2012. Vol.3, No.12A, 1131-1141
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1131
An In-Depth Investigation of a Model Sport Program for Athletes
with a Physical Disability
Jennifer Turnnidge, Matth ew Vierimaa, Jean Côté
School of Kinesiology and He al th S tu die s, Queen’s University, King ston, Canada
Email: 5jm14,,
Received September 26th, 2012; revised October 24th, 2012; accep t e d N o v e mber 21st, 2012
While previous research highlights the important benefits that sport participation can have for youth de-
velopment, limited research has examined the sport experiences of athletes with disabilities (Martin,
2006). The purpose of this study was to describe the sport experiences of athletes with physical disabili-
ties in a model swim program that has been widely recognized for the development of positive values in
athletes. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eight athletes with a physical disability. Partici-
pants were both male (n = 3) and female (n = 5), between 9 - 19 years of age, and averaged 5.9 years of
swimming experience. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and were subjected to a content analysis
procedure in which raw meaning units were grouped into salient themes (Côté, Salmela, Baria, & Russell,
1993; Tesch, 1990). Athletes’ responses regarding the outcomes derived from this program revealed four
themes: 1) Redefined capabilities, 2) affirmed sense of self, 3) strengthened social connection, and 4) en-
hanced acceptance. Social and contextual processes facilitating the development of these outcomes are
also discussed. Practical implications for programmers, coaches, and athletes are presented along with
recommendations for future sport research.
Keywords: Positive Youth Development; Coaching; Peers
Given the popularity and the significant amount of time
youth spend in sport in comparison to other extracurricular
activities (Guèvremont, Findlay, & Kohen, 2008), sport is often
advocated as an avenue through which positive development
can be facilitated. Empirical research is beginning to verify this
claim by suggesting associations between sport participation
and several positive outcomes (e.g., Fraser-Thomas, Côté, &
Deakin, 2005; Larson, 2000). For example, participation in
sport is linked with improved physical health, the acquisition of
motor skills, and the development of important psychosocial
skills (Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2007). While previous research
provides valuable insight into the types of positive develop-
mental outcomes that may be acquired through sport, the exist-
ing literature predominantly focuses on the sport experiences of
able-bodied athletes. Studies examining the sport experiences
of athletes with disabilities are relatively limited in comparison
(Martin, 2006).
The need for research specifically examining sport participa-
tion among youth with disabilities is underscored by the fact
that individuals with disabilities tend to engage in fewer physi-
cal and social activities compared to youth without disabilities
(King et al., 2006). Studies exploring social interactions in dis-
ability sport are particularly relevant as previous research indi-
cates that youth with disabilities may be at increased risk for
peer rejection or neglect (Martin & Choi, 2009). Finally, since
it has been suggested that sport may provide an effective ave-
nue to combat the discrimination and stigma commonly ex-
perienced by individuals with disabilities (Giacobbi, Stancil,
Hardin, & Bryant, 2008), research within this setting is war-
ranted. Fortunately, there is growing support for the notion that
sport can be a fertile developmental context for youth with
disabilities (e.g., Kristén, Patriksson, & Fridlund, 2002; Martin,
2006). Previous research suggests that sport can have a positive
influence on youth’s development of new physical and social
skills (Groff & Kleiber, 2001). Sport is also advocated as a
context which can provide opportunities for feelings of mastery
and accomplis hment, which in t urn can b e linked to an enhan ced
sense of empowerment, self-confidence, and self-efficacy (e.g.,
Hutzler & Sherill, 1999). Furthermore, sport may provide a
salient context for the social development of athletes with dis-
abilities. Research indicates that sport can offer opportunities
for interactions and friendships with other individuals with
disabilities that are not readily available in school or other
community environments (Groff & Kleiber, 2001). Through
these opportunities, young athletes can experience shared re-
sponsibilities, common goals, and a sense of belonging (Good-
win, Krohn, & Kuhnle, 2004; Shapiro & Martin, 2010).
Given the vari ous ben efits that ar e linked with par ticip ation in
sport, it is evident that sport can significantly contribute to the
development of athletes with d is abilities. Nonetheless, while the
existing literature sheds some light on the types of outcomes
that may be associated with sport participation, research is
needed to evaluate the processes through which these outcomes
can be acquired. Previous studies in various physical activity
settings suggest that variables such as individual’s self-percep-
tions (e.g., self-efficacy) and social and environmental factors
(e.g., peers) may help to determine whether adapted physical
activity will facilitate positive outcomes (e.g., Spencer-Cava-
liere & Watkinson, 2009).
For instance, Martin (2006) explored a wide range of psy-
chosocial variables that may contribute to youth’s motivation
towards sport participation and their sport commitment. Results
indicated that athletes’ sport enjoyment and perceptions of
physical ability were strongly related to youth’s desire to con-
tinue participating in sport, thereby suggesting that youth’s
individual perceptions may play a key role in facilitating posi-
tive outcomes. Hutzler, Fliess, Chacham, and Van den Auweele
(2002) echoed this sentiment as their investigation revealed that
the self-efficacy and goal perspectives of students with disabili-
ties influenced their perceptions of empowerment. Moreover,
Hutzler and colleagues (2002) found that external factors, such
as peers and important adults, also fostered empowerment
within inclusive physical education.
Collectively, these studies suggest that both individual and
contextual factors can affect youth’s development within
adapted physical activity settings. However, while this research
illustrates some important pathways through which adapted
physical activity may contribute to youth’s development, the
underlying mechanisms that influence the relationships between
activity participation and positive outcomes are still not fully
understood. As such, there is a need for theory-driven research
assessing: 1) Youth’s developmental experiences in adapted
physical activity programs, 2) how development occurs, and 3)
what effective practitioners do to support development. Lastly,
although there is a growing body of literature on youth’s
adapted physical activity experiences, previous research has
tended to focus on physical education settings (Spencer-Cava-
liere & Watkinson, 2010). Studies investigating youth’s ex-
periences within organized sport contexts may consequently
help to supplement the existing literature.
