Dear Coach John,

What do you do when you have an athlete whose heart is set on a position but isn’t a good fit?

With our team sports, I have athletes that want positions on teams where their skill level is not currently high enough to compete successfully or safely.

Let safety be your first consideration. A softball athlete must be able to avoid injury from a hard-hit ball. If the athlete can safely be on the field, you can generally allow the athlete to play. The athlete’s skills and potential contribution to the team are considered but if you don’t have the appropriate level team available, you may want to put the athlete on a team above his/her current skill set.  I have found that this is the best way to teach those skills over time.  The rest of the team must be patient during competitions.  They are often the biggest cheer leaders for lower skilled athletes.

Individual sports are generally safer than team sports except for swimming and skiing. Swimming and winter sports require specific skills to maintain safety and we do not allow athletes to compete unless they have mastered minimum required skills in their event.

Examine your motivation.  With individual sports, safety is often the only challenge to athlete participation but with team sports, other issues come to play.  For example, you might have an athlete set on being a goalie in your soccer team but is unable to catch the ball because of a physical limitation. Before you sit them down to explain why you consider this role not appropriate, be clear on your reasons.  Is it safety?  Are you afraid that they might be bullied by their peers?  Are you afraid that they won’t be able to keep up?  You may need to defend your justification.  In any case, you can be candid as long as you are equally kind and compassionate in your approach.  Our athletes generally take what their coaches say as gold.  It’s important to take the time to explain to them why you feel they are not ready.  Alternatively, you can give them a safe place to try out the role during practices.  They may surprise you with their progress or come to their own conclusions about what position is best for them.  You can also set up the role as a goal to practice towards and if they have not met it by the regional competition, you can have them try again next season.  It’s important to include them and allow them to try, do their best, and have fun.  You may not win all your games, but as coaches, we have larger life lessons to teach.

Every athlete can find a Special Olympics event through which they can achieve success. We allow athletes to train at the level of their choice, developmental or not, and allow them to compete at that level in local competition.  All athletes training at higher than apparent levels have surprised us.

John Wray has been a Special Olympics coach for over 40 years.  He is currently the area director of Stanislaus County.