In this episode, I speak with elite Deaf athletes, Claire Stancliffe and Nathan Young, about their sporting careers. Claire is a GB & England Deaf Women's footballer, while Nathan is a GB & England Deaf Swimmer.
In the episode, we consider Claire and Nathan's careers, the (lack of) funding and recognition of Deaf sport, and how the UK sport system compares internationally. Finally, Claire and Nathan consider how the Deaf sport system can be improved.
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Transcript of Disability Sport Info episode, ‘High-Performance Sport: Deaf athletes’
Speaker: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: Claire Stancliffe (Participant – GB & England Deaf Women's footballer, UK)
Speaker: Nathan Young (Participant – GB & England Deaf Swimmer, UK)
[00:00:29] Dr Christopher Brown: Welcome to the podcast. So I'm joined by two Deaf athletes today. So, we've got Nathan Young, who is a swimmer, and we have Claire Stancliffe, who is a footballer. They will, of course, explain more about their careers as we have a chat later on today.
So, the purpose of today's session will be to get these athletes’ experience of what it's like to be a Deaf athlete in a GB system. So I think to start off, guys, for those who aren't aware, could you please briefly explain to the listeners your career as an elite athlete? Nathan, why don't we start with you first of all.
[00:01:00] Nathan Young: Yeah, so I started swimming from a young age and was asked to join a club. I sort of went from there, but when I was 14, I joined GB Deaf Swimming Club, and then a year later I was heading to my first international competition in Texas. I was 15 at the time, so I was one of the youngest going, and then that was followed by the Deaflympics two years later, where I won a bronze medals as part of the relay team.
And I've been to five competitions since, and now I'm ranked fourth in the world.
[00:01:27] Dr Christopher Brown: Oh wow. Okay. Excellent. And just for those listeners who aren't aware, what is the Deaflympics?
[00:01:31] Nathan Young: It's basically an Olympics for Deaf athletes, specifically. All athletes are Deaf and yeah, it's just separate from Para.
It's just everyone's Deaf.
[00:01:40] Dr Christopher Brown: And so, Claire, would you be able to explain to the listeners what your career has been like so far, please?
[00:01:46] Claire Stancliffe: I first started playing football when I was about four, five years old. I played for my primary school, the girls and the boys football team. So I played for both. But I didn't really know any other Deaf people until I was 18. I was invited to a Deaf tournament, just a five-a-side thing. And it was there that the England head coach scouted me. So that was in 2007. And since then I've been to every single 11-a-side Deaf international tournament since. So, I've been to Deaflympics, World Cups, European Championships.
[00:02:17] Dr Christopher Brown: So you're talking about obviously, you know, as a Deaf athlete, you didn't really necessarily know what the options were or maybe people who were playing themselves. So, how would you assess the coverage of Deaf elite sport in the UK, in terms of media coverage?
[00:02:30] Claire Stancliffe: I think there's a lot more that can be done, in terms of coverage. I think over the past few years, things have certainly been taken to the next level in terms of that. And, you know, we've been seen on tv. They've started to use YouTube at Deaflympics so they can show live games.
So things are starting to gradually get better. But there's always room for improvement, especially in the mainstream media. Just being able to show people what we do, you know, especially without funding.
[00:02:55] Dr Christopher Brown: Yes. And that's an interesting segue to I think have a chat with Nathan about this. So, Nathan, you've got a campaign going on Twitter about the fact that there is a, a lack of funding. And for listeners who aren't necessarily aware, usually UK sport that is the main funder of elite sport in the UK. It's pretty much dominated via a Parasport perspective. And I think that's fair to say. So, you know, traditionally UK sport have done a no compromise approach to funding where Olympic and Paralympic sports that are deemed to be most likely to get medals have been awarded funding.
It's been slightly changed in recent years, but Deaf sport, traditionally, has not received the same level of funding as Parasport as well. So, Nathan, would you be able to kind of chat about what your thoughts and experiences are about the funding situation, and also to let listeners know about your campaign and why you feel this campaign is required?