One theoretical framework that may contribute to our under-
standing of the processes by which sport can influence athletes
with disabilities is the positive youth development (PYD) ap-
proach. This approach suggests that researchers should examine
the factors and experiences that may influence youth develop-
ment from a positive or “asset-building” perspective that views
youth as a resource to be developed, rather than a problem to be
solved (Damon, 2004). PYD is thus a strength-based approach
and its proponents envision all youth as having the potential for
positive developmental change. This approach aims to educate
and engage youth in productive activities and pro-social be-
haviors, instead of correcting perceived deficiencies (Damon,
2004). Consequently, this approach may be complementary to
conceptualizations of disability sport as a context for empow-
erment and growth.
Research employing the PYD perspective indicates that sport
may indeed be an ideal avenue for promoting positive devel-
opmental outcomes. For example, previous studies indicate that
participation in sport programs may facilitate outcomes such as
teamwork and initiative (Holt, Tamminen, Tink, & Black, 2009;
Larson, 2000). Recent theoretical research also proposes that
sport programs have the potential to foster key aspects of posi-
tive development, such as competence, confidence, connection,
and character (referred to as the 4Cs; Côté, Bruner, Erickson,
Strachan, & Fraser-Thomas, 2010). Nonetheless, while there is
growing evidence that sport may provide an effective vehicle
for facilitating positive development, this body of literature also
highlights that there is nothing special about sport per se that
automatically results in positive developmental outcomes. Sim-
ply engaging in sport is not sufficient to develop positively.
Rather, it is posited that the outcomes of sport participation,
positive or negative, depend on the complex interaction of sev-
eral contextual and social factors.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of literature investigat-
ing the social and contextual features of sport programs that
may contribute to PYD. Frameworks put forth by Fraser-
Thomas, Côté, and Deakin (2005) and Petitpas, Cornelius, Van
Raalte, and Jones (2005) propose that positive development is
enhanced when: 1) Youth acquire developmental outcomes, 2)
activities are conducted within appropriate contexts and 3)
when youth are surrounded by positive external assets, such as
supportive relationships with coaches and peers. As such, these
frameworks reinforce the notion that positive development in
sport is the product of on-going interactions between the person
and the environment.
One important determinant of the quality of youth’s sport
experiences may be the sport context, which includes an indi-
vidual’s physical and social environment (Petitpas et al., 2005).
In their review of previous literature, the National Research
Council and Institute of Medicine (NRCIM, 2002) identified
eight contextual setting features that can facilitate positive de-
velopment in youth. These setting features include: 1) Physical
and psychological safety; 2) appropriate structure; 3) suppor-
tive relationships; 4) an opportunity to belong; 5) positive so-
cial norms; 6) support of efficacy and mattering; 7) opportuni-
ties for skill building; and 8) integration of family, school, and
community. Recent research in elite sport contexts suggests that
programs that cultivate these setting features can positively
influence youth sport experiences (Strachan, Côté, & Deakin,
2011). However, these setting features have not yet been ex-
amined in a disability sport context.
Furthermore, although the right context is integral to facili-
tating youth development, it is often the social interactions and
relationships that determine the quality of youth’s sport experi-
ences (Petitpas et al., 2005). Indeed, it is well documented that
coaches play a crucial role in fostering positive development in
youth (Horn, 2008). Moreover, previous research indicates that
peers (Ullrich-French & Smith, 2006) and parents (Côté, 1999)
are both key elements of youth’s sport experiences. Despite the
importance of these social agents, limited research has exam-
ined how social relationships shape and support youth devel-
opment within sport programs for athletes with disabilities
(Shapiro & Martin, 2010).
In order to advance the literature with respect to positive de-
velopment in youth, there are several important avenues for
future research. First, previous research suggests that studies
are needed to not only examine the outcomes associated with
sport participation, but to explore the types of processes and
interpersonal interactions that may influence the development
of these outcomes in model sport settings (Holt & Sehn, 2008).
Previous research also suggests that qualitative methodologies
may be well suited to understanding the experiences of those
involved in youth sport since they can provide in-depth ac-
counts of athletes’ perceptions of the processes that influence
their development (Holt & Jones, 2008). This is congruent with
Spencer-Cavaliere and Watkinson’s (2009) assertion that the
viewpoints of youth with disabilities will help to enhance our
understanding of their experiences in adapted physical activity
contexts. Finally, Lerner (2002) argues that more research with
‘real world’ community programs is needed to identify the
characteristics of sustainable and effective youth programs that
can promote positive youth development. Consequently, studies
exploring youth development in existing community sport pro-
grams that have been shown to lead to positive outcomes may
be beneficial, particularly within the disability sport context.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Purpose of the Study
Given the increased recognition of the role that organized
sports play in facilitating positive youth development in general
and for athletes with disabilities in particular, an investigation
of these organized sport contexts is of critical importance. Pre-
vious studies underscore the need to identify and understand the
processes that may contribute to youth’s development in real
world sport programs (Lerner, 2002; Petitpas et al., 2005). Fur-
thermore, research suggests that examining sport experiences
from the perspectives of the participants themselves may help
to illuminate the role of sport programs in youth’s development.
Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory, qualitative study was
to examine the sport experiences of young athletes with physic-
cal disabilities in a model swimming program. More specifi-
cally, this study hoped to uncover youth’s perceptions of the
outcomes derived from participating in this program as well as
the processes that contributed to the acquisition of these out-
This study employed a qualitative descriptive research design.
The aim of qualitative descriptive studies is to offer a compre-
hensive summary of the nature and shape of the participants’
experiences (Sandelowski, 2000). Qualitative descriptive stud-
ies are designed to produce detailed and interpretive findings
that are close to the data as given. In using this design, this
study hoped to capture the experiences of youth sport partici-
pants within this program and to gain greater insight into the
processes that facilitate these experiences from the perspectives
of the youth themselves.
