After witnessing a schoolgirl aged 12 with two prosthetic blades running in a High School Sports Day 100m event in front of the entire school without any leveling distance advantage, it has only furthered my own interest into the motivation in disabled sport. So! What possesses her to take on such a challenge? Being in the spotlight? Will? Paralympic legacy and the Pistorius factor? Encouragement? Peer support or peer pressure? Whatever the motivation, the spectacle is amazing holding the attention of the spectators who admire the courage and skill of one so young and with relatively little experience on blades which she has only used for 3 months.

The amazing year of sport in 2012 consisting of the Olympic and Paralympic games has surely inspired a generation of children to take part in many areas of sport. In sport with disabled children it is the consensus of many that there is less encouragement to take part due to levels of competency. I believe it should be the exact opposite-that disabled children should be motivated at an early age to play sport in this country. Building on Deci and Ryan’s (1985) Self-Determination theory, Pelletier et al (1995) believe that the main areas for motivation in sport are intrinsic, extrinsic and amotivation; which lead to the creation of the Sports Motivation Scale. These same constructs can be applied to children in sport as they involve the reasons for participation in sport.

Intrinsic Motivation (IM): This measure involves choosing to play sport for one’s own interest and motives. One study (Gill, Gross & Huddlestone 1983) found that children choose to play sport for a number of reasons:

  • to improve and learn new skills,
  • to have fun,
  • stay fit
  • be physically challenged

The same principles are apparent amongst disabled children as well. It is highly likely that it is the competence of the individual that makes the difference in terms of participation in sport between typically developing and disabled children. Harter (1981) found that children with more successful motor skills are more intrinsically motivated. Even though our inspirational blade runner has a major physical impairment her actual motor faculties are as present as they ever were; we see the prosthesis before we see the motor ability.

In another study it was found that children choose easier tasks to obtain rewards, but doing this decreases the child’s enjoyment of and intrinsic motivation for the activity. So, the selection of a challenging activity may be a strong influence in children’s participation in sport. However, it may be possible that if the challenge becomes too great, the intrinsic motivation to participate may decrease. Because the level of challenge frequently increases more quickly for the disabled it is likely that this is a strong factor in participation.

What many disabled children in sport do to overcome this is to take part in clubs incorporating their own disability group. Clubs like this are few and far between making life difficult for parents. Furthermore, depending on their disability group there are more or fewer opportunities available. For example, hearing impaired children (probably no motor difficulties) are more able to join a group of typically developing children than a child, say, with Downs’s syndrome. This is bound to have an effect on the intrinsic motivation for participation in sport for different disability groups.

In terms of Paralympic athletes, Pensgaard et al (1999) found IM to be the same as Olympians. Paralympians were interviewed revealing that athletes with disabilities have to learn very early “to be focused on self-improvement in order to maintain motivation” when they trained with typically developing athletes. This is so their competence can be at a standard in which they are satisfied with, which in turn makes them more intrinsically motivated. In the same interviews one paralympian revealed that coaching in disability sport is “too kind”. This is where coaches are afraid to ‘push’ disabled individuals too far and doing ‘harm’ to the individuals. The paralympian argues that, counter-intuitively, due to the difficult life experiences disabled individuals have endured, they can take the added pressure demanded off them in sport. Many disabled children may feel they are in the same boat.

Extrinsic Motivation: In contrast to IM, extrinsic motivation involves motivators from the environment (e.g. friends, parents and coaches). Certainly amongst children it can be expected that a huge part of their reasoning for participation in sport is to make friends. Studies have found that children with strong peer relationships are more self-motivated in sport and, in addition, enjoy themselves more. For a disabled child (e.g. cerebral palsied) it may prove harder to make friends in sport with typically developing children as there may be a difference in competence levels. Weiss and Duncan (1992) found that a greater competence in sport coincided with stronger peer relationships. However if the child with cerebral palsy is participating with other cerebral palsied children then there may be no difference in the strength of peer relations.

So as to assess this I conducted an interview with an experienced teacher who is Curriculum Leader for P.E. in an 11-16 High School in North West Lancashire. She revealed that her pupils “actively encourage and support the pupils with disabilities” in sport and that those pupils “grow in confidence as a result of their involvement”. Disability in sport is, evidently, becoming more accepted than it ever has been.

Parents obviously have a major influence on their child’s motivation to play sport. One study found that children were more motivated to take part in sport if the ‘perceived’ pressure from parents was lower. In disability sport it may be that the perceived parental pressure to participate in sport will be low. However, if their disabled child is involved in sport, it is possible that there will be additional anxiety and worry from parents connected to safety factors such as avoiding being hit by a ball or falling, to which some disabled children are more vulnerable. This in turn may be a factor in deterring disabled children from taking part in sport. It is because of this factor that it is important for schools to involve disabled children in sport.

Relating back to my interview with the P.E. teacher, it is clear that by adopting a very clear inclusion strategy, children with a range of disabilities can be drawn into sport and become accepted by their peers. She motivates pupils with disabilities by introducing sports that they can easily take part and succeed in. For example, pupils in wheelchairs can practise Archery, New Age Curling and Boccia. There is a clear dialogue with parents over these choices-even before children enter the school. Parents who are either keen for their child’s participation or who are nervous are shown the possibilities and the visual stimuli of wall posters celebrate the achievements of participating disabled children. In the experience of this school, it is strongly evident that P.E. teachers act as exterior motivators to engage disabled children.

Amotivation: This construct is the motivation not to take part in an activity. Amongst many people with disabilities it could be expected that there will be more amotivation in sport for fear of not being able to perform or compete against others. Deci and Ryan (1985) found that the less competent a person is the more amotivated they are. This, however, could apply to people who have not practised a sport often enough. Wheelchair basketball players (i.e. competent sportspeople) have been found to have similarly low amotivation levels as basketball players. Therefore those in a similar competence sporting group may be more motivated to take part in the sport.

Sport England (2006-2012) report that disability participation in sport has risen from 8.8% to 18.3%, a sign that improvements are being made. Because of their comprehensive intakes most state Schools & Academies include both typically developing and disabled children; therefore, when participating in games there will be a mix of sporting competence which will impact upon the motivation levels of a disabled child. It has to be a priority for the school to provide opportunities to include all groups. The vision for inclusive sport has to be articulated strongly and support for this must be much in evidence among staff, pupils and their parents. Seeing that 12 year old amputee compete in a 100m race for sports day has made me realise that there really are significant breakthrough opportunities for disabled children. Children clearly want to involved in sport. There is, however, more work to be done to encourage the participation of disabled children in sport across the United Kingdom.