Merging Sports and Health within the Special Olympics Movement

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By Darcie Mersereau, VP, Health Programs

When I ask athletes, families, and coaches about the benefits of participation in Special Olympics, I often hear responses that speak to issues of improved self-esteem and social skills, formation of friendships, experiencing of joy and acceptance, enjoyment of competition and of winning, and the satisfaction in being athletes and demonstrating their abilities like everyone else.

These benefits are common to the athlete experience, both within and beyond Special Olympics. The additional health benefits of physical activity and fitness are also well-documented; however these are less often cited as such by our Special Olympics coaches, family members, and athletes. Perhaps this is because Special Olympics has historically operated primarily on a model of recreational sport, where social and emotional well-being have been prioritized over serious sport training, physical fitness, and health. This is not to say that athletes haven’t benefited physically from their participation in Special Olympics, but rather that our athlete and coaching models have tended to focus more on sports skills, teamwork, and fun than on fitness and conditioning.

While it seems likely that our athletes, as a group, are more physically active then the wider population of persons with ID, we do see troubling indications that our athletes could benefit from enhanced fitness and conditioning, not only to improve sport performance but also to promote better health and well-being. Globally, 36% of our adult athletes and 18% of our youth athletes are obese. These numbers soar highest in our North American region (where 45% of adults and 32% of youth are obese), but even regions where overweight and obesity have not historically been problematic are beginning to see increased rates among children.

We are all well aware of the secondary conditions tied to overweight and obesity, some of which can have earlier onset in people with ID than in the general population.  Our systems of care, lack of readiness of healthcare providers, and insufficient health promotion targeting this population create additional health risk factors for our athletes.

While Special Olympics alone cannot address all of these risk factors, we can increase our role in the area of prevention, through enhanced physical fitness and nutrition education, both during and beyond training and competition events. Today we are beginning to see a shift in culture at the international level of Special Olympics, one that is evidenced in the release of the new 2011-2015 Strategic Plan. This plan calls for the creation of a new athlete sports development model that challenges athletes to strive for their personal best in training and competition and to make physical fitness a way of life. The plan also focuses on enhanced recruitment and training of coaches and the setting of coaching excellence standards that incorporate nutrition, fitness, and wellness.

While the health benefits of enhanced physical activity and fitness are likely obvious to everyone reading this newsletter, our sports team and our athlete leaders have been promoting the same agenda, in part for non-health related reasons. Our Sports personnel, at headquarters and in the field, have called for a shift in culture toward one that treats our participants as serious athletes. Programs and Regions increasingly want Special Olympics to be viewed as a credible sport organization to enhance attractiveness to potential partners. Athlete leaders have demanded that we look closely at where we as an organization may have set our own expectations for our athletes too low, and to raise them. While Special Olympics will continue to offer opportunities to athletes of all ability levels, our stakeholders throughout the Movement are asking for an increased focus on sports models that encourage each athlete to achieve his or her own personal best.

How does Healthy Athletes fit into this shift in focus?  Clearly, all sports initiatives targeting fitness and health align with our work. Our Health team is, therefore, sitting at the table with our Sports Training & Competition team, Program leaders, Board members, and athletes to support and guide new programming in these areas.  Some early activities include the development and piloting of a sports nutrition and readiness assessment, creation of athlete-friendly guides and regimens for fitness and conditioning both in- and post-season, planned launching of an 8-week fitness challenge this Fall, and development and piloting of nutritional guidelines for meals at Special Olympics competition events.

Most of these activities will be developed jointly by the Sports and Health teams at Special Olympics, however they will be disseminated to the field primarily through sports channels. Because Healthy Athletes is most often conducted as a once-a-year event attended by a small number of athletes within a Program, it makes sense to offer these activities where athletes spend most of their Special Olympics time – in sports training and competition activities. Thus, tools are being developed to enhance the coaching and sports experience, as well as improve healthy behaviors and well-being.

As these activities are rolled out, Healthy Athletes volunteers may choose to team up with their sports counterparts to support local implementation, for instance, serving as “fitness coaches” to athletes off-season, advising Programs on implementation of the Games nutritional guidelines, conducting health education sessions for coaches, or running sport and nutrition readiness clinics. 

This fitness and conditioning programming effort is part of a larger agenda through which, over the next five years, Healthy Athletes will step out from under the screening tent and become integrated into all programming offered by Special Olympics. Similar work is being undertaken in areas related to family and youth programming. It is by inserting health education into all of the programming of Special Olympics that we can create reinforcing messaging and influence not only our athletes, but also their coaches and families – key environmental players in our athletes’ health.

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