Disability Coaching

Optimal  athletic  development  and  sport  success is  almost  always  the  product  of  multiple  factors. Genetics, opportunity, effort, and consistent training over many years are critical. However, quality coaching is also recognized as an important influence  on  athletic  success.  This  entry  discusses  the history and current status of coaching in disability sport,  the  importance  of  quality  coaching  from  a psychological  perspective,  and  unique  disability sport coaching challenges.

Historically, many disability sport athletes have had to coach themselves. For example, in a survey conducted almost 15 years ago by Michael Ferrara and William E. Buckley, it was reported that only 58%  of  319  elite  adult  athletes  from  the  United States  and  only  33%  of  a  diverse  group  of  international  athletes  from  Australia,  Japan,  and  the Netherlands had coaches. Hence, it is understandable that many disability sport athletes have been known  to  overtrain,  train  inconsistently,  train  in nonsport-specific ways, fail to taper for major competitions, and fail to rest after major performance efforts. Consequently, wheelchair road-racing athletes often develop upper respiratory illnesses after marathons,  and  experience  inadequate  postrace rest,  both  of  which  exacerbate  their  difficulties. For athletes who self-coach, appropriate disability sport specific information is often hard to locate.

In recent years, athletes from wealthy countries have  been  supported  by  high-quality  coaching. Canadian  Paralympic  swimmers,  for  instance, have access to the same high-level coaches as able-bodied  swimmers.  However,  Paralympians  from other countries are deprived of professional coaching support. Many athletes are still self-coached or receive less than optimal coaching as coaches may not have the appropriate sport science or adapted physical activity education. However, the need for increased coaching quality has been recognized by national organizations. For instance, the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs offers an 8-hour  coaching  certification  course  that  covers diverse  topics  such  as  sport  psychology,  physiology,  management,  and  philosophy.  It  should  be acknowledged  that  some  athletes  prefer  not  to have coaches.

Although  the  research  on  disability  sport  and coaching  is  limited,  sufficient  research  allows sketching  out  a  portrayal  of  the  value  of  good coaching  in  disability  sport.  Disability  sport  athletes  who  view  their  coaches  as  supporting  their autonomy  express  a  strong  sense  of  control  over their  sport  involvement  and  have  positive  relationships  with  their  teammates.  Also,  athletes who view their coaches as supporting their desire to  be  independent  have  higher  levels  of  intrinsic motivation  relative  to  athletes  who  perceive  their coaches as less supportive. Disability sport coaches influence  critical  competitive  psychological  states in their athletes, in particular, confidence and anxiety, which play an important role in athlete’s sport performances.  For  example,  coaches  who  simultaneously  support  and  challenge  their  athletes  to become better are more likely to develop confident athletes.  Coach  influence  on  team  cohesion  is particularly important especially for sports where strategic  and  set  plays  are  common,  as  in  wheelchair rugby and basketball, and need to be learned in a short time span. National team athletes often live  in  different  parts  of  the  country,  making  the development  of  team  cohesion  difficult.  Hence, coach influence on team task and social cohesion at national team camps is critical.

Coaching disability sport is challenging. Coach’s prior  experiences  are  usually  with  able-bodied athletes,  heightening  the  importance  of  finding good  disability  sport  specific  coaching  literature. Historically, coaches have reported having a hard time  finding  disability  sport  specific  coaching material.  However,  a  recent  increase  in  research and  disability  sport  literature,  such  as  Vicky Goosey-Tolfrey’s  Wheelchair  Sport:  A  Complete Guide  for  Athletes,  Coaches,  and  Teachers,  has made finding coaching material easier.

In  addition  to  understanding  their  athlete’s sport, coaches must gain knowledge on their athlete’s  disability  condition.  Because  most  coaches lack the life experience of living with a disability, specific  knowledge  must  be  learned.  For  coaches of  youth  athletes,  developing  sound  relationships with the athlete’s parents and their physical therapists  helps  capture  their  individual  athlete’s unique needs. In the case of athletes who are deaf, coaches  without  hearing  impairments  have  additional  communication  challenges.  Coaches  also must consider the competition facility’s accessibility for all of their athletes. Finally, coaches of high performance  sport  athletes  (e.g.,  Paralympians) must  support  their  athletes  with  issues  related  to traveling. Having to get on the plane first and off last can result in stress and pressure sores. Flying can  promote  dehydration,  which  necessitates  the access to safe water (bottled water). Prior to travelling,  and  depending  on  the  country,  issues  such as travel insurance, immunization, passports, and visas must be considered.

Unique  to  disability  sport  is  the  classification process  where  athletes  are  classified  for  competition depending on the severity of their disabilities. Some athletes have been known to sandbag, which means purposely underperforming at classification in  order  to  be  slotted  into  a  lower  classification where  they  will  encounter  inferior  competition. Certainly coaches should be cognizant of this practice  and  insure  their  athletes  do  not  engage  in  it. In  summary,  athletes  with  disabilities  often  lack coaching.  Research  on  disability  sport  indicates that  coaches  often  face  challenges  that  are  quite unique  compared  to  the  challenges  of  coaching able-bodied athletes. However, the limited research on disability sport coaching practices suggests that coaches  can  be  quite  influential  on  their  athlete’s motivation and confidence.


  1. Banack, H. R., Sabiston, C. M., & Bloom, G. A. (2011). Coach autonomy support, basic need satisfaction, and intrinsic motivation of Paralympic athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82, 722–730.
  1. Cregan, K., Bloom, G. A., & Reid, G. (2007). Career evolution and knowledge of elite coaches of swimmers with a physical disability. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 78, 339–350.
  2. Goosey-Tolfrey, V. (2010). Wheelchair sport: A complete guide for athletes, coaches, and teachers. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Martin, J. J. (2011). Disability and sport psychology. In T. Morris & P. Terry (Eds.), Sport and exercise psychology: The cutting edge (pp. 609–623). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  4. Martin, J. J., & Mushett, C. A. (1996). Social support mechanisms among athletes with disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 13, 74–83.
  5. Martin, J. J., & Wheeler, G. (2011). Psychology. In Y. Vanlandewijck & W. Thompson (Eds.), The Paralympic athlete (pp. 113–136). London: International Olympic Committee.


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