Opinions expressed in the ACSM Certification blog are the author's and do not necessarily reflect positions of ACSM
Bottomline upfront: Sports and exercise is important for individuals with special needs. While there are many similarities between this population and the general population, there are differences that a prospective trainer or coach needs to understand. This blog is going to help to introduce the reader to this population and some of the benefits and challenges of working with them.
I've been coaching for over 20 years now at every level from the Olympic Training Center all the way to three-year olds. Currently I coach baseball and basketball, consult on strength and conditioning, coach Special Olympics basketball and Miracle League baseball, and teach special education in elementary school. I also volunteer my summers to run a summer enrichment experience for children with Down syndrome (called Down with Summer Success) to help them academically, socially, and physically.
With all that in mind, I was asked to write about exercise and sports for young men and women with special needs. This article is going to cover why sport and exercise is important for people with special needs, differences and similarities when compared to typically developing individuals, and the skills you need to be able to work with this population.
Why are sports and exercise important for people with special needs?
In all individuals, including those with special needs, sports and exercise helps develop physical fitness, helps prevent or lessen the effects of lifestyle diseases, builds self-confidence and positive self-image, provides social support and social interactions, and teaches valuable lessons about life.
The challenge is that individuals with special needs have unique barriers when it comes to exercise and sports participation, such as low muscle tone, hyper flexibility, poor speed/power/reaction time, delayed social skills, and intellectual disabilities that may make it harder to learn exercises and skills. Additionally, individuals with special needs may not have access to exercise and sports, which can cause them to be lacking fundamental exercise skills. Additionally, lack of exercise combined with the nature of their disabilities, increases the risk of obesity and lifestyle diseases.
All of this serves to reinforce the importance of sports and exercise for individuals with special needs.
The first big difference is that often their disability has prevented them from having access to exercise or sports. Some individuals may also have un unwillingness to learn new skills, which may make the caregivers of these individuals frustrated and cause them to decide not to attempt exercise or sports programs. This means that we cannot assume individuals with special needs have exercise or sports knowledge or foundational skills.
A second difference is that often fitness levels are lower. This impacts the ability to practice, perform an exercise program, and impacts performance.
A third difference is that often individuals with special needs are visual or kinesthetic learners. This means they learn by seeing or doing. They don't learn well by being lectured at.
What do these differences mean when working with individuals with special needs? They mean there is a need to define expectations and be consistent. The unwillingness to learn new skills means that there needs to be a lot of positive support and fun built in. Foundational skills and exercises are very important. Practices and exercise programs will need a slower pace and more recovery built in. Finally, any instruction is going to need to focus on visual and kinesthetic learning styles.
What's the same?
With time, individuals with special needs enjoy exercise and sports. Their identity will develop around it and they will take pride in their performance. Like other people they need expectations and accountability and struggle when those things are not present. They are very interested in being successful and in being recognized for their successes. They also need to understand when they have made mistakes and need feedback to correct those mistakes.
What's going to surprise you?
Individuals with special needs care about how they perform in exercise and sports. I have coached Special Olympics basketball and Miracle League baseball a long time and my athletes care how they do in games, they care about their team's records, and they care about how they rank versus other teams.
Something else that is really important, is that they care about their performance and their team. Often individuals with special needs make the best team mates, they care about their team, they care about those around them, they understand that everyone on the team has a role, and they cheer their team mates' successes. This is something I have to spend a lot of time developing with other types of teams.
What skills do you need to work with this group?
First, you need to be a very positive person. Negativity, like screaming or yelling, doesn't do well in terms of getting this population to do anything. Now, it's important to have expectations and to keep them accountable, but this needs to be done in a positive manner.
Second, you need to understand that it is about the individuals with special needs and not you. Individuals with special needs are not going to care about your resume, how special you are, whether you are a guru, etc. They live in the moment and accept you for who you are, not who you advertise yourself to be. Like other athletes, they care about how you interact with them.
Third, you need to be able to teach without being longwinded. There is a need to be short, concise, visual, and then let the individuals with special needs attempt it. Corrections and feedback also need to be concise with visual and kinesthetic feedback.
Finally, you need to be very patient. This is an incredibly slow, gradual process and it's important to realize that improvements in fitness and performance aren't made as quickly as with other individuals. Having said that, working with this population can be incredibly rewarding because this is one of those instances where you are truly making a difference in people's lives.
About the Author
John Cissik teaches special education at McKinney ISD in McKinney, Texas. He coaches baseball, basketball, strength and conditioning, Special Olympics, and Miracle League. John has written 14 books and over 100 print articles on strength and conditioning, fitness, and coaching.