Starting A Special Needs Soccer Program?

Here’s What You Need To Know To Start A Special Needs Soccer Program In Your Community – An Overview


First off, thank you! If you’ve found this page, it means you’re one of the very special individuals out there willing to give of themselves to create a rewarding and memorable experience for the challenged kids of your community. Kudos to you!!

Second, this is just an overview of some of the details you need to consider when inaugurating a special needs soccer venture. Special Needs Soccer will be spelling some of these aspects in greater detail over the next few months. If you’ve started a special needs soccer effort in your community, please don’t hesitate to contact us with your experiences, both positive and negative, so we can pass along your knowledge to others.

Launching your own Special Needs Soccer program is no easy task. There are many aspects of creating something exceptional, and in some ways, it can be daunting. The good news is that Special Needs Soccer is here to help you every step of the way. From providing complete practice plans, to giving advice on reserving quality fields, Special Needs Soccer aims to assist you in order for you to develop something extraordinary.

What Should I Do First?

Your first step is to decide whether or not you’d like the special needs soccer program in your community to be a stand-alone entity, or to operate inside of another association, such as your local soccer club or a religious organization. Both have their merits and downsides, so it really depends on several factors. The benefits of creating your own stand-alone corporation include adding a layer of protection to you and your assets, in addition to insurance, to protect yourself in from the litigation economy. Since it’s your corporation, you get to name your own executives and board members, allowing you to run the operation according to your own special needs soccer philosophy. There are a lot more details to look after, including setting up the corporation, establishing a bank account, writing by-laws, paying taxes, etc., but once everything is organized its pretty easy to keep everything moving forward. Inaugurating your program under the umbrella of a local soccer club or church means that they handle all the financial, insurance and field space details, while you can focus solely on the soccer experience. The downside is that you are at the whim of organization. Losing charge of your program (and all the hard work that went into creating it) due to politics, or other factors not in your control, can happen without warning or reason. The choice is yours, but take some time weighing the positives and negatives of each approach.

Determine Your Seasons & Schedule

Next up is determining when you want to conduct your sessions. Much of your decision making process will be based on geography. A program in Minnesota will have a far different schedule than a program in Florida. For example, Special Needs Soccer conducts our local program, located in the Northeast, over three separate seasons, Fall, Winter and Spring. Fall and Spring are held outdoors, and our Winter program starts in January at an indoor facility. Most outdoor programs last 6-8 weeks consecutively, and we try and position them in the weather “sweet spot” to ensure it’s not too cold or too hot. Our advice is to start small and grow organically based on participation. So you may want to conduct your first session in the Fall (traditional soccer season) for six consecutive weeks, and then see how it goes. Developing your program naturally removes a lot of pressure and allows you to find your way without overextending yourself. As the program develops, you can expand based on participation and logistics. So lets say you’ve settled on Saturday mornings beginning at 10:00am. How long should your special needs soccer session last?

Our sessions are conducted once per week (Saturday or Sunday) for about 75 minutes; other programs go once or twice per week from 30 to 90 minutes. We’ve found our start time is somewhat “rolling” with some children showing up exactly on time while others “sashay” in up to 20 minutes late. Thus, even though our start time is 10:00am, we don’t formally start until 10:15am. Your participants may be different. They may all arrive punctually and be raring to go. The idea is to adapt your start time to the kids in the program and not the other way around. In our first 15 minutes, the kids get to acclimate to the field, “hang out” with the volunteers and take shots on a goal. Once enough kids arrive, we bring everyone together and launch into one of our Special Needs Soccer Practice Plans. The special needs soccer drills that we’ve developed are targeted towards a 60-75 minute session, allowing for water breaks and the small sided game(s) to continue, if the kids are all having a wonderful time (Remember, sometimes “less is more” and “end with cheers, not with tears”). Now that you’ve decided the “When” — it’s time to consider the “Where.”

Field Space

Choosing the right field is crucial to the success of your program and should not be taken lightly. Sometimes you’re worrying about so many other details, securing a quality venue for your program drops far down on your priority list. Don’t wait until the last minute because your program will suffer. What you’re looking for is a nice, well-maintained and flat grass field with a handicapped-accessible bathroom facility on site. A 50 yd by 50 yd space will suffice giving you plenty of “cushion” to run your special needs soccer drills and activities. The space should not be competing with baseball games or other sports, which could send flying balls into your practice area. The wheelchair-accessible bathroom is very important for not only the obvious reasons, but for other needs such as washing hands and changing. We also recommend finding a fenced-in area. This helps contain your practice area, provides safety from kids running into the street and limits available real-estate for challenged children who enjoy going for a spontaneous run.

Most programs are conducted on school fields, in town parks and other public areas that have the aforementioned features. Please note, most of these facilities require you to obtain permits for their use. Do this well in advance of your season. In your permit request, please be specific about the area where you’d like to conduct your session. This will alleviate conflicts with other organizations and ensure you’re in the area you want to be. You will most likely need insurance to obtain a permit, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

What About Artificial Turf Fields?

Although, Special Needs Soccer recommends well-maintained grass fields, an artificial turf field may be a viable solution. Sometimes the fields in your area may not be mowed on a regular basis, or contain unmarked holes, dirt patches, plant debris, garbage, goose droppings, or other unwanted hazards. In that case, a turf field may be a good answer. The downside is that some turf fields can be hard and the artificial grass can scratch a child if they fall. Some children may also get fixated on the small black pieces of rubber that are used to provide cushioning. That said, if the turf field utilizes modern, artificial grass, has a great bathroom and is fenced-in, it should certainly be considered. If you have any wheelchair bound children in your program, a turf field may benefit them as well.

