Adaptive Sports Promote Physical, Social, and Emotional Health for People with Disabilities

As COVID hit in March 2020 I was let go from my job at an adaptive sports organization for people with physical disabilities. Instead of bemoaning the fact that, along with many others, I now had no income, I started talking to some friends and colleagues about starting an adaptive sports organization. From a competitive analysis in our business plan and experience, we knew that there weren’t many organizations serving people with disabilities vis-à-vis sports in Riverside County, CA. In May 2020, Palms to Pines Parasports now going by the name SoCal Adaptive Sports was born.

We use both pickleball and tennis to develop eye/hand coordination. Athletes have gotten to the point where they are now able to play pickleball games on their own.

We use recreational sport as a vehicle for learning life lessons leading towards living a full life by providing opportunities for athletes to be healthy-physically, emotionally, and socially.

“The purpose of Palms to Pines Parasports, dba SoCal Adaptive Sports, is to create a more-inclusive society by providing competitive and recreational opportunities focusing on people with physical disabilities, simultaneously working with athletes with other disabilities while instilling a lifelong passion for wellness, helping everybody realize their full potential. We envision a world in which adaptive athletes have the same opportunities to lead as full a life as their able-bodied peers.”

 Initially our focus was on people with physical disability but we found that there was also a great need for consistent adaptive sports opportunities for those with developmental disability. This became more apparent as we began to collaborate with the Desert Recreation District-Adaptive program which has been formalized through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

Opportunities to Play and Grow

We offer adaptive sport opportunities six days/week in the Coachella Valley, CA with our partners and this summer, we will be starting sports in the City of Riverside. Sport offerings currently include basketball, archery, boccia, tennis, pickleball, frisbee, hiking and online meditation/yoga/meditation. We have also offered special events. An example of this is a day at Pathfinder Ranch in which athletes and their family members participated in rock wall climbing, archery, horsemanship, and paddling. We recently provided athletes with donated pedometers in order to set exercise goals as well as nutrition training.

All athletes, no matter their ability level, are provided with expert coaching so that they can perform at their own highest level, learning the rules and how to play whichever sport that they are participating in.

Our hiking program which began in January 2021 has proven to be a pathway for engaging athletes in a number of sports. We have a number of athletes on the autism spectrum participating with their family members in this twice monthly activity in-season. The hikes are fairly easy although they do require some effort and are a time to not only participate in physical activity but also to socialize as we walk each trail. This potentially leads to great emotional stability.

Coaching Athletes* on the Autism Spectrum

The athletes participating in programs have a range of abilities. Personally, I don’t cut athletes any slack in coaching as I offer individual opportunities to learn and perform to the best of their ability, as any coach might do. It is important for athletes to try various activities in order to cross-train and to determine what they like. The following provides some examples of athletes* who I’ve coached:

Daniel has participated in basketball, tennis, pickleball, boccia, and online meditation and is a very capable athlete who has consistently performed at a high level. Part of the challenge in coaching Daniel, as with a number of other athletes, is to have them consistently follow/remember directions from week to week. Although we believe that repetition is key to learning, often times athletes don’t remember where to go for a drill and/or what to do. Although Daniel has moved, he continues to participate with us in our online meditation staying engaged with his friends. His mother has indicated that he continues to play sports in order to stay healthy, integrating what he learned into his new life.

All athletes, depending on how they’ve learned the game, have developed specific habits, for example, shooting a basket, dribbling, and hitting a forehand in tennis. Sometimes, these habits have to be unlearned as they don’t lend themselves to playing to the best of one’s ability. It’s also important to broaden an athlete’s skill set enabling them to participate in a number of different sports.

Jesse is a young man who also plays a number of sports but has difficulty focusing for any length of time, is excitable and repeats himself. He is also a very good athlete but getting him to focus can be challenging. What I’ve tried to do with Jesse is greet him by spending some time talking when he arrives, which is usually late, hoping that this will help to calm him. I find myself asking him to focus a number of times during any one session. But when he does focus, he shines in his athletic abilities.

As in the larger population, not everyone considers themselves to have athletic abilities, as people have different reasons for participating. The same can be said for adaptive sports which also provides a forum for social engagement. Many times, during each session we find that athletes will be hugging, sharing their love for one another. Although I find this disruptive it serves a greater purpose, especially coming out of COVID, in providing athletes with an opportunity to connect with their peers.

Josephine participates regularly in our and other hiking programs and has made numerous friends through this activity which provides her with a major opportunity for socializing. She doesn’t participate in other sports but has found hiking to enable her to be at peace. She has lost a lot of weight through consistent exercise.

Julius is an athlete who started in our hiking program and has since joined in numerous other activities such as basketball, tennis, and pickleball in which he has excelled. He has shown leadership skills and often helps to direct other athletes to the right place in order to do various drills. Sport has been an avenue for Julius to connect socially and to also get in better shape.

Niles is a very friendly person and has wonderful social skills. He is a great athlete but doesn’t have high self-esteem and often asks, “How am I doing?” I typically turn the question back to him and ask, “How do you think that you are doing? That is all that really matters.” In the moment this seems to satisfy him but each week he needs more encouragement.

Sarah is an athlete who recently started coming to our programs. She started with boccia but is now doing basketball, tennis, and pickleball. Again, this is a venue for her to meet new friends but to also get in better shape.

Marjorie is one of our younger participants who plays a number of racquet sports as well as archery. She has difficulty focusing and isn’t able to actually play a game at this point. But through patience and individual attention she has improved her athletic skillset and learned to follow directions. In archery she has gotten to the point of almost being able to do this on her own!

We also have a number of athletes that are non-verbal but are able to follow directions in some capacity. The challenge for us is ensuring that they are integrated and able to participate. At times I’ve found this difficult. But given the variety of coaches we’ve been able to fully integrate these athletes into our activities. It may not be running to catch a frisbee but it could be giving the frisbee to the athlete and then having them run with it. The goal is full participation, exercise, and socialization.

Conclusion

All athletes appreciate encouragement and learning how to play a sport. I’ve found that for those athletes participating on a regular basis, they’ve grown in their abilities and skills even if it is only making contact with a ball and not necessarily hitting the ball over a net.

Coaching athletes with a variety of abilities has been challenging, but focusing on the word “adaptive” is key to making sport enjoyable for all athletes to be physically, socially, and emotionally healthy. The bottom line is that we’ve created a community of athletes and their family members and friends continue to learn what it takes for each person to become/remain healthy throughout their entire lifespan.

* These are all athletes on the autism spectrum. Please note that all names have been changed.

Michael J. Rosenkrantz is the Executive Director of SoCal Adaptive Sports and can be reached at (760) 469-9207 or mike@socaladaptivesports.org.

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