Coaching People with Special Needs
By Mason Dixon
An athlete is an athlete, and coaching an athlete with a disability should be the same as if you coaching an athlete without one.
Nicole Dixon, a speech therapist assistant and former Special Ed school aid in Florida, said she relied on stereotypes as a guide to interacting with people with disabilities for the first time.
“I had no idea what to expect going in on my first day of school,” Dixon said. “I quickly realized that most people of special needs are far more than able to comprehend what I’m trying to communicate to them.”
Dixon discovered how her interactions could have a life-changing effect on her students. For example, Dixon described a situation where she worked with a teenager named Thomas who has ASD.
“He normally spent his days with only his elderly mother and her friends, so he didn’t really get to experience what it’s like to be an actual ‘teenager.’ I tried to make our time together fun. We hung out with my friends, had dance competitions and Thomas loved that they played video games with him.”
Coaches and trainers should find ways to relate and motivate athletes. “We were able to use our time together as a way to improve other areas of his life. His communication skills and confidence greatly improved from all of these situations,” Dixon said.
An awareness of assumptions concerning a particular athlete can help people become better mentors.
“Do not assume that a person walking around the room is not listening to you. Do not assume a person that needs a wheelchair does not understand everything you are saying,” advised Cindy Edgerton, an instructor and the co-director of Michigan State University’s community music therapy services.
Interactions with people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Downs Syndrome (DS), and other developmental disabilities are more productive when you treat them as if there was nothing wrong at all.
“We spend a great deal of time teaching them how to talk and interact with their athlete…we tell them to show signs of respect, shake their hands, look them in the eye and to treat them as if they don’t have a disability,” said Harnick, an instructor for Michigan State University’s Adapted Physical Activity course.
Harnick spends the first four to five weeks of each semester teaching the students on how to communicate and interact with their future athletes.
“If they see us instructors or teaching assistants joking around around with them in a friendly matter, then we encourage our coaches to also joke around with them.”
Harnick also stressed the need for student coaches to provide choices, opportunities and ownership when dealing with the special needs populations. “Ask the individual what he or she wants,” he stated.
Edgerton emphasized “celebrating abilities, because we all have many abilities. We all have different talents.”
Tips on working with athletes with disabilities
- Show signs of respect
- Shake their hands
- Make eye contact
- Make it fun and keep it positive
- Use people-first language (Don’t mention the disability when talking about someone with special needs if it’s not necessary).
- Understand they may have limited vocabulary
- Focus and build on what they can do
- Keep directions short and simple
- Incorporate sensory breaks into your schedule
- Be patient and wait for responses