All procedures for this study were approved by the research
ethics board at the researchers’ university prior to initial contact
with participants. The coach, the athletes, and the athletes’ par-
ents were required to provide written consent prior to participa-
tion. The program in this study was a competitive swim team
for athletes with physical disabilities, located in eastern Ontario,
Canada. This particular program was selected as it has both a
record of elite performance and a reputation as a positive sport
environment. This program has had two athletes qualify and
compete at international competitions and has had several ath-
letes compete at the provincial and national levels. This pro-
gram has also been recognized for its high level of community
involvement and its dedication to charitable endeavors by both
local and national media. Moreover, the coach of the program
has raised over one million dollars in support of youth with
disabilities and has been appointed as a member of the Order of
Canada in recognition of her accomplishments and service to
the field of disability sport. Another distinctive aspect of this
program is that the head coach intentionally designed the pro-
gram for athletes with disabilities. This is in contrast to Cregan,
Bloom, and Reid’s (2007) finding that elite coaches of swim-
mers with a disability tended to coach able-bodied athletes until
an athlete wi t h a di sability arrived at one of their practices.
Finally, this program was selected for its diverse range of
athletes within the program. Indeed, this program includes ath-
letes who represent a wide range of ages and competitive levels.
Participants were purposefully sampled with maximum varia-
tion to gain an understanding of the wide variety of experiences
of athletes within the program. Participants were eight athletes
with a physical disability from this swim program. Participants
were both male (n = 3) and female (n = 5), between 9 - 19 years
of age, and averaged 5.9 years of swimming experience.
Participants represented a wide range of disabilities as deter-
mined by their sport classification categories (Dummer, 1999).
Swimmers with a disability are classified based on several fac-
tors (e.g., muscle strength, co-ordination). Within this classifi-
cation system, the lower the number of the class, the greater the
functional impairment (e.g., class 1 represents a severe disabil-
ity and class 10 represents a less severe disability). Participants
in this study ranged from most severe to least severe as follows:
classes 6 (n = 3), 8 (n = 2), 9 (n = 1), and 10 (n = 2). Partici-
pants also represented a wide range of competitive levels, from
the recreational level to the international competitive level (see
Table 1 for a detailed participant table).
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each of the
participants in a private room at the sport complex. Interviews
were conducted by the lead author, a female graduate student
who had received training in qualitative methods. The second
author, a male graduate student trained in qualitative methods,
was also present during the interviews. His role involved taking
notes during the interviews and to ensure that the findings
which emerged from the interviews were not a result of per-
sonal bias or leading questions. Both researchers had attended
several of the team’s practices over a period of five months
prior to the interviews, but had few direct interactions with the
participants. By creating a sense of familiarity, the participants
and researchers alike felt comfortable enough to enable an un-
constrained exchange of dialogue.
Prior to the start of the interview, the participants were given
introductory statements regarding the study rationale, the use of
interview data, issues of confidentiality, the topics to be dis-
cussed, and procedures for recording and transcribing the inter-
view. These pr eliminary procedu res were implemented as part of
the trust and rapport building process between the interview
participant and the interviewer (Fontana & Frey, 2000). These
procedures were important to ensure that detailed, rich descrip-
tions emerged later in the interview to the questions most rele-
vant to the research questions of interest.
Following these procedures, a number of open ended ques-
tions were asked in order to stimulate thoughtful and detailed
accounts of the athletes’ experiences within this sport program.
Table 1.
Summary of the participants.
ParticipantAge GenderClassification Competitive
P1 16 Male S8SB8SM8 International
P2 15 Male S6SB6SM6 National
P3 9 Female S10SB9SM10 Regional
P4 15 Male S9SB9SM9 Provincial
P5 16 Female S10SB9SM10 Provincial
P6 11 Female S8SB7SM8 Provincial
P7 19 Female S6SB6SM6 International
P8 17 Female S6SB6SM6 National
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1133
The main questions of the interview focused directly on par-
ticipants’ perceptions of the outcomes they achieved through
participation in the program and their perceptions of the proc-
esses affecting their sport experiences. Sample questions in-
cluded: “What have you learned since becoming a member of
this program?” and “Please describe what aspects of the team
have had the greatest impact on you?” Probing and follow-up
questions wer e used to encourage the participants to elaborate on
their ideas throughout the interview process (Patton, 2002).
Sample probes included: “Tell me more” or “Could you please
give me an example?” Specific questions were developed based
on past developmental and sport psychology research and fo-
cused on aspects of the program structure and social influences
(e.g., Fraser-Thomas et al., 2005; Petipas et al., 2005). Partici-
pants were also given an opportunity at the end of the interview
to discuss any topics that may have remained unspoken to that
point in time.
Data Analysis
Each interview was digitally recorded and transcribed verba-
tim, assigning each participant a code (P1 to P8). Content
analysis was used in accordance with previously established
guidelines (Côté, Salmela, Baria, & Russel1, 1993; Tesch,
1990). Transcripts were read several times to allow for famili-
arization with each participant’s responses and to obtain a sense
of the data as a whole (Tesch, 1990). Data were then read word
by word to look for meaningful units of information (i.e., seg-
ments that contain one specific idea or piece of information;
Tesch, 1990). Each meaning unit was labeled with a tag that
emerged from the text and that represented the information
within the meaning unit. Tags were then compared and patterns
of similarity and dissimilarity were identified. These patterns
were then reviewed and clustered to identify salient themes
within the data (Patton, 2002). The purpose of creating these
themes was to provide a means of describing the athletes’ ex-
periences and to increase our understanding of the processes
that shaped those experiences. Given that qualitative analysis
often involves a mixture of inductive and deductive processes
(Patton, 2002), it is important to recognize that every study is
guided by certain concepts. In the present study, we were
guided by the PYD approach, but made every effort to be re-
ceptive to unanticipated themes that were outside of this area of
literature. In line with this contention, the research team selec-
tively applied theoretical constructs to advance our interpreta-
tion of the data, thus avoiding “forcing” the data into predeter-
mined categories. Hence, we used several PYD concepts to
help organize the developmental outcomes and processes asso-
ciated with the athletes’ experiences in sport.
