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Driving inclusion through sport

Copyrights: GEPA Pictures/Mathias Mandl

Driving inclusion through sport

To build youth leadership in sport and ensure that youth sport policy is developed well, youth leadership needs to be encouraged at the grassroots level.

My name is Ben Haack. I’m 38, I have autism and I’m an Athlete Leader in the Special Olympics. I come from the Gold Coast, Queensland Australia.

I have been asked to write a piece about the importance of youth engagement and leadership in sport development. For me, the answer to engaging youth to create and develop leadership and to ensure there is good policy development in sport is for them to start their leadership journey at the grassroots level.

We need to empower and engage youth at every level, but their entry point needs to be at the grassroots level. I mean encouraging them to coach, referee, volunteer, or sit on a local club committee. To me, being involved with the local sports federation is the key.

From my experience with Special Olympics, our greatest leaders have often come from that background. Mary Davis started off at the grassroots level in our movement and she is now the CEO. To me, this is the best model to create.

There are three reasons why this is so important:

  1. It helps the youth to truly understand the most essential level in this space and if they progress, they can build a grassroots level-up mindset. 
  2. It helps ensure the level where everyone starts is well supported. 
  3. Once those youth start to progress into higher roles, they have a good understanding of what really matters because without grassroots participation, sport dies.

Next, the focus shifts to ensuring these people can progress, particularly if they are talented and passionate. This means that by the time they are in higher-level positions, they can start to influence change.

I also think that at the higher levels there should be efforts made to engage youth, through setting up youth councils at various levels, and through mandating and encouraging more youth to be employed and placed in leadership roles at various levels.

Sport can and should be viewed in better ways than it is now. Sport is still viewed through a very narrow lens – that it is about the elite and it only serves a few. Some still believe that sport is only beneficial when you’re on the field of play. Special Olympics has proven and will continue to prove that sport does so much more than what it is given credit for.

Sport teaches inclusion, it teaches acceptance, it teaches community, it teaches discipline, goal setting, how to compete, how to fail, how to succeed and how to succeed in the right way. The trick is learning how to put these skills into a ‘resume’ in an effective way.

Through Athlete Leadership, Unified Leadership, youth programming, and Unified Champion Schools platforms, Special Olympics has been investing in this. Right now, we are developing programs where youth with and without intellectual disabilities are developing skills to write resumes that capture their skills. They are learning how to contribute to committees and boards. We are looking at developing pathways and guidance on where they can go to use these skills to build careers. We feel that there are pathways certainly in health, sport, community work and, well, anywhere, because the lessons we learn from sport can translate everywhere.


Ben Haack is a Special Olympics International Board Member and Athlete Leader who believes Unified Sports have the power to build a more inclusive world.


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Ben Haack


Monday, August 9, 2021 - 20:50

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