Coaching Athletes with Disabilities: A 12-Step Program

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By Robert Gailey, Phd, PT

Clinicians such as physical therapists and prosthetists often find themselves coaching early in the rehabilitation process as the amputee or any athlete with a disability is preparing to return to athletics.

One of the most common obstacles for the athletes, coaches, therapists, prosthetists, and parents alike is how to encourage a potential disabled athlete to improve his or her performance or to initiate participation in a particular event. Often the easiest and most frequently used approach is: "just get out there and try it!" However, under ideal circumstances, a qualified coach would instruct the athlete in the proper skills necessary for an event, and with adequate time and training, the athlete would comfortably return to his or her sport.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in disabled athletics. Because of the scarce number of amputee athletes in any one region and even fewer veteran coaches, the opportunity to develop real expertise is difficult. Although there are several excellent coaches around the country--many of them current or former athletes themselves--only a small number of budding athletes are afforded the opportunity to work with these individuals, usually because of geographic location. As a result, most amputee athletes must rely on themselves, other athletes, parents, interested able-bodied coaches, and clinicians to develop or advance their skills.

Creative Problem-Solving

World record holder Danny Andrews trains and competes as a member of the University of Miami Track Team.
World record holder Danny Andrews trains and competes as a member of the University of Miami Track Team.

Most coaches of athletes with disabilities have learned to become extremely resourceful while working toward enhancing their athlete's performance. Since there are few references available for information pertaining specifically to disabled sports performance, coaches must utilize available sources of knowledge and then synthesize the data for practical application to the athlete's training. This problem-solving approach to training can be the most exciting and rewarding aspect of coaching in disabled athletics.

Variety of Approaches for Success

Following are a variety of approaches that may be employed to achieve success in coaching the novice disabled athlete:

1.  Listen to the athlete.

The training process with disabled athletes must be a cooperative effort. Historically, there have not been enough athletes to warrant any absolute system of training. All novice coaches will be well-served to listen to the athlete and discuss technique variances when working together.

2. Seek out other disabled athletes competing in the same event.

The majority of development in both equipment and performance techniques has been achieved through the experiential knowledge and efforts of the athletes themselves. Many of the top coaches are experienced competitors themselves. Additionally, a training partner can help to make the practices easier.

3. Recruit able-bodied coaches.

Kurt Collier trains independently with limited coaching in preparation for Paralympics. Photo with permission from Advanced Rehabilitation Therapy Inc., Miami, Florida.
Kurt Collier trains independently with limited coaching in preparation for Paralympics. Photo with permission from Advanced Rehabilitation Therapy Inc., Miami, Florida.

Disabled coaches are often difficult to find. Many elite disabled athletes train with able-bodied sport teams and athletes, under the direction of able-bodied coaches. Often the coordinated efforts of a coach and a therapist who is aware of the abilities and constraints of the athlete's physical capabilities work well when technique improvement is being considered.

4. Read texts and publications pertaining to both able-bodied and disabled athletics.

In recent years, there have been a number of significant contributions to the body of literature concerning disabled sport. Unfortunately, there is still is a tremendous void in many particular sports and for many specific disability groups. However, reading and learning about able-bodied training methods and techniques is still an excellent way to gain insight into a particular sport.

5.  Call the appropriate disabled sports organization (DSO) for information and names of people to assist with training.

All DSOs try to maintain some form of database for a variety of topics, including athletes and coaches. DSOs are generally underutilized as resources and should be contacted to assist with providing athletes and coaches direction in the training process.

6. Videotape practices and competitions.

Videotaping practice sessions and competitions for immediate visual feedback, or for more detailed descriptive critique at a later time away from the practice field, is an excellent method of instruction. Moreover, if several elite competitors with similar disabilities can also be videotaped for a comparative analysis, benefits may be derived from having the athlete visualize the biomechanics of other accomplished athletes' performance. Caution must be taken not to imitate another athlete. No two athletes perform the same skill exactly the same way; therefore young athletes should be careful of stylized movements, even of celebrated elite athletes.

7. Consult with technical experts about adaptive equipment.

Many disabled athletes utilize adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, prostheses, orthoses, and other assistive devices. Prosthetists, orthotists, biomedical engineers, and other adaptive equipment specialists can assist in providing specially designed equipment that will meet the individual needs of athletes and enhance their performance.

Disabled athletic adaptive equipment is a specialty, and only a few clinical professionals specialize in this area because of the occasional demand. Ill-fitting equipment can be more harmful than helpful and, in some cases, even be dangerous. Caution should be exercised by the coach and athlete when selecting a clinical professional.

8. Investigate motivational methods to maintain the athlete's interest in training and the sport.

Maintaining the athlete's level of intensity while training for a sport can sometimes be challenging. There is a wide variety of literature, motivational tapes, and other resources available to coaches who are interested in the inspirational aspects of coaching. As with any athlete, maintaining a balanced ratio level of difficulty to level of frustration is important. If the athlete continues to experience success with training and competition, the positive reinforcement will assure continuation in the sport. Often simplicity provides the best results.

9.  Become familiar with the rules or rule changes. As disabled sports evolve, there will be continued changes in classifications, rules, and competition formats. Athletes and coaches alike must keep abreast of the changes as they occur to prevent any last-minute confusion and alterations in competition strategies.

10. Attend coaches' conferences for both the able-bodied and disabled athlete.

Conferences and seminars are an excellent forum in which to exchange ideas and learn innovative approaches to sport techniques.

11. Experiment with new techniques.

Experimentation with new and unique techniques may help overcome a particular obstacle or enhance performance. Be careful of new styles that emerge from a single athlete. They may lack mechanical advantages and provide only a psychological edge. However, keep an open mind.

12.  Maintain written records.

Documentation through diaries or journals of training sessions and competitions provides a log that may be reviewed by the coach and athlete to determine trends that may enhance or hinder performance. Additionally, there is a tremendous need for the publication of positive and negative outcomes with regards to athletic performance to assist other athletes who are in similar situations.

Does coaching appeal to you? Individuals investigate coach training for different reasons. Some want to build on their skills or gain the ability to help others reach their goals. Whatever your reasons, rest assured that the competence and expertise you acquire will have a positive effect on your life and the lives of others. To learn more about these basic running techniques and many others, the Functional Training and Running Series for Transfemoral and Transtibial Amputees video and book series can assist clinicians and amputees alike.

Robert Gailey, PhD, PT, has specialized in the rehabilitation of lower-extremity amputees for about 20 years. He has done extensive research, writing, and lecturing. In addition to teaching at the University of Miami, Florida, he also operates Advanced Rehabilitation Clinical Services and Seminars in Miami. For more information, call 800.610.4278 or visit