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Inclusive by design: realising the promise of sport for all

What springs to mind when you think of Australian sport? An Aboriginal woman in a green race suit changing the way an entire country thought about itself? Sixteen consecutive Test match wins? Perhaps ‘the girl from the Gong’ with seven medals around her neck in Tokyo?

For many of us, our memories and experiences take us immediately to the pinnacle of an incredibly competitive world that ignites passion, stirs souls and, as it turns out, helps people survive pandemics.

In this country, we love winning and adore our champions. Sport and high performance often feel synonymous. That’s why so many former athletes can build second careers working with corporates desperate to tap into the magic. ‘Faster, higher, stronger’ as the Olympic Games motto goes.

‘However, despite recent progress for women and girls, and standout successes in Paralympic sport from Aussies like Dylan Alcott OAM and Ellie Cole OAM, our sporting world often feels designed for athletes with particular qualities and bodies who must participate and perform – as individuals and teams – in very specific ways,’ says Dr Tim Konoval, Lecturer in Coaching at Deakin University.

Participant rights are human rights

‘With the success of the Paralympic Games and a gradual but significant shift in attitudes, Australians increasingly see the opportunity to play sport as a human right, which opens up a world of possibility for everyone,’ says Dr Konoval. 

This is particularly important for people living with a disability, for whom the physical, social and psychological benefits of sport are often magnified. For too long, sport has been hardest to access for those who benefit most from it.

Deakin alumna Emma Staples, an expert in sport participation, community development, diversity and inclusion, is seeing the impact of a change in philosophy throughout the ecosystem.

‘Sport is about belonging and being part of a community,’ says Staples. ‘When sport organisations get things right for people with a disability, it’s so powerful. And let’s not forget, we’re talking about almost one in five people here.’

‘During my time at Cricket Victoria, we recognised that running clinics and hosting a couple of carnivals each year wasn’t enough. We had to move from sampling to sustainable models of participation.’

‘That’s how the Melbourne All Abilities Cricket Association was born, becoming Victoria’s 77th Cricket Association, offering opportunities for all. It now has over 15 teams across two divisions competing in weekly competition, enabling people with an intellectual disability to participate, practice and play in a range of different ways. People with a disability are now an integral, highly valued part of cricket clubs like Yarraville and Croydon Rangers. Victorian cricket also has state representative teams for deaf or hard of hearing people, those with low vision or vision impairment, and people with intellectual disability – all of which compete in National Cricket Inclusion Championships.

For every success in one sport though, the broader opportunities to improve are manifold. Government funding for programs, while welcome and important, usually comes with an end date, often after a couple of years, which inevitably influences strategies, plans, program development and investment – for example in coaches, volunteers and training. Providing funding facilities is easier and perceived as more tangible and electorally friendly. 

'With the success of the Paralympic Games and a gradual but significant shift in attitudes, Australians increasingly see the opportunity to play sport as a human right, which opens up a world of possibility for everyone,'

Dr Tim Konoval,
School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

Coaching is critical

‘For a large proportion of participants, coaches are the primary driver of experience, the purveyors of inclusion and the custodians of what sport can and should be. We need more of them, and we need them to be willing to learn,’ says Dr Konoval.

‘For better or worse, coaches are often the key to whether people with a disability continue their sporting journeys. It’s absolutely vital that people with a disability don’t feel ‘othered’ at any stage.’

It’s clear this is becoming widely recognised. Emma Staples believes lived experience is highly valuable and talks positively about how many Australian sports are ‘meeting cohorts where they are’.

One of the best examples is in golf, where Christian Hamilton has been leading the charge to ensure the sport is fully inclusive by creating a ‘para-ready’ workforce of golf professionals to help people with a disability get into the game. These coaches see their PGA All Abilities Coach accreditation as a hugely valuable addition to their toolkit.

This resonates with Dr Konoval, whose research is currently focused on coach education.

‘Fundamentally, coaching people with a disability taps into the core motivation of most coaches – to help people become the best they can be – whilst simultaneously welcoming more people to the sport they love in a more inclusive way.’

‘The best coaches are the ones who establish meaningful two-way relationships with their athletes and collaborate with them to make practice environments inclusive for all.’

Nothing about us without us

Dr Konoval wants coaches shift their mindsets – around who they believe can play –
and believes there is plenty more work to do across the system. He would like to see this guided by the famous quote ‘nothing about us without us’ from James Charlton’s book of the same name.

In this context, the recent appointment of Kurt Fearnley AO to the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Organising Committee feels like a positive step, alongside initiatives to help Paralympic athletes to transition into coaching.

‘Ensuring people with a disability are on boards, in senior management and coaching roles and working across all levels of sport can help challenge norms and assumptions about disability and lead to better decisions that are grounded by lived experiences,’ says Dr Konoval.

Complex challenges, but an incredible opportunity to make an impact

At its best, sport is transformative and life changing. The challenge of the next decade, in the lead up to the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is to ensure these experiences are available to everyone – reflecting individual abilities and feeling mainstream to each participant.

It’s important not to shy away from the inherent complexity here, though. Even with an expected increase in funding and focus, many of the answers feel a long way away.

‘However, one thing is for sure – solutions will come from the next generation of values-driven sport industry professionals who want to make a positive impact on the world,’ says Professor David Shilbury, Director of the Deakin Sport Network and Chair in Sport Management at Deakin University.

‘In particular, there will be opportunities for athlete-centred coaches and sport scientists, design thinkers in sport development who are unencumbered by old ways of working and resource constraints, experts in diversity and inclusion who understand intersectionality, and customer experience designers who can personalise, optimise and continuously improve technology and services.’

Some of the biggest moments in Australian sport in the next ten years won’t end up etched in our collective psyche like the heroics of Cathy Freeman, Steve Waugh and Emma McKeon, but they will arguably be more important. They will be very personal experiences at clubs and facilities around Australia, delivered by coaches, volunteers and through new technology, which fully deliver on the promise that sport is for everyone.

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Dr Tim Konoval
Dr Tim Konoval

Lecturer In Coaching, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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