The Current State for Cognitive Adaptive Athletes

June 21, 2022 by
PhotoCredit: Courtesy of Julia Lane
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The first page of the CrossFit Level 1 manual reads: “From the beginning, the aim of CrossFit has been to forge broad, general, and inclusive fitness.” CrossFit has spread across the world by teaching general fitness, and this wellness has been spreading to adaptive athletes. One example of adaptive athletes is those who are neurodivergent (e.g., Autism, Down Syndrome). Of interest, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has grown in prevalence drastically since the year 2000 (from 1 in 150 being diagnosed to 1 in 44).

Are coaches prepared to bring wellness to these adaptive athletes?

Health Concerns for ASD

The average yearly cost for caring for a child with ASD is $17,000, with an extra $3,000 each year for doctor visits, special education costing on average $8,600 and inactivity can cost an additional $1,125 annually. Considering that just by eating a healthy diet can save you up to $3,650 a year, and exercise can save up to $5,300.

Furthermore, common physical health problems associated with ASD include diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and deficits in motor function. When left untreated, these comorbidities can negatively affect the physical development and compromise the behavior of the affected individual, and also cause financial stress for the individual and caretaker.

Importantly, children and adolescents with ASD have been repeatedly shown in research to be less physically active than their typically developing peers. This is seen in physical health education, after-school programs, sport-based programs, and general daily activity measured via accelerometry. Coupling this lack of physical activity with common health concerns seen in ASD, it is clear that additional inclusive modes of exercise are crucial.

CrossFit can Improve Health in ASD

Scientists have long studied the effects of physical activity on ASD and other neurodivergence, with the consensus being that exercise intervention has the potential to improve not only physical health outcomes but also cognitive and social measurements. However, few studies have specifically explored CrossFit’s effects on ASD. One study analyzed parents’ perception of physical activity in their children with ASD and reported that parents wanted more inclusive programs led by qualified health professionals (with CrossFit being an example).

This same study had a parent report how CrossFit was beneficial due to its social aspects which promoted socialization during fitness. Another study found that athletes who regularly attended CrossFit classes reported higher basic needs satisfaction in life. Considering that athletes with ASD are more likely to be overweight and have a deficit in motor skills, participating in CrossFit could be life-changing.

Parents and coaches alike have spoken of the many health benefits they have seen first-hand in their children and athletes. Many parents have reported an improvement in body awareness and functional independence, but a majority highlight the social and mental improvements seen. Becky Chambers (affiliate owner, parent) spoke of her daughter, Regan, saying: “socially, she’s a different person from when she first started,” Becky reflected. She told a story of Regan sitting on a rower with her headphones on and not talking to anyone.

Now, members of the gym fight to be Regan’s partner in the partner workouts. Shara Gilbert (CF-L1, parent) shared that her son, Yosef, has seen great improvements in his confidence, saying: “At the beginning, he said, I can’t do that, and then as he progressed I said, see you can do this! he always tells me I can do box jumps, and I say yes you can.”

It isn’t just parents and coaches speaking highly of how CrossFit can change the life of a cognitive adaptive athlete. The athletes themselves also sing high praises of the sport and how it has benefited them. Lance King (winner of the Open intellectual disability division) spoke of how CrossFit has helped him to better himself.  Before the adaptive divisions, Lance competed in the male RX category against his brother. Lance reflected on this time, and even cited it as one of his favorite CrossFit memories: “It was always fun, even if he got the best of me.”

Lance and Kyle would participate in Friday night lights, and one year headed into the final 5th week tied 2-2. Right after the last event, the brothers met in celebratory hugs. When asked what he enjoyed most about the Open Lance responded: “Everything!” Lance has been self-driven from the start. He said: “I always push myself and also try to make the best of myself.” Kyle spoke on this saying: “I can pretty much say that’s all within him. […] We’ve always encouraged him, but not to the point of competing to be the best, but to compete to find joy out of.”

On the female side of the intellectual disability division is Julia Lane. Julia spoke of her biggest motivation saying: “I feel excited when my family is proud of me, and I always try my best all of the time. I love what my life is now and that I get to do this.” Julia’s coach, John Mack, spoke of the gym’s adaptive program saying: “For us as a gym, inclusion is one of our core values. It [inclusion] has to come from the top. Not just as a staff, but as a gym, so it involves everyone in our community.” John also spoke of how the gym hasn’t just helped Julia, but Julia has helped to shift his perspective of what is possible: “We didn’t challenge the [adaptive] athletes enough, we were too afraid to put a heavy weight in front of them, and then Julia was like ‘I can do that!’”

