Coaching Athletes with Hidden Disabilities: Recommendations and Strategies for Coaching Education

By Vargas, Tiffanye; Flores, Margaret et al. | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview
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Coaching Athletes with Hidden Disabilities: Recommendations and Strategies for Coaching Education


Vargas, Tiffanye, Flores, Margaret, Beyer, Robbi, Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


Hidden disabilities (HD) are those disabilities not readily apparent to the naked eye including specific learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional behavioral disorders, mild intellectual disabilities, and speech or language disabilities. Young athletes with HD may have difficulty listening to and following instructions, exhibit impulsivity (Alexander, 1990), have difficulty taking turns, and talk excessively (Heil, Hartman, Robinson & Teegarden, 2008). These behaviors often lead to frustration within the sport setting as coaches may mistakenly label these athletes as unmotivated, lazy, oppositional, or defiant and as a result develop negative attitudes toward them. However, if given the chance for positive experiences within youth sports, athletes with HD may reap rewards such as improved self-esteem, self-efficacy, peer acceptance, and social acceptance (Armstrong & Drabman, 2004). Such a positive experience can be created through the use of research-validated strategies and instructional methods. While these methods are often included in teacher preparation, they rarely if ever, are included in coaching preparation.

Recent Research

Recent research on HD has found that overall, volunteer youth sport coaches hold positive attitudes toward the inclusion of youth sport participants with HD (Beyer, Flores, & Vargas-Tonsing, 2008), as do coaching educators who feel that curriculum within coaching education should address coaching athletes with HD (Flores, Beyer, & Vargas, in press). These results, coupled with the knowledge that coaches feel less efficacious in their abilities to recognize athletes with HD (Vargas-Tonsing, Beyer, & Flores, 2008), underscore a need for improved coaching education. For example, coaches with the most positive attitudes toward HI) were those coaches who have had previous experiences with athletes with HD. This highlights a need for new learning methods which incorporate video scenarios and other experiences to improve coach perceptions and attitudes, as well as increase coaching efficacy. Similarly, it was discovered that coaches most likely learned that an athlete had HD through parental communication, thus underscoring a need for coaches to learn new and improved techniques to gather all relevant information from parents, such as a checklist indicating the athlete's preferences or behavioral strategies to which the athlete best responds.

Recommendations for Coaching Education

Coaching education, and as a result coaching efficacy, can be improved through the incorporation of research-validated strategies and instructional methods. While it is noted the importance of the techniques listed below for working with athletes with HD, it is important to note that these techniques are actually reflective of best teaching practices and would benefit all youth athletes.

Proximity control

Proximity control involves physically positioning one's self close to another person. As a preventative strategy, coaches should position themselves close to their teams while giving instruction. Having athletes' in a U-shape formation around the coach will allow for proximity to the greatest number of individuals. The use of a circle or other such formation should be avoided because this arrangement positions athletes behind the coach. Proximity control can also be used to interrupt inappropriate behavior by providing group instruction from a position close to the athlete who is behaving in an undesirable way.

Encourage attention and engagement

When providing instructions or directions, coaches should ask athletes to repeat information or ask simple questions related to the information presented. These opportunities should be provided to individuals randomly so they do not know when to expect a turn and will encourage athletes to maintain attention. Coaches should also praise athletes' accurate responses and provide correct answers to athletes who respond incorrectly while avoiding negative comments for these answers.

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