Motivations for joining the Special Olympics

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While motivations for joining the Special Olympics vary from one person and one family to the next, common themes among individuals that choose to either participate or abstain from becoming involved are easily identified.

Self determination theory[edit]

Many studies around the participants of the Special Olympics point to the self-determination theory.[1] Self-determination theory is a theory of motivations. This theory was developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan at the University of Rochester.[2] This theory explains that our tendencies to behave in healthy and effective ways are instinctual.

Benefits of participation[edit]

Athletes get involved with the Special Olympics organization in different ways. Most (eighty-seven percent) join the Special Olympics programs before the age of eighteen, either through a school-based program or a community-based program.[3] The athlete joins to have fun, establish a sense of self-identity, and achieve trophies and medals.[4] It is typical once an athlete gets involved in a Special Olympic program to stay within the program for eleven to twenty years. During this time the athletes, along with training for their event once a week, participate in social activities with teammates outside of training.[3] These participants are able to feel comfortable and really build relationships with their teammates because most coaches of Special Olympics teams have had participants stay on their team for six or more years in the same sport.[3] This is magnified by having a supportive environment from family, friends, coaches and teammates.[4] Families have stated that they support their athlete to join the Special Olympics because it provides a support system for not only their child but the family as well. Of all the athletes in the United States that participate in the Special Olympics, only three percent make it to compete at the global level; however, thirty-eight percent compete at the state level, and the majority, fifty-two percent, compete at the local or regional level.[3] By having different levels of participation, the Special Olympics are able to include all athletes with intellectual disabilities on a personal level.

Parental influence and encouragement[edit]

Although many students get involved through a school or community-based program, the parents of the athlete have a lot of influence and make the final decision on whether their child will be allowed to participate in the Special Olympics. A study examining parents' motivations for allowing their children to become Special Olympics athletes and if their expectations were fulfilled by the organization found three main themes that parents looked for in the organization: finding the right fit, thoughtful instruction, and security of acceptance.[5] The study showed that 80% of the parents felt their children received a benefit from participating in the Special Olympics. Eighty-seven percent of the parents also reported an increase in their children's independence, community awareness, adaptability to new situations, and social capabilities.[5] Also, only two and a half percent indicated that the segregated nature of the program was a weakness.

Finding the right fit for a child is the most important aspect in creating an environment where the athlete can learn as well as succeed with all the confidence it takes to achieve their goals. Many parents stated that their children started in community-based programs with other children in their community. Once they grew up, though, the disparity in motor skills between children with and without developmental handicaps became too great for their children to succeed.[5] Many parents say their children can't succeed in community-based programs because instructors don't understand the Self-Determination Theory. The instructors must be able to set goals for their children in achievable amounts, much like coaches in the Special Olympics do.

As mentioned before, children gain social competence from being involved in the Special Olympics. Parents of athletes, however, have also noted that learning rules