'You have to keep trying': Teen with cerebral palsy on school volleyball team

Brett Smith says his mom sometimes calls him her hero for not letting cerebral palsy keep him from enjoying sports.

Brett Smith, 14, plays volleyball, floor hockey, table tennis and softball

Brett Smith plays on the junior boys volleyball team at Heritage Collegiate in Lethbridge. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

According to his coaches, Brett Smith's strong point is his serve. It's on display Tuesday afternoons, during volleyball practice at Heritage Collegiate in Lethbridge.

Smith settles the ball, bounces it, then launches it high above the net. It lands short, scrambles the other side of the scrimmage, setting his teammate up for a spike into the backcourt.

His next serve lands wide.

On each attempt, Smith uses his right hand to float the ball about one foot in front of his body. Then he strikes it with that same arm, while stepping with his right foot.

It's a style that works with his cerebral palsy. 

Brett Smith launches a one-handed serve during a scrimmage in volleyball practice at Heritage Collegiate in Lethbridge. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"To me it's one side that doesn't work as well as the other," Smith explains. "That's the way I put it to everybody that asks."

Smith, 14, has played volleyball for six years. He's on regular rotation on the Heritage Collegiate team. And while he just missed being on the school travel team, he says it's clear to all: he's not going to quit now.

"It's a challenge, yes, but I was willing to take that challenge and try and do it. And if I couldn't do it, like the first year, I wouldn't do it. But I found a way to adjust, and it was kind of, easy after."

Brett was chosen Player of the Game at a provincial softball tournament in August. (Submitted by Joanne Smith)

Smith's been working on his technique, taking into account the limited mobility on his left-hand side.

To me, it's one side that doesn't work as well as the other.- Brett Smith

He says it's all about positioning, not all that different from any other player.

"The first couple of times I did it, the ball was going all over the place, and I was like, 'Oh, I got to adjust this,'" he said.

"I found that if I point my hips to the centre, and put my arm the right way too — it works for almost every volleyball player, but that's how it works for me too." 

CBC's Garrett Barry meets 14-year-old Brett Smith, who has adapted to his cerebral palsy and is now a multi-sport athlete on the Bonavista Peninsula. 5:44

Out on the court, he's just one of the guys.

"I never sees him upset. He's always happy," said Dyamon Little, a Grade 12 student and a coach of the team. "He's always trying, and he's a good sport."

Tough love

Smith was born at 28 weeks, with a significant bleed in his brain.

The symptoms of cerebral palsy appeared shortly after birth. His parents, Joanne and Craig, were given a tough choice. They chose to push.

"We've discussed it at length — his dad and I — and we're not always going to be there. That's just the nature of life, right? Parents are gone before the kids for the most part. So we need to equip them with every tool that we can," said his mom.

"It is tough love, and it's to make him the best he can be."

Brett Smith was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a young boy. (Submitted by Breanne Smith)

Even at a young age, Joanne Smith pushed her son to find a way to be independent.

"That child has fallen a million times in his life. I'm sure he has," she said.

"I would just look at him and say, 'Get up. You have to get up. You have to figure out how to get up.' And he figured out how to get up. And he's been doing it ever since." 

We're not always going to be there. That's just the nature of life, right?- Joanne Smith

The school has bought into that approach, with the gym teacher pushing Smith to find a legal, one-handed table tennis serve — another challenge he has sorted out.

"It's a testament to his determination. He's been determined since he was born. He was behind the 8-ball several, several times in the first few days of his life, and he pulled through. And he's still pulling through," said his mom.

Joanne Smith says living in rural Newfoundland means Brett doesn't have access to as many specialized services as he would get in St. John's, which is part of the reason he has adapted to life with everybody else. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

There were setbacks — Joanne Smith remembers sitting with her son on the benches at Clarenville's stadium, tears welling up in his eyes, as he realized that he'd never be able to skate under his own power, even if he was the biggest hockey fan in his class.

But Brett Smith says when he thinks about life without cerebral palsy, he thinks about how much easier it would be to set rabbit traps.

"[In volleyball] I'm not doing anything different," he said. "And I'm fine with that."

A little help from my friends

Smith says it was the encouragement from his friends that first opened his mind to the possibility of playing volleyball.

"The group of friends we got, I couldn't ask for any better because they're all supportive. And I told them before, I said, 'Boys, you're the best group of friends I could ask for,'" he said.

Brett Smith works on his table tennis serve with his older brother, Blair, himself an athlete. Joanne Smith says Blair has been a great help with his younger brother, from working on Brett's serve to helping him figure out a video game controller. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"If I fall down, there's always someone there to pick me up. And if I mess up in volleyball, there's always someone there to support me."

If I fall down, there's always someone there to pick me up.- Brett Smith

Especially his mom.

"Sometimes she says I'm her hero. Because … I'm so athletic, and stuff. I want to keep trying and stuff and I never stop trying," he said.

"It's almost like building a puzzle in that way. Because if you don't put the pieces in the right place first, you have to keep trying and trying."

About the Author

Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.