Intellectual Disability

Learn about Intellectual Disability and how to adapt your coaching to ensure players with intellectual disability can join in the fun at footy.

Learn about Intellectual Disability

Young people with intellectual disability typically have differences in thinking skills, including reasoning, planning, attention, problem solving, and judgement. They may also need more support with academic and everyday skills, such as reading, writing, and telling the time.

They may need support with communicating, socialising, and understanding others’ body language (eg. facial expression, gestures). Some young people with intellectual disability may understand instructions best when information is clear, brief, repeated and supported with visuals.

By providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help keep young people with intellectual disability 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.

During your planned footy activities, players with intellectual disability may need extra time and support when learning new skills. Be mindful of how you communicate instructions. Some players will learn best if information is broken up into smaller parts, rather than given all at once.

Some may need support with attention (eg. they may be very active) and concentration. Other players with intellectual disability may feel anxious or sad, or seem restless, or distracted at footy. They may need support to regulate their emotions and behaviours. Some players may not want to participate at times and may tire easily.

Some players with intellectual disability may be very social and friendly, and like talking and spending time with other people. Some might stand close or be over-familiar with people, and some might like to hug others. It can be helpful to be clear about what is appropriate when talking and interacting with others. For example, tell players that it is more appropriate to give a high-five than a hug at footy.

My name's Tim. This is my story.

I have autism and a intellectual disability. 

I've been playing football last 11 years. My position is wing and forward. 

A real difficulty is the team players don't understand my speech at times. I really like at footy you have a good experience. I like that you play friends as a team. And like the skills too. Coach is teaching me how to kick a ball properly.

My coach helped me to don't scared of the ball, just pick up and handball or kick it.

My favourite memory is playing a Grand Final. 23 years ago, I won the Grand Final against Williamstown. I won the premiership. I kicked a match-winning goal and won the Grand Final, won the premiership.

This is my story, but everyone's story will be different. 

In the next section, you will learn tips for how to support young people with intellectual disability to play footy. For example, you could break down an activity into small parts, the first few times it is played, so all players have time to learn.

Strategies and tips

Create a visual schedule for each session

Use a visual schedule that players can see at all times so they know what is coming up. This may support transitions from one activity to the next. You could use a whiteboard or flipchart.

Create a consistent routine

Provide predictability by having a consistent routine at each session.

Ask parents what they would do to help

Talking to parents can help you understand the best way to communicate and work with their child. Parents can help you understand their child’s unique strengths and areas they may need more help. Make sure you check if the player is happy for you to ask their parent. Some players (eg. young players) might be okay with this, but others (eg. older players) might not. See the Getting to know your Auskicker page for some example questions you could ask, if it’s okay with the player.

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.

Reduce Background noise when giving instructions

Minimising background noise and distractions while giving instructions can help all players hear and focus on the coach. You might need to face the group away from distractions behind you (like another game or people). Also try to ensure that players aren’t looking into the sun.

Simplify and repeat instructions

Limit the amount of information given at once. Use simple instructions and consider breaking down an activity into smaller parts. Teach one part at a time and ensure players understand each part before moving on. Giving instructions multiple times as well as reminders may help players remember how things are done.

Use visual instructions and demonstrations

Show the young person how to do the skill or activity. Consider using a flip chart for visual instructions when you coach. This may help players understand how to do the task. If it’s okay with the young person, have someone help guide their movement.

Praise and reward effort*

Give positive feedback to players. Make sure you are specific about what the player has done well.

*We acknowledge that some people prefer to avoid the use of rewards to support young people’s behaviour. However, there is evidence to suggest that rewards can support young people’s motivation to play sport. We use the term ‘reward’ to refer to a wide range of rewarding activities to acknowledge effort, not just tangible items such as prizes.

Slow things down

Slow down an activity the first few times it is played so players have time to learn. For example, encourage walking rather than running.

Use extra repetitions and increase time when learning skills

Some players might benefit from extra time and practise to learn skills, such as kicking, catching or running. If players are engaged in the activity, allow them to do more repetitions to learn the skill if needed. Move to new, more complex skills once the player has mastered the previous skill.

Shorten activities

Shortening activities may help some young people to stay focused on the activity while it is being played.

Use small groups

Some players might feel more comfortable in smaller groups.

Match groups on skill level

Matching players at the same skill level in small groups may help young people feel at ease and confident in their abilities.

Joining in may take time

Allow a player to join the group in their own time. This may not be at the start of an activity.

Allow alternate ways to play

If a player needs support coordinating their movements (eg. for a punt kick), let them kick the ball off the ground, or practise kicking the ball off a stand.

Young people can use their own gear

Allow players to use their own or their preferred equipment if they wish to. This may be a particular-coloured football that they feel attached to.

Young people can wear gloves

Some players may feel uncomfortable getting wet and muddy. Let them wear gloves, for example, and gradually become confident touching the football.

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. They should be supported in their preferences.

Notice behaviour

Observe any signs of emotional or behavioural reactions (e.g. anxiety and refer to the strategies suggested for this).

Check in with the young person and their family

A discreet and brief chat post session with a young person with an intellectual disability and their family can help identify what activities they enjoyed, and whether some activities can be further modified for next time.

Things to consider

Just because a young person needs support with talking or communicating does not mean that they need support with thinking or learning. As a coach, learning how to communicate most effectively with a young person is important, so that everyone has the same opportunities to participate and have fun

Additional resources

Footy stories

Footy stories are a great way to assist young people with disability 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 our Coach page. You can also learn more about how to be an inclusive coach by completing the AllPlay Footy Disability Inclusion Coaching Course. This course provides you with tools and resources for creating inclusive environments at footy. Simply create an account or login to your existing profile to enrol in the course!