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Jemima’s child-first coaching approach is reaping rewards at Tadcaster Stingrays

An inspirational swimming coach who set up a club for young people with physical and learning difficulties when she was only 15 has told how child-first coaching is key to giving them positive experiences of swimming. 

Jemima Browning, set up the Tadcaster Stingrays Swimming Club, in North Yorkshire, in response to the lack of opportunities for her younger brother, Will, who has Down’s syndrome. 

That was back in 2017 and, more than six years later, the club, based at Tadcaster Community Swimming Pool, has gone from strength to strength.  

Reflecting on her motivation to set up the club, Jemima said: “Will was the main inspiration and the driving force behind Tadcaster Stingrays. 

“From talking to other parents at the time, it became clear that the experience we were having with Will was being replicated elsewhere. 

“The same opportunities for people from his and similar backgrounds simply didn’t exist, so we decided to set up the club.

“I guess it was a bit of an unusual move for a 15-year-old and maybe people thought it might be a short-term thing, but I was so determined and motivated to do it because of Will. 

“I had no coaching experience, but I learned so much from the young people.” 

The sessions started out with three young swimmers but have grown to a regular group of 18. 

Incredible and rewarding

Several of them, including Will, have gone on to represent and win medals for Great Britain at the Special Olympics but Jemima and the club pride themselves on creating individual goals for swimmers which might be as simple as just having fun in the pool. 

Jemima, a qualified swimming teacher and coach, added: “Our main focus is on the individual and creating and working on individual goals for them. 

“We celebrate a swimmer who has developed a new skill as much as one who has been selected for the Special Olympics. 

“Seeing a swimmer increase their confidence and self-belief which then impacts on other areas of their lives is incredible and more rewarding than anything in the pool.” 

Jemima’s story has been highlighted by Play Their Way, a national campaign led by UK Coaching and Sport England and supported by the Children’s Coaching Collaborative, a group of 17 organisations which includes Activity Alliance, the national charity and leading voice for disabled people in sport. 

The campaign was launched last year to transform the way children and young people are coached in sport and physical activity by prioritising their rights, needs and enjoyment in a ‘child-first’ approach to help increase enjoyment and activity levels. 

It’s an approach that is seen as particularly crucial when working with children and young people with physical and learning disabilities, where understanding individual needs is even more important.

Jemima, who swam at county level as a junior and is also a member of the Youth Sports Trust Youth Board, explained: “It can be a challenge to work out how a young person likes to communicate. 

“That can take time but is so important especially with young people from non-verbal backgrounds. 

Catalyst to narrowing the gap

“For example, we might use picture cards to communicate with them. Working closely with the parents to understand the best ways to communicate is also vital.

“In terms of a child first approach, the biggest thing for me is acknowledging that the young people are the experts when it comes to their own needs. 

“We always create an environment and safe space for them, where they are comfortable saying what they like about a session.

“I always ask them at the start of the session if they are happy with what we have planned and it’s not uncommon for a session to be completely flipped on their head. 

“That open communication is really important.” 

Whilst opportunities for children and young people with physical and learning disabilities have improved since the Stingrays were established back in 2017, Jemima still feels more needs to be done for them to have the same opportunities as mainstream swimmers. 

She sees greater adoption of child-first coaching as the key to increasing them. 

“Things are definitely improving but provision is not at the level that I would like,” she said. “There is still a huge gap between mainstream and disability swimming and child-first coaching should be the catalyst to narrowing this gap.” 

To find out more about Play Their Way, Jemima’s story and get helpful, practical tips and advice on child-first coaching visit www.playtheirway.org.

Jemima’s top child-first coaching tips

Understand preferences 

Always find out how the person likes to communicate before starting the conversation. Provide a safe space for young people to use their voice and advocate for themselves.

Ask, don’t tell

Always ask the young person’s opinions and ideas. Try to implement them where you can and if you can’t, explain why. 


Think outside the box and work with the young person to help come up with new ways of doing things.


Don’t assume you know what is right or best for the young person – ask them first. They are the experts in themselves and their needs. 


Do not use a one-size-fits-all approach – treat everyone as the individual that they are.