Power2Inspire is excited to launch a new series, where we talk to people working in inclusive sport across the country.

Our first interview is with Danny Sapsford and Mark Bullock, who are both doing amazing work promoting and enabling inclusive tennis and other sports. They have recently filmed a video with eight sportspeople (including our own John Willis) all taking part in an inclusive tennis session: possibly the largest ever recorded to take place!

Danny is a former tennis professional who now runs Bright Ideas for Tennis, a charity encouraging more people to play tennis. Mark is a coach, tutor, mentor, and inclusive sports advisor to a range of organisations, including Middlesex Tennis LTA, Wheelpower, and Panathlon.

Anna Willis sat down with them both (they’re good friends) at the beginning of February to find out more about what they do, and why inclusive sport is so important.

Anna Willis: Hi Mark and Danny! Thank you for taking the time to chat to me today. First question: what are your backgrounds in inclusive sport? What exactly do you both do?

Danny Sapsford: As part of Bright Ideas for Tennis, we have a programme called ‘I Play 30’, which is basically getting as many SEN or multiple disability individuals just playing tennis free of charge. We provide equipment and training for club coaches and volunteers, and most importantly, we create links between tennis clubs and support groups or SEN schools. More broadly, we’re just encouraging more people to play tennis by taking away the barriers and stigmas that go with disability sports.

Mark Bullock: My whole business is around disability inclusive sports: probably 60 to 70% of it in tennis because that’s my background, but not exclusively. I work with loads of different agencies, including Panathlon, Middlesex Tennis LTA, Wheelpower, Metro-Blind sports, and, of course, Bright Ideas for Tennis!

My main aim is to influence other people, so while I do some direct coaching, I’m mainly trying to give other people the confidence to coach, particularly in inclusive sports.

Why do you do what you do? What are you trying to achieve?

By playing sport together, it integrates communities. Sport can be powerful from that point of view. Everyone just becomes much more accepting, and everyone’s benefiting. Currently we’re trying to widen our net and broaden our range and just open out to as many people as we can.

The last 12 months have been hard for everybody. I almost sense that it’s making the general public a little bit more sympathetic and compassionate. I think people do want to do good for the community now: they want to help out because they know people are less well off than themselves. I’m finding it a little bit easier to encourage and approach people because I think they’re a little bit more open to doing some good stuff.

Everyone has disability sport in the back of their mind, they just need a bit of a nudge, a bit of reassurance, and to be shown that it’s possible. Many tennis coaches are quite unconfident in coaching inclusive sessions, and that’s where Mark comes in: he’s a reassuring figure, our disability guru!

Haha, yes! I think there’s a lot of fear around thinking “oh, I’ve not done that before”, and it becomes a no. A coach should actually be able to say, “come and play, and we’ll make it work, we’ll think of something!”

What’s the process for putting on sessions with clubs for ‘I Play 30’, how does it work?

We built up some pretty good relationships with clubs already – I’ve been running the charity for about 7 years and we’ve visited somewhere in the region of about 350 venues in the UK. I choose the clubs that would be most suitable and the individuals that I think would be the most suited to working within disability tennis, and I approach them directly and ask them. In all honesty I’ve don’t think I’ve had anyone turn around and say no, I’m not interested.

What sort of impact are you finding inclusive sports to have?

Everyone I’ve approached, everyone that’s taken part everyone that’s hosting sessions have all categorically said it’s the best and most rewarding thing they’ve ever done!

I did a talk to Middlesex Tennis LTA last week and had 27 coaches attend, which was fantastic. A year ago, I’d have been running around the room in excitement.

I’ve been doing lots of coaching online, all for and to disabled people. I’ve now started an online course on how to deliver online, and I’m getting all sorts of interest about it, mainly from mainstream sports coaches. By default, it’ll be a bit inclusive, as that’s what my experience is in. Therefore, we might be able to reach coaches who wouldn’t come otherwise: we’re leading the way towards inclusive coaching.

What you reckon the future of inclusive sport is, where would you like it to be, and what we need to do to get there?

I talk about the inclusion spectrum: from non-disabled and disabled people doing stuff together to people doing stuff with a similar impairment. And we need to offer more choice so people can pick and choose. I think it’s going to keep evolving.

For example, the Paralympic movement. I hope it does get a higher profile and continue to grow, but also the recognition that it’s only a small segment of what inclusive sport looks like. It’s not inclusive in a sense because it’s only disabled people, and there are also lots of sports that aren’t in the Paralympic Games that could be.

I’m passionate about the more complex end of the inclusive spectrum: people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, people with more than one impairment, which is the case for 75% of disabled people. But the way sport is currently organised is very single impairments based.

So we need to have more on offer, and more opportunities in mainstream clubs. The coaching workforce needs to not turn anyone away, either consciously or unconsciously.

A compulsory disability element to coaching qualifications would hopefully take away coaches’ potential nerves and doubts because they would have already done inclusive coaching within their qualifications. It would then be much more natural to just incorporate inclusive training alongside and within regular coaching.

Every club has a welfare officer. Why not make it a welfare and inclusion officer, who has the responsibility of linking up with local special needs schools, support groups or disability groups and encouraging them to the tennis club to play? The LTA could make this a requirement and it would just happen.

Inclusion should be on the agenda of every meeting in every sports club in the country. Then at least everyone has to think about it. Clubs might not think they’ll have anything to discuss, but they will! Safeguarding is now compulsory on the agenda: it should be the same with inclusion.

So it’s the policy, the rules and regs: all those things need to be in place. And I think there should be a compulsory module around inclusion as part of coaching qualifications. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not disability inclusion: it’s just inclusion.

Could you tell me more about the video?

One of my passions has always been to demonstrate inclusion in its widest sense. It’s not just a wheelchair session, it’s not just a wheelchair player playing with someone non-disabled. It’s as we try to show in the video: people with seven or eight different impairments all playing together. It’s been one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in, and a personal challenge.

For example, when I was doing the warm-up, we were doing racket skills. Danny noticed that when we asked John to balance the ball on his racket, he couldn’t get his racquet to turn the other way up. But we found a solution. That’s the challenge.

What do you hope the video will do and mean when people start seeing it? 

We’re sending out little clips on Twitter, and it’s already making people both outside and inside inclusive sports think a little bit differently. It’s also starting to influence others, to get people thinking. For example, clips of Joe Salisbury warming up next to Rachel Morgan, who’s totally blind, will really resonate.

It’s also a brilliant opportunity for people to start asking questions: how can you do this? How do you coach deaf and blind players in the same session? You just have to be visual and very descriptive, you just do both at the same time!

You might get something wrong. But you build up that confidence. I still get things wrong. Like with John – I hadn’t quite thought of that problem, but you’ve got to build the confidence for the solution to happen.

Check out Bright Ideas For Tennis on Twitter

Any last advice or words of wisdom?

I’m talking about “possibility” at a virtual conference coming up, and it really got me thinking about using that word to promote the work that we do. Because anyone can play tennis: everything is possible.

Inspired? Then Get Involved!

If you would like to support us in our mission to “embed inclusive sport in the sporting, education and community landscapes” then we would love to hear from you. We are always looking out for people willing to fundraise for Power2Inspire through their own inspiring means. Or, you could volunteer at one of our events, or you could give to the ongoing work of Power2Inspire. Click the button here to find out more.

Anna Willis

Freelance journalist and story teller; on Twitter @annawillis101