Coaching a reluctant participant in sports

Jul 11, 2011
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Recently, my young son expressed an interest in participating in a highly competitive track meet. The best students from across the city were going to gather  for a big event and close to one thousand runners would fill the stadium with noise and frenetic energy. Although Michael has autism he is a very capable young athlete who has enjoyed success against his peers. We both agreed he was ready for the challenge. As the track meet approached I noticed that he was becoming increasingly anxious. Soon, with any mention of the track meet, his tears would start to flow. No amount of calming or reassuring words could alleviate his anxiety.  He decided not to participate – this was something that I fully supported – and Michael’s sense of relief was almost palpable. I could not easily explain his change of heart. After a few days of gentle questioning I discovered that Michael was anxious about the length of the university track (400m) and his belief that it was much bigger than the track we practice on (also 400m). He had allowed this belief to undermine his confidence.

For the past few months I have been writing blogs that suggest different ways to support special needs as they participate in athletic pursuits. My son’s recent experience has prompted me to address an important question: How do you encourage / support a reluctant or anxious participant? It’s all very well to suggest a variety of teaching or coaching strategies but none of them will work if the athlete is too anxious or disinterested to walk into the stadium. For the next few blogs, I would like to discuss some strategies that can help reluctant participants adhere to an exercise and sports program.

This week, the strategy I would like to suggest is: “Finding your athlete’s interests and using them to build relationships and develop involvement in the sport.” A few months ago I had a very reluctant participant  (10 years old and with an autism diagnosis) join my running club. He did not want to join any of the activities and it seemed likely that he would not continue in the club. One day I heard him effusively talking about his favorite television show – something to do with science – and I realized this was my hook to engage him in running. I told him – as the group was about to jog 800m along a beautiful forest trail – that I too really liked science. I told him of my interest in crazy experiments, etc. His face lit up and his conversation joyfully leapt from story to story – all the while we jogged along the trail. A few minutes later – he was still talking – but we had now finished an 800m run without stopping. He was thrilled with himself.  He now believes he can run this distance – and perhaps most importantly to him – he has learned that there is also someone in the sports club who will share his love of science with genuine interest.  Teachers call this “using a strength to support a weakness”. Not everyone is motivated or encouraged by the well-worn sports clichés, with special needs populations you may find that encouragement can be found through un-orthodox channels as this example describes.

Author: Gary Barber

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