Insurance

You’re going to need to purchase insurance for your program. Considering how litigious our society has become, procuring quality special needs soccer insurance is mandatory. Even if you’re under the umbrella of another organization, you should consider supplemental insurance for your program. There are many excellent companies that provide comprehensive insurance for sports programs. Please check the Sponsor page in our practice plans for insurers who support special needs programs.

Equipment

Having the right coaching gear makes all the difference when operating a special needs soccer program. Here’s a list of all the equipment we recommend:

  • Portable Goals
  • 12 Tall Cones
  • 60 Flat Cones (at least three different colors)
  • Pinnies (at least four different colors – quantity based on amount of children)
  • Coaches Clipboard with Dry Erase Markers (at least 3 Different Colors)
  • Balls (Size 3 and 4)
  • Blow up Soccer Balls
  • First Aid Kit
  • Chemical Ice Packs
  • Extra Water Bottles
  • Portable Ball Pump
  • Athletic Tape
  • Uniforms

Protective Gear

Special Needs Soccer recommends that each child wears sneakers (cleats optional), shin-guards (mandatory), knee pads and head protection. Soccer head-protection has gotten pretty sophisticated over the years and several manufacturers produce a variety of models. One of our sponsors, Storelli, has developed a very slick protective band, which we have tested and found to be a great solution. Other models by Full90, Adidas and others can be considered as well.

CPR/First Aid Training

Acquiring CPR and First Aid training is strongly recommended. Modern first aid and CPR techniques can be the difference when injuries occur on the field. Having these attributes in your personal coaching arsenal is an excellent idea.

What Do I Charge For My Special Needs Soccer Program?

Most likely, your program is going to be non-profit or not-for-profit, so you’re basically going to look to cover your costs, which, as you can see from the above, can add up quickly. You should amortize certain costs, such as the equipment, but pass along reoccuring costs every season. For example, field permits, insurance and marketing costs, should be included every season, but the costs for your portable goals should be spread out over the lifetime of the product (FYI, these goals won’t last forever, and will have to be replaced every so often based on the amount of abuse they take). We recommend keeping the costs as low as possible to ensure everyone can participate, no matter what their income level.

How Do I Promote My Special Needs Soccer Program?

Promotion & Marketing is often the difference between a lackluster and successful program, as far as participation, and should be addressed by developing an organized strategy for your specific community. We recommend a four-prong approach: grassroots, online (including social media), traditional and publicity. Grassroots entails reaching out to Special Needs groups and organizations in your community and informing them about your program. Often, these associations have mailing/emailing lists and will “broadcast” information about your program to their members. Schools and religious organizations should also be contacted. Printing flyers is also beneficial and can be distributed to businesses in your area that get a lot of foot traffic, such as supermarkets. Developing a website provides a focal point for your special needs soccer endeavor and is a great way to provide information about the program, as well as inform your participants about additional activities in your community, and time sensitive issues, such as rain outs. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the latest Social Media Flavor Of The Month, should also be utilized. Some organizations simply have a Facebook page for their program, but we don’t recommend this course of action, since some potential participants may not be Facebook members.

Traditional approaches include advertising in your local newspaper, and using direct mail to inform the community about your special needs soccer program. Finally, a lot can be gained by publicity. Writing a press release and sending it out to all your local newspapers, magazines, community websites, etc. is the quintessential marketing vehicle and it’s free. However, you need to compose a “press ready” professional release and include a dynamic picture to get inclusion. The nice thing is that you’re doing something wonderful for your locale, so you’ll discover the press will be very accommodating to your release…just make sure its quality.

How Can I Get Volunteers?

Volunteers are key to your program and recruiting should be a 24/7/365 affair. You’ll find volunteers can emerge out of the woodwork, or come forward based on some of the promotion vehicles mentioned above. We’ve found that High-School-aged typical children make wonderful volunteers in our local program. Many high-schools, as well as religious organizations, have a community service requirement/component, and these kids are looking for worthwhile and gratifying initiatives to participate in. Downsides include reliability and experience working with challenged children, but we’ve found that these young adults have been the perfect solution. Recruiting high-school-aged volunteers is usually quite simple and a call to the school’s guidance counselor should point you in the right direction. Some high-schools also have Mentoring programs, which are more involved and require you to set up definite tasks and assignments, which then need to be monitored.

Adults can be another source for volunteers, but care needs to be taken to protect the children and yourself from unsavory individuals. It is recommended that any adult who wishes to participate in your program go through a risk management assessment and/or background check. Adults that pass these criteria also may be better served aiding in organization and promotion, and not necessarily on the field.

Dedicated Volunteers who show up reliably each week will soon be admired and loved by the players. Deep and substantial relationships often form and continue even after some of the volunteers head off to college. Pairing a volunteer with a specific player each week often promotes a deeper connection and is recommended. A child will often gravitate towards their “Partner” or “Buddy” where the continuity of their socialization can flourish over the course of the season.

Uniforms, Trophies, T-Shirts

We often get asked about uniforms and believe they’re a great way to provide a child with a sense of belonging to an entity larger than themselves. You can start with T-Shirts and move up to a dedicated uniform when your finances allow. If you can find a local t-shirt printer who is sympathetic to your program, you can often negotiate a reduced price. The T-shirt and uniform is also a great method for continuing the soccer experience off the field. Trophies are also something to consider at the end of each season.