Throughout the analysis process, the research team met regu-
larly to discuss the emerging themes. The research team con-
sisted of the three authors and an external consultant. The third
author and external consultant had extensive experience con-
ducting qualitative research within youth sport settings. This
process helped to ensure interpretive validity while minimizing
individual researcher bias. Therefore, themes remained flexible
during the investigation and were continuously examined,
questioned, and refined until they accurately represented the
qualitative material. Finally, once the final themes were con-
structed, the transcripts were re-read to ensure that all of the
important aspects had been accuratel y captured.
Trustworthiness. The trust worthiness of the data was assur ed
through a variety of methods. First, credibility was established
through the provision of the participants’ direct quotations, so
that readers can evaluate and extend the conclusions drawn by
the research team. Second, descriptions of multiple partici-
pants’ experiences were provided to address the issue of trans-
ferability. Finally, dependability was enhanced through the use
of a research team. Two members of this research team were
involved in data analysis. Researchers’ independent analyses
were then followed by collaborative discussion with the entire
research team, which led to minor refinements. Classification
consistency was also verified through a reliability check that
was conducted by an independent researcher familiar with
qualitative research analysis. The independent researcher cate-
gorized a random sample (15%) of the meaning units into the
themes. The reliability check demonstrated high agreement (32
out of 33 units; 97%).
Overall, the results indicated that the athletes felt that their
participation in this program provided them with a myriad of
positive experiences. The athletes’ responses regarding the
outcomes derived from this program revealed four common
themes: 1) Redefined capabilities, 2) affirmed sense of self, 3)
strengthened social connection, and 4) enhanced acceptance. In
addition, three themes emerged from the data relating to the
athletes’ perceptions of the processes that affected their sport
experiences. These themes reflected social influences including:
1) Coach-athlete relationships, 2) peer interactions, and 3) the
team environment.
Outcome 1: Redefined Capabilities
The athletes’ experiences in this program provided them with
an opportunity both to discover new skills and to re-evaluate
the limits of their abilities. All of the athletes (N = 8) discussed
how they had developed new physical skills, such as learning
different strokes and refining their techniques. The significance
of these accomplishments was underscored by the fact that
some of the athletes had not known how to swim before enter-
ing the program and are now competing at the provincial, na-
tional, and even international levels. Athletes also commented
on how gains in their physical competence had influenced other
people’s perceptions of their disability. As one athlete high-
Before I was a little tight CP kid, I could barely even move. I
couldnt really fit in playing with other people now, as Im
getting older and Ive swam more, my right side basically isnt
noticeable. Most people at school dont even know I have a
disability (P1, M, Age 16).
Moreover, the athletes expressed how developing new skills
had enabled them to experience a sense of accomplishment and
to develop pride i n their abilities. For instance, athletes spoke of
the pleasure of knowing that their newfound skills had chal-
leng ed othe r peopl e’s atti tude s towards people with disabilities.
One athlete expanded:
Being able to do something thats different from other people
makes me feel better cause it was hard when I was little cause I
could hardly do anything. I just feel that swimming and stuff
helps me cause Ive had people make fun of me and now they
dont really do that anymore because I can do something (P3, F,
Age 9).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Finally, the athletes suggested that this program provided a
unique context that helped them to acquire skills that extended
beyond the sport environment. Specifically, the athletes com-
mented how their sport experiences had fostered the develop-
ment of responsibility, time management, and work ethic. As
one athlete indicated: “It’s just wonderful because I have a
responsibility to the team that’s helping me get farther with my
everyday life” (P1, M, Age 16).
Outcome 2: Affirmed Sense of Self
All of the athletes highlighted how their experiences in this
program had enabled them to develop both a stronger self-
concept and an enhanced sense of confidence (N = 8). More
specifically, athletes spoke of how their participation in swim-
ming had afforded them the opportunity to feel more confident
in their physical abilities and interpersonal skills. The athletes
also described how their swimming experiences had encour-
aged them to set goals for themselves and to develop higher
self-expectations. Indeed, many of the athletes revealed that
they had never dreamed of athletic success, but had now set
goals to compete at the provincial, national, and even interna-
tional levels. One athlete recalled with enthusiasm how their
goals had evolved since participating in this program:
I made the national team 3 years into my swimming career
and to me, that was the beginning of my goals cause I saw holy
smokes, I can go somewhere with this’... My next goal is the
Paralympics. Im so close and Ive hit that point where I can
say this is the foreseeable future. So, thats really exciting (P7,
F, Age 19).
In addition, athletes emphasized how the team environment
had encouraged them to become independent individuals. The
athletes spoke of having opportunities to demonstrate inde-
pendence during their everyday practices and at their annual
training camp. For example: “I’ve learned a lot of independence.
Beforehand, I was very dependent on other people, but I’ve
learned t o stay away from that” (P8, F, Age 17).
Outcome 3: Strengthened Social Connection
One of the most dominant themes related to the social bene-
fits that the athletes felt they had gained through their involve-
ment in this program (N = 8). The athletes consistently reported
making new friends since becoming a member of the team.
Athletes also discussed how they had found opportunities to be
around these new friends outside the swimming context, such
as having dinner or going to the movies. Interestingly, the ath-
letes commented on how the social environment of the swim
program was unique from other contexts. As one athlete indi-
Just having fun together, swimming together, competing to-
gether. Its just fun because sometimes at school there are peo-
ple that are not a good sport and then you come to practice
after school and youre here with people that are good sports
(P3, F, Age 9).
