Why relationships are important to athletes with challenges (part 2)

Jun 27, 2011
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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog titled “Teaching sports to special needs athletes: A tripod of influences”. In that blog I discussed how pedagogy (how you teach), content (what you teach) and relationships all contribute to the effectiveness of the athlete’s participation and enjoyment of sports. Positive athlete –coach relationships are particularly  important for special needs athletes. Coaches are in a powerful position to role model, mentor and advocate for athletes for whom the social aspects of sports present challenges. Research has shown that peer culture (especially in sports), when role modeled by a coach that values diversity, can support effective and authentic inclusion. The consequence is that athletes with challenges feel valued and accepted by teammates. Sadly, this is not the universal experience of some special needs athletes. Some of these athletes participate in “a culture of exclusion which posits that isolating and marginalizing someone is appropriate, acceptable and sometimes even laudatory” (Sapon-Shevin, 2003).

How can we change this?

Rather than avoiding sports, seek out programs where the coaches believe in the authentic participation of all athletes. The benefits of involvement are considerable; McNeal (1995) noted that interactions in extracurricular sports provides “fringe” students with connections to students who have a positive outlook on sports. It also helps these children to find a venue of access to the more popular members of the school population.

Ask if the programme has a mentor program. Smith (1999) reported that young athletes (middle school age) who indicated that they had a close friend in the sport were more likely to embrace challenges and be physically involved than athletes without a close friend.

Seek out coaches or role models that demonstrate that healthy relationships are built on the mutual exchange of acceptance, kindness, compassion, and empathy (to name a few virtues). When someone feels valued, it increases the likelihood that they will want to continue to participate in sports. This isn’t just “feel good” coaching advice.  I believe many more of our athletes – special needs or otherwise – would fulfill their athletic potential and increase their sense of enjoyment if they were to be treated with respect.

Author: Gary Barber



  • Jack

    Gary,
     This speaks to a lot of things that all athletes need and can use, with or without a disability. I run an adapted camp for several athletes with a different lower level disability, good cognitive, and good upper body, hand eye coordination. Even though it targets a small group of athletes with a disability, it could be applied to any group of athletes with a disability. One could set up a camp for any thing one wants to help with. We chose this group because they were not choosing to be served in the Special Olympics events, and could not do stand up sports on a competitive level in many events. They want to do competitive and recreational sports and activities. 
     We use volunteers with or without a disability to help coach, mentor, assist the athletes in a camp setting on a campus at the University of Northern Iowa. We teach them to  play many different adapted sports.The volunteers play in the events along with them. We treat them all the same no matter what the disability. We assist them in what ever they may have a problem doing at the time, and encourage them to do as much for themselves as they can. 
    What we see out of our camp is so much growth in the athletes and volunteers even by the end of the camp after four days and so much from year to year. Because everyone plays and experiences what it is like to play basketball , rugby, tennis, softball, football, volleyball, etc in a chair, run a racer, ride a hand cycle, throw field events from a seated position, climb a rock wall, learn how to lift weights and do exercises for each individual, they learn things about themselves and what it takes to do these things. The volunteers that can do stand up sports, realize how much effort, and skill it takes to play these games and do these sports and exercises. For the athletes with a disability, they learn that they can do may types of things they never knew about, had the chance to experience, learn about different types of equipment they may want to purchase,  or how to improve on those skills they may already have and be doing. They also start paying more attention to their personal needs  and learn new skills to help improve their own daily lives.  
    We see athletes come in with limited skills and by watching their peers, volunteers, and coaches, they learn how to do more to improve not only their sports and recreational skills, but many other skills that will effect their daily living skills and goals. Many challenge themselves because they want to do better and keep up better with their peers and know that they can improve their lives by setting personal goals,no matter what their skill level is. That is the one thing we try to emphasize to all our athletes and volunteers is, no matter where you are in your skill level for sports and level of fitness, you have a personal record for any thing you do. If you focus on that, instead of who is first, last, or where ever you are in that placement, you have personal records that you can set and strive to improve upon. By doing that, it takes a lot of the frustration about not being able to keep up with or beat “Jonny” and gives them the satisfaction of accomplishing realistic goals they set and to set them higher for the next time. It builds that confidence to try new things and experiences, without the fear of failure, but the satisfaction in trying and having some success in doing something new. They will sort out the things they want to continue with and those that they don’t care to do.
    Other things we also see is that in giving some more experienced athletes some responsibilities to assist with someone who may be knew or struggling with an activity, it takes the focus off of them and helps them think of ways to help someone else, with the satisfaction that comes with it. That also goes for letting someone who is able bodied to think of ways also to be creative in all of this also. Respect of ones abilities , instead of focusing on the disability, creates an atmosphere that soon the disability of the person goes into the back of their minds and the abilities of each comes to the front. Of course the disability never goes away, but it is not the focus. So much more of life experiences come to the front for everyone invovled and it is life changing for everyone, especially if they stay invovled in the camp year after year. Sports is just the catalyst for all invovled to change perceptions about people and what they can do in their daily lives, with or without a disability. 
    Friendships have developed outside the camp and many more opportunities are taken in life like getting invovled in school and community events, studying harder to keep up  grades to participate in school activities, looking at school after high school, looking at getting married and having a family, getting a job, helping out in the community, helping universities with school programs to teach them about sports for individuals with a disability, and what type of equipment and activities are out there, helping others set up events or camps for others. It is truly life changing for all invovled. Respect is a key to it, but the opportunity is a huge challenge to try and overcome.
    I know it has been a great experience for me and the blessings that come with it.