The Privilege of coaching Special Athletes

Posted: September 22, 2015 in From my vantage point

Thinking back, I am very grateful to have been given the privilege to coach special kids. Special here means Mentally Handicapped. Honestly, I was not looking forward to it. Majority of Strength Coaches only work with “regular” athletes. I was thinking I would rather be decked with a very large team, but I guess I am not with the majority now. The weights room is not a playroom and being a non-Chinese speaker, I knew relaying instructions to special kids in Hong Kong would be a big challenge. To minimize injury risk, some degree of discipline and attention is required and instructions have to be understood well,  things which seem not to be on my side. Even with a background as a Physical Therapist who had some experience working with kids who have cerebral palsy, I was still apprehensive when I was asked to coach the Hong Kong Sports Association for the Mentally Handicapped athletics team. And due to my chinky eyes, people usually mistake me for a local, so when they talk to me in Chinese and I say I can’t understand, sometimes they think I am being aloof. I was worried that the kids might think I am just discriminating. It seems a challenging task,  but then again, challenges makes us better! 

From the seas to the gym

Just before working in Hong Kong, I served my country thru the Coast Guard. In the Coast Guard, applicants have to go through a series of tests. Only those who have the wits, physical abilities and mental resiliency to face tough challenges can be accepted. And during training, a trainee who cannot cope will be expelled. I still carried some of this rigidness when I ventured back into civilian life as a Strength Coach. After all, if we are to produce the best athletes, we have to weed out the less desirable ones. Only the best of the best should remain and those who remain can have the chance to develop themselves. I try to use this standard for the athletes and for myself. Like what we say in the Coastguard “Do first before you complain.” In the Sports Institute, many teams avail of Strength and Conditioning services and I was assigned 4 teams (so much for wishing for it!) including the SAM Athletics team B (Sports Association for the Mentally Handicapped) as well as a few individuals. I told myself “I have been thru a lot worst and survived. If I cannot handle this I should not stay here.”

Kids and coaches with big hearts

Going back into being a Strength Coach, I found myself standing in front of a group of special kids whose ages range from 14 to late teens but with developmental age of around 8 to 12 year olds. It is not very reassuring to know that their coach and assistant coach do not speak English. At least two of the kids understand a bit. They are lucky to be in this part of the world because there is a program that lets them participate in sports and be given the chance to avail of the services of a Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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The SAM Athletics Kids doing a circuit training as the assistant coach keeps a watchful eye.

The kids are so innocent. They listened when I spoke but some cannot maintain eye contact. What I remember on our first session is that it was only me talking since they were just looking at me. I  related my words to the actions then demonstrated body weight squats. I realized their coach and assistant coach were good because the kids know that after instruction and demonstration, they follow. This is a big ray of hope! Thanks to their coach, there is a way to connect to them. Most cannot do the movements as smoothly as expected nor as controlled. But I can see that they are trying their best. That is what separates winners from losers. These kids have big hearts and for me, that is the most important quality. After demonstrating some exercises, I arranged them into a “circuit”. Their coach instructed them taking my cue. Then we started. A quick glance at them doing the movements tells me there is a lot of work to be done. Not only on them but also on me. This is a big chance to develop myself further as a Strength Coach. I have to dig deep into what I learned many years ago to distinguish if their inability to perform the prescribed exercises is due to an inherent physical limitation, weakness, assymetrical limb length, coexisting poor motor control, or simply due to poor instructions.

Their Sports coach and Assistant coach are two of the most dedicated coaches I have worked with. We may not talk but we communicate. They are always there every training session. They instilled discipline among the kids and it helps them big time. The athletes show up for training on time, and train together. No time is wasted making excuses. Their discipline is commendable and this is where they are a lot better than “regular” athletes. The coaches would watch me demonstrate, and I emphasize something by repeating the part and using simple hand gestures. The coach then relays to the kids if there is a new instruction. We keep it simple. She wants her athletes to be better athletes by improving their strength, power, quickness, and general fitness. That is my specialty and she lets me do my job. She is like a mother and the assistant coach is the big sister for the kids. Under their watchful eyes the kids are doing very well and they must have developed their good attitude because of their hardworking coaches.

