"Anticipate! Anticipate! Anticipate! Since you can't hear your teammates' warning, you've got to see that pick coming, Becky! You've got to expect it!" These words still run fresh in my mind just as clearly as I struggled to lip-read Coach Pat Head Summitt's words 11 years ago as a member of the University of Tennessee's nationally ranked basketball team.
The season I spent playing basketball for Coach Summitt taught me more than just anticipation. I was the only deaf athlete on the squad, which demanded my constant anticipation and alertness on and off the court. In order to avert an easy two points by the opponents, I was the only member of the team who was not permitted to "switch" on defense since I could not hear my teammates yell "pick" or "switch." My deafness necessitated constant awareness of each play and player (on both offense and defense) in order to stay one step ahead. This caused me to develop into a quick, aggressive and intense athlete. I had to see what others heard.
As a deaf athlete who has competed in international, national, intercollegiate and recreational sports (basketball, softball and volleyball) in the "hearing" and "deaf" athletic worlds, I found Coach Summitt's constant drilling to anticipate a valuable skill. It certainly made me a better athlete and individual. However, there are advantages and disadvantages of the deaf athlete competing in the hearing world just as the same holds true for the deaf athlete competing in the deaf sports world.
Deafness is an invisible disability. If I asked you to go to a gym or ballpark and identify a deaf player, how would you know if the player is deaf? You might identify the athlete by a hearing aid (rarely worn when participating in sports if one is worn at all) or by the use of sign language. However, many hearing athletes use gestures and hand signals to communicate. Could you distinguish the important difference between American Sign Language of the deaf athlete and the hand signals of hearing athletes? Without some knowledge of deaf culture and visual aids, one cannot randomly identify a deaf athlete.
Deaf athletes are capable of competing at the same skill level as their hearing counterparts. Jeff Float, a deaf swimmer, won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics as a member of the U.S. relay team. He also participated in the Deaf Olympics and set individual records in swimming. If deaf athletes are not physically disabled, then why are there separate athletic competitions for the deaf only? Why do some deaf athletes compete in the hearing world while others don't?
There are advantages and disadvantages for the deaf athlete competing in deaf or hearing sport events. For the deaf athlete who competes in the hearing world, the frustration of communication with coaches and teammates who do not sign often interferes with learning game strategies, hinders skill development and delays team unity. A sign language interpreter may offset some frustration but a sense of loneliness and isolation from the team may prevail. More often than not, sign language interpreters are not hired to bridge the gap for a deaf athlete playing on a hearing team due to the expense.
The deaf athlete who opts to compete in the hearing world often sacrifices communication for the high level of competition. I am not minimizing the level of competition in the deaf sports world. We must examine the resources that contribute to the differences in skill levels among deaf and hearing athletes. These resources are funding, availability of developmental sport camps, and coaching expertise.
For example, deaf athletes chosen to represent the United States in the Deaf Olympics held every four years must pay their way as opposed to the hearing Olympians who are financially supported by major business corporations. This added stress for the deaf athlete distracts from the athletic performance. I have found it difficult to focus on training to develop myself to the best of my ability when I must also worry about fund-raising. The consequence of not meeting an individual fund-raising goal could result in dismissal from the team. Imagine our country not sending Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton to the Olympics for not raising enough money to compete!
The deaf sports world faces this financial quandary in providing the necessary developmental camps for the athletes across the nation as well as providing funds for coaches to improve their skills and keep in tune with new developments. The deaf sports world does not have the Kennedy name to draw sponsorship to defray costs as the Special Olympics do, or possess major corporate sponsorships that the Olympics depend upon. These issues outline the "Catch 22" situation in which the deaf sport world finds itself. They affect the pace in which deaf athletes can enhance their athletic skills. The lack of effective communication at athletic camps and workshops makes them inaccessible to deaf athletes, limiting their opportunities to improve.
The deaf sport world offers the opportunity to compete against those of the same disability. It means a chance to compete to their best ability without communication being an obstacle to overcome as in the hearing world. The stigma of communication is minimized, enabling the deaf athlete to focus on the game at hand. Team unity, a sense of belonging, mastery and accomplishment in sport, and pride in who they are in addition to friendship and sportsmanship, are some of the advantages for the deaf athlete competing in the deaf sports world.
As a deaf athlete who has competed in both worlds, I have experienced both the elations and frustrations of each culture. Each deaf athlete is different and has a preference of competition depending on background. I would like to see more athletic events and camps become accessible for the deaf athletes who choose to enhance their skills. I would like to see more funding for the deaf sport world to assist deaf athletes and coaches in providing the best opportunities for deaf athletes who choose to compete against other deaf athletes.
The deaf athlete is becoming more visible to the public, striving to narrow the gap that exists between opportunities for deaf and hearing athletes. Deaf and hearing people are working together not only in sports but in other areas. This kind of teamwork will benefit both cultures and contribute to the goals that each have set.
Becky Clark is a doctoral candidate in sports psychology at Temple University.