When Maureen and Tim Sweeney watch their son Patrick practicing his slap shot, the pride is evident in their faces. Patrick’s ear-to-ear smile, and his black Boston Bruins jersey, reveal a boundless enthusiasm for the game.
“Patrick loves it,” said Tim Sweeney. “Being on the ice is the highlight of his week. I really think this is going to become a regular activity for him. I can already see the progress.”
Patrick, 9, is a big fan of hockey and basketball, in part because of the “the pace of the games,” his father said.
But Patrick has challenges. He’s autistic, and requires one-on-one instruction. That’s precisely what Joe Dellanno provides at Smart Light Sports in Woburn.
Dellanno, an architect from Arlington, said his program employs “visual imprinting” backed by “consistent positive reinforcement.”
“Joe is very animated, and Patrick responds well to that,” said Maureen Sweeney. “He just naturally knows what to do to get through to Patrick. He finds a way to get him to laugh, and not get stuck on one thing.”
At a recent session, Dellanno had Patrick skating with the help of an assistant, following a pattern of the image of Cookie Monster of “Sesame Street” fame.
“The advantage is having discovered a language that helps us communicate with a simple light pattern,” said Dellanno. “We’ve experienced a unique way of tapping into Patrick’s world and gaining his trust.
“One size does not fit all. Once you find the communication code, then you can start the learning process.”
Dellanno’s Smart Light technology incorporates overhead patterns projected onto the synthetic ice at his facility at Athletic Evolution. It gives players a tangible image — something they can actually see — to follow. He has created more than 800 images or “patterns” to enhance certain skills or replicate game situations.
“Our theory was if kids can retain complex video game information, then projecting a video game-like image under their feet would give them a similar experience while learning the game they love to play,” Dellanno said. “By communicating in today’s tech-savvy language, we gain and maintain their interest throughout the entire training session. “
Dellanno was introduced to the Sweeneys, who live in Wakefield, through CoachUp , a nationwide coaching network based in Boston. The Sweeneys’ daughter Caileigh, 12, had worked with a CoachUp instructor for soccer, and they inquired about help for Patrick. CoachUp recommended Dellanno.
“If you think about the whole concept of one-on-one coaching, it’s designed to accentuate individual strengths and shore up weaknesses, so that they’re not debilitating,” said CoachUp CEO John Kelley. “If you extend that to someone who has special needs, that’s even more meaningful.
“I don’t want to denigrate camps and clinics, because camps and clinics are great for some people,” Kelley said. “But fundamentally, if you’re doing something with 10 or 15 or 20 other athletes, you’re just not going to get the specialized instruction.”
Wakefield firefighter Jonathan O’Brien said his son Liam, 8, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, is “obsessed with hockey.” Though Liam participates in a youth hockey program, Smart Light Sports provides an extra edge.
“For Liam, the idea of a multisensory approach is what I think provides him the most benefit,” said O’Brien. “[It’s] not just having a coach explain to him what the drill will entail, then expecting him to be able to carry out those instructions.
“The addition of the visual cues provided by the projection system is a huge benefit to kids like Liam. The coaches can’t explain the drill 10 times over, but the projection system provides constant, on-ice direction, which they can easily follow.”
The inspiration for Smart Light Sports came in 2001, not at a hockey rink but on a baseball diamond, Dellanno said.
“I found myself in charge of 15 young T-ballers with two balls and one bat,” said Dellanno, 53. “I needed an idea to keep the players from rushing to the ball and colliding. I tried using verbal instruction and showing them how to react to the ball, but they still didn’t get it.
“So I decided to give them a visual cue on the field. I drew 15 staggered circles on a parched, dusty old infield and explained to my players that they could keep one or two feet in the circle, but they couldn’t leave their baseball property circle. It worked.”
Encouraged, Dellanno pursued the concept, relying on his background in architecture.
“In the spring of 2010, I decided to fill a 9-by-13 lasagna dish with water and freeze it,” he said. “I was trying to replicate a hockey rink. I then projected images onto the ice. I knew I had found a one-to-one communication system that could bridge the communication gap between players and coaches. We then tested the idea to scale on basketball courts, indoor turf fields, and several hockey rinks.”
A breakthrough came three years later while Dellanno was continuing to develop his technology at another synthetic ice facility. In 2013, special needs students with the LABBB Educational Collaborative (Lexington, Arlington, Burlington, Bedford, and Belmont) were hired to clean the surface. According to the LABBB, the collaborative “helps students with special needs reach their full potential through high-quality programs that integrate academic, social, recreational, and vocational services and enable participation in the least restrictive environment.”
However, cleaning the synthetic ice surface proved to be a challenge, Dellanno said.
“The students were aimlessly pushing brooms and shovels trying to clean white shavings from the white synthetic floor,” he said. “I asked the occupational therapists if they would like me to project routes, or circles, on the surface to help the students with guidance and direction. Like my T-ballers in 2001, it worked.”
Dellanno said the day the LABBB students followed the animated projected circle without any verbal cues was a “Eureka!” moment not only for him, but therapists as well.
“LABBB and I spent the next year studying and researching how visual imprinting could help people with autism,” he said. “At the end of our research, our students cleaned the floor in 14 minutes.”
Today, Dellanno applies his Smart Light technology to numerous sports, including hockey, field hockey, soccer, baseball, and lacrosse.
“The learning curve has been reduced significantly,” Dellanno said. “We substitute numbers and letters with images for players who have dyslexia, and colored patterns help players with autism.”
Families like the Sweeneys and the O’Briens have seen the results.
“What makes this all come together is the fact that Joe genuinely cares,” O’Brien said. “He is truly invested in the kids, and wants to see them succeed. It’s a rare thing these days.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.