Young athletes show off their footwork skills during a friendly game of soccer. The TOPSoccer program is set to run every Sunday until Oct. 14 in the hopes of encouraging athletes with disabilities to excel.
Larshell Green/ CSP Content Editor
For a coach, hearing the sound of an athlete race across a gymnasium floor under the spell of an escaping ball can be quite thrilling. That thrill intensifies when there’s more at stake than an ordinary pickup game.
For most children with disabilities, a lack of organized sporting opportunities exist. TOPSoccer, a program created under a partnership by U.S. Soccer and the Louisiana Soccer Association is intended to help athletes reach their next level of physical and social advancement.
This initiative with the LSA was introduced to Louisiana clubs and parks, including Chappapeela, in order to form soccer sessions in communities. TOPSoccer began on Sunday, August 26 at CSP, and is set to continue until Sunday, October 14.
Each athlete in the program has a buddy or volunteer that they are paired with during sessions. This gives the opportunity for the coach in charge to allow the athletes independence, while offering necessary critiques.
Chappapeela Sports Park’s Deputy Director Amber Grose explains the goals she has for the athletes who will complete the TOPSoccer program under her wing: “The objective of this program is to offer a soccer outlet to these athletes with disabilities. I want to give them a soccer experience as similar as possible to other programs for our youth. Within that, help their confidence blossom, enhance social interaction, and create a bond between our community and athletes with disabilities that strengthens our awareness for the need of more programs and activities just like this.”
Katrina Grossnickle admitted her son Evan into the program with the intention of enhancing his social skills.
“Evan has autism, so he doesn’t really know how to make friends,” said Grossnickle. “I think it’s a good environment for him to learn how to interact with kids his age.”
At only 14, Grose developed an interest in working with children with disabilities through youth leadership and internship opportunities. Under a course offered through LSA, Grose earned the certification to become a TOPSoccer coach.
According to Grose, the early development stages for the program was easy despite the misconception that athletes with disabilities do not perform well in general soccer settings. Although she had to use different methods of preparation for them, she found that her plans combined with the children’s natural talents made for successful sessions.
“With any team you have, whether it be competitive soccer or TOPSoccer athletes, you always have to adapt how you train them slightly due to personalities or ability,” said Grose. “That’s exactly what I had to take into consideration while writing the year’s session plans for TOPSoccer.”
Like Grose, other young soccer athletes noticed the opportunity to serve as volunteers in the program and eagerly participated. Chase Oalman’s mother Ashley Oalman recalls him beaming about the lessons he’s learned from participating in TOPSoccer.
“He’s enjoyed being a part of this because he sees the joy on their faces when they do something,” said Ashley Oalman. “He wants to give back to kids who aren’t able to do competitive soccer like he does.”
For some parents like Yolanda Payne, mother of Kendrie Jacobs, hearing about TOPSoccer introduced the idea of an entirely new journey they didn’t know their children could have access to.
“The program is great,” said Payne. “It helps with her coordination and gets her out with other children. She’s a little sheltered because she had open heart surgery about a year ago. She just started school again.”
Scott Boudreaux, the grandfather of Benjamin Walter, found himself getting emotional watching his grandson participate. Beyond his own motivations of him gaining friends and knowledge of the way sports work with Benjamin’s father Nick, he made an important revelation.
“I watch the effort that he’s put forth,” said Scott Boudreaux. “He’s having fun. That’s what kids are supposed to do.”
For Grose, the most rewarding aspect of heading TOPSoccer is witnessing the smiles of hardworking athletes and mentors with tenacious spirits.
“It’s bigger than I can express in words, and it’s a joy,” said Grose. “It’s kids just being kids, interacting maybe more than they would in other settings. It’s a bridging of a gap in my mind and it’s beautiful.”