Coaching Athletes With Special Needs

Coaching Athletes With Special Needs


1 October 2016


Following up on our previous write-up on adaptive athletes, we took the opportunity to speak to two inspiring individuals in the industry.

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We connected with Rachael Lee, a young certified fitness instructor and adaptive athlete coach based in Brunei and Jonathan Wong, founder/co-owner and head coach at Pushmore (CrossFit Malaysia). Read on to find out their experiences, successes and challenges in coaching athletes with special needs and where they see adaptive sports in Asia in the coming years.

Rachael Lee, 26
Sport Science Graduate and Certified Fitness Instructor
Brunei Darussalam

Tell us what you do.

I am a basketball and fitness coach for athletes with intellectual disabilities (conditions such as: Autism spectrum, Down Syndrome, Aspergers Syndrome, Delay in learning abilities and many others). In short - I call my athletes 'adaptive athletes' under my weekly regime for them 'Adaptive Fitness Programme - To Move Wonders' under the support of Special Olympics Brunei Darussalam.

What is the most challenging part as a coach for adaptive athletes?

The most challenging part is to always turn up with a mindset to always adapt my planned fitness programme of the day to the best I can according to which athletes with special needs will attend my training session and with the volunteers who will also turn up to help me out. Each session can have as few as 5 athletes or as many as 20 athletes. Sometimes, we even have as few as 2 volunteers when we have a big group turning up.

What characteristics are required of a coach for adaptive athletes?

To become a coach for athletes with special needs requires a lot of patience, level of understanding and care, as well as the everyday will to learn the various conditions of different adaptive athletes in order to ensure a safe training environment and movement execution for the athletes.

How about the challenges you face as an athlete yourself?

As a CrossFit and basketball athlete myself, I do my best to juggle between my own fitness & sport trainings while setting committed schedules for my adaptive fitness athletes. The challenge would be making sure that my own schedule will not clash with their allocated schedule.

When I am out of the country for competitions, the weekly sessions would need to be put on hold as I currently only have 1 part-time coach alongside me to conduct adaptive fitness programme sessions.

Another challenge (but it is also something that I am willing to ease off my shoulders) will be to always constantly remind myself that I as a coach am there for them for the fitness class and not to have high results and progression expectations as I have for myself as an athlete.

Tell us your most memorable moment as a coach.

As an adaptive athlete coach, every session is memorable because the athletes under me are mostly intellectually disabled (not physically disabled). Hence, the messages of exercises relayed to each athlete may sometimes be difficult. Sometimes, each message needs to be conveyed individually to ensure all the athletes do it right according to their abilities and conditions.

So whenever the adaptive athletes end up getting the movement right, that is an accomplishment for myself as a coach.

At times, you will be able to see extreme improvements since day 1 such as a squat form (some are better than the coach!) and beating volunteers in burpees challenges!

Every single time, I look forward to the many 'thank you, coach', excited faces and happy smiles for sweating buckets together through exercise regimes every week. At the same time, understanding the conditions & physical needs of my adaptive athletes better every session has shaped me into the adaptive athlete coach I am to date.

Where do you see adaptive sports in the Asian region in the next 5 years?

Currently, to my knowledge about adaptive athletes or athletes with special needs in terms of sports participation:

  • Special Olympics Asia Pacific, an NGO for athletes with intellectual disabilities, are very active in hosting and organising sports competitions across the Asian region to allow athletes with intellectual disabilities to represent their own nation in their respective sports such as Basketball, Football, Bowling, Track and Field, Badminton and many more.
  • CrossFit for athletes with special needs may still take a few more years to be established - potentially the next 5 years since this field is already successfully established and honed in the European region.
  • The Paralympics community has always been active and in line with the Olympics vision and mission for many, many years.

With the right programme implementation of passionate individuals and supportive organisations in every Asian nation, I would like to see greater participation and successful stories of athletes with different special needs coming from the Asian region in the next 5 years.

Where can people find out more about your programme?

'Adaptive Fitness Programme - To Move Wonders' is a programme segment developed under Special Olympics Brunei Darussalam to give our athletes with intellectual disabilities in Brunei the opportunity to take part in a fitness regime outside of their regular sports training sessions. The programme believes that an improved fitness level and muscle strength is beneficial to improve and compliment the advanced athlete's sports skills and performance.

For the non-advanced adaptive athletes, they will still join the adaptive fitness programme sessions to further improve their general well-being, boost their physical activity level, improve their appetite, moods and emotions as well as have a session full of social skills enhancement with the general population (coaches and volunteers) and other special needs athletes (every adaptive athlete has different conditions).

For Brunei-based readers, you may check out Special Olympics Brunei Darussalam to find out more about sports and fitness training as well as events for our athletes with intellectual disabilities and other special needs.

Do look up your country's Special Olympics organisation at or perhaps, try searching for any CrossFit gym which may offer classes or opportunities for athletes with special needs.

Jonathan Wong, 34
Founder/Co-Owner & Head Coach at Pushmore (CrossFit Malaysia)

Tell us what you do.

As the founder and co-owner of CrossFit Malaysia, the pioneer CrossFit affiliate in Malaysia and South East Asia, I have been actively involved in the fitness industry for more than 10 years, with experience in personal training, group fitness, performance training and fitness education.

I have coached people from diverse backgrounds, all with the aim of them being fitter, faster and stronger. I’m regularly engaged as a fitness/product consultant by multinationals such as Amway and sports brands such as Puma and Reebok. As an athlete, I have a unique approach and diverse experience; competed successfully in the sports of CrossFit, Powerlifting and Weightlifting. My qualifications include CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Running, American Council on Exercise (ACE) Personal Trainer, International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation (IKFF) Certified Kettlebell Trainer, Trigger Point Performance Therapy Master Trainer and Art of Power Weightlifting Level 1.

With my focus on family and CrossFit, in my free time, I’m an avid reader, occasional rock climber and coffee enthusiast.

What is the most challenging part as a coach for adaptive athletes?

The most challenging and important area would be understanding the adaptive athlete you are working with - both mentally and physically. And I would say that this is no different from how I would approach coaching any athlete. Once this understanding is developed, everything else builds around this relationship.

Tell us your most memorable moment as a coach.

One memorable moment is when an athlete thanked me for giving him the confidence to step out of his home. This was an important step for him as he is clinically diagnosed with depression and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), resulting in him avoiding social contact. With regular coaching and training, his fitness level improved and resulted in positively impacting his condition.

Where do you see adaptive sports in the Asian region in the next 5 years?

Adaptive sports will definitely be growing in the next 5 years in Asia. It is largely underdeveloped right now. As coaches in the region gain more skills and experience, this will open up more avenues for adaptive athletes to access training and coaching.

Where can people find out more about your programme?

I can be contacted directly at [email protected] with regards to coaching and programming for adaptive athletes. Each person has their unique needs and we always work towards meeting those needs.