A peek into their training

They train twice a week and the very first week was used to assess what exercises they can do as well as to structure their training sessions. Even if they are special, they are not treated as weaklings. As weeks turned to months, the exercises became more complex and the load is getting heavier. We progressed from establishing a training structure & mode of instruction to teaching exercises and now to making them stronger and more powerful. The “Set system” is used for the main training and we finish with a circuit. They exert a lot of effort and they do not complain. In fact they enjoy and look forward to it. Their bodies responded to training by becoming stronger and more powerful. They seemed to have improved their motor control as well.

I let the kids use the Olympic weightlifting set as one tool. Lifting just the standard bar, which is 20kg., can be a training by itself. It is classified as a “free weight” equipment. The whole body has to cooperate to lift, to stabilize, and to control the bar. The set of olympic plates that we use is color coded. Plates below 10kg are smaller. Starting from, 10kg, plates are 45cm in diameter. 10kg is green, 15kg is yellow, 20kg is blue, and 25kg is red. A Strength Coach can have a quick look at a loaded olympic bar and know how heavy it is just by the number of plates and the colors. For example, a standard bar (20kg) and one big green plate on each end (10kg each) would be 40kg in total. Relatively stronger athletes would usually be lifting 45cm plates and warm up sets are usually green plates. I remember the first time that the kids used green plates- this means they lift a total of 40kg. Their faces showed a mixture of emotions all at once. They were scared, excited, and amazed- almost in disbelief. After they did a successful set of the lift, you can see triumph in their faces. It is like they got “promoted” to a higher rank. They realized that they improved well and that they can do what the “stronger” and bigger athletes are doing. It is a magical moment that is worth all the effort. One of the moments that I would not exchange.

Watching from afar

On days when they do not train in the gym, they are trained by their track coach in sprints. Some in long jump. The gym has glass walls that allow a great view of the running track. I know all the scholarship athletes by face. I would watch the “regular” athletes practice on the rack from the gym when I am not busy. Then I saw one guy who sprinted past as I was watching from afar. I did not recognize him so I stayed and waited for his next set. When I looked closely, it was one of the special kids! When he is not running, he looks like a thin kid. But when he sprints, he transforms. So free, so powerful, his thin, sinewy muscles suddenly bristling.  That is why I mistook him as a “regular” sprinter. It is just beautiful watching them run and be at their best. It is a moment when their handicaps disappear and they shine through.

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SAM Athletics Team B Coach and Assistant Coach training the kids on the track.

Their development

They do compete outside of Hong Kong. They went to China in 2014 and were successfull. They also represented Hong Kong in the Special Olympics World Games 2015 in L.A., USA and they brought home medals. They need those achievements to be able to avail of their scholarship at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. The way I see it, those are just by products of their hard work. The best reward is that they are happy and are developing near their maximum potential and experiencing trying moments as well as victories.

sam medal 8 Aug 2015 Special Olympics World Games LA 2015 (3)

The coach of team A also asked me to coach his special athletes. This means team A and team B will have to split the twice a week training sessions. Each team will train once a week only. That is a 50% reduction in training volume but we just have to make the most of what we have. Due to a good foundation, we were still able to progress with the complexity of exercise. Team A has more experienced athletes and are physically more powerful. After a year, four of the best athletes in Team B got promoted to Team A. They were excited, and scared at the same time. But their training prepared them for that of the Team A. The guys in Team A were like big brothers to them who welcomed them just as excited.

It is a great feeling to see their development, and also influence it positively. Among all the teams I have ever worked with, their team is one of the best and most memorable. The chance to coach them is a gift. The kids are giving me the chance to give back. They are making me appreciate things which are taken for granted. I would say taught me well and are still teaching me. They Train Better! Live Better!

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China 2014

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Los Angeles 2015

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The SAM Athletics kid cooling down after a training session. Their coach (5th from left) and assistant coach (7th from left) watch over them.

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