Are CrossFit Coaches Prepared?

It is obvious that CrossFit has the potential to create positive change in the lives of many cognitive adaptive athletes, and the platform to give these incredible athletes a voice. But are coaches prepared to work with a population of athletes with unique needs? Interviews with affiliate and gym owners show promise that while coaches may not be fully prepared to provide special services, there is a great deal of passion already within the CrossFit community to bring wellness to adaptive athletes. Sam Dancer (Games Athlete and gym owner) admitted that he felt “unprepared” before beginning his work with adaptive athletes. Sam expanded on this saying: “[…] if you have [passion], you have everything that you need to get started, and start helping people.” Similarly, Susan Metzger (CF-L2, AIT) encouraged other affiliates to create adaptive programs saying: “If you’re considering it, you’re probably the right person for it.”

Many affiliate owners and coaches have been at the front of the line in aiding the development of adaptive CrossFit programs. Danilo Pardo (CF-L2) spoke about helping to progress inclusive fitness saying: “It’s great to be part of this progress, it literally develops a different side of me as a coach. If you are a good coach, you are able to teach any athlete regardless of their [disability].” Dr. Kristen Arnold (Director of education for the ATA, CF-L1) spoke to the demand for coaches to be educated to work with this population: “There is a need for high-intensity functional training and CrossFit because there is such a high degree of transference between training inside the gym and quality of life outside the gym.”

Given that there is a passion to work with this population and coaches are already working to do so to the best of their ability, shouldn’t we ensure that they can do so at their fullest capacity? Scientists from Auburn University explored CrossFit coaches’ perspectives on working with athletes with ASD and found that only 22% of coaches felt that they were able to confidently work with these athletes, and 23% indicated that they did not have the knowledge to do so. There is a gap between passion and capacity in coaching. Luckily, the Adaptive Training Academy (ATA) has the solution to bridge this gap.

A Certification for Coaches

All of these testimonials highlight the great positive benefits CrossFit has as a community and as a training module for athletes with ASD. None of these testimonials would be possible without coaches who were prepared to help. However, these coaches spent years preparing themselves to be able to coach at this level through continuing their education on their own through trial and error. The ATA is attempting to make that process more efficient for the common coach.

Moving forward, the ATA is updating and creating brand new curriculums to fill the current gaps in the fitness community. Kristen is also working to expand on the current intellectual disability content for the AIT certification. Among these advances in the curriculum is a focus on ASD.

In collaboration with the ATA, researchers at Indiana University are creating a new curriculum for coaches to become certified to work with athletes with ASD and build experience to work with neurodivergent populations. Kristen spoke on the goal of the curriculum saying: “I find that trainers aren’t generally prepared with the capacity to train athletes with Autism, even though they might be motivated to, but without the knowledge and skills [these programs] aren’t sustainable over time because of that lack of trainer capacity. The ATA can serve as the bridge between the trainer and the adaptive athlete through increasing the knowledge, skills, and motivation to work not only with athletes with ASD but athletes of all disabilities.”

This certification will prepare coaches to work with athletes with ASD through guidance in movement teaching, prompting, and utilizing tools common to experts who work with ASD (e.g., token systems, visual schedules, and more). There will also be a provided structure on how to fund adaptive programs to increase the accessibility of wellness for everyone in their community. Taking this certification will give coaches access to support groups and an abundance of online and in-person additional training to hone their skills. Presenters will include real-world practitioners, top of their field researchers and coaches, and experts in program funding.

The first workshop for the ASD certification will be this Fall (2022) with in-person and virtual options. There will also be a training manual made available to the public to promote inclusiveness and accessibility worldwide. The workshop will be hosted at CrossFit Bloomington in Bloomington, Indiana. The workshop will feature experts in the field such as Julie Foucher and Wild Health. Those who participate will pilot the certificate in their local gyms and help the community to see the many powerful assets that neurodivergent athletes have. Interested parties can contact Janette Hynes for more information on how to participate and about sponsorship opportunities.

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