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An iron Will: How a disabled American football coach is bucking the trend

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   Will Babbington

  • The public perception is that people in wheelchairs don’t have all their faculties. 
  • Players quickly learn that it doesn’t matter what the voice comes out of, as long as that voice is strong, confident and knowledgeable.
  • Be proactive: you will never know what is possible until you have tried.
  • You will be helping yourself by helping others.
  • Simple solutions exist to the practical problems of coaching from a wheelchair.

Will Babbington’s coaching story is the diametrical opposite of the societal norm.

Big words but then this is a big deal. You see, Will is wheelchair-bound but coaches non-disabled American footballers.

He obviously hasn’t read the script.

A role model to wheelchair users who love sport but think their route into coaching is blocked by a brick wall, Will has broken those barriers down, reversing back over them for good measure, to send a message out loud and clear: you can do this too. 

Will’s story is not unique, but it is the exception to the rule. 

I remember reading in Coaching Edge (now replaced with UK Coaching's new digital subscription service) and the local press last year of a man in Bradford who made history by becoming the world’s first wheelchair-bound coach of non-disabled footballers.

Sohail Rehman doesn’t do things by halves – the club in question was Manchester United!

The 23-year-old said he looked at Jose Mourinho and thought, ‘If he can do it and he has never played the game, then so can I.’ So Sohail took his coaching badges and now works with teenage trialists at Manchester United Soccer Schools.

Another heartening example of a disabled sports coach bucking the trend. But what also struck a powerful note were the reader comments underneath the story.

One wrote: ‘Hopefully, the day when a story like this isn't automatically dubbed “inspirational”, or isn’t even a story at all, is fast approaching.’

And another reader commented: ‘Too many people think that disabled people are also unable to think. I hope for his peers that others take heart at this news.’

We can only hope ‘one-offs’ like these are the drizzle before the deluge.

Intensive care 

For Will, his route into coaching was a slow one. 

But to understand his reasons for taking the plunge, you must first understand his disability.

‘I have an auto-immune condition affecting my muscles, leaving them really weak,’ he begins. ‘I’ve had it all my life but it got bad enough to need a chair about eight years ago. 

‘For whatever reason, in 2007, my condition deteriorated rapidly, and I spent six months in hospital, with several weeks in intensive care. I wasn’t expected to make it. I don’t remember much of it though, to be honest, as I was spaced out on morphine most of the time.’ 

During a fraught time for himself and his family, Will lost strength in the muscles all over his body. Fortunately, his condition improved and he embarked on a long process of rehabilitation. 

But though his muscles became stronger, he never regained enough strength to walk. 

‘In theory, I could one day walk again, but in reality, it’s unlikely. It’s purely down to resources within the NHS. Four or five years ago I had intensive physiotherapy. Every week I would have a good few hours and, by the end of the 12 months, I was able to stand and use a Zimmer frame for about 10 metres and things were progressing. 

‘But then they had staff cutbacks. I was using their facilities a lot and you were only meant to have six weeks of physio and I’d had 12 months. That couldn’t continue. Then everything started to deteriorate again. So unless I win the lottery, and I can hire a physio every single day, nothing is going to change unfortunately.’ 

Will Babbington 2

Listen and learn: Will offers some words of advice to his under-17s squad

Land of the Giants 

Will admits he spent several years in the doldrums before finally shaking himself out of his malaise.

‘I was feeling sorry for myself and I became very comfortable with not really doing much as I get tired out very easily,’ he adds. 

‘But then I remember watching the Paralympics on television and seeing people with worse conditions than mine – or who had certainly been through worse than I’d been through – and I thought, “I can’t be moping around forever, I need to get out and try something. Even if it doesn’t work out, I can at least say I tried.”’

And so began the dawn of a new era. Will did some research into local clubs and started going fencing and playing tennis. But American football was always his favourite sport growing up. He has been a big New York Giants fan all his life – he wears his Giants cap religiously at training sessions – and began to ponder the prospect of dipping his toe into coaching. 

‘I started thinking, “I wonder if I can be more involved in the sport than just playing it?” And then I read this tweet from an American football academy in Leeds saying they were looking for players. I got in touch and asked if they were looking for coaches as well and they said, “Sure, come down.”

‘At that point, they didn’t know I was in a wheelchair but it didn’t faze them when I did turn up and, slowly, I started to get more and more involved.’ 

Leeds Academy of American Football is based at Leeds Beckett University. Will joined them six months after they were formed, when around a dozen children would turn up to the Saturday morning sessions. Now, between 50 and 60 players aged between five and 18 flock to training. 

‘I think, to begin with, they were just glad there was another body on board, someone else to bounce ideas off,’ he says. ‘But no mention was made whether I would be able to do x, y or z because I was in a chair. It was purely left to me to know my own boundaries and if I needed help.’ 

Will also goes into schools and introduces children to the sport, helping coach PE taster sessions and setting up after-school clubs. 

He currently manages the under-17s squad, proudly proclaiming: ‘Despite only being formed officially in January, we made the national finals and finished sixth out of 36 teams.’ 

Next year he will be taking the under-19s and hopes by then to have passed his Level 2 badge, which is the highest qualification American football coaches can attain.

No stick in the mud 

I ask him about the practical problems associated with coaching in a wheelchair, like if he ever gets bogged down by Yorkshire’s wicked weather – literally, three inches down in the mud? 

‘Fortunately, we train on a 3G surface but it is still pretty difficult getting around on it,’ says Will. 

