FINDING ABILITY IN
Can anything stop you making a go of table tennis ? Not for one coach in Sheffield , who ’ s introduced the game to blind people , paralysed people and everyone in between .
M inutes before I meet Shaun Alvey at the English Institute of Sport , close to the Albert Table Tennis Centre where he ’ s based , he ’ s involved in a confrontation which reveals much of what has made him an outstandingly successful coach of disabled players .
‘ I was standing near some students who had seen Martin Perry walk past ,’ Alvey recalls , referring to the British Para international and triple amputee .
‘ They were talking about his arms , about how he had no hands . I interrupted them and said : “ Yeah , but do you realise he ’ s one of the best para table tennis players in the world ?” They were blown away .
‘ They ’ d only seen his disability , not his potential . That ’ s a problem beyond table tennis , but it ’ s a part of what holds some coaches back .’
No coach would admit to narrowing a player ’ s field of vision because of a disability , but what Alvey argues is that it ’ s not a deliberate attempt to restrict an athlete , it ’ s a mindset born from the desire to do what they think is best for that individual .
‘ Personally , I find it best to get rid of the first three letters and focus on the final seven : ability . Everyone has that , but often people will look at the “ dis ” part first .
‘ I make sure that when someone comes through the door in a wheelchair , for example , I don ’ t judge them on that . I remove any perception of disability at all . I just class them as someone who wants to come and play the sport .
‘ I think it ’ s a case of coaches embracing the enjoyment of just getting someone through the door and involved , having a go . So when someone comes , or rings or emails , and asks about the different sessions we have , I don ’ t address any question of their physical or mental capabilities , I just say “ come and have a go ”.’
When it feels appropriate , Alvey will chat about the disability , but does it openly and with no sense of it being a battle to overcome . ‘ I speak to the person I coach first , then make an assessment in my own mind , or approach a parent or carer , and discuss any disabilities .’
, now an established British Para Table Tennis international , backed up Alvey when he recalled his experience starting out in the sport .
‘ Inclusion was really important for me at the start . Treating me just as you treat everyone else . I wanted almost the opposite of discrimination : to be talked to and mixed with like the rest of the players at the club . At the same time , coaches need to understand that we might struggle with certain aspects of the game but that can be overcome without making it into a big deal .’