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2015 UK Coaching Awards: Signs are good for the future of deaf hockey | Inclusive Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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Signs are good for the future of deaf hockey

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Wendy Russell

PROUD MOMENT: Wendy Russell with her Disability Coach of the Year award

  • Wendy Russell set up the first deaf hockey coaching sessions in the country.
  • She is planning to launch a sports-specific sign language course for coaches.
  • She is partially deaf herself and so can relate to the problems those who are deaf or hard of hearing encounter while playing sport.
  • Only 11.5% of young deaf people take part in sport outside of school PE lessons.
  • It is not difficult to cater for disabled people in coaching; it just requires a bit of creativity, says Wendy

Lady Luck is finally starting to smile on 2015 UK Coaching Awards Disability Coach of the Year Wendy Russell. 

Wendy has been dogged by more than her fair share of misfortune over the years, but if you ask the hockey players she coaches, they will tell you they feel very lucky to have her in their lives. 

Wendy’s inspirational coaching story was featured on ConnectedCoaches last month to tie in with the launch of sports coach UK’s Reach campaign. 

In that article (Dreams do come true: A story of pleasure, pain and perseverance), we learnt of her battle against arthritis, which threatened to wreck her chances of playing and coaching hockey, and the traumatic, high-speed collision with a car that damaged ligaments and tendons in her ankle. 

We also touched on her pioneering scheme to set up the country’s first deaf hockey club. 

It has been an eventful few weeks since that story was published, with her already hectic lifestyle cranking up another couple of gears. 

ConnectedCoaches member Wendy was shortlisted for the Community Award in the Sunday Times and Sky Sports News Sportswomen of the Year Awards, televised live in November. 

She then toasted a double whammy by winning the Sportivate Project of the Year for her Hockey Hot Stars sessions in the 2015 Sussex Sports Awards, and the Disability Coach of the Year prize at the UK Coaching Awards run by sports coach UK.

But the biggest development involves the rapid progress she is making with coaching hockey to deaf and hard of hearing children. 

And on the back of the club’s success, she is now working on a brand-new project to set up a sports-specific sign language course for coaches. 


I asked Wendy – who coaches at Brighton and Hove Hockey Club and teaches PE at Steyning Grammar School – why she decided to branch into disability coaching, and full of surprises as ever, she divulged that she was partially deaf herself. Amid the myriad revelations in our first chat, this fact had not cropped up in conversation. 

‘I have 20% hearing in one ear and tinnitus in both ears so I am considered partly disabled,’ she explains. ‘It just happened overnight. I woke up one day thinking I had a cold and a bit of hearing loss, but two weeks later, it was still there and so I thought I’d better get it checked out. Apparently, it happens to 5% of the population. 

‘I just tried to take it in my stride. When it first happened, I was devastated as I didn’t know if it was going to affect my teaching, but I’ve adapted and become more visually aware. 

‘You do rely on your hearing a lot when you play team sports, and when you are teaching or coaching, so visually, I have learnt how to position myself better.’ 

Her hearing impairment provided her with the motivation to launch the ground-breaking deaf hockey sessions for 8–14 year olds at Blatchington Mill School – the headquarters of Brighton and Hove Hockey Club. 

She adds: ‘Statistics show only 11.5% of young deaf people take part in sport outside of school, and I was shocked at that. 

‘Figures produced recently show 33% of disabled people take part in sport, and the amount of those who are deaf is up 5%. This research shows how limited the opportunities are for deaf people. 

‘That’s a big reason why I set up the deaf hockey club, to create that safe environment so young people feel nurtured and can build their focus, confidence and self-esteem. From my past experience with other coaches, I know they feel very daunted about joining a non-disabled club. My club provides them with that stepping stone. 

‘It isn’t surprising deaf people don’t feel comfortable going out into hearing clubs as even able-bodied people, when they turn up as novices, are generally quite nervous. Young people are very good at understanding and accepting other people, but they don’t necessarily know how to interact with someone who is deaf.’

As a coach mentor working for Active Sussex on the Lottery-funded Sportivate initiative, Wendy knew there was funding out there for projects involving disability groups so she applied for a grant – and was successful. She hasn’t looked back since. 

‘I remember the problems I had when I was told my deafness wouldn’t get better, and what it was like when I was playing hockey and people were calling for the ball and I couldn’t hear them. They would get frustrated with me. I wondered how I might be able to help others in the same position. 

‘I researched what was out there and was shocked that, firstly, there was no other provision for people deaf or hard of hearing to play hockey and, secondly, how limited sporting opportunities in general are for them. They can do either football or cricket, but, basically, you are expected to go along to a normal hearing club, and they will provide for you.’ 

Wendy Russell 2

AND THE WINNER IS... Wendy receives warm applause as she walks to the stage to collect her award

Pilot scheme 

The fledgling club she set up continues to grow steadily and has caught the attention of disability charities nationwide. 

The publicity she received escalated after she devised her own unique set of sign language signs specific to hockey. 

Wendy used some of the funding from Sportivate to create videos of the sign language, which have been adopted and promoted by the National Deaf Children’s Society, England Hockey and UK Deaf Sport, and rolled out across the country. 

Never one to rest on her laurels, Wendy realised that there was still a lot more mileage in this pioneering project. 

She now works closely with the Brighton and Hove Sensory Unit run by the city council and Albion in the Community (AITC).

The sensory unit provides children with opportunities to play sport and AITC is the charitable arm of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, who organise deaf football sessions within the community.

Wendy explains: ‘They promote my club, and I promote theirs. The idea is to try to give as many young deaf people as many sports opportunities as possible.’

She has also joined forces with Hamilton Lodge deaf school in Brighton and is keen to showcase her initiatives in mainstream schools across the county. 

And there’s more. 

She has also taken it upon herself to learn sign language in order to run a sports-specific sign language course, which UK Deaf Sport is keen to pilot. 

This is still in its formative stages – it hasn’t even got a name yet – but she is hoping the course could eventually be adapted and endorsed by other sports, not just hockey. 

‘sports coach UK do an “Effective Communication: Coaching Deaf People in Sport” workshop on how to interact with people with hearing loss. On this course, you don’t sign – not everyone with hearing loss uses sign language – but for me, there is a big need for people to have at least the basics that cover aspects of sport so that is the new project that I am working on at the minute,’ explains Wendy. 

‘It will provide coaches with a little bit of a background so that, if someone who is deaf joins their club, even if it is a hearing club, they can ask their name, find out how they are doing, simple things like that. 

‘I use some of the sign language as a teacher at my school and it is amazing how hearing kids pick up on it as well so it will be useful in clubs where there are mixed levels of hearing too.’ 

Creativity the key 

Wendy can look forward with enthusiasm to a bright and busy future. 

More accolades may well come her way, and if they do, they will be treasured. But they will always play second fiddle to the primary objective of raising awareness of her coaching projects. 

Of her most recent success at the UK Coaching Awards, Wendy admitted: ‘I was shocked and pleased, just because, looking at the other two nominees, the work that they do is outstanding. What I do is only a very small part of all the great work that goes on by a huge network of people who work in disability sport. 

‘I just hope the award will help promote awareness that disabled people can play sport perfectly well, while making people aware that there are sports out there for them and that it is not that difficult to cater for disabled people; the secret is to be creative with it.’

Next steps

sports coach UK also has a number of workshops, including ‘Effective Communication: Coaching Deaf People in Sport’, you can attend to help you become more inclusive in your coaching. Visit the sports coach UK website to find out more about these workshops.


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