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Aldershot, Farnham and District AC

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Coaching Athletes with a Learning Difficulty



Like anybody, we all learn in different ways and so understanding an athlete as an individual is the first, and arguably, most important step. What are their strengths? What teaching style will they respond to? How quickly can an activity proceed?


Coaching an athlete with a learning disability is no different. Good coaches will take time to understand an athlete’s individual needs, performance level, strengths and preferred learning styles.


Finding the most appropriate opportunity for an athlete is perhaps the first step to successful coaching. Less experienced athletes may find it more difficult to progress in an athletic club environment without specific support and coaches may wish to consider disability-specific opportunities, whilst more established athletes are likely to be more familiar with the training routines and demands of a mainstream athletics club.


This does not mean that developing athletes should be discouraged from joining athletics clubs, nor does it mean that established athletes might not still need additional support to ensure that participation remains enjoyable and fulfilling. The important point is to ensure that the experience is a positive one and that activities progress at a suitable rate.


There are many competitive opportunities for athletes with a learning disability:- School, Disabled Multi sport clubs, Special Olympics, Regional/National DSE championships, Mencap National championships not to mention international opportunities available through Special Olympics, and Inas – which provides the pathway to the Paralympic Games.


As in all sports, athletes with a learning disability will progress along their pathway as far as their ability takes them so long as the coach understands the different opportunities available and that coaching is tailored appropriately.


Coaching Techniques


  • Using simple instructions and unambiguous language is important, whilst breaking coaching points into single tasks and ensuring frequent repetition are vital. Use cones or other landmarks on the track to support instructions and use visual aids to demonstrate more complex instructions. The instruction could be, run from the “long jump cover to the finish line” rather than “Sprint the last 100 meters”

  • It is important that athletes with a learning disability are given age-appropriate instructions – don’t be tempted to ‘talk down’ or coach an adult as a child.

  • LD athletes can and do learn the technique required for their event. However it can take longer than the coach is used to and, if an athletes finds it impossible to execute certain drills/skills. Be patient, return to skills and drills the athlete can do to avoid frustration, and then build in the others in different ways or step by step.

  • Concentration for long periods of time can be difficult for athletes with a learning disability. Time spans will differ but most LD athletes will lose concentration if the coach spends too long explaining a drill/skill etc. Better to show than tell.

  • Once the athlete has mastered a new drill/skill they will have to be taken through them again at regular intervals to aide memory retention.

  • Athletes with a learning disability may say they understand an instruction because that is what they think you want to hear, not because they do understand. Demonstrations aide concentration and can be key in helping an athlete to understand e.g. ensuring a long arm in a javelin withdrawal. Also utilising mirroring technique can also be helpful where an athlete has poor kinaesthetic awareness e.g. ensuring an athlete bends at the knees rather than from the hips.

  • Athletes in events that require measuring run ups, starting blocks etc need help/assistance both in training and competition. If requested of the officials prior to the event assistance is usually allowed. However it is much better to come up with an aid that allows the athlete to do it for themselves and use the aid at every opportunity in training.

  • In the early part of their athletics career athletes can regularly run out of their lanes especially at the start of 100m where the lanes of the 400m cut across the 100m lines. Try using cones half way down the lane to aide awareness. This is particularly important in relays, where lane numbers are not marked at the take over points.

  • Left to their own devices some LD athletes will do a very poor warm up this can be because they forget the routine or simply do not appreciate the importance. The coach will need to monitor the warm up carefully, especially at meetings, and you should aim to develop a regular set routine.

  • Like all athletes, some may have additional behaviour problems which can be very challenging for the coach. This often occurs because of the athletes own frustration at themselves for not being able to do what is being asked and because of their learning disability they cannot express their frustration appropriately in words.

  • Avoid situations or specific drills that cause anxiety and frustration and always be positive with the athlete, especially when things aren’t going well for them. Concentrate on the things they are doing well and help to raise their self-esteem and confidence.

  • Where unacceptable behaviour does occur, it should be carefully and tactfully explored to avoid further problems. For example, talking to the athlete about why a situation occurred and why it is not acceptable.

  • Many coaches collect feedback at the end of their session from their athletes. This is equally important for an LD athlete as it will give them a chance to share any frustration or difficulties they may be having. Be aware however that they may not speak out in a whole group session, so feedback may need to be collected less formally i.e. whilst taking equipment back, cool down stretching or walking back to the clubhouse.

  • Coaches should take time to understand the athlete they are coaching and where their performances might rank them. An average club athlete now may be a future world champion in learning disability sport.

  • Finally, one of the biggest problems an athlete with learning disability faces is not a coaching matter at all, but that of travel and independence. This means they can’t get to training or competition and often results in them dropping out of athletics. Coaches may feel its not their role, but their help in such areas might be more important that anything they ever do on the track. Coaches should work with the athlete to find a supporter or advocate who can help get them to and from training and competition when necessary, or may need to make contact with the relevant organisations to try and arrange an escort/buddy (social services, Mencap etc).