[00:03:50] Nathan Young: Deaf funding well, especially in the lives of sports women, it's been non-existent, so we've not really had any sort of funding. So for the past five competitions that I've been to, I've raised probably about up to £15,000 just to go to these competitions. So, relying on family, friends and, you know, close ones, to sort of raise the money for me.
So that really started my campaign to get the funding from the government. Because I've gone round in circles. I've asked my local governing body at Swim England. They've tried to pass it on to British swimming. British swimming said they follow up what the government say. So, ultimately, it's what the government decide.
They come back with the idea that they only fund Para and Olympic sports. And even though I try and go to companies and say, can I have some funding from, you know, big companies? And they say, no, we only follow what the government are telling us to give. So I'm going round and round in circles, and I've got to the point where I'm training 20 plus hours a week and I'm trying to fund this off my back. I'm 23 now. And I'm trying to live. You know, trying to buy a house, trying to buy a car, you know, all these things put on pause for me to continue swimming. So it's become very hard at the moment.
[00:04:58] Dr Christopher Brown: And, presumably, you have a full-time job as well, Nathan, to try and, you know, support your living needs?
[00:05:04] Nathan Young: A nine to five job is not something I can get.
So, I did a bit of lifeguarding because that was the only time I could sort of fit round it. But I wanna career in audiology, which is gonna be a full-time job, but ultimately, I've sort of like had to put that on hold, but it's getting very difficult to do that.
[00:05:21] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. I'd also like to bring in Claire here as well, and also continue your chat as well, Nathan. But so why do you think the government are set in their position saying that we only fund Olympic and Paralympic sports? Why should Deaf sport not get funding? What do you think? Why do you think they're suggesting that and what can be done to try and change their position?
[00:05:42] Claire Stancliffe: I think it all comes down to the fact that the Olympics and the Paralympics are recognised at such a high level, whereas the Deaflympics isn't. So I think that plays a massive part in it. There are a lot of discussions going on at the moment to try and get the government to recognise Deaf athletes and the Deaflympics.
So I think there is progress being made. It'll just take a bit of time for that to come. But as soon as that recognition comes in, it opens so many doors for funding. So it's just, it is such a small step that we need, but it will be massive.
[00:06:10] Dr Christopher Brown: And it's tricky though, isn't it? Because it's like a chicken and egg scenario, you know? How do you get the recognition on the media awareness without, you know, media's putting on the events that you're doing and kind of helping to promote it. And that will probably require support to get that going.
But if you don't get that, then the government may be like, well, why should we be funding it? Because it's not a media imperative or not enough, you know, interest in it. How do you break that cycle? How do you get to a position where you can say, look, clearly there's emphasis and momentum behind Deaf sport, so you need to fund it.
What would you suggest as athletes who are involved in the sport?
[00:06:47] Claire Stancliffe: I'm not asking the government to fund us as such. It's just gives us that recognition because, once that door's opened, that gives us avenues to get funding from elsewhere, like Sport England, for example.
It's like with the Olympics and the Paralympics, I'm not sure how it works, but I don't think the funding necessarily come directly from the government. It come from other avenues. So that's the sort of thing that we are kind of looking at going down. Just get that recognition, allow us to be recognised, and then hopefully the funding should just gradually come in some other way.
[00:07:17] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. Nathan, any thoughts on that?
[00:07:20] Nathan Young: The government decides where the money goes, ultimately. So the national lottery gives a lot of money to the government and then the government decide how it's distributed through UK Deaf Sport.
Yeah, but I agree with Claire that once that one thing comes, that starts like a snowball effect that everyone starts to follow, whether it's, you know, car companies might say, oh, we've got a bit of funding here, you can have a little bit. But they're going, no, we're going with what the government is telling us to fund.
[00:07:46] Dr Christopher Brown: And what does recognition mean to you? So, if you would get this recognition, what would that look like and what would that be for you as athletes?
[00:07:53] Claire Stancliffe: For me, it would just be recognised as an athlete. I think at the moment we just feel like we're just grassroots players in a way. Like, we're not actual athletes, even though we are. And it would just be nice to have that recognition and be seen on that level.