In addition to developing close friendships, the athletes com-
mented on how they had learned to work together as a team.
The athletes highlighted how the range of age groups within the
team had provided them with an opportunity to develop their
leadership skills. They also stressed that they had learned about
the importance of encouraging and helping their teammates
both during practices and competitions. Furthermore, the ath-
letes spoke of how they had enhanced their interpersonal skills
and confidence in relating to peers.
On top of the improved peer relationships, the athletes dis-
cussed how their participation in the program had provided
them with positive adult role models. In particular, athletes
emphasized their positive relationships with the coach, who
was often described in glowing terms such as the “great”,
“phenomenal” and the “best coach ever”. Athletes expressed
how they felt that she was more than a coach, but also a mentor
and a close friend. As one athlete indicated: “My relationship
with [the coach] is awesome, we can practically talk to her
about anything” (P6, F, Age 11). Moreover, the athletes de-
scribed the parents on the team as positive role models. They
commented on their willingness to provide instrumental support,
such as driving them to practice, officiating at competitions,
and organizing team events. The athletes also described how
the requirements of the team’s practices and competitions had
enabled the parents to become a great source of motivational
and emotional support. One athlete expanded on the parent’s
role within the program:
Theyre [the parents] are always helping out and organizing
events... They actually are a huge part of the team. As much as
they play a part, they should be a part of the team (P5, F, Age
Outcome 4: Enhanced Acceptance
The final outcome theme that emerged from the data related
to how the athletes felt that they had learned to become more
accepting of both their own and other’s disabilities (n = 7).
Athletes commented on how their sport experiences had en-
abled them to come to terms with their own disabilities and to
look at themselves in a more positive light. As one athlete de-
scribed the most important thing she had learned from this pro-
gram: “That there’s a lot of people around us with disabilities
and it’s ok if you have a disability, cause even if you have a
disability, you can still do a lot” (P3, F, Age 9). The athletes
also reflected on how they had a developed a sense of belong-
ing through their experiences in the swim program. Specifically,
the athletes emphasized that they’d realized that they were not
alone in the world. For example,
I know more that theres other people out there like me, that
have the same thing as me and Im not on my own in this crazy
mixed up world. All in all, my view on me having a disability is
that Im just like anyone else (P8, F, Age 17).
With respect to accepting others’ disabilities, the athletes de-
scribed how they had become more knowledgeable regarding
several different types of disabilities and how they had learned
to be more open minded towards others. As one athlete high-
I learned that you cant judge a book by its cover. So if
someones in a wheelchair you cant judge them and be like:
You cant do this because youre in a wheelchair. Theyre just
as capable of doing stuff as everybody else on the team (P5, F,
Age 16).
Given these results, it is evident that the athletes believed
that their experiences within this particular program had pro-
vided them with several positive outcomes. In addition to these
four outcome themes, it is important to examine the three
themes relating to the athletes’ perceptions of the processes that
affected their sport experiences and produced these outcomes.
These process themes included three important social influ-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1135
Process 1: Coach-Athlete Relationships
A dominant finding that emerged related to the important
role that the head coach played in facilitating positive sport
experiences (N = 8). All of the athletes’ emphasized that the
outcomes they had acquired from the program were highly
contingent on their close, personal relationships with the coach.
Indeed, the athletes discussed how their sense of connection
was enhanced by the fact that the coach was a great source of
motivation, encouragement, and support. In particular, the ath-
letes highlighted how the coach had cultivated caring and sup-
portive relationships by: Demonstrating a belief in the athletes’
abilities, initiating and guiding the goal setting process, and
enabling both personal and physical development.
Several of athletes placed a great deal of emphasis on their
coach’s unwavering belief in them as athletes, whether this was
to learn a new skill or to set and achieve a goal. The athletes
also discussed how the c oach’s hi gh expectations had fostered a
sense of determination in the team and how she had given them
the freedom to follow their own dreams. Furthermore, the ath-
letes highlighted the positive impact of the coach teaching the
principles of goal setting and monitoring their progress in
achieving their goals. As one athlete commented: “She’s [the
coach] encouraged me to make my goals, to swim faster, and to
swim in the deep end. When I first started, that was scary” (P4,
M, Age 15). By consistently communicating high expectations
for her athletes and expressing confidence in the athletes’ capa-
bilities to meet and exceed these expectations, the athletes be-
lieved that the coach had enhanced both their perceptions of
competence and self-confidence.
Finally, the athletes highlighted how the coach created op-
portunities for them to not only develop as athletes, but more
importantly, as people. This included the coach allowing her
athletes to participate in wide range of competitions across the
country and to travel to Florida for an annual training camp.
Athletes also discussed how the coach designed numerous
charity events and that these events had taught them how sport
can be used to benefit others. Moreover, the athletes suggested
that the coach had helped them develop into better people. For
example, one athlete reflected on how the coach encouraged his
development as a leader: “[The coach] usually sends me off
with one of the little kids, like if they’re having a bad day, and
I’ll help them. She notices that I’m really good with the little
kids” (P1, M, Age 16).
Proce ss 2: Peer Interactions
All of the athletes emphasized how their peer interactions
had positively shaped the quality of their sport experiences (N =
8). In particular, the athletes suggested that these interactions
had afforded them an opportunity to develop several skills. For
instance, many of the older athletes discussed how they had
learned to adapt drills and games to better suit the needs of the
younger athletes. As such, their peer interactions promoted the
acquisition of skills that extended beyond the sport environ-
ment. The athletes also described how their everyday interac-
tions, such as joking around or cheering each other on during
practice, helped enhance their sense of connection by develop-
ing genuine care and concern for each other. Indeed, the ath-
letes often reflected on experiences where they had encouraged
and supported their teammates during difficult situations. As
one athlete commented: “Day in and day out, we always prove
to other swim teams what we can do and how the swimmers on
the team can help other swimmers” (P8, F, Age 17).
