How to create a specific exercise program for a special needs athlete

Feb 28, 2011
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What elements should be included in an exercise program? The question seems straight forward enough – but the answers that I have heard in my 30 years of teaching and coaching range range from the helpful to the bizarre. I have benefitted from a running program carefully designed to develop speed, strength and flexibility. But I was also once advised to fill a backpack with heavy rocks and sprint down hill so as to “stress my bones.”   That advice cast a new application for the theatrical phrase: “Break a leg!”

When it comes to sport many people have an opinion – how the team should play, mistakes the coach is making, etc.  Such dialogue allows fans to be engaged and for me it is no different than discussing the merits of a movie, or the latest novel in a book club. But when it comes to designing an exercise program – especially one for a special needs athlete – not every opinion is an informed one, and some opinions – like my “stress the bones” advisor – can actually be harmful. If you are designing an exercise program, one that considers the unique needs and interests of your special needs athlete, you may wish to incorporate some of the following elements:

Develop an Individualized Sports Program (ISP). – Classroom teachers regularly work with students, parents, counselors and other education specialists to design Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s). These are plans that identify the interests, strengths and areas of need for the student. Goals for the school term are set and the learning and social experiences of the student are then created. An ISP uses the same principles. The special needs athlete works with the coach, parent, support worker (if they have one) to set achievable goals. The plan is unique to the athlete and should include these basic exercise principles:

  • Exercise frequency – how often does this special athlete want to practice? Are their any health risks for this athlete associated with too little or too much practice?
  • Exercise duration – how long is this athlete able to engage in practice or competition?
  • Exercise specificity – When we exercise we challenge various physiological systems with the purpose of making them more efficient (thus we become fitter). Well developed exercise programs may include elements that focus on speed, strength, balance, flexibility, aerobic and anaerobic energy production. The unique physical capabilities of a special needs athlete may require a coach to adapt or modify their activities to support the elements in this athlete that may be under-developed.
  • Exercise intensity – How hard should the athlete work? This is not an easy – or quick – question to answer; but the answer will be unique to skills, motivation, and challenges of the special needs athlete. Some athletes may be capable of a sustained level of intense exercise (high heart rate, etc), while others may require a low level, gentle exercise stimulus in respect of their needs.
  • Exercise progression – As the athlete improves their fitness and achieve their goals, the program will almost certainly need to adjust goals so as to maintain the degree of challenge.

Incorporating these elements into an exercise program will not only enhance these athletes physical, social, and emotional well-being, they will help them to achieve their athletic goals.

Author: Gary Barber