What do I need to know about an athlete with an intellectual disability?

  • The term “intellectual disability” means that someone learns more slowly than other people their age. That is it! The important thing to remember is that no one wants to be known by a label.
  • There is no other description or explanation other than learning slower that applies to the rest of the population
  • You can count on the fact that people with an intellectual disability are just like everyone else, individuals with unique challenges, talents, abilities and interests. Enjoy getting to know them.
  • The best advice we can give you as a coach is to look beyond the disability to see the person, and then trust your instincts on the psychological and social situations
  • If you sense that someone is left out or feels lonely, you are probably right. Ask that person how they think things are going and if they are having fun.


How does an individual with an intellectual disability learn sports skills and rules? How does a coach facilitate learning (training sequences, levels of instruction)?

  • People with an intellectual disability learn just like everyone else. They use different strategies and strengths to help them understand.
  • Some learn best through seeing things, others through hearing things. Some need to feel what it is like to do something before they can learn it.
  • Repetition is a proven strategy for learning that is effective with everyone including athletes with an intellectual disability. Another strategy is to “tell them, show them, help them and remind them”.
  • Bottom line: No one strategy works for everyone. Be creative and have fun. That is the best environment for learning to happen
  • Never assume that people with a disability want to play in a separate competition only with people of their own disability
  • If their skills are such, they may prefer to play in the regular competition with everyone else. Or a combination of the two (train with the regular sides and play in a separate competition for other players with disabilities for example).
  • It is essential that the coach never assume how a person with a disability wants to be involved – and that you ask them


AnchorHow do I coach athletes with an intellectual disability?

  • There are many more similarities than differences in teaching and coaching athletes with and without intellectual disabilities
  • Athletes are athletes; coaching is coaching; teaching is teaching and learning is learning
  • The major difference you will encounter in coaching people with an intellectual disability is that they may learn at a slower pace
  • Regardless, you will still need to develop a coaching philosophy and style that will enable your athletes to meet their performance goals and develop sportsmanship
  • Simply, coaching is helping an athlete prepare, develop and improve their sport performance. Coaching involves teaching, training, instructing and more, which impacts many areas of an individual’s life.
  • When you ask coaches what they want out of coaching, the answers usually include winning, fun and athlete development. All three are important, but which is most important to you?
  • The acronym CHANGE IT provides a tool that can help modify the activity to meet the individual needs of the participant


AnchorWhat should I expect from myself as a coach?

  • The role of the coach is much the same as any other volunteer coach in the community
  • There is an expectation that the coach will know something about the sport and how to teach it
  • This expectation varies with the skill level of the athletes and the environments in which the coaching takes place
  • If you have the opportunity to attend any education of coaching an athlete with a disability then go


AnchorHelpful hints

Don’t Do
  • Give fitness sessions to primary age athletes
  • Abuse or even shout at athletes (no matter what age)
  • Smoke or swear in front of athletes (no matter what age)
  • Set unrealistic goals
  • Discourage
  • Don’t treat them as little adults
  • Don’t give too many instructions at once
  • Don’t make the skill too complex (short and simple)
  • Don’t train them for more than 1 hour
  • Encourage – praise
  • Have fun yourself
  • Let them play
  • Encourage fair play
  • Encourage good habits (punctuality, warm ups)
  • Demonstrate the skill


Equipment requirements

The equipment listed below is some of the different types of equipment that can be used for training/preparation. Equipment for lower to middle functioning athletes:

  • Many different sized balls (small to large rubber balls as well as softballs)
  • Hoops
  • Bean bags
  • Tees
  • Bases
  • Foam bats
  • Foam balls

Equipment for high functioning (some middle of the range)

  • Softballs (may require soft core or soft stitch balls)
  • Bases including pitching plate and homeplate
  • Bats
  • Helmets
  • Gloves

Pitching distance 12.19 metres (40 feet) and bases are 18.29 metres (60 feet).


AnchorSuggested rules

Low/middle functioning

  • These athletes do not need gloves
  • If numbers are low then you can play 6 aside looking at fielding the infield
  • These athletes may shy away from hard balls so foam bats and balls elevate this problem.
  • The rules remain the same as T-ball, third strike batter is out, bat nine then change over if not out
  • This is meant to be fun and encourages the individuals to use many different skills
  • You can still have a toss etc and pick whether to bat or field (and like all children they will choose to bat)
  • The garbage bins and hoops can be used for target practice, many different skills can be worked on, and these skills can begin the training and then finish with a game
  • In a game situation some athletes will need guidance in picking up the ball and who to throw it to; they may also need a volunteer to run along side them to guide them to the bases
  • You are encouraged to run with them rather then holding there hand. In the beginning you may start by holding the hand but then at a later stage run beside them.
  • With the middle functioning they may be able to play a proper game of Tee-ball with the same rules as Tee-ball. This will depend if they understand what to do with a softball glove.

High functioning

  • These athletes play the game of slow pitch, with the bases being at the slow pitch distance
  • The rules are the same as slow pitch only with these athletes there is no sliding and unless notified no tagging either
  • No lead off; can only move to the next base when the ball is hit
  • Third strike is out whether caught or not
  • A walk if 4 balls or hit by a ball. A runner must tag up if a ball is caught on the full 10 players on the diamond – four in the out field.



  • Trish Mclean (Special Olympics)
  • Kathy Tessier (Softball Australia Sports CONNECT Case Manager)