The athletes’ peer interactions provided a context through
which they could both find meaningful role models and be role
models themselves. Many athletes discussed how their swim-
ming experiences had allowed them to model pro-social be-
haviors to the younger athletes on the team. Specifically, the
athletes stressed the importance of motivating each other during
hard training sessions and being friendly to everyone on the
team. Athletes also highlighted how their teammates were a
source of inspiration, whether this involved dealing with adver-
sity, displaying self-confidence, or pushing the limits of their
physical capabilities. For example: “Just the friendships that
I’ve made and people that I’ve met inspire you, their stories
impact who you are and what you perceive as possible for
yourself” (P7, F, Age 19). In sum, the athletes felt that their
peer relationships within this program had strengthened their
belief in their capabilities and had cultivated their sense of con-
fidence and determ i n a t i o n .
Process 3: Team Environment
Finally, all of the athletes indicated that the team environ-
ment had positively contributed to their sport experiences (N =
8). One sentiment that consistently emerged from the data was
that the athletes often referred to the team as a family and that
they felt extremely loved and accepted within the team envi-
ronment. In particular, the athletes discussed how everyone on
the team, from the coach, to the parents, and to the athletes
themselves, was very welcoming and strove to make everyone
feel that they were an integral part of the team. For example,
when asked what they liked most about the team, one athlete
reflected: “Just the welcomeness of it, that’s had the most im-
pact. Just knowing that people are always there for you” (P4, M,
Age 15). Throughout the interviews, the athletes expressed that
the inclusiveness of the team environment played a key role in
enhancing their acceptance of both themselves and others.
Moreover, the athletes suggested that their sense of social
connection was strengthened by the creation of a sense of fam-
ily and camaraderie among the athletes, coach, and parents.
Several of the athletes highlighted the critical role that parents
played on the team, from driving them to practices and compe-
titions to organizing team events. Moreover, athletes stressed
the importance of the emotional support and encouragement
provided by the team’s parents. As one athlete commented:
Parents are such a key role and they are so supportive. Every
single parent we have on the team is just so very supportive of
their child and of their goals and their dreams and they encour-
age the rest of us (P7, F, Age 19).
Negative Experiences
In general, the results indicate that the athletes’ believed that
their experiences within this sport program positively contrib.-
uted to their physical and personal development. It is important
to note, however, that the athletes were also asked to reflect on
their negative sport experiences. Interestingly, all of the athletes
had difficulty responding to this question (N = 8). When
pressed, some of the athletes mentioned feeling tired and occa-
sional arguments with teammates. Nonetheless, the athletes
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
often followed such comments with statements of praise for the
program. Indeed, when asked what they disliked about the pro-
gram, one athlete responded:
I dont honestly know, Ive never really thought about it
honestly I cant. You get a group of people together and the
only thing I can say is were a normal group of people, you
know you have your tiffs every now and again because that
happens with different personalities, but theres nothing that I
dislike about the [team] (P7, F, Age 19).
The purpose of this study was to explore youth’s sport ex-
periences in a model swim program for athletes with a phy sical
disability. More specifically, this study hoped to uncover
youth’s perceptions of the outcomes derived from participating
in this program as well as the processes that contributed to the
acquisition of these outcomes. The discussion that follows fo-
cuses on findings that highlight sport’s significant role in fa-
cilitating positive development and the program features that
may be characteristics of positive developmental settings. Re-
commendations f or future spo rt research are also presented.
The results suggest that participation in this sport program
promoted several positive outcomes. Throughout the interviews,
the athletes drew attention to the uniqueness of their team en-
vironment in contributing to their development of self-confi-
dence and self-acceptance. This finding is in line with Kristén
and colleagues’ (2002) research which similarly found that
athletes with disabilities reported gaining confidence and feel-
ing accepted through participation in sport. These findings thus
suggest that sport may serve as an effective vehicle to enhance
youth’s sense of self-worth. This may be particularly important
for youth with disabilities as the construction of positive self-
identity has been shown to help combat isolation and stigma
(Goodwin et al., 2009).
Another prominent theme that emerged from the interviews
related to youth’s enhanced perceptions of their own and their
teammates’ physical capabilities. The athletes also reported that
their participation in this program afforded them opportunities
to explore their physical potential that were not available in
other contexts. Higher perceptions of competence have been
linked with several developmental outcomes, including intrinsic
motivation, sport commitment, and self-esteem (Côté et al.,
2010). Competence in sport may also facilitate athletes’ social
development since athletic ability is highly valued by youth and
can thereby serve as an effective means of obtaining acceptance
and popularity among one’s peer group (Martin, 2006). This
may be particularly beneficial given that youth with disabilities
are often at increased risk for peer rejection or neglect (Martin
& Choi, 2009).
Furthermore, the athletes highlighted that their sport experi-
ences had taught them several critical life skills, including re-
sponsibility, time management, leadership, and teamwork. In
particular, athletes described how the team’s focus on helping
others and the coach’s dedication to personal development
helped to foster the acquisition of these skills. The athletes’
reports suggest that contextual and social factors can shape the
development of athletes, both in and out of sport. The link be-
tween sport participation and life skill development is well
documented in able-bodied sport (e.g., Holt et al., 2009). Con-
sequently, the findings of this study add to the existing litera-
ture by suggesting that the disability sport context may also
positively contribute to the development of life skills.
The four outcome themes that emerged from the data shared
striking similarities to the 4Cs from the positive youth devel-
opment literature in able-bodied sport. The 4Cs (competence,
confidence, connection, and character) have been proposed as
important indicators of the presence of positive youth develop-
ment in sport (Côté et al., 2010). Firstly, competence refers to
the positive view of one’s actions within a particular activity
(Jelicic, Brock, Phelps, Lerner, & Lerner, 2007), a construct
that clearly resonates with the theme of redefined capabilities.
