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HUGS for Gymnasts with Special Needs!

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Every coach knows gymnastics helps kids get stronger physically, mentally and socially and that it provides opportunities to develop skills they’ll use later in life.

But, did you know that’s *exponentially* more the case for kids with special needs?

Did you know that there’s something for everyone in the realm of gymnastics, no matter their level of physical ability or intellectual development?

HUGSThat’s what 30 year veteran coach of special needs gymnastics, Cindy Bickman, owner/operator of Chattooga Gymnastics and Dance, told us when we spoke with her about how coaches and industry leaders can better serve any and all who seek to explore gymnastics.

Mike and Kappy have known Cindy for ages. Cindy works tirelessly and with great joy to help gymnasts with special needs. She helped foster the special needs components for USA Gymnastics 4 All programs. Her athletes compete in the Special Olympics and represent the US in international events like USA Gymnastics’ World Gymnaestrada. She and her athletes work hard to promote adaptive gymnastics and the mainstream inclusion of special needs gymnasts around the globe.

Please read on to see what Cindy says about working with non-typical athletes at your club.

First, she thinks we need to change the framing of how coaches, parents and the world at large see athletes with special needs. Perception and understanding matter both for how they view themselves and how the world around them approaches including them in the sport and helping them access the benefits of the sport. Cindy says changing the nomenclature makes for an excellent start.

Overseas, it’s referred as Disability Gymnastics. But, she says, that’s not at all how we should be looking at these gymnasts. They’re people first. They are Gymnasts with Special Needs. Their physical challenges or intellectual development issues don’t define them. Their physical abilities or disabilities are just part of a complex, whole human being. What student doesn’t bring their own special brand of complexity? Some gymnasts are just more typical than others in some ways. That’s how she suggests we refer to gymnasts without special needs: as typical, mainstream or, simply, gymnasts without special needs.

At the macro level, a coach teaches both sets of gymnasts the same way: they break down skills into progressions.

For folks with special needs, Cindy says, coaches may have to break down your progressions into smaller components to accommodate non-typical physical abilities, motor skills or intellectual processing. As with typical gymnasts, your non-typical gymnasts will all have different goals in training and competition.


Yes, that’s right. There are competitive opportunities for gymnasts with special needs and for your gymnastics business!

In fact, the US is the world leader in inclusive opportunities to perform and compete in gymnastics meets. Any gymnast can compete in a USA Gymnastics competition. Particularly geared toward gymnasts with special needs is the HUGS program. HUGS stands for Hope Unites Gymnastics with Special Athletes. The HUGS program caters to boys and girls, Check out USA Gymnastics site for lots of support for coaches, gyms and clubs on the organizations and the education resources pages. 

Participating in gymnastics is a win for everyone, for athletes, coaches and parents. Kids with special needs and their parents, often, hear a lot about what they or their child can’t do. Taking classes, performing with other students, competing in regular meets or at the Special Olympics (for athletes with intellectual development differences) offers these kids opportunities that highlight what they CAN DO. Special needs gymnastics facilitates chances to build on those abilities in ways that reach and achieve goals oriented toward greater independence and self actualization, enriching their lives and those around them.

Just like with typical gymnasts, coaches of athletes with special needs do an initial interview to assess where the student is at the start. When coaching gymnasts with special needs, parents will often be your best resource. Parents can help you identify their child’s strengths and weaknesses. They can help you strategize how to set goals and how to approach building toward them. Parents can tell you things like: my child is weaker on their left side, my child has a sensory processing disorder, attention challenges, behavioral difficulties… My child has Down’s Syndrome with atlanto-axial instability and isn’t a candidate for artistic gymnastics, but she loves to dance and would be thrilled to try her hand at rhythmic gymnastics!

While it can help, you don’t have to have a special certification or educational degree to coach gymnastics for athletes with special needs. Anyone who coaches mainstream gymnasts can coach special needs classes or offer private, one-to-one sessions.

Cindy tells us, your “preschool class curriculum and equipment will work well for a long time” with athletes with non-typical intellectual development. Basically tumbling on all manner and shapes of mats are great for these students.

Wedges, barrels, panel mats to make tunnels to crawl through. Strips of velcro on the floor to create a beam”, swinging on the rings or holding a grip on a bar, using a wider beam at a low or a mid height all make great accommodations for gymnasts where they are and will take them to where they can be. Of course, there will be lots of tumbling and rolling on carpet bonded foam

Gymnastics can offer programs beginning with motor activities for people who experience more severe mobility issues leading to programs across disciplines for more able gymnasts.

People with disabilities can participate and compete in Women’s Artistic, Men’s Artistic, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Trampoline, Aerobic Gymnastics and Acrobatic Gymnastics through USA Gymnastics Gym 4 All. FIG has also started to expand out programs for gymnasts with special needs and abilities.

Cindy says one of the joys — and what teaching special needs gymnastics classes brings to you and your coaching staff — is that it necessitates a broadening of your imagination to bridge and build out the world these students inhabit. Offering special needs gymnastics classes or private sessions also hones your skills as a coach! She says it helps in isolating and explaining components of each part of a skill progression, making you a better coach to all of your athletes.

“It requires a bit more patience,” Cindy adds, with some athletes with intellectual development differences, “It also makes you a better coach because you have to get it right the first time. However, you teach it the first time, they will always do it the same way. You can’t go back and change it.”

Additionally, providing classes for students with special needs offers an excellent proposition for your gymnastics club or business. These students are often excluded from other areas of life. Besides, the obvious emotional pain of that reality, it keeps their parents and caregivers very busy. Providing opportunities for their kids to excel, to win even or just have something to do, will not only brighten the lives of these kids, but those of their parents and families. Special needs gymnastics programs provide a much needed and popular service in your community.

Cindy told us that, frequently, these people with special needs aren’t even considered for physical activities. That often times, parents will have a sibling in a mainstream gymnastics class, but when a gym owners strikes up a conversation in the waiting room, they will find there’s a special needs gymnast, literally, waiting in the wings for an opportunity.

Those opportunities can’t be underestimated. Expanding the social horizons of both mainstream and special needs athletes helps everyone become better inhabitants of the world we share.

Physically, at the individual student level, gymnastics can help facilitate movement, promote balance, promote an increase or decrease in muscle tone, promote relaxation, promote sensory integration, and improve fitness and exercise tolerance.

Intellectually and emotionally, participating in separate and/or integrated gymnastics classes assists students in many aspects of socialization such as sharing, waiting their turn, following rules and routines, emotional regulation, concentration, interaction and communication that will open doors for them in the wider world.

If helping more kids and adults access the joys, opportunities and benefits of gymnastics speaks to you— Cindy says some of her students with special needs have been doing it for 25 years or more! She even has a student that is 50! Then we urge you to consider offering programs for gymnasts with special needs at your gym or facility. If that’s not something you can do, then please consider giving time or money to help advance programs currently available. 

To that end, Mike and Kappy have been active in donating time, money, apparel and equipment to the Special Olympics and Cindy’s activities with Chattooga and the world at large for decades.

mike and kappy chattooganasts

Cindy says, “Mike and Kappy have been so great in supporting both in whatever we need for many years. He goes way back with this stuff for people with disabilities.” Can we quote you on that? “Oh! Please quote me! He’s been very supportive. It’s been huge.”

A final word from Cindy?

“It’s a great journey to go on. You meet the most wonderful people when you work with gymnasts with special needs. A lot of people say that, if you coach gymnasts with special needs you have to have a lot of patience, but you get a lot more than you give.”


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