‘I’m in a manual wheelchair so it’s all under my own power. My arms are one of the areas where I am still very weak so it is tricky but, again, everyone accepts that and they will maybe hold on for an extra couple of minutes in a group, waiting for me to catch them up. If I do need help on the pitch, there is always someone there to help push me. The problems are certainly not insurmountable.’ 

And is his voice of authority listened to as much as the other coaches? 

‘I think so, yes. There have been no spiked comments and nobody has passed anything on to the other coaches. But it is certainly something that has concerned me and still does to a certain extent. 

‘After all, the perception of people in wheelchairs isn’t necessarily that they have all their faculties. They may think, “Why should we listen to you? You’re not demonstrating it to us.” But it’s not what you look like, it’s what you know, what you can do to help them achieve.

‘We have very good kids who are all well brought up and are respectful of authority. If you can build up that rapport with them, you can show them that, OK, I might not be able to demonstrate a certain skill but I can describe it or get someone else to demonstrate it while I am describing what it is I want them to do. 

‘They don’t mind what the voice comes out of as long as that voice is strong and confident and knows what it’s talking about.’ 

Will, 35, who is a wide receiver coach and offensive coordinator, says his style of coaching is definitely not based on the American model. You won’t see him whipping his players up into a frenzy or yelling instructions at them while the veins pop out of his neck. 

‘Even though it’s been around since the late ’70s, early ’80s, the sport is still shiny and new to a lot of people in this country and, especially in terms of coaching, we’re having to give it a British twist,’ he says. 

‘The hype that exists in America just doesn’t work here, our kids aren’t like that. You have to completely change the coaching and bring it within the British system and way of doing things.’

Will Babbington 2

Just do it 

As any coach will tell you, whatever their gender, race, nationality or disability, you get out of coaching what you put in. But you have to be in coaching in the first place to reap the rewards. 

Will’s message to other wheelchair users is to just go and do it. Once you have dipped your toe in sports coaching, you will never look back. His rallying cry then is simple: help yourself by helping others. 

‘You’ve got nothing to lose by giving it a go and you never know what may happen, how brilliant you’ll find it. If you find something you’re passionate about, it shouldn’t matter that you are in a wheelchair.

‘Everyone is screaming out for coaches. Whatever your disability may be, people will welcome you with open arms, and you can really make a difference to people’s lives, as well as your own.’

Will’s top tips

  1. Be confident. This may be easier said than done, but athletes respond to what you’re saying and don’t really care what you look like. 
  2. Be knowledgable. A common assumption can often be disabled people can’t know how the sport works as they can’t play it. So know your sport, know what it is you are coaching. If you’re knowledgeable, it feeds into being confident. 
  3. Know your limitations, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. I have a stubborn streak when it comes to coaching that I don’t want to be seen to be unable to do a task. But often, I can’t, and I have to get someone to demonstrate or help push me across a field. This doesn’t reflect on my ability to coach, it’s just a fact of life. 
  4. Don’t be defensive about your condition. If other coaches give you constructive criticism, take it as such and not as a criticism of being disabled. I do get defensive (and it’s something I'm working on!) when someone suggests something that could work better, but that is about my coaching, not my disability. 
  5. This also ties into being able to talk about your disability, especially if you coach kids. Kids are curious and want to ask questions so take time at the end of the session to answer any questions they might have. It will help you form the crucial bonds of trust that you need with your athletes. 
  6. Number one tip: don’t worry! Things may not go as planned, and you may have to adapt because of your disability, but as long as you're having a fun session and everybody is enjoying themselves, nobody will mind.

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Comments (4)

   
wbabbington
Great read Blake, thanks again for asking me.
06/10/15
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IanMahoney
I am a disabled athletics coach, using a wheelchair for my safety (I have Myotonic muscular Dystrophy) None of the athletes I coach bar one have never seem me run. I used to and started well before they were born. It tool me a long time for the athletes to realise that I have a lot of knowledge whether I was in a wheelchair or not. I found the best way was to talk to the athletes in how they were feeling and use feel. felt. found. I know how you feel, I felt the same way but found 'blah,blah.blah. Dropping hints along the way that I was and athlete and ben through all the training they are doing now. I am now a well respected and well liked coach, The best thing is sometimes the athletes ask for my advice first, before referring to their lead coach.
There are many courses on sports coach for disabled athletes but so far I haven't fond on for disabled coaches ..... have I missed any?
23/06/16
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Blake
Thanks so much for that reply Ian. I will be posting a follow-up with Will shortly, which includes a video of him coaching at Leeds Academy of American Football and discussing why being in a wheelchair should not deter you from becoming a coach.
23/06/16
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IanMahoney

A new development has now opened up for me. Feedback from distance runners was they thought the training a coach was given them was beneficial to them. Because of my 26 years of first hand experience of distance running (before forcing to retire due to my genetic disability (Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy) preventing me to walk unaided and kept falling over) I have been given full control over the distance athletes training/racing both at the club and at home. As the original article pointed out, being in a wheelchair does not prevent you from becoming a great and well respected coach, if what comes out of your mouth is knowledge. being a former athlete I know what trials and tribulations the athletes are going through ( I went through the same things) if you make the sessions both fun as well as effective, your 'charges' warm to you. keep coming back and listen to you, And the best thing (if they have a good race) the 3 words "Thank you, coach" makes it all worthwhile. On another question on CC. I give one point of advice at a time, when a habit is formed (30 days) and becomes second nature (60 days) I move on to next point. NGB has provided technical models and On Track 4 (4 points) cards from safety to feed back. They in valuable to get the main coaching interventions across WITHIN 30 SECONDS! Lesson number one in all Sports Coach UK workshops.

15/06/17
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