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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Goosey-Tolfrey, V. (2010). Wheelchair sport: A complete guide for athletes, coaches, and teachers. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- 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.
- Martin, J. J., & Mushett, C. A. (1996). Social support mechanisms among athletes with disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 13, 74–83.
- Martin, J. J., & Wheeler, G. (2011). Psychology. In Y. Vanlandewijck & W. Thompson (Eds.), The Paralympic athlete (pp. 113–136). London: International Olympic Committee.