In addition to the usual versity and junior varsity sports, some Massachusetts high schools, including Mount Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS), are on the forefront of a new athletics program that values inclusion, advocacy and teamwork over winning.
“Unified Sports” was established by the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools in 2008 as a way to promote athletic inclusion for all youth, regardless of developmental ability.
Unified basketball, a coed sport, consists of students with a wide range of developmental disabilities. The players with developmental disabilities are referred to as “athletes,” while their teammates who do not have disabilities are “partners”. In a given game, both athletes and partners play, with at least three athletes on the court for a team at a time. While the game is structured the same way as any other basketball game, athletes are sometimes given multiple chances at scoring, promoting a culture of inclusion and advocacy rather than pure competition.
In 2014, a partnership between the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) and the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools brought unified sports to the state’s high schools. While Mount Greylock was not one of the original schools included in the program, it began offering unified sports two years ago.
Mount Greylock’s athletic director, Lindsey von Holtz, brought the idea to the school after she saw a group of Unified athletes presenting on the program and their positive experiences with it at an MIAA conference. When the program was first established, she faced difficulties in finding a coach for the basketball team. She eventually decided to coach the team herself in its first season.
“This program helps students and fans alike remember the importance of the fun in the game,” von Holtz said. “As students age, the competition and the importance of the outcome increases. This program reminds everyone that we are out there to have fun, to work together, to compete regardless of the outcome.”
The team is now coached by Mount Greylock Librarian and Unified Basketball head coach Liza Barrett and assisted by a special education teacher and an alumnus who was on the team last year. Barrett played basketball at Mount Greylock as a student herself until she graduated in 1982. She continued to play at the collegiate level at Wesleyan and eventually spent many years coaching the sport. In her half-century of experience with basketball, Barrett said, her experience of learning about and coaching Unified Basketball is what she cherishes the most.
“Unified is one of the highlights of my nearly 50 years with the sport,” she said. “It’s special, and truly different from any other basketball experiences I’ve ever had.”
What makes Unified Basketball so rewarding, she emphasized, is that it is not just about winning, but about the opportunities that it gives to students with developmental disabilities.
“Previous to the Unified model, if students with disabilities wanted to participate in athletics, they could go to Special Olympic events,” Barrett explained. “And that’s not the same as wearing your school team’s jersey, riding a bus with your teammates to an away game, having team dinners with your team at the coach’s house and wearing your jersey for spirit week.”
The team’s partner players can also learn a lot through the program, Barrett said.
“The partners gain so much from new friendships with their teammates,” Barrett said. “They learn about themselves, they learn about other people and they learn about the value of inclusion. Unified sports are beneficial for all the players involved.”
Mikaela Topper ’21 and Mia Holtze ’22, two members of the Eph women’s basketball team, helped out with the Mount Greylock team this fall. Topper initially got involved through tutoring Aidan Barnes, a student at Mount Greylock who is also an athlete on the Unified Basketball team.
“I really enjoyed being able to give back, build on my relationship with Aidan and get to stay in touch with him and see him in a different setting that’s not just tutoring,” Topper said.
Both Topper and Holtze are appreciative of all they learned about the power of sports and the humanity that Unified Basketball brings out in people.
“[When] someone who is always excluded and might feel like they’re not good enough makes a basket or wins a game, it’s such a big moment for them,” Topper said. “[It’s helped me realize] how small things can mean so much to people.”
After attending one of the team’s home games, they were able to see how involved the community was in the team.
“The gym was packed and all these students had made signs,” Holtze said. “It is amazing to see how happy these kids are when they play and everyone is cheering for them.”
Topper and Holtze not only witnessed the community’s support, but also saw personal growth in individual players. “[On] the first day, [one of the athletes] just clearly really did not want to be there, hated it, told us multiple times basically ‘I’m being forced to be here, you can try your best to make me do these things but I’m gonna hate it,’” Topper said. “[And] straight up said that to us. But then over the progression of practices we’ve gone to, [we were] able to see how he’s grown to be a lot more receptive to criticism and actually want to learn things about basketball. Eventually, [Barrett] showed us a video of him scoring in their last game. He was dancing on the way back down afterwards.”
In their last game of their season on Nov. 21, the Mount Greylock Unified Basketball team was one of the five schools awarded the MIAA Sportsmanship Award. The state-wide award is given to a school for demonstrating and committing to the ideals of sportsmanship throughout the season. Barrett stressed that the award belongs not only to the team, but also to all who have supported them.
“It’s an honor for our entire school because the team alone couldn’t create the climate that Unified has brought to the school,” Barrett said. “It takes the whole student body, the administration and the teachers and staff coming out to the games. It has definitely brought the community together for something that’s bigger than any of us and that feels good.”
It’s not the result of the game , however, that the players, coaches and even the fans are focused on in the end.
To attest to this, at the end of every home game, Mounties fans come onto the court and form a tunnel for both teams to run through, giving out high fives and words of support.
“For both teams, no one’s thinking about who won or lost, the kids involved are just going through the tunnel [and feeling] important and valued,” Barrett said.
While the season has now officially ended, the partnerships and friendships developed through the team continue to thrive. The team will continue to gather at Barrett’s house every month for the rest of the year, with one of their planned social outings to attend a women’s basketball game at the College. Topper and Holtze, on the other hand, are trying to get the team to play during halftime at a women’s basketball game during Winter Study.
As for the Unified Sports program at Mount Greylock, von Holtz along with Barrett both hope to expand from basketball to eventually offer a Unified Track and Field program at the school.
“Basketball is a specific skill sport, but track and field would offer running and throwing and jumping, a lot of [different skill sets],” Barrett said. “I think it would be amazing if we could have another Unified team at Mount Greylock. I think my goal for our Unified basketball team is less about our own team as much as it is trying to encourage other schools in the country to join the Unified movement.”