Lehigh Valley TOPSoccer
Perhaps grass stains, a perpetual heap of dirty jerseys, and the overwhelming anxiety of literally becoming the “last picked for the team” are all rites of passage. Whether we were budding Beckhams, benchwarmers, or the one doing the laundry and cleaning up after muddy cleats, in some way or another, we’ve all been there, right?
All of us, that is, except for those of us who have special needs. When South Whitehall Township residents C.B. Ananthan and his wife, Lata, looked around to give their 6 year-old Ajai son that experience – of being part of a team, learning a sport, and maybe even scoring a goal – they came up empty.
“I think of Lehigh Valley TOPSoccer as a sanctuary for children with special needs,”
– C.B. Ananthan
Not because there are a shortage of soccer teams, but because their son is on the autism spectrum, and there were no options open to him. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children has Autism Spectrum Disorder. The term “spectrum” refers to the complex and wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment in social, behavioral, or cognitive areas.
“There was not a single soccer program where my son could be enrolled,” C.B. Ananthan says. “That was the inspiration for me and my wife to start [a soccer] program dedicated entirely to serving children with special needs and disabilities.”
Determined to give Ajai the chance to play and, realizing there must be other children and parents in the same position, the couple started Lehigh Valley TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) in 2006. The soccer program brings the opportunity of learning and playing soccer to boys and girls who have an intellectual or physical disability, but there is no age limit – players have been as young as 4 and as old as 24. The focus is on development, training, and meaningful participation, not competition.
“Children with disabilities are the most vulnerable constituents in our communities,” Ananthan says. “Responsible and caring adults must step up to advocate on behalf of these children.”
Since 2006, nearly 300 children with special needs have participated in TOPSoccer. An average of 25-35 children are enrolled per season, and they meet up on Saturday afternoons to kick around. In the spring and fall, they play at the Lehigh County Sports Fields in South Whitehall Township thanks to Lehigh County, and in the winter, they play on an indoor turf at the Lou Ramos Center in Allentown, thanks to Lehigh Valley United.
According to Ananthan, many other parents came to TOPSoccer after less than rewarding experiences with typical recreational soccer programs. These programs usually involved the children being excluded in some way, ultimately forcing the parents to pull their children out of the program.
“Virtually every soccer club or program in the Lehigh Valley caters exclusively to children who are neuro-typical and who are physically able,” Ananthan says.
In addition to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, TOPSoccer caters to children with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, as well as other intellectual or physical disabilities.
“I think of [Lehigh Valley TOPSoccer] as a sanctuary for children with special needs,” Ananthan says.
The benefits of meaningfully participating in a team-based sport or activity transcend hours on the field, offering more overall confidence, better grades, and healthy social relationships. TOPSoccer players are no exception to this, with parents routinely reporting that their child’s self-esteem has not only improved after they started playing soccer, but that it has also carried over to other areas, such as in school and in the community.
Unlike most literally goal-oriented soccer programs, TOPSoccer sheds all levels of stress surrounding the game until all that’s left is fun. Children are under no obligation to attend every session, there is no need for parents to keep track of deadlines, children can enroll as the season progresses, and there is no keeping score.
Rather than each session resulting in a “winner” and a “loser,” the heart of the game flourishes on the field with the organization’s program of individual soccer drills, emphasizing attention to ball control and physical movement, as well as mock scrimmages where every player gets a chance to score a goal.
“Many of the players in our TOPSoccer program require one-on-one assistance on the soccer field, and our volunteers and coaches provide this level of support,” Ananthan says. “Typical soccer programs [don’t].”
Another perk of the program is, of course, exercise. “Most of our players get more physical activity from one 1-hour TOPSoccer session than they do for the rest of the week,” Ananthan says.
For many children, TOPSoccer has given them a much-needed opportunity to meaningfully engage in recreational sports. For others, this has been a stepping stone. “A couple of our players have been able to transfer to typical soccer programs,” Ananthan says. His own son is now 16 years-old, and is maturing from a TOPSoccer player to a coaching assistant.
Although TOPSoccer brings new opportunities for children with special needs to the Valley, Ananthan hopes that this is only the beginning for inclusive sports programming. “Recreational opportunities for children with disabilities continue to be limited,” he says. “We have only scratched
Ananthan dreams of a future that includes an all-season recreation and sports facility in the area with an indoor soccer turf, basketball court, baseball field, swimming pool, and tennis courts dedicated to individuals with special needs and disabilities.
Until then, though, he simply loves watching young players have fun in an environment free of judgment, ranking, or competition. “When I see that, I feel vindicated,” he says.
To enroll your child in Lehigh Valley TOPSoccer or to get involved as a much-needed volunteer, call 610.391.1812 or visit lvtopsoccer.org.