[00:08:08] Nathan Young: So, even when I go to my competitions and, so, like a Nationals or whatever, I won't wear my GB cap because I don't see myself as this professional athlete as much as I swim internationally. I don't, I'm not looking at myself because I don't get recognised like a professional athlete.
I look at myself as not that either. So, certainly recognition from the government, from everyone, would then give me more confidence to show that.
[00:08:34] Dr Christopher Brown: I think some people, potentially, don't really understand what impact Deafness has on you as athletes, I don't know if that's fair?
I remember watching a BBC Breakfast clip about a Deaf tennis player. And you know, the impact that being Deaf had on his performance, and how he had to adapt and adjust his game, and all the skill level that was required for it. But as a kind of general viewer, do you feel like people are aware of how it actually makes a difference and an impact on your abilities to perform as athletes?
[00:09:04] Nathan Young: So one of the main problems for swimmers at the moment is, especially when I race in this country, is the starting system. I've had a n ongoing thing with Swim England about trying to get this changed, so when I go Deaflympics, they have a traffic light system.
So, red get on the block, obviously taking into consideration you can't hear any of the beeps or anything. So, red get on the block. Orange, take your marks, and then, green, go. But in this country, they only have this one flash, to say go. So I don't know when to take your marks. I dunno when to get on the block.
So I'm having to look constantly to scan my surroundings. So I'm looking at the referee, who could be 10 meters away, trying to look for any sort of, like, when he puts the microphone in front of his mouth? So I'm looking for any sort of changes to his facial expression to know that he's saying, take your mark and then I go.
So I feel like that's just one example of the challenges I face when I compete.
[00:09:57] Dr Christopher Brown: What about you, Claire? Obviously different sport. Obviously, a team sport. Nathan's on his own pretty much, you know, as a, obviously does a relay, but as an individual pretty much. What about you, Claire? What's your thoughts on that question?
[00:10:08] Claire Stancliffe: In terms of football, when we're playing on a national level, you can't wear your hearing aids or your cochlear implants; they have to be removed before you enter the field of play, so that everyone's on the same level playing field. So, there's literally no sound whatsoever for some of this. And the linesmen normally have flags in mainstream football, but also in Deaf football, the referee has one. So the first official will have a flag. So whenever they blow the whistle, they will obviously wave the flag. And obviously there's a little bit of leeway in terms of when they do blow the whistle. If you play on, you won't get penalised because you didn't hear the whistle sort of thing.
Apart from that, I think it's more in terms of, like every individual, every player is different with how they cope with it. So, some players might, it might affect their balance. I especially noticed it when it's dark because obviously I've got no hearing. But also now my vision's impacted, because it's not as easy to see. So that affects my training. In terms of training, it's like if I wanted to go out for a run, I would never go out for a run in the dark on my own. Just because I can't hear what's going on, so I don't feel safe. So that has an impact on what sort of training I do. And then there's a fact that if we're going out to work all day, lip reading all day is exhausting.
So when you get home, you just don't have the energy to train. But we have to train, we have to push ourselves through that. So it does get to the point where we do need, kind of, maybe more recovery days or just some, a bit more downtime just to, to recover from not just the training, but our own daily lives.
[00:11:39] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. Really interesting thoughts and I don't think necessarily some listeners would appreciate that kind of daily reality that you were saying. Obviously, I dunno how much you will know, but obviously you would've competed internationally. How does the UK system compare to, I dunno, some other countries in Europe, for example, or maybe even in America or Australia, whoever it might be.
How does our system compare in terms of the status and funding for Deaf athletes?
[00:12:03] Claire Stancliffe: So, from my experience, Russia's always been a country that wins medals and all that. And from what I know, they're paid professionals. I remember back in Taiwan, I think if they won a gold medal, they got 60,000 euros each. Silver was 40,000 and bronze was 20,000. Don't quote me on those figures, but something like that.
So they were getting that for just winning the medal. We were paying to go. So we were self-funded so that there was a massive difference in performance levels. So all really fit, stuff like that. I think America have been very similar to the UK in a way. They've been self-funded. Nathan, have you got any specific countries?
