A partnership between Special Olympics and the Badminton World Federation is looking to spread the sport and its benefits to a new generation of athletes.
The Bowmans are a badminton family. From the time that Meg Bowman started playing her junior year of high school to the present, the sport has been a major part of their lives. “My sister Katie was the state champion and was inducted into the City of Mesa [Arizona] Hall of Fame. My second daughter, Rachel, has played Westwood badminton for four years and my mom is the biggest badminton fan I know.”
Despite this, Meg’s daughter Jayne was not initially a fan of the sport. She was not really into sports, but at a Special Olympics event Meg and Jayne attended two years ago, badminton was being played. It was there that Jayne watched and told her mother, “I want to do this,” beginning an important and transformative process.
Special Olympics is taking steps to make it possible for many more people to have similar experiences as Jayne and Meg did that day two years ago, partnering with the Badminton World Federation in the hope of spreading the sport more widely. Though badminton is a popular sport around the world and offered in Special Olympics programs worldwide, it is not played as often in the United States. However, there are many reasons that its advocates believe that badminton is a good fit for Special Olympics and is primed to win high numbers of converts.
According to Special Olympics representatives I spoke to, badminton is especially good for athletes on the autistic spectrum with its emphasis on attention, eye contact, and long-term focus. It also develops many other skills such as hand-eye coordination and upper body movement. It is an accessible non-contact sport, requiring less equipment and fewer participants than many other sports. One can also play in relatively small spaces, both indoors and outdoors.
So what is being done to spread the sport? Representatives such as John Shearer, the Senior Development Manager at Badminton World Federation, are taking a two-pronged approach to spreading the sport. First, they are running badminton events and trying to place them in as many places as possible. These are not only championship-level events but also grassroots promotions of badminton in schools and clubs. The goal is to get people to try it for the first time with the belief that once they try it, they will want to keep playing it. Second, once people are introduced to the sport, resources such as teaching and coaching material are provided so that they can deepen their relationship with, and involvement in, the sport.
The goal is less to emphasize it in regions where it is already possible than to introduce it to new regions and countries, showing what the game can offer. An example of how this could work can be found in Arizona, a place where the sport has blossomed. There, badminton was played in schools and put into clubs. For leaders and coaches, it was simply a matter of finding a variety of ways to introduce the sport to new players and then letting it grow organically from there. It is hoped that this is a blueprint for future successes elsewhere.
Of course, the emphasis is not only on how many participants there are. “Numbers is one piece, quality is another piece,” says Maggie Brennan, a manager of sport development for Special Olympics. So what does quality entail? A good coach to athlete ratio; a high frequency of participation; the impact a sport has on athletes; and the support network that athletes have access to.
As Jon St. Germain, the Senior Director of Unified Sports and Sport Partnerships at Special Olympics International says, “We are trying to change attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities in a positive way and the way to do this is to engage people. We feel like we can achieve attitude changes and create more urgency as we get more people involved in the movement through Unified Sports. The style of play is focused on being competitive but the primary area is that every participant should be meaningfully involved in the result…That’s the metric of success: meaningful involvement.”
There are some barriers to teaching badminton though. According to Meg Bowman, “the tricky thing about badminton and especially doubles, most of these kids have never heard of badminton and if they have they are not familiar with the rules.“ This is where the BWF is able to help since they have resources and coaches that can help athletes acclimate themselves to the sport.
Badminton aligns perfectly with the goals of Special Olympics Unified
Badminton is also a natural fit for the Special Olympics Unified approach, according to Special Olympics Senior Vice President Jason Teitler, which aims to create spaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities compete and participate together. Such play promotes inclusion while also helping those with intellectual disabilities to become a part of a broader community, inviting others into their world as well. With Unified events having a set of rules that are equal for all, it provides a chance for teammates to learn more about their similarities than their differences, potentially setting the stage for friendship.
Jayne Bowman may have grown up with a badminton shuttlecock in her hand, surrounded by lovers of the sport, but it was not until her involvement with Unified Sports that she fell in love with the game. Her mother, Meg Bowman, talks about how important it is to identify partners who want to play together and work well together, players whose personalities match and who get along with one another. That typifies the best bonds and it describes the one that Jayne has with her Unified partner, Harleigh. Jayne said Harleigh “knew all the rules” and “made me laugh,” inspiring her to dance off setbacks and pose in ways that will “strike fear” in their opponents.
It was an example of “partners becoming lifelong friends,” according to Meg. “As a mom, that was really special to see.” Participating in Unified Sports has been transformative for Jayne and her family. “Since that day, Jayne’s speech patterns and how she refers to herself has changed. She sees herself as every bit of an athlete as Rachel and refers to our family as ‘we’ are badminton players.”
At one of Jayne Bowman’s tournaments, a picture was taken of her with her mother, grandmother, aunt, and sister. Looking back on that moment, Meg told me that “To me, that picture just means everything to me because it shows what Unified has given us as a mom, as a family, as a coach. Unified is so much greater than what we’re doing on that court. It’s so deep and it’s lifelong.” These are the types of moments Special Olympics and the Badminton World Federation are hoping to create in the future for athletes worldwide.
“Unified Sports bring athletes and partners together. It brings coaches and players together. In my case, and most importantly, it has brought our family together in a way we didn’t realize could happen.” As Shearer said, “The way we look at sports is it’s for everyone to have a chance to participate.” This is a step towards giving people that chance.
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