Participating by design: A method of teaching special needs athletes

Feb 21, 2011
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In last week’s blog I discussed to importance of adapting an exercise program to the unique needs of the athlete. Today, I would like to expand on that theme. Let’s assume that a special needs athlete asks you to coach them. How would you go about designing an exercise program that is challenging and yet respectful of their capabilities?

In classroom education, one pedagogical framework for learning that is attracting increasing attention is something termed “Understanding by Design (something also referred to as UBD). I believe many of its features can be adapted to a sports setting and seem particularly applicable in helping special needs athletes to participate in sport. I am going to call this adapted framework “Participating by Design.”  Unlike many sports programs that start with the teaching, have athletes practice, then assess progress, UBD takes a counterintuitive approach. Its key feature is a principle termed “backward design.” This is a process that considers what the student knows, or in the sports context is capable of doing. The coach and athlete then agree on the goals or desired results from participating in the sports activity. The next step in this process is where the coach plans the learning experiences and the style of teaching that is best suited to the needs of their athlete(s).  Finally, the coach and athlete compare notes about the progress that has been made and difficulties that have been indentified; this information is then used to re-assess when the athlete returns for the next practice.

Example of a lesson using “Participating by Design”

You are coaching gymnastics to an athlete who has autism. You are already aware that this athlete has poor general coordination and often demonstrates stereotypical movement patterns that inhibit progress. Certainly this background information is useful but you want to know the athlete’s state of preparedness for today’s class. The assessment stage of backward design would ask the athlete (or parent) to share information about the athlete’s energy level for the lesson. You will want to know if the athlete is experiencing any sensory difficulties (hypo/hyper sensitivity, etc) that may compromise their experience in that class. You will then use this information – and any other pertinent information gathered from conversations with the athlete and parents – to choose the appropriate style of teaching for that lesson. The coach may determine that the mood, the state of motivation and the energy level of the athlete requires a lesson that has lots of rest periods, limited skill instruction and a high level of fun activities. Conversely, the coach may feel that the athlete during this lesson is capable of maintaining a higher level of task attention and would benefit from a skill and performance focused coaching.

This is where the art of teaching comes into play. Your effectiveness as teacher will be shaped by the assessment information you gather from the athlete / parents. You don’t teach first, then at the end of the lesson observe the athlete wasn’t ready for that level of activity or teaching style. This is especially important for a special needs athlete that may have a health issue that may require the activity is modified in some manner.

In summary: Find out what your athletes can do, what they want to do, then teach to their needs, interests and energy level on that day.

Author: Gary Barber