[00:12:46] Nathan Young: Probably not the right time to say, but Russia is massively funded. They take a team like 30-odd swimmers to their competitions.
I was one from, the past two competitions I went to, I was the one from my country going, because a lot of the swimmers can't fund themselves. So obviously Russia taking 30-odd swimmers and paying for every single one of them. Russia's one. I think Ukraine take a big team as well. Talking about them two countries, I came fourth. Third, second, and first were all fully funded.
So, as Claire was saying, massive difference in performance levels. I came fourth, and the ones that came before me were all funded.
[00:13:25] Dr Christopher Brown: Hmm. Interesting. I wasn't expecting you to say Russia, both of you. I have to say that was a bit of a curve ball. But interesting, that. Ukraine do well in the Paralympics, don't they?
So they historically have done quite well in disability competitions. When you were going through the pathways in your sports, were the coaches non-disabled or were they Deaf coaches? And also when you were playing the sport, were you competing alongside non-disabled individuals or even individuals without Deafness?
Nathan, I'll start with you then we'll go to you, Claire.
[00:13:54] Nathan Young: Yeah, so I've been probably most around hearing swimmers and hearing coaches. It's only really when I, it's only when I went to a Deaf competition for the first time, that I actually sort of swam with Deaf athletes and had a Deaf coach. So yeah, I've been around the mainstream swimming world from most of my career, other than when I go to international competitions. And when I went to the past two competitions, no coach came with me, so I had to fund my own coach, who was hearing at that time.
So that's the international competition I'd been to where hearing coaches actually come.
[00:14:27] Claire Stancliffe: Yeah, so when I was growing up, as I mentioned previously, I didn't know any other coach or player that was Deaf until I was about 18.
And that's when I first got involved with the England team. And even then, the coaches were hearing, so the players were Deaf, but the coaches were hearing, so the communication barriers were really obvious. As time's gone on, with funding and more accessibility in place that have been Deaf players or Deaf individuals that have their coaching badges and they've started to come into the system a bit more.
In terms of pathways, there wasn't really any pathways when I was younger. I think it's only, just more recently those pathways have been created. There's so still so much more work to do on that.
[00:15:06] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. So in terms of when you were young, how were you spotted as talented individuals or was it just you as individuals going to, you know, whoever it might be and say, look, I really wanna play, and then you kind of, your talent shone, as a result of that?
[00:15:20] Claire Stancliffe: For me, I was just invited by another Deaf 18 year old. She said, come and play for my team at a Deaf tournament. And I was like, but I don't know any Deaf people. It was a bit of a massive culture shock in a way.
So I just went along, just played, and that's when the England head coach, she spotted me. She was there and she came up to me and said, can I have your contact details? And since then I've been to every tournament since.
[00:15:44] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. So it was quite random, really. So if your friend hadn't have invited you, you may not have been spotted by the head coach?
[00:15:53] Claire Stancliffe: Yeah, I mean, I didn't even know about Deaf football, so it's kind of like, why didn't I know about that? That should have been something I should have been aware of, but I just wasn't.
[00:16:04] Dr Christopher Brown: So you just played football, but you didn't know there was necessarily a Deaf pathway that existed?
[00:16:08] Claire Stancliffe: I was just playing football in mainstream environment. You know, that's what I was just doing. And then there wasn't any particular pathways for Deaf footballers at that time. It was just, if you were good enough, you're straight into the main, like the senior team. So, yeah, there was no particular pathway.
And even now, there's no Deaf women’s or Deaf girls leagues in the UK. It's still, you play mainstream football and, if you're good enough to go into the England pathway, then you get signposted into that.
[00:16:35] Dr Christopher Brown: Interesting. So it relies on people having the confidence and the ability to be able to participate in a mainstream setting, in order to be able to have the opportunity to then go into a Deaf team.
Nathan, what about you? Do you have similar experiences or was it slightly different?
[00:16:50] Nathan Young: Yeah, it's completely the same sort of situation. I was actually just swimming, like, you know, normal like swimming lessons. And a lifeguard who was a coach said, do you wanna join the club?
