The 2012 Paralympics has raised an awareness and appreciation for disability sport unlike anything I've seen throughout my 15 year career as a strength and conditioning coach.
I've had the pleasure of working with many paralympic athletes, including the GB Wheelchair Basketball team and T53 100m world record holder and paralympic gold medalist, Mickey Bushell.
I think that for the first time the general public 'get it' and we are now watching the sport rather than the disability. It's fantastic.
One piece of advice I always give to young strength and conditioning coaches is to work with disabled athletes. There's a lot to be gained and I've gone back to a presentation I delivered back in 2006 to highlight some of the key things to consider when working with disabled athletes.
I would encourage you to get out there and challenge your assumptions. The lessons you learn working with disabled athletes will make you a better coach.
Don't make assumptions, you will be surprised!
Do not fall into the trap of looking at an athlete in a wheelchair or using crutches or with an artificial limb and assume that they can't do something. When I first worked with the wheelchair basketball team the players laid it on the line. If you think we need to do something to make us better let us know, we will give a go. All too often assumptions are made by the coach and athlete about their functional ability. Sure there will be some limitations but there will be times when that limitation is simply an assumption that has never been challenged. I worked with a horse rider that suffered from Cerebral Palsy (CP). He used crutches to walk that were set pretty low forcing him into a kyphotic posture (not great for a dressage rider). When asked why they were so low he simply said "that's the height they had always been!". No one had thought to increase the height of the crutches as he grew! We gradually increased the height and his posture improved dramatically.
Don't make assumptions and don't let the athlete get away with using their disability as an excuse, you'll be amazed at their ability.
Venue and Training Equipment
Think about access. My first training venue was up two flights of stairs with no lift access! The movement preparation phase of the session was for me to carry the chairs up the stairs (I'm a poet and I don't even know it!) and for the athletes to haul themselves up the stairs to the gym. You also need to consider what kit you need to use, any special belts to strap athletes to benches, different handles and grips.
Safety and Medical Considerations
Overuse injuries, blisters etc.
We didn't really evolve to push a chair around all day so it's no wonder that many wheelchair athletes end up with chronic overuse injuries through the upper body. You also need to take into account athletes that may have a limb amputated but play their sport in a wheelchair. They don't move around all day in a chair and will be faced with the problem of adapting to the training overload that arises from hours of practicing in wheelchair.
Potential for reduced work capacity (CP, Quadriplegia and high level paraplegia)
I've said that you can't make assumption regarding physical capacity but you must not take it to the other extreme and simply beast your athletes. You must challenge the limitations but you also need to understand the nature of the problem you are faced with and appreciate that work capacity may be limited in some circumstances.
Increased recovery time, poor heat temperature regulation
Fewer limbs makes it tougher to regulate body temperature - an important consideration!
Day Chair and Competition Chair
There is a difference. We don't go to the gym and workout in our suit and shoes! There's a big difference between the day chair used by athletes and the sport specific piece of kit they use. You need to look at the day chair because as the name suggests, this is the one they will be spending most of the time in, so if it's crap then the chances are it could be causing problems for your athlete leading to injuries etc.
Balance and control
Lifting and transferring
I worked with a very large athlete with CP and part of his programmed included bench press. It took two S&C coaches to move him from his day chair onto the bench. He had to have a huge amount of trust in us and we had to make sure we didn't cause him any injuries during the transfer. Due to the nature of his CP we had to strap him onto the bench. Again, you need to think about how you do this to ensure the athlete is secure and confident to lift.
Don't wrap in cotton wool
Overbearing concerns of care givers and society.
The biggest thing for me is not to wrap them up in cotton wool. When I'm asked how I approach working with a disabled athlete I simply reply "the same as any other athlete". The approach is the same, I ask the same questions, run through the same evaluation process and I make sure I don't make any assumptions about their ability to train and compete at the highest level.
The Paralympics have proved one thing - paralympians are athletes first and foremost...the disability is no longer at the forefront of every ones mind. Let me know what you think.