From the Disabilities Allies Advocacy Group
Soccer is alive and well in our disability community. This month’s blog is dedicated to creating awareness and acceptance of our fellow soccer athletes with Dwarfism. Their game requires a few minor adaptations but the speed, athleticism, skill, and passion on display isn’t any different from what you experience anywhere else. The biggest challenge you will see is not from the game or the ability of the athletes, but more so the visibility, access, and availability of opportunities to play, and develop our best athletes for international competition.
What is Dwarfism?
Dwarfism is a condition of short stature. It is defined by the advocacy groups Little People of the World Organization (LPOTW) and Little People of America (LPA) as an adult of 4 feet 10 inches or under, as a result of a medical or genetic condition. Although other groups may extend the criteria for certain forms of dwarfism to 5 feet, the average height of an adult with dwarfism is 4 feet.
While there are approximately 400 types of dwarfism, there are two main categories, disproportionate and proportionate. Disproportionate dwarfism is characterized by an average-size torso and shorter arm and legs or a shortened trunk with longer limbs. In proportionate dwarfism, the body parts are in proportion but shortened.
The most common form of dwarfism is Achondroplasia and accounts for 70% of cases. It occurs in about one out of 26,000 – 40,000 live births. The other 30% of dwarfism is prevalent in about one out of every 100,000 births in very general terms.
There are many causes of dwarfism but most are genetic and/or the result of growth hormone deficiencies. It can be treated but there is no cure.
Dwarf Soccer Format
- Teams have 7 field players and 1 goalkeeper
- The field is 45-60 yards long by 35-45 yard wide
- The goal is 6’ x 18’
- A size 4 ball is used
- Two halves of 25 minutes with a 5 minute halftime
- Throw-ins can be underhand
- No heading
- No slide-tacking
There is an elevated risk of spinal cord injury in this community which is accommodated for by the no heading or slide tackling adaptations. Additionally for some players, shorter arms can make it difficult to complete a traditional throw-in so underhand throw-ins are allowed.
Organization and competitions
The game is overseen internationally by the International Dwarf Sports Federation (IDSF) and the organization hosts a World Games competition that includes a soccer tournament amongst other sports. The event is held every four years and the next World Games will be held in Cologne, Germany in 2022. Participating nations can enter multiple teams and can be male, female or mixed gender.
Some of the stronger dwarf soccer nations include the UK, Germany, and USA. There appears to be a strong Dwarf soccer presence in South America as well but since all World Games to date have been held in either North America or Europe, they have not participated so far.
The Paralympic games does have some competitions that have dwarf categories (e.g. track and field, swimming, weightlifting) but there is no separate category for dwarf soccer like there is for CP soccer (7-a-side) or blind soccer (5-a-side).
Domestically, dwarf soccer is organized by the Dwarf Athletic Association of America (DAAA). The DAAA holds a National Games event for all sports, including soccer, every year usually during the week of July 4th. They host competitions for the following divisions:
- Futures (ages 6 or younger)
- Junior A (ages 7-11)
- Junior B (ages 12-15)
- Open (any age)
- Masters (age 35 and up)
Men’s, women’s and mixed-gender competitions are held depending on participation levels.
One of the more recognizable players of Dwarf Soccer is Zach Roloff who has starred on the TLC Channel’s reality TV show “Little People Big World” since 2006. Zach truly loves the game and the competition that the National Games and World Games provides.
“I basically grew up playing soccer at the National Games every summer. A lot of my friends to this day I met playing in the junior divisions growing up,” stated Roloff. The National Games are held in conjunction with the Little People of America annual conference. “Having so many little people in one place really helps to develop strong bonds as a community.”
Challenges to the growth of the game in the U.S.
In the early years of local organized soccer, dwarf athletes can compete effectively alongside their peers. As they age, this becomes more difficult to do and many athletes and their families start to feel unwelcome as pressure to win games increases. Many leave the game at this point and don’t return. Due to low prevalence of dwarf athletes in most communities, having a dwarf soccer specific league is not a realistic option.
There are effectively no regional games to play in unless a game is self-organized by the participants themselves. The National Games are a one-day event and teammates often have not played with each other since the last competition, which may be over a year or longer. International tournaments require a financial commitment, which may be cost prohibitive to some players.
With so few opportunities to play you have to wonder if those sports that have defined pathways (e.g. Paralympic swimming and track) are capturing some of our better dwarf athletes who crave the competition that these sports offer on a more consistent basis and larger stage.
While the DAAA offers a single day of competition for soccer once a year. It doesn’t appear that anyone is actually in charge of the growth of the game, long-term player development, or the selection of the best team to represent the U.S. in national or international competitions.
Teams that are created for competitions do not appear to have coaches managing the team or making game time decisions. They seem to be self-managed by the athletes themselves which could lead to politics determining team selection and participation.
Travel for competition
The quality of the teams representing the U.S. are influenced by the financial ability and availability of the athletes for the travel required to participate, which may leave some of our best athletes behind.
Currently the DAAA is not an affiliated member of the Federation, which limits their ability to use The U.S. Soccer resources and represent the US in international competitions wearing the official U.S. Soccer kit like other extended national teams.
Dwarf soccer has a lot of potential if we can help support the athletes by increasing the awareness and visibility of the game, and helping to provide more opportunities to play beyond the few organized competitions currently being held. They are not a sideshow act. They are meaningful members of our soccer community who love the game with the same passion as most of us but don’t enjoy the same opportunity to play and succeed that we do. Their games are exciting and have some very gifted players worth following. Watch a game online (see links below) and encourage your peers to becomes fans. Find ways to support their game, which is our game. If you know an athlete with Dwarfism, invite them to play with your teams. Be inclusive of this community.
You may not have much or any experience in interacting with this community. Here are some tips to make you more inclusive and accepting.
Don’t use the M word. Some prefer little person, while others prefer dwarf, but both are generally considered inoffensive. The one word you should never use is midget. This word has a negative history associated with it. No matter how you use it, it will be offensive. Not sure what term to use? Politely ask their preference. Oh and that joke you heard about this community? Keep it to yourself.
Respect their personal space. Don’t take pictures without asking, don’t pat them on the head, or touch them for any reason. Don’t reach over them, and definitely do not try to move them or pick them up against their will. There is no need to bend over or take a knee when talking to them. They can hear you just fine.
If curious, it’s ok to ask sincere questions. But also respect their privacy if they don’t feel like sharing information at that time. Don’t assume anything about their abilities and the roads that they have traveled. Take the opportunity to learn something new and change your mindset accordingly. Like most people you meet, you will have more similarities than differences.
These are our fellow soccer athletes and enthusiasts. Respect their game and their contributions. Be advocates for their inclusion and don’t tolerate disrespect from your peers.
To learn more, please visit these sites or contact any member of the Disabilities Allies Advocacy Group. We’d love to hear from you.
World Games videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSKfFy_9N2k&t=906s
Don’t look down on me: https://youtu.be/mD_PWU6K514