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Special Olympics Motor Activity Training Program Makes the Impossible Possible

An athlete pushing a ball, surrounded by three people supporting and guiding him.
MATP demonstration at Tal-Qroqq Sports Complex at the Special Olympics Malta Invitational Games 2022.

“Leaving no one behind, Special Olympics is committed to everyone. If we didn’t reach the most excluded ones, we wouldn’t succeed in our mission of inclusion.” With these words, Special Olympics International Board Member Eleni Rossides introduced the Motor Activity Training Program (MATP) to a crowd of 200 students at the Malta Invitational Games 2022 University Forum in May.

From 14 – 18 May 2022, Special Olympics Malta welcomed 23 international delegations from across the globe to compete in six different sports disciplines for the Invitational Games. Next to the sports competition, the event offered a few demonstrations and non-sport activities that offered an insight into the overall work of Special Olympics Malta.

The MATP demonstration took place on 12 May at Tal-Qroqq Sports Complex, where hundreds of university students happily volunteered to assist the Special Olympics staff in leading training and exercises for athletes with severe disabilities.

Special Olympics Malta has always been very determined in the implementation of its MATP program and they have been pioneers of the Unified MATP model, which allows people with and without intellectual disabilities to train and play sports together.

Today, approximately 150 athletes participate in the MATP activities in Malta and the number continues to grow.

The Motor Activity Training Program is different from the other sports disciplines and activities offered by Special Olympics. It focuses on athletes with the most severe and profound intellectual disabilities, and it aims at improving their lives by helping and supporting them in the development of motor skills.

A woman standing and talking from a podium.
Special Olympics International Board Director and Special Olympics Cyprus National Director, Eleni Rossides, addressing the students at the University Forum of the Special Olympics Malta Invitational Games.

The people who belong to MATP are the most marginalized in a group of people already overlooked by society: they often live with an associated health condition, have a mortality rate three times higher than the average population and are less likely to be included in the communities they live in.

Founded in the late 1980s, MATP ensures that no athlete is left behind because the activities offered are tailored to the abilities and age of each person individually. Participants are encouraged to improve their personal best in a fun, safe and creative environment.

“[Back in the 1980s] Special Olympics did not have program for children and adults with severe, multiple disabilities, and many programs in the US and around the world were creating their own. Special Olympics International decided to form a group of experts in coaching, adapted PE, physical therapy and special education to create a program for athletes with severe disabilities,” explains University of Virginia Professor Martin Block, who was among the group of experts who developed MATP. “Our biggest challenge was making sure the activities had a sport theme: many of the suggestions were more focused on therapy or very simple motor skills. Mrs. Shriver wanted to make sure that the new program had a sport focus and we ended up creating “motor activities” such as throwing, striking, kicking, rolling, and pushing a wheelchair but applied these to sports. For example, kicking was associated with soccer, striking was associated with softball, and throwing was associated with softball or bowling.”

A man and two women standing next to each other engaged in conversation.
Professor Martin Block talking to Special Olympics Malta President, Dr. Lydia Abela, and Special Olympics National Director, Anna Calleja.

With a few rare exceptions, MATP athletes usually don’t participate on a competitive level as that isn’t the purpose of the program. The real goal is to help the athletes to improve coordination and control of the body and to ensure that all athletes are included.

Currently, the Special Olympics Motor Activity Training Program includes 52,370 athletes globally and about 26,000 of these live in the Europe Eurasia region. Although the numbers are encouraging, this program could potentially assist a lot more people. Considering that countries globally have an average of 8 – 10% people with disabilities and that 2% of these have a severe intellectual disability, there is potential for 1.5 million people in our region to improve their dexterity and social skills through MATP, as explained at the University Forum by Eleni Rossides who, in addition to her role on the Board of Special Olympics, is also Special Olympics Cyprus National Director.

“Sports gives us a place to belong and to develop skills we never knew we had. MATP is such a good example of the real meaning of inclusion, and it is incredibly rewarding because it makes the impossible possible.”
Eleni Rossides, Special Olympics Board of Directors and Special Olympics Cyprus National Director

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