SPORTS: Opportunity to Play
With summer here, Edmond kids are moving outdoors, with sports providing endless hours of fun and critical exercise. While at one time some children might have been limited in their ability to participate in these sports, organizations like TOPSoccer have made such ideas a thing of the past.
TOPSoccer, a program offered by the U.S. Youth Soccer Organization, uses a customized training program for young disabled athletes. Whether it is a physical or mental disability, all are encouraged to participate. TOPSoccer is held in communities across the nation, allowing anyone to begin their own program while equipping coaches and organizers with the materials to get started.
Edmond’s TOPSoccer program is directed by Lisa Schritter-Miley, long-time coach of various Edmond teams and current special education teacher at Boulevard Academy. The TOPSoccer director began the program 10 years ago and was eventually forced to retire it because of her numerous other commitments. It was last fall when she felt the inspiration and responsibility to return to the program, this time focusing on this coaching opportunity exclusively.
TOPSoccer, or “The Opportunity to Play Soccer,” invites players to meet weekly at the Edmond Soccer Club where they offer fields to accommodate different age groups and skill sets. With players facing disabilities anywhere from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy to muscular dystrophy and sight and hearing impairments, Miley has organized the training to focus on each player’s specific needs. Having worked with special-needs individuals most of her life, Miley has a thoroughly educated approach to the program.
Sponsored by the Edmond Soccer Club, TOPSoccer gives players non-soccer activities to engage in as well, as too much
intensive soccer can be overwhelming. After roughly 45 minutes of practice, the players are allowed a resting period and are then given 30-45 minutes to play with other members. Miley says that her goal is to work up to doing matches and tournaments with other communities.
Community volunteers are vital to the program. These volunteers, or “buddies,” work one-on-one with the children to establish both trust and friendship. Volunteers for the program get an opportunity unlike any other and range from high school and college students to church members and other adults. They not only touch the life of their disabled athlete, but experience what their world is like.
Though volunteers are not expected to have a background in soccer or working with disabled persons, Miley explains the fundamentals of the game to the volunteers and how best to be a support system to their player. While TOPSoccer asks for a 12-hour commitment per season from every volunteer, Miley notes that most of her volunteers in the past had never spent that much time with a disabled person before. She says the athletes tend to get very attached to the volunteers and previous participants have told her that the connection they form with their athletes may just be the most rewarding part.
To further the experience, Miley has all the players and coaches sit down together and engage in conversation. “They’ve never had a non-disabled peer that gives them that much attention,” she says. And it’s the presence and support of the volunteers that Miley says have worked miracles.
Miley notes that these different surroundings and being in a supportive peer group can transform people in unexpected ways. What she calls “soft skills” are emotional reactions and social skills that these athletes learn in addition to basic soccer tricks. When the players feel more confident, it is often translated physically, allowing the players to perform in ways they or even their families might never have believed.
When asked why she does what she does, Miley responds that coaching and teaching specials needs people are some of the best things she’s ever done. Growing up in the late ’70s, it was practically unheard of for a girl to be playing soccer. However, Miley found her niche on the Air Force base where she lived. A group of European students had formed a soccer team which she happily joined. Miley has been involved in sports ever since.
Miley’s experience has helped shape her message to her players and their families: “Whatever [you] would like to do … it’s out there.”
TOPSoccer resumes this fall from September to November. The spring season runs March through May. Practice and playing times are Sundays from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Miley says times are subject to change to accommodate the different age groups. Those wishing to volunteer in the program can email Miley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the TOPSoccer section of edmondsoccer.com for more information.