All together now: Soccer program’s goal to be inclusive


By Heather Lusk

On Sunday evenings, most athletes leave the soccer fields after a full day of games. But that’s when the players in the TOPSoccer program take the field.

TOPSoccer is a community-based adaptive program, designed to meet the needs of children and young adults who have physical or intellectual disabilities. It is geared toward development rather than competition.

Through cheers, encouragement and giggles, seven TOPSoccer athletes perform drills and kick goals alongside coaches and peer assistants.

It’s the first year for TOPSoccer in Zionsville. The program’s acronym stands for The Outreach Program for Soccer, is funded locally by the Zionsville Youth Soccer Association and is one of 11 programs in Indiana, open to any players with disabilities.

Zionsville resident Lesley Kay is grateful for the opportunity for her 11-year-old son, Drew Kay, who participated in TOPSoccer at Butler University several years ago. The distance proved to be too challenging to continue the program. When it launched locally this summer, Drew was one of the first to join the pilot program.

“He likes the idea of having his own sport he can play now,” said Kay, adding that it gives her son a feeling of success. “It’s all about having fun.”

“Soccer’s not the main event,” said Andrea Caniff, one of the TOPSoccer ZYSA coaches. “If they’re having fun (and) it evolves into something else, that’s fine, too. It’s very go-with-the-flow.”

Players who want to run around the field or take breaks from the activity are welcome to do so.

“It gives them freedom that they don’t usually have,” said Kay said, noting she believes it also frees them from the self-consciousness that can come from unwelcome onlookers.

The national program can begin with children as young as 4 up to adults who have a developmental, cognitive or physical disability. Drills and exercises are adapted so that anyone, including those in wheelchairs or on crutches, can participate.

“If you feel like (your kid) hasn’t been able to have an opportunity (to play sports), this is a place where that can happen,” Caniff said.

The program is a part of of US Youth Soccer and is led by volunteers at the local level.

Practices at ZYSA begin with players sitting in a circle, connecting through conversation, followed by dribbling and goals drills. Practice typically concludes with a scrimmage. Drills mirror games such as duck, duck, goose and red light, green light. If more athletes join the program, Caniff said matches can be organized, something some of the players are eager to do.

Caniff has a background working with adults and children with disabilities. Caniff and Sandy Kimpel lead the local program and initiated a four-week pilot this summer with four athletes. That gave them some idea of how to organize the exercises and which warm-ups to plan before the six-week session in the fall.

“(Being on a team) is the kind of thing that every kid should have a chance to (do),” Caniff said.

Caniff said most of the kids in the TOPSoccer program have never participated in organized sports. Her goal is to assign each athlete a “buddy,” a volunteer age 14 or older, willing to provide assistance to the athletes. Volunteers ensure safety, help communicate instructions and provide stability during practice.

Caniff is still searching for more volunteers on Sunday evenings. Soccer skills aren’t required to volunteer.

Caniff coaches the athletes and provides guidance to the volunteers, reminding them to explore different ways to communicate and understand the needs of others.

“The fact that we’re all there together, the buddy never has to feel they’re on their own with one (athlete),” she said. “There’s a lot of different ways to encourage them.”

“They’re teaching each other,” said Kay, adding that volunteer buddies learn as much as the athletes but in different ways.

One of the volunteers, Connor Caniff, said working with the athletes helps him work better with people, overall.

“It gives you a different perspective,” Connor said.

The six-week program runs one hour each week and will continue through September. It will resume in the spring unless an indoor practice location can be acquired to add a session during the winter.

The program is free and available to any person ages 8 and older. For more, visit

Teamwork and development are TOPSoccer main initiatives. At the end of practice, the Zionsville TOPSoccer team gathers around for a group cheer. ZYSA Director and Coach Dan Kapsalis, back right, congratulates the team on their successes. Volunteers Natalie Frazer, back left, and Elizabeth Frazer, back middle, cheer the team on. (Photo by Benjamin Stout)

Team exercise has many benefits

  • Long-term physical well-being
  • Physical activity helps maintain weight and reduces risk for type 2 diabetes, several forms of cancer, osteoporosis and arthritis pain.

(source: CDC)

  • Increase in motor skills
  • Physically disabled individuals who participate in sports have greater control and reaction time.

(source: Journal of Neurotrauma)

  • Long-term mental well-being
  • Team exercise can boost long-term happiness.

(source: London School of Economics)

  • Students who play team sports in grades 8 through 12 have less stress and better mental health as young adults, a benefit that has been found to last up to four years after discontinuing the sport.

(source: Journal of Adolescent Health)

  • Positive family impact
  • Programs that make parents and players feel as if they’re part of a family are the programs that parents want to be involved with and bring their children.

(source: 2018 US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer East and South Regions Symposium)

  • Decrease in social anxiety
  • Children practicing team sports show a decrease in social anxiety over time.

(source: Psychology of Sports and Exercise)

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