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Activity Adaptation - Advice from the Experts

Posted on 8/14/2017

Contributed by Bethany Friedrich, Tumbl Trak Special Needs Coordinator

Tammy Fitzpatrick, on the coaching staff at Grand Rapid Gymnastics, recently contacted Tumbl Trak in search of advice on ways to adapt bar drills and activities to accommodate one of her athletes with special needs.  Tammy’s ambition to ensure the success of her young athlete thrilled and inspired us.  Needless to say, we were eager to help!  Adapting gymnastics skills and movements to accommodate children with various needs is an imperative part of offering a successful special needs gymnastics program.   Although activity adaptation is important, developing this skill can seem daunting when just starting out.  DO NOT FEAR!  We are here to share with you advice we gathered from several experts in the field.  Read on to hear tips from gymnastics coaches whose backgrounds vary between adapted physical education, applied behavior analysis, and physical therapy.

Tammy’s initial inquiry was regarding one of her athletes with incredible will and a great passion for gymnastics.  This athlete is a nine year old girl who underwent surgery several years ago to remove part of her brain, due to a rare disorder called sturge weber syndrome.  This resulted in a stroke-like presentation, limiting the strength and coordination on the left side of her body.  Despite the obstacles this has presented, the young athlete has not been discouraged.  While actively participating in gymnastics classes she has been working hard on one handed cartwheels and finding great success on trampoline, vault and beam.  The bars, however, has proven to Tammy to be the most challenging apparatus to adapt.  This is where others in the field jumped in to help.

So, where do you start?  Nate recommends activity analysis

Nate Hendrickson, adapted physical educator and special needs program director at TNT Kid’s Fitness, recommends starting with how you think about the activity.  This process is often referred to as activity analysis and can be used to help you adapt any skill or movement for any child in the gym.  

So, to begin, we want to think of the skill in regards to the physical, cognitive, affective, social and environmental factors that influence participation.  Does the activity require flexibility? Is the ability to sequence necessary?  Does the activity demand control of feelings?  How about cooperation?  Is the environment (lights, sounds, etc.) overstimulating to the child?  You can use this chart here to help you think through the requirements of the activity, which will then help you determine what aspects are necessary to adapt or modify for your athlete.  Do keep in mind, each activity should be modified based on the individual needs of each student, striving to keep the activity as close to the original activity as possible.

Nate believes this process is key, because, “when the coach understands the entirety of the skill or activity, it is then about looking at what is the true ability of the child and what is their potential that you are hoping they are going to unlock.  What is this skill going to do for the individual?  Is it going to increase… Range of motion?  Strength?  Coordination in the wrists and fingers?  Once you have this information, then you can educate the individual on what they need to be doing themselves, if they have the cognitive level to understand.  But, this step is also important so you can walk through it in your head as a coach and think about the modifications, adaptations, and supports necessary for the skill to have an impact on the individual.  This is the starting point.”

Nate recommends coaches practice thinking in these realms (physical, cognitive, social, affective, environmental) before children even enter the gym.  “Once we have a greater understanding of the skill itself and the environment in which we are asking children to participate in, we can then have a formula in place for helping us to modify activities for individuals with various needs to be successful.”  

Karissa builds strength using bars

Karissa Johnson, ABA therapist and founder of Spectra Gymnastics, adds to the conversation.  “I think it’s critical to begin at the very basic level of skill development since bars requires so much strength to perform skills safely.  Finding adaptive ways to increase strength is an important place to start.  Work on large muscle groups (adaptive pull ups, etc.) and incorporate the fine motor strength with hangs, swings and hand grip variations.”  Karissa, who blends gymnastics with behavioral therapy in her approach, prefers using Rings to build up strength when doing adaptive bar skills.  But before working with the Rings, Karissa often starts out with more basic drills that incorporate squeezing with the hands; squeezing bean bags, stress balls and the bars/rings in various ways helps prepare athletes for confidently gripping the bars.  Once her athletes are able to grip the bars they work on standing next to the bar and twisting their wrists to try different grip variations.  From here, some athletes might be ready to try hanging from the bars or lifting just one foot up at a time as they hold up most of their body weight.

Physical therapist works on stretching and encourages play

We also got to speak to a physical therapy graduate student/adapted gymnastics coach who emphasized the importance of stretching.  “We have a good rule we follow when kiddos who have trouble straightening their limbs are working on more function and that is you work on new range (stretching) then strengthen through that new range within a session.”  In addition, the PT student recommended taking some time to help the athlete feel coordinated through her left arm.  Rather than limiting the use of her weaker arm, try encouraging her to bear weight on it.  Even just bearing a little weight will help keep her arm strong and also provide her with proprioceptive input that tells her where her arm is in space.  One of your best bets to encourage weight bearing is to offer opportunities for weight shifting on her arms during games.  The physical therapy student reinforced this by stating, “The best way to strengthen children who have not yet hit puberty is through play, because play is most functional for them.”

Wrapping it up- collaboration and communication

In addition to the fabulous suggestions from the experts, I encourage you to strive for regular communication with the parents of your athletes.  Check in with them and see if you can collaborate with their children’s schools and any other doctor or therapist they work with so that you can familiarize yourself with their IEPs and the tricks/tools others are using to support the children in other areas of their lives.  I fully believe that this type of collaboration is helpful for all involved and will be especially beneficial for your athletes!

If you have questions or advice you’d like to share, we encourage you to join our supportive adapted gymnastics community on Facebook.