Second, the construct of confidence is reflected in the theme of
an affirmed sense of self. Moreover, marked commonalities
exist between this dimension and themes in previous disability
sport research, including becoming someone (Kristén et al.,
2002) and a stronger self (Goodwin et al., 2004). Likewise, the
development of connection was mirrored in the theme of
strengthened social connection and was also noted across the
themes in the previously mentioned studies. Finally, Jelicic et al.
(2007) proposed that character involves the virtues of integrity,
sympathy, and empathy. As such, this construct is mirrored in
the outcome theme of enhanced acceptance, particularly with
regards to increased acceptance of others. By examining the
outcome themes of this study in conjunction with previous
literature, it is evident that the 4Cs framework may be applica-
ble to the disability sport context. Furthermore, these findings
lend support to the notion that the 4Cs can be viewed as desir-
able outcomes of sport participation (Côté et al., 2010).
While it is important to examine the outcomes that athletes
acquired through their sport experiences, a novel contribution
of the present study was the examination of the processes which
facilitated the acquisition of these outcomes. First, a distin-
guishing aspect of athletes’ experiences within this sport pro-
gram was the high quality of the athletes’ relationships with
their peers, parents, and coach. Indeed, the athletes consistently
pinpointed how these relationships had enriched their sport
experiences in each of the outcome themes. This finding lends
support to the contention that social interactions can play a
central role in facilitating positive experiences (Hutzler et al.,
2002; Spencer-Cavaliere & Watkinson, 2010).
One socializing agent that significantly contributed to the
quality of the athletes’ sport experiences in this program was
the coach. The athletes described how they perceived the coach
to be more than a swim coach, but also a mentor and a friend.
The athletes often attributed their positive experiences within
the program to their close relationships with the coach. One
pathway through which the coach in this study influenced her
athletes’ development was through her unwavering belief in the
athletes’ abilities. By expressing confidence in her athletes’
abilities to develop skills and achieve challenging goals, the
coach may have bolstered the athletes’ perceptions of compe-
tence. Consistent with this perspective, the athletes expressed
how the coach’s support had both enabled them to be more
confident in their physical and interpersonal skills and en-
hanced their sport commitment. This corresponds with Fraser-
Thomas and Côté’s (2009) finding that coaches’ belief in their
athletes can positively influence athletes’ self-efficacy and
continued motivation towards sport. This pathway may be of
particular importance since athletes with disabilities often per-
ceive that others have low expectations of their capabilities
(Taub, Blinde, & Greer, 1999).
The coach also encouraged her athletes to set their own goals
and to express their independence. In doing so, the coach’s
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1137
behaviors align with certain elements of autonomy-supportive
coaching. Autonomy-supportive coaching styles are those that
provide athletes with choice, offer opportunities for independ-
ent work, and acknowledge their athletes’ feelings (Mageau &
Vallerand, 2003). Previous research within both able-bodied
(e.g., Reinboth, Duda, & Ntoumanis, 2004) and elite disability
sport (Banack, Sabiston, & Bloom, 2011) demonstrates impor-
tant links between autonomy-supportive coaching behaviors
and positive athlete outcomes, such as self-determined motivi-
tion and physical and psychological well-being. The present
study extends this literature by illustrating how autonomy-
supportive coaching strategies can also be employed with
young athletes with physical disabilities. For instance, the ath-
letes described how the coach created opportunities for them to
participate in a range of competitions, to demonstrate leader-
ship, and to engage in the goal-setting process. As a conse-
quence, it may be beneficial for future research to further exam-
ine how autonomy-supportive coaching behaviors may foster
positive developmental outcomes among athletes with disabili-
Overall, the results highlight the important role the coach
played in shaping the sport environment. This is congruent with
previous research in able-bodied sport which suggests that
coaches can serve as important role models for their athletes
and can thus have a considerable impact on their athletes’ well-
being (Horn, 2008). These findings may be particularly impor-
tant given that there is currently a paucity of research examin-
ing the coaches of athletes with disabilities (Banack et al.,
In addition to positive coach-athlete relationships, the ath-
letes placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of peer
interactions within this program. Indeed, the athletes described
how their sport experiences had provided them with a signifi-
cant opportunity to make friends and to broaden their social
networks. These findings complement previous research which
suggests that sport may provide a salient context for social de-
velopment, both in able-bodied (e.g., Ullrich-French & Smith,
2006) and disability sport (e.g., Goodwin et al., 2004). Athletes
also reported that the relationships they had gained through this
program had enabled them to develop social skills, such as
teamwork, and had enhanced their confidence in relating to
teammates. These results are congruent with Gifford-Smith and
Brownell’s (2003) assertion that friendships can promote the
acquisition of interpersonal skills, enhance self-esteem, and
produce feelings of well-being.
In line with Goodwin and colleagues’ (2009) study with
adult wheelchair rugby athletes, the results also revealed that
the peer interactions athletes had within this sport environment
fostered a sense of belonging that they did not necessarily ex-
perience in other contexts (e.g., school). The importance of this
finding is underscored by the fact that peer interactions can
serve as a source of emotional security and can act as a protec-
tive cushion against some of the stresses and challenges which
youth experience (Gifford-Smith & Brownell, 2003). Interpret-
ing the results in light of these studies, it is evident that peer
interactions are an integral component of the youth sport ex-
However, while these studies provide some initial support for
the important association between peer interactions and positive
youth development, research in this area remains relatively
sparse (Martin & Smith, 2002). Consequently, ample opportu-
nities exist for researchers seeking to understand the influence
of peer interactions within disability sport.