So I joined the club. And then when I was about 14 or 15, I then heard about Deaf sport, Deaf swimming. So it took me 15 years to hear about the Deaflympics. So something that's been run since, what, 1924? For me to hear that at the age of 15 and my mum and dad have never even heard of it as well, just shows there's a lack of recognition in Deaf sport, and there's no pathways other than just going to a GB Deaf Swimming. But it's like Claire, you have to swim in the mainstream hearing world to sort of get anywhere within the Deaf world. There are no pathways or you can't go on training camps and stuff like that.
[00:17:40] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? So yeah, even through school you weren't, you know, your parents or yourselves weren't made aware of the Deaflympics, and the opportunities to participate in a Deaf environment. And, yeah, if you are an individual who is not comfortable participating in a mainstream setting, then it's pretty tricky to get into a Deaf squad.
So I think it's fair to say, and I dunno if you guys agree, but I think it's fair to say that the high-performance sports system for Deaf athletes is very underdeveloped in this country. is that a fair statement to say?
[00:18:10] Nathan Young: Yeah, I agree.
[00:18:12] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. Claire, probably you are also in agreement with that?
[00:18:15] Claire Stancliffe: Yeah, no, absolutely. There's just so much to do. That's across all of the Deaf sports as well. So it's not just individual sports, it's literally every single Deaf sport.
[00:18:24] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. So in this hypothetical scenario, you are both in charge of creating a world-class Deaf sport system.
How would you go about doing it, and what would you require to be in place to create a system that maximises your talent?
[00:18:41] Nathan Young: I think want the one thing that I would do straight away is just give the recognition.
Because I feel like once that recognition comes. I think everything just comes with it. Whether that's funding, whether that's, you know, social media presence or whether that's respect and everything that comes along with it. So I'd say the recognition is the key thing. And obviously with the funding, I expect it should just be like what the Para athletes get.
We are Parasport in a way, but we're just under a different organisation, Deaflympics.
[00:19:43] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. Thank you, Nathan. Claire, what about you?
[00:19:45] Claire Stancliffe: For me, yeah, similar, the recognition and funding that's got to be top priority, in terms of getting that in play. And then it's just creating that expansive, supportive pathway with a high level of accessibility.
So we're never going to get Deaf leagues in swimming, football, and basketball, you know, that's never gonna happen; we just don't have the numbers to do that. But how can we support those athletes in a mainstream environment? So, particularly in football, I've noticed that our players struggle to maybe go up to another level purely because they don't have the accessibility.
You know, they're going into teams where they can't understand what's going on. So how can we provide support to allow them to participate at a higher level? Which will then just push everyone's standards up. And that's not just for 18 plus. I'm talking about children as well. We've got to allow them to be able to play a sport where it's accessible for them.
[00:20:08] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, it's a really interesting point. It's not even just sport, you know, it's also, like I said, education, you know, being aware of the opportunities to support people who want to go into a sporting route. And obviously the funding's important, the media coverage of Deaf events.
Now, if we're being cynical, mainstream organisations, they're not going to support causes without a funding imperative or a funding link. Hopefully some will, but relying on morals and the goodwill of organisations probably is not gonna help. So helping to kind of support organisations so they want to and need to be able to support Deaf athletes, probably will also help to then provide those kind of pathways in place.
Okay. Any other thoughts about the system before we kind of move on to the final question? Anything that we haven't addressed so far?
[00:20:57] Claire Stancliffe: I just think, in terms of the media, that's something else that can be worked on, because I find that the media, this is kind of a general thing, they always report on something good that's happened.
Whereas, like for example, when we did a fundraising campaign six, seven years ago, they never helped us get that campaign off, like, to get that started. It was only when somebody from the Premier League donated money that they started to report on it. So, you know, it's kind of just trying to maximise what we can use, like the media, try and just make those contacts and those relationships to try and, you know, increase our presence, as such.
[00:21:34] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. Really interesting point. Okay, so finally, what are your ambitions for 2023 for both of you, in terms of as elite athletes?
