“Begin at the beginning”—a simple concept, but one that works well for coach Jodi Kandl in her work with the all-star cheer teams at Cheergyms.com, including its special needs team, Sparkle. “Every athlete that walks in the gym learns differently, whether they are on the special needs team or not,” says Jodi Kandl.
Still, starting a special needs team does require that gym owners and coaches have practices and precautions in place to create the safest, most successful special needs program they can. For starters, there should be properly credentialed coaches with expertise in teaching people with special needs. “They should be certified through Level 2 with USASF,” says Kandl, adding that certification should include things like concussion training, CPR/first aid and seizure training.
Sharon Myrick, program administrator of the Special Athletes Program for Glen Burnie, MD-based Maryland Twisters, agrees. The gym has two special needs teams (Eye of the Storm and Storm Chasers), and Myrick emphasizes that gyms “must have coaches who are willing to learn about differences, and to be discipline-oriented and consistent.”
Starting a special needs team can be hugely beneficial and rewarding for both athletes and owners, but there are certain steps that should be followed in order to make it a safe, worthwhile, positive addition to your business. First and foremost, knowing each athlete’s medical history and individual needs is paramount. The athletes shouldn’t necessarily be treated differently, but making sure that the coaches and staff know about each athlete is crucial. For gym owners, that often means creating detailed intake questionnaires for parents and having regular meetings and communication.
“Have a conversation with the parent to have them instruct you what signs to be aware of, as no two people are the same,” advises Bonnie Melnick, program director/principal at Southampton, NJ-based Diamond Athletics, where the Precious Gems program is a non-profit program for special needs athletes of all ages.
All of the special needs coaches at Maryland Twisters are volunteers, and Myrick says that they interview new candidates “to make sure they are willing to work within our program goals and mission.” The division has grown over the last five years, and the number of teams in their area has doubled. “Allowing the teams to participate at free or reduced cost will continue to make the division grow,” Myrick adds. “Many families are strapped by continuous medical and therapy costs, so having this program at no or low cost has been such a great opportunity.”
If you’re thinking of starting a special needs team, do it for the right reasons—and not because you strive to make a huge profit. “Typically the team is not a profitable team,” says Kandl of Cheergyms.com. “Gyms usually have a minimal charge, if any, for the athletes.” One option is finding sponsors or holding fundraising efforts such as raffles or fun runs to raise money. At the Maryland Twisters, the athlete booster club is their main sponsor, and their special needs booster club obtains small sponsors throughout the season, as well as conducting independent fundraising.
At Diamond Athletics, they fundraise throughout the year to keep it free of charge for the parents, and Melnick says that they do have some families and local businesses that are sponsors for their program. “Many vendors will give a discount or free apparel to the special needs athletes,” says Kandl. “We have had a local bakery that helped raise over $1,500 for the athletes when they were given the honor of a paid bid to Worlds. We have also had families donate privately.”
If incorporating a special needs team sounds like a daunting task, start small. Begin with a single class and build from there. “Safety is the most important thing, so understanding their abilities as well as limitations is essential,” says Melnick. “I would also recommend getting all other athletes in your program involved. It truly does bring the program as a whole together.”
The experience creates friendships, builds confidence and shows the special needs athlete that they can take risks. “Through sport, they are learning life lessons that show successes in school and in work,” says Myrick of Maryland Twisters. “Many families have said that this program has transformed their child. It has turned their dreams into reality.”
And what’s Kandl’s final advice when it comes to starting a special needs program or class? Two words: “Do it.”