Panathlon’s first ever disability tennis programme is the result of extensive collaboration and use of local expertise to meet the needs of disabled and SEN children.

We have brought together multiple partners across North Yorkshire to set up Panathlon tennis activity at Pocklington Tennis Club near York for pupils from local schools. Expansion to other clubs in the county (Covid permitting) will soon follow.

By uniting local facilities, eager coaches, schools, NGB funding opportunities and Panathlon’s expertise in providing accessible sporting activities, we have come up with a new, exciting, bespoke participation opportunity for local disabled and SEN children to participate in tennis.

Following a successful skill-based pilot Panathlon tennis event at Islington Tennis Centre in north London (pre-Covid), word reached Val French, the semi-retired Panathlon Lead and School Games Organiser for North Yorkshire. She has been a member of Pocklington Tennis Club for 50 years and admits she was “immediately desperate” to start activity on her home patch.

Val’s inspiration in doing so was Laura Campbell, to whom she taught PE at Applefields School in York several years ago. “I remember in Year 8 she could hardly hit the ball, but she ended up winning gold medals in the singles and mixed doubles at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles!

To prepare for programme’s launch, Val attended the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) disability workshop with Pocklington’s tennis coach, Sean Evans. Sean also visited Applefields School to learn more about working with pupils with disabilities and special educational needs.

With support from Matt Elkington, Yorkshire LTA’s Disability Officer, and Fran Nichol from the North Yorkshire Inclusive School Sports Partnership, Val had planned an Inclusive Tennis Festival at Pocklington before the pandemic intervened. Those plans have been rekindled now that restrictions are easing. The festival will hail the start of the new Panathlon tennis programme.

Panathlon have developed the blueprint for how sessions will look, with traditional Panathlon ‘stations’ with tennis-themed skills-based activities. “It teaches tennis skills in a way that’s adapted to suit their abilities,” says Val. “It’s exactly how Laura started developing her skills several years ago, progressing to hitting over a net, to proper tennis matches and then two gold medals!”

Panathlon will supply equipment, medals and trophies, which will be augmented by further adaptive equipment from the LTA following a successful application to its Open Court scheme.

Pupils from Applefields and Hob Moor Oaks schools, as well as some children of existing Pocklington Tennis Club members, will be the first to try it out. We’ve also enlisted Ellie Makin, a Level 3 coach, who will also lead Panathlon sessions at Boroughbridge and West Tanfield tennis clubs with pupils from Mowbray and Spring Hill special schools.

Just like a traditional Panathlon event, there will be trained Young Leaders (from nearby Woldgate Secondary School) supporting the participants at Pocklington. Val will also be inviting adults with special needs from a local care home to take part in the activities.

Players whose interest is kindled will be signposted to York Disability Sport Network tennis sessions to develop their game further.

The target is that the three initial host clubs will go on to hold regular inclusive tennis sessions and that Panathlon Tennis will be included in Level 2 and 3 School Games events, where appropriate.

Three other North Yorkshire clubs and schools – in Harrogate, Skipton and Scarborough – have already expressed an interest in getting involved in similar partnerships and starting their own Panathlon tennis programmes.

“It’s just a brilliant project if we can keep driving it forward,” said Val. “Our coaches are looking forward to expanding their skillset and building their confidence. There’s huge potential here and we’re really excited about getting started.”

Tony Waymouth, Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “Our pilot Panathlon tennis event in London showed how we can attract SEND children to a specialised facility and link them up with a community setting.

“Our skill-based programme offers young people with disabilities and special needs a chance to try the sport in a non-traditional way, getting them to enjoy fundamentals and hopefully capturing their imagination.

“This North Yorkshire programme uses Panathlon’s relationships with the schools to further develops the area’s local offering for SEND pupils and provides a clear pathway for children who then want to develop their new-found love for the sport.”

Thank you to Redevco Foundation for supporting this project in North Yorkshire.

(Photo by Christian Tenguan on Unsplash)