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Safety Aspects of Coaching Gymnasts with Special Needs
By Cindy Bickman, Global Sports Advisor for Rhythmic Gymnastics, Special Olympics International, Coach - Chattooga HUGS team, Coach - Cobb County Special Olympics Gymnastics Team

USA Gymnastics has a unique, inclusive program for aspiring gymnasts with disABILITIES, HUGS (Hope Unites Gymnastics with Special Athletes). When you open your gym to these gymnasts, there are many safety aspects you should consider: possible adaptations and the accessibility of your facility, the appropriateness of your curriculum, and the safety of all people involved. In this series of articles, we will discuss all of these and more. Let's start with the people – the gymnasts with special needs, other students in the gym, and the instructor.

When a gymnast with special needs registers at your gym, you should try to find out as much information as possible before the first class. An interview with the parents and child is ideal. Remember – you are a gymnastics coach and not a medical professional, so you should ask questions that relate to participation in gymnastics. To keep the student safe, the instructor needs to know things such as:
  • Does he/she have physical limitations or sensory issues that you need to be aware of?
  • Does he/she have behavioral issues? If so, what is the best way to deescalate situations that might arise?
  • Does he/she work well in a class, require a small group, or individual instruction?>
  • What is the best way to communicate with the student?
With these things in mind, you can choose the correct class for the gymnast and develop a program.

When the gymnast begins class, start slowly, follow a routine, and choose activities that keep the gymnast engaged. Gymnastics should be FUN! Be creative and break everything down into minute skill progressions. If you do this, the gymnast can move forward steadily and safely without stepping outside his/her comfort zone. Learning skills may take much longer for gymnasts with special needs than their typical peers, but if you always reward the effort and not focus on the end goal, the students will thrive and progress at their own speed.

When you include gymnasts with special needs in your program, be mindful of other students working out in the gym at the same time. One example of a possible safety concern is if you have a "runner". Consider assigning a helper to make sure he/she doesn't run through another class and risk injury to other gymnasts.

Remember that your safety, as the instructor, is also important. Never put yourself in a situation where you might be injured spotting a gymnast who has poor body control and collapses in the middle of a skill, or who has fear and freaks out on the high bar. Teaching all skills to all gymnasts is not mandatory – especially if you are teaching anyone with special needs. That's why it's crucial for you to know your students.

HUGS gymnasts are extraordinary for many reasons. Because they often have to work harder than typical gymnasts to learn even the most basic skills and routines, they serve as an inspiration to everyone whose lives they touch. Their willingness to overcome prejudice, exclusion, and even bullying makes them strong, resilient people who see the world in a different way and embrace all the opportunities life has to offer. The gyms that open their doors to athletes with disabilities are safe havens of acceptance and have a valuable place in the lives of not just the gymnasts, but their families as well.