The team environment represented another key mechanism
through which this sport program promoted positive athlete
outcomes. This successful sport program was characterized by
several contextual factors that complement the NRCIM’s (2002)
eight setting features. As noted previously, the athletes stressed
the significant role that their relationships with the coach
played in fostering positive experiences, a theme which is con-
gruent with the third setting feature of supportive adult rela-
tionships. The athletes also expressed how their sport experi-
ences were influenced by their supportive relationships with the
parents of the program. Consistent with previous literature, the
athletes emphasized their parents’ role in providing tangible
support, such as supplying financial resources and transporting
athletes to practices and competitions (e.g., Côté, 1999). Fur-
thermore, the athletes commented on the importance of the
emotional support provided by their parents with regards to
supporting and encouraging the athletes’ goals. This finding
coincides with the work of Martin and Mushett (1996), which
found that parents often provide the strongest support for indi-
viduals with disabilities to participate in sport. In line with the
fifth setting feature, several of the athletes highlighted how both
the coaches and parents in this program facilitated positive
social norms, such as helping others.
Another prominent theme that emerged from the data was
that this program provided its athletes with a place where they
felt loved, appreciated, and accepted. This creation of a sense of
inclusion and family lends itself to establishment of opportuni-
ties to belong (the fourth setting feature). This setting feature
resonates with previous research suggesting that a sense of
belonging may have important implications for youth with dis-
abilities (e.g., Shapiro & Martin, 2010). However, further re-
search is needed to substantiate this claim. For example, future
studies may wish to examine how close connections among
athletes, coaches, and parents may act as a means for gaining
social capital, building interpersonal trust, and enhancing self-
determined motivation.
Results also revealed several ma nifestations of the program’s
support for efficacy and mattering (the sixth setting feature).
Athletes described developing leadership and responsibility and
having opportunities for recognition and accomplishment. In
creating opportunities for its athletes to make valued contribu-
tions to the team, this sport program may have bolstered the
athletes’ sense of acceptance and belonging. Congruent with
the findings of Spencer-Cavaliere and Watkinson’s (2010),
these opportunities also appeared to be associated with athletes’
perceptions of increased competence. These perceptions of
competence may have been further enhanced since the athletes
perceived the program as a salient context to acquire numerous
physical, social, and personal skills (the seventh setting feature).
Finally, several of the athletes highlighted how the team ac-
tively created opportunities to integrate family (parents and
siblings) into athletes’ sport experiences. Given the variety of
ways in which this successful sport program embodied the
NRCIM’s (2002) eight setting features, these findings reinforce
that these features may have important implications for ath-
letes’ sport experiences (Fraser-Thomas et al., 2005; Strachan
et al., 2011). Furthermore, these results support the use and the
application of these theoretical constructs to the disability sport
In sum, the athletes’ experiences within this successful pro-
gram indicate that disability sport contexts that are character-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1139
ized by an inclusive environment and meaningful interpersonal
relationships can result in a wide range of positive develop-
mental outcomes. In an effort to establish connections between
the outcome and process themes that emerged from the partici-
pants’ experience, the authors have proposed a conceptual
framework (see Figure 1). This framework suggests that the
three process themes of coach-athlete relationships, peer inter-
actions, and the team environment will interact with each other
to create contexts that can facilitate positive development.
Drawing upon previous PYD research, it is believed that these
social processes will cultivate programs that are consistent with
the NRCIM’s (2002) eight setting features. Subsequently, this
framework proposes that these processes will positively con-
tribute to athletes’ development through the promotion of out-
comes that share conceptual links to the PYD constructs of life
skill development and the 4Cs. Future research is now required
to investigate the links presented within this framework.
the processes that may facilitate the acquisition of these out-
comes. Second, it was beyond the scope of the present study to
examine the relationship between the athletes’ perceptions of
this program and the interactions occurring within this program.
Future observational studies may thus be useful in exploring the
content and structure of coach-athlete, peer, and parent interac-
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the athletes in
this study provided overwhelmingly positive reviews of their
sport experiences. Thus, these athletes’ experiences in sport
may not be representative of youth’s experiences in other sport
programs for athletes with disabilities and consequently, the
results should be interpreted with caution. There are a variety of
factors that may have contributed to the athletes’ positive re-
views. Several of the athletes indicated that this sport program
provided social and contextual supports that were not readily
available to them in other settings. Therefore, the disparities
that exist between this sport program and other environments
may have enhanced athletes’ perceptions of the benefits of their
sport experiences. Moreover, this program was often the ath-
letes’ first opportunity to participate in a program designed for
athletes with physical disabilities. As such, the unique and
novel nature of this particular sport program may have played a
role in the abundance of positive results. To address this limita-
tion, future studies should be conducted with multiple programs
to see how generalizable the present findings are to other com-
Limitations and Future Directions
Before examining the possible implications of this study, it is
important to consider the study’s limitations. First, it is impor-
tant to recall that this study was conducted as a case-study of a
single sport environment and thus the observed qualities may
only be reflective of this unique swimming environment.
Nonetheless, they do provide insight into both the outcomes
that can be fostered in an exemplary sport program and some of
Figure 1.
Conceptual framework representing the athletes’ experiences.
petitive contexts. Research should also examine the sport ex-
periences of athletes who have withdrawn from disability sport.
Overall, this study adds to the growing body of literature
which suggests that sport may be an effective vehicle through
which to study youth development. Findings of this study also
indicate that the PYD approach holds significant potential for
enhancing our understanding of the sport experiences of ath-
letes with physical disabilities. Finally, the results illustrate
how both social and contextual processes might shape the qual-
ity of youth’s sport experiences. Although much research re-
mains to be done, coaches and programmers that wish to in-
crease the quality of their athletes’ sport experiences can con-
sider these processes when designing their programs.
The authors would like to thank Mark Bruner for his help, as
well as the participants for enthusiastically donating their time.
Preparation of this manuscript was supported by the Coaching
Association of Canada and a Social Sciences and Humanities
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