Adaptive Athlete Resources for Coaches Still a “Big Missing Gap”

November 2, 2020 by
Photo Credit: The Adaptive Training Academy
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When an adaptive athlete in a wheelchair showed up at his box recently, Daniel Brandfast, the owner of CrossFit BNA in Juliet, TN, admitted it was “very intimidating.” 

  • “It made me realize that I was deficient in (this) area. My gym should be open to all body types, genders, abilities, disabilities, everything. I (needed) to expand my resources of knowledge,” added Brandfast, who reached out to affiliate owners for recommendations and insights into where he could find resources for training adaptive athletes. 

His efforts were largely fruitless. This is because, when it comes to resources for coaches around training adaptive athletes, “there isn’t much out there,” said Alec Zirkenbach, the founder of the Adaptive Training Academy (ATA), a company that offers an online certification for coaches to become adept at coaching adaptive athletes.

  • “This is why we exist: to fill this big missing gap, There’s a ton of stuff out there when it comes to rehab — like physiotherapy and occupational therapy — but when it comes to both research and in actual practice, we’re missing resources for how to help adaptive athletes get in shape and stay in shape for GPP (general physical preparedness) for life. So we’re trying to fill that gap, through education and creating awareness, so coaches aren’t scared to train people with disabilities anymore,” he said. 

One big thing: In the name of putting their money where their mouth is, the ATA is in the process of building an adaptive movement video library, which they will offer for free on their website, Zirkenbach explained. He’s hoping it will be available by December.

  • “Obviously it won’t be able to cover everything, but we’re hoping to get as many videos as we can. We’ll show able-bodied athletes doing, for example, an air squat, and then offer alternatives and recommendations for various types of adaptive athletes,” he said. Though it’s admittedly just a start, at the very least, the video library will be a useful tool for gym owners like Brandfast — to provide practical tips for training adaptive athletes in a pinch — Zirkenbach explained. 
Photo Credit: The Adaptive Training Academy

One quick tip: When an adaptive athlete shows up at your gym, don’t be afraid to ask questions, Zirkenbach said. 

  • Regardless of whether you have formal education in training adaptive athletes or not, Zirkenbach said the most important thing to do is to “sit down and talk to the athlete, and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he said. “Most likely, they already know their body very well and they have an idea of what they can and can’t do. So just ask questions and then listen to what they have to say, and if you’re a thoughtful trainer, you’ll be able to work with them by developing a really good feedback loop back and forth,” he said. 
  • The second aspect of the communication puzzle comes down figuring out what language to use. “Trainers can be fearful, myself included, because they don’t know the correct language to use and they’re afraid to offend the person. So again, it comes down to asking the athlete. (For example), ‘How do you want me to refer to your condition or impairment?’ Just get to know the person as much as you can,” he said. “I call my wheelchair athletes Wheelies. It’s a term of endearment among us, but I wouldn’t automatically do that with someone I just met,” he added. 

The big picture: Though resources are admittedly scarce, Zirkenbach urges coaches to do what they can to arm themselves with the necessary tools for coaching adaptive athletes of all kinds. 

  • “It’s not if but when someone with a disability is going to come into your facility, so you want to be prepared to work with them,” he said. 
  • Brandfast couldn’t agree more. Working with the adaptive athletes at his gym recently has taught him a lot already, but he wishes he would have been more prepared, and he advises other coaches not to make the same mistake he did. “Do not wait until something new walks in the door. If you do not have the necessary tools and resources to do the job, get to them immediately, talk to the athlete, (and let) them know that you are there for them and you’re here to work with them,” he said.

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