for many players who have a weaker side, the use of said, weaker foot can be extremely difficult. I don’t have much solace to offer in this department other than to keep encouraging your child to use both legs.
Shea was unable to kick a ball with his left foot for many years. It took a monumental effort and discipline just to swing the foot in the general direction of the ball yet alone make a constructive pass. Today Shea’s left foot remains significantly different and weaker than the right and two things have come from practice. Firstly, he has a FANTASTIC right foot and secondly his left is functional.
Stuart Sharp, the US Paralympic National Team Head coach, advises all of his players to be a specialist in one area. For an athlete with hemiplegia, that likely means with one foot anyway but the history of soccer is littered with highly skilled, very one-footed players who had great careers.
With this in mind we do not neglect Shea’s weaker foot in training but we certainly work very hard on 1-2 very specialist moves for him that may one day show up at the top level of the game. Specifically for Paralympic soccer the ability to turn quickly and sharply is a real asset. This is primarily because it is simply a good skill to have but secondly of course because in Paralympic soccer EVERYONE has balance issues and getting a player in any sport off balance is a winning strategy.
Heading a ball is a part of the game but much has recently been written about the issues related to frequent concussion. I strongly advise all parents of youth with hemiplegia who are considering soccer for their child to seek medical advice and clearance before allowing their child to play soccer or to head the ball. The good news is that the modern game is moving towards a more passing and skilled event than an aerial game with lots of heading.
A further good idea is to have your child take a baseline concussion test which will set the mark moving forward. Obviously any significant deviation in this should be taken very seriously and should provoke further investigation. Recently much has been said about head gear. Personally I fear that head gear offers a player a higher degree of invincibility. The threshold for safety and sensible behavior does not typically mature until at least age 25 hence the car insurance age cut off. With this in mind I am less apt to offer my players even more opportunity to endanger their noggins! Head gear is a personal choice but parents should know that it is available and permissible for players to wear.
Physical contact is a part of soccer and specifically tackling for the ball. Shea is a very good tackler with his right foot and a very poor tackler with his left foot. Athletes with hemiplegia obviously struggle to kick a ball initially as previously stated so the idea of using an already weakened foot in a potentially injurious event such as tackling can be daunting for any player.
I strongly recommend practice at home and worry not, in all likelihood your child will become a VERY good strong two footed tackler!
Shooting is not too different than passing for any player. It requires skill and coordination. This is another area where MUCH practice will help increase skill level significantly.
We have found that Shea is very sensitive to the cold. Where other kids can play with shorts and no gloves the threshold for Shea is much lower. Gloves are an accepted part of player attire today and I strongly recommend a pair at any game where temperatures are low. Players today wear under garments for warmth and I strongly recommend a good set of long sleeved undershirts be available for your child. Leggings are also an acceptable piece of attire and I recommend choosing comfort over style when it relates to the impact of the cold on your child.
Cleats/boots/turfs. Soccer shoes come in a variety of shapes sizes and colors. The term cleats/boots usually refers to a soccer shoe with studs or blades on the bottom. These are ideal for soft grass fields. They should not be worn on artificial surfaces although many players do. The term turfs usually refers to a soccer shoe with many more very small studs on the bottom of the shoe. These are usually the most comfortable for players and are ideal for hard grass fields and any artificial surface. We strongly recommend having a really good set of comfortable turfs because cleats are very difficult for athletes with hemiplegia who may already have built in issues and sensitivities with their feet. The turfs are usually less narrow and equally as effective. In the event that your child is playing on a wet muddy field, turfs are not a good idea. We always ensure that Shea has a pair of cleats and turfs in his bag for every game. This is also recommended for all players.
Shin guards are a required piece of soccer equipment. Shop around and ideally find a pair of guards that simply slip into the sock. The ankle guards and bulky strap around guards can significantly impact the way in which a foot fits into the shoe and are not recommended. Adding imbalance and irritation to this area of the body for any player is distracting yet alone a kid with leg and foot issues.
Uniform. Every kid LOVES getting a new uniform! Typically teams ask players to get two different colored shirts, a pair of shorts and 1-2 pairs of socks. I am a big fan of getting multiple pairs of socks because of the speed at which they wear down and because someone always forgets their socks! Having an extra pair makes for a very good team mate! The same can be said of shin guards but we do not encourage that players wear each other’s shin guards.
Mouth pieces. Typically soccer players do not wear mount pieces much to the angst of Shea’s dentist. This is again a personal choice and we see more and more players with them in soccer. If it is your choice to have your child wear a mouth guard but if you choose to use them be sure and get more than one!
Balls. Investing in a good soccer ball is not crucial, but investing in a ball that is comfortable is absolutely critical. Most young players struggle with passing and hitting over inflated or hard soccer balls. Make sure that YOU kick the ball first! You will know instinctively what it feels like! Make sure that the ball is inflated when you do this!
Being picked on. Despite the modern awareness of the danger and cruelty of bullying and children being picked on, we still encounter an enormous amount of these types of issues. The athletic field will be no different for your child and despite the modern day awareness of people with disabilities, often time when teams don’t win, the easiest target is the weakest or least effective player. That may or may not be your child but clearly they are already disadvantaged. It also may or may not just be the children doing the bullying. Coaches and parents like to win and sideline behavior, attitude and commentary is often unfiltered and can be outright despicable and brainless.
Shea has never encountered a comment about his actual disability but for sure on occasion, players and parents have allowed themselves public comment about his effectiveness. Granted they are the same people that commentate on all players also but it certainly does exist and you should be aware of these issues.
We discuss the issue of bullying and being picked on regularly with all of our children and when the issue arises we try to deal with it in a very calm and diplomatic fashion. Denial is a typical default reaction from most parents whose children are accused of being bullies and guilty of making insensitive comments. With this in mind we have generally erred from raising it with school or coaches when it has occurred favoring an increase is self confidence building and assurances as to the love that awaits out children most everywhere else especially at home. My overriding advice here is expect almost any type of reaction and be surprised by nothing and pleasantly surprised with understanding and compassion.
My final words relate to the oft used cliche “make sure your kid is having fun.” Far too many people pay lip service to the notion of having fun. It really is crucial however, for any child and yours is no different. As parents of disabled children, clearly in some areas our expectations have been altered somewhat, and I often find the parents of disabled players to be so much more grounded and realistic about their child’s soccer career. Please use this power wisely and don’t allow the game to drag you into a cauldron of competitiveness that is unhealthy for you and your child.
Please feel free to reach out to me with comments and questions At any time regarding soccer for your child and go have fun!