All in the same boat!

Mixed Ability Sports – A Family Affair
7th December 2018
Who says 70 is old?
20th December 2018

When Bradford Amateur Rowing Club (BARC) decided to give Mixed Ability (MA) rowing a go, they had no idea how it would transform their club. Fortunately, International Mixed Ability Sports (IMAS) decided to track the club’s Mixed Ability journey and this blog highlights some key findings from that research – you can read more here (BARC_case study).

BARC was keen to introduce MA rowing to their club as it fitted well with their values about being inclusive and representing the community. However, once the project got going, they quickly realised that, despite being a welcoming club, many would still be put off from approaching them, not least because of the elite image of rowing. Breaking down these elitist perceptions, and wanting to give back to the community were key motivations for being involved. This did not mean there weren’t early concerns, in particular about stretching club resources, the communication challenges they might face with people with learning disabilities, and the risks posed by the river environment. But the MA ethos of ‘you work with what you have’ made it possible to experiment with the concept without requiring significant infrastructural changes or financial investment.

Early support from IMAS was key to preparing the club for their journey. Those who’d received IMAS training early on fully grasped the underlying principle that MA is different from disability sports, and that it is not about setting up a separate part of the club for MA rowers. As one committee member noted:

‘… people with disabilities wanted to take part in the club properly. They wanted to take part in the social life of the club … rather than being in their own kind of ghetto or enclave’.

Those who hadn’t been around for the IMAS session were less clear about how MA was different from disability provision. So one of the first lessons was recognising the importance of explaining MA to all club members. A further lesson was understanding the importance of ongoing support and guidance from IMAS in order to ensure concerns could be addressed and the MA ethos was being adhered to. For example, there was a call for more support around coaching:

‘The support we’ve had as volunteers from the broader club has been minimal and I feel I’ve been very much left to develop my own strategies … It would be really useful to have an experienced Mixed Ability coach who I could talk to, even once a month, who could advise me on techniques.’

Another area of confusion manifested itself in the way people involved with MA rowing identified themselves. In an authentic MA activity, everyone is a participant but at BARC many of those involved identified as volunteers and saw their role as helping the MA participants, rather than being participants themselves. This may be more of an issue with rowing since people need to acquire a certain skill-level in order to row in a squad. Therefore, more training and support – and consequently volunteers – are required to help newcomers get started in rowing and reach this stage. In contrast, with MA rugby, for example, complete beginners can play as part of a team immediately with more experienced participants. When MA rowing sessions started running twice a week with one of the sessions on a Sunday, the busiest training day for the club and the various squads, the perception of volunteering was started to shift:

‘The Sunday morning sessions are starting to feel like it’s just another outing in a boat and it just happens to be with one of the MA participants.’  

As with MA rugby, the positive impact of MA rowing was seen at the individual, club and community level – particularly around people’s improved communication, promotion of an ‘inclusive’ club culture, and perception shifts around (dis)ability and social difference:

‘I did feel [a bit uncomfortable] but once I started becoming personally involved and being in a boat with [the MA participants], all that went away … And I just thought “It’s done me some good really” …  it has made it easier to be around people when I don’t understand what they’re saying.’

Overall, BARC’s experience has provided invaluable insights into MA rowing and MA sport more broadly. The research has shown, once again, that when people of mixed abilities come together through sport, everyone benefits. And it has also highlighted the value of ongoing support and guidance from IMAS across the whole club if we are to maximise its positive impacts.

Dr. Jen Dyer, University of Leeds

This research was sponsored by the Leeds Social Sciences Impact Acceleration Account in association with the ESRC. © University of Leeds, December 2018.

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