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Gym Owner Perspectives on CrossFit Programs for Cognitive Adaptive Athletes

June 20, 2022 by

Working from his gym, Qtown Fitness (Quincy, IL), is Sam Dancer. Dancer might be most known for his professional CrossFit career, but his work with the Dancer Love Foundation is equally important. The foundation was started by Jenn Dancer and serves others through “fitness, education, and love.” Sam began working with individuals with disabilities (or individuals with “unique needs” as he refers to them) 7 years ago when he asked the question: “do we have a scalable model to apply to people with specific needs?” At the time, the answer was no, but Sam and his team soon changed that.

"Just being mildly inquisitive and wanting to find innovative solutions to fitness-related problems, which is a fancy way of saying scaling,” Sam laughed, "we were able to spread wellness to more people." Sam had his CrossFit level 1 when beginning his journey of spreading wellness and admitted that he felt "unprepared” before starting 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.”

He also noted the importance of fostering relationships, speaking on how many gym owners seeking help often ask about feeling more confident engaging with adaptive athletes. “We're working with CrossFit HQ to come out with specialty courses that will help people become more comfortable inviting and seeking out individuals who generally aren’t physically fit.”  Sam shared his thoughts on relationships and coaching, saying: “You're building another relationship with a human being, and you’re helping them.” Sam expanded on his observations with stories of seeing not just motor development improve but seeing the athletes “smiling and laughing" and "[seeing] them being humans and being treated like that.” 

Sam discussed how he sees more people working to make sure that they are capable of serving individuals with special needs and that he “hopes more and more families of individuals with special needs are getting in front of the right people, so that they are learning that there is a place for their son, for their daughter [...] to be able to receive wellness. It feels good to feel good, and we want people to experience that.” Sam encouraged anyone interested in beginning an adaptive program to reach out to the Dancer Love Foundation and spoke of how excited he was to continue “pushing the mission forward, and the mission is simple: to make sure fitness is available for everyone.” 

An example of an affiliate currently hosting an adaptive program is Legion CrossFit Maidenhead (Maidenhead, Berkshire). Here, CF-L2, Danilo Pardo works with adaptive athletes. The adaptive program began when one of the affiliate members asked that kids in the community be able to use the gym space. At the time, the affiliate didn’t have a coach specific for adaptive work, so Danilo stepped up.

He described how his CrossFit certifications have helped him to coach this population through being able to offer variance in movements and modify the workouts to “preserve the stimulus of the workout no matter the [disability].” Danilo has been successful in coaching an array of conditions and disabilities, helping people to rehab and learn how to move their bodies through adaptive classes. Parents have reported better behavior and increased physical activity thanks to the program. 

As the conversation progressed, Danilo spoke of how teaching these kids to move has made him a better coach by referring back to the fundamentals of movement to ensure he can help each athlete with their learning. “Simplicity is greatness. Working with the kids makes you a little bit more humbled,” Danilo said about breaking down movements to their simplest form. Danilo expanded on this idea: “It’s great to be part of this progress; it develops a different side of me as a coach. If you are a good coach, you can teach any athlete regardless of their [disability].” 

When discussing motivators for affiliates to create adaptive programs, Danilo said: “Do it for the community, not the money. It’s really shitty that some of the Crossfit affiliates do it for marketing. Someone else’s disability should not be profitable.” 

Another affiliate developing an adaptive program is CrossFit Randolph (Randolph, NJ). The program is led by the affiliate owner, Susan Metzger. Susan is CF-L2 (plus she is certified in CrossFit gymnastics, CrossFit kids, Autism Fitness, and is a certified Adaptive and Inclusive Trainer through the ATA), a special education teacher, and an affiliate owner for over eight years. 

Susan has been running a successful adaptive program since the Summer of 2020, and she related how teaching math is similar to teaching movement: “I tell my students all the time that sometimes you don’t really understand what you’re doing; you don’t really understand what a square-root is but you can do the math to solve for it. You have to be comfortable that you’re going to go through these steps, and you might not be able to conceptualize each one. It does eventually become a pattern. The same thing I find with ASD athletes. If they have enough prompting, over a long enough period, they are able to move without thinking. They have a new pattern.” Susan gave the example of teaching an athlete with ASD how to perform a wall ball through prompting (verbal instruction or physical demonstration), and after a year, that athlete could complete a workout with wall balls with no prompts. Her affiliate also uses progressions: "We've modified the wall ball a couple of ways. We have some athletes who do squats and then a chest pass to a partner and some who squat to a box and do a short [vertical] throw. Whatever we can do to maintain the stimulus and integrity of the movement and allow each athlete to be successful."

Susan also teaches adaptive athletes what different levels of effort feel like by using RPM as a guide. Using CrossFit, she has seen improvements in her athletes in muscle activation and proprioception, strength, pacing, and processing ability (as seen with the wall ball example). Susan expressed how she enjoyed “taking something complex and making it simple” and encouraged other affiliates to create adaptive programs saying: “If you’re considering it, you’re probably the right person for it.” 

Researchers collaborating with the Adaptive Training Academy are dedicated to creating an inclusive community for training, competition, and life. In the following weeks, there will be a brand new training certification released to increase coaching capacity to work with cognitively adaptive athletes.

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