[00:21:42] Nathan Young: So hopefully, if the funding comes along, and certain funding, then I'll be attending the World Deaf Championships in Argentina this year in August. And then, hopefully, followed by Deaflympics in 2026, in Tokyo, Japan.
[00:21:56] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Thank you, Nathan. Claire, what about you?
[00:21:58] Claire Stancliffe: For me, it's a bit of a difficult one because we don't really know what's happening with Deaf football at the moment. It's bit up in the air.
It's been a really tough six years , in terms of having an injury, then Covid hitting, all the tournaments cancelled, and then we weren't allowed to go to the Deaflympics. So, mentally, that's been like how do I keep myself going? So, for me, it was just about enjoying my football, but also still trying to push, the same with Nathan, for the Deaflympics.
We know that's in 2025, but it's just almost like a four-year cycle. You have to train from the moment that the Deaflympics finished to the next one, you're still training, you're still in that process.
[00:22:34] Dr Christopher Brown: What's been the issue in football in terms of the last few years?
Obviously, you said about Covid, but you said it's up in the air at the moment, in terms of football. What did you mean by that?
[00:22:42] Claire Stancliffe: Before Covid hit, the European championships were cancelled last minute by the organisers, so we couldn't go to that. That was in 2019.
Then in 2020, we were supposed to have the World Cup, but that got postponed because of Covid. The Deaflympics was supposed to be held in 2021, but that got postponed because of Covid to last year. And then, probably about five or six months before, we were told GB won't be attending the Deaflympics due to security and Covid, which we weren't expecting. Because we were only probably, I dunno, one of three countries that didn't go, everybody else did. So, no, it is kind of like, how much more do we need to give sort of thing? And then it's just now we're just waiting to see what happens in terms of competitions moving forward, because, you know, obviously the impact of Covid has messed the schedule up in a way. So waiting to see what happens.
[00:23:34] Dr Christopher Brown: I think it's probably fair to say, and there were some, in an academic world anyway, there was some talk about when we got back to some sporting action after Covid, or at least during Covid, but you know, after the first lockdown, if we can bring our minds back to that time, men's sport were prioritised, I think that's probably fair to say. Then women's sport was kind of on the back burner. And so, presumably, you've got Paralympic sport was ahead of Deaf sport. So Deaf sport's probably at the bottom of all the priority lists in terms of events.
I dunno if that's fair for me to say, but that's what it seems to me has happened. Would you agree?
[00:24:08] Nathan Young: The thing about Deaf sport and Paralympic and Olympic sports, it's run by completely different organisations. So, they were doing it in their own time. Obviously, they pushed it back a year, which was fair enough. But they still went ahead with it. So, I went to a competition last November. So it was still able to go, I think it was just coming towards the end of Covid, so I was still able to go to Poland. But obviously between Poland and Brazil, it's completely different. So it is more like an in-country decision not to go.
[00:24:37] Dr Christopher Brown: Right. Ah, okay. Okay. Well explained. Alright, well, I don't have any other questions, is there anything else you want to add?
[00:24:44] Claire Stancliffe: Nothing really. Just if anyone out there can give us a platform to raise awareness and get recognition, please get in contact with us. I think Nathan will be the same. I'm happy to do whatever. I'm quite flexible in terms of interviews and stuff like that. And more the better.
[00:24:58] Nathan Young: Yeah.
[00:24:59] Dr Christopher Brown: Thank you ever so much, guys. It's been really interesting learning about your experiences as elite athletes.
Hopefully, in a small way or maybe even a big way, this podcast will help with that recognition, in terms of in Deaf sport. Hopefully, anyway. So that's it from me, and I'd like to thank you both for your participation and contribution, and I look forward to catching up with you both soon.
[00:25:20] Nathan Young: Thanks for having me.
[00:25:22] Claire Stancliffe: Yeah. Thank you.
*** Discussion ends ***
[00:25:23] Dr Christopher Brown: That's it. That's all we have time for. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Disability Sport Info Show. Stay tuned for another episode. Until then, goodbye.
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