Para Coaching – Seeing the Abilities and not the Disabilities

I recently attended the Introduction to Para Sports Coaching Course conducted by IPC.
So why the interest in Para coaching?
  1. The 13th Paralympic Games in Beijing in September 2008 – this was one of the first times that disabled sports came to prominence locally. As a nation, we saw people with disabilities more than their disabilities, but as athletes, who train hard and strive for excellence.
  2. I have always been competitive as an athlete but have never thought of people with disabilities as being competitive like me. But my experience cycling competitively with the visually handicapped in the Australian Disabled Cycling Championships 1998 showed me otherwise. They are as competitive, train as hard and want to win as much as I do or if not even more. They have to overcome so much more just to train, let alone compete. I saw how hard my partner worked to save enough to buy the bicycle, to travel to train with me, etc…all without family support.
  3. In my coaching career, I have coached kids with ADHD, autism, coordination disorder, dyspraxia and most recently the mildly intellectually disabled in a special school, teaching them how to cycle. These experiences have shown me how much sports can impact their lives beyond knowing how to swim or cycle but by instilling confidence in so many other areas of their lives.
These various reasons have made me realized that we need more specialised knowledge to coach, empower and support people with disabilities. We are coaching the same sport but to a very different group. It is about the next level of customisation!
International Paralympic Committee (IPC) certified Introduction to Para Sports Coaching is the only local certification targeted at coaching athletes with disabilities to achieve high performance. Most special needs coaches in Singapore do not have any specialised certification but just a passion to help. They simply apply the skills for the able bodied, adapt and modify for the athletes with disabilities. So I am excited to learn more in this area and to meet other coaches.


One word to describe the course on the whole is simply ‘inspiring’.
What inspired me most was their Aspiration statement: To make for a more inclusive society for people with an impairment through Para Sport.
This is no different from how I feel about coaching special needs kids – they too want to be part of the community. Sports allow them to feel that they are part of a group and that they are worthy members.


The 5 most important takeaways for me are:
#1 The significance of the IPC Classification
One of the biggest challenges in Para sports is classification. This is the basis of fair play. Classification of the athletes from the expression of their condition rather than the cause of their medical condition is the basis ensuring fair competition.
– Someone who has a congenital condition has greater difficulty picking up sports skills as they have not acquired basic movement skills to start with.
– The completely blind would not have the luxury of learning by ‘copying’, something someone with limited vision can do.
– Even though a group of athletes may all be on wheelchairs, there are distinct advantages for the athletes who have their legs amputated below the knee as opposed to those above the knee, as they can recruit more muscles to do the same work, hence the uneven playing field.
The IPC classification allows for some of these advantages to be mitigated and makes competition fair. A trained personnel who can do the classification is paramount. This process can be stressful for the athletes as they are unsure of their class and who is their competition. There is also the aspect of the athlete learning to cope better with the impairment, hence performing better and with it, having to move up the levels and face stronger competitors.


#2 There are many more barriers to Para Sports than the disabilities themselves.
Not everyone with disabilities can be a Para-athlete because not all have access to the opportunities and resources to train or to be coached by coaches with the skills and the heart.
The case to point for many is that in order to train, they need to get to the training venue. They may need to pay for private transport and seek help getting around. Assuming transport, equipment and coaching are not an issue, there still lies a big hurdle – the athletes themselves. How much do they want it? Why would they want it? What does it do for them?


#3 Developing skills – Different, yet similar
Skills development starts from the teaching of the right basic movement. Then, sports skills come in, followed by the fine-tuning of these skills. For athletes with disabilities, the same applies.
The difference in coaching Para athletes is that ‘basic’ differs from athlete to athlete, despite them being in the same sport, due to their different disabilities and classification. Thus the challenge for Para coaches is to understand the skills for the able bodied and adapt it accordingly to cater to the needs of the Para athletes.


#4 Unique group dynamics 
For team sports like wheelchair basketball, there is another dimension to classification. The accumulative points of the players on court, which ranks their disabilities, cannot exceed a certain number. An amputee who has control of his trunk will have more points than someone paralyzed waist down without trunk control.
Hence, teams have to play with athletes with different levels of disabilities and still play cohesively. With 2 highly abled athletes on court, they will need to field a less abled athlete, which the team may not have many to choose from. The player then, is playing not necessarily because he is good but rather because of his ‘handicap’. This creates stress and friction that are not present in able-bodied sports. There are so much more considerations for the managers and coaches!


#5 The Para athletes’ passion for their sport and aspiration to be the best is no different from that of able-bodied athletes
The modification comes from the coaches and community to work with what they have rather than what they don’t. The process is still athlete centered. Coaches are there to help them reach their potential and achieve. And with it, we must be aware of their personalities and communication styles; be aware of the barriers of communications with the visual impaired (VI) – for example, the need for precision in instructions, verbal cues and tactile approach to teaching.


Finally, what was amazing for me was to see all the passionate coaches in the room who have volunteered many hours, sweat and blood to disabled sports – which brings them little glory in return and certainly hardly any money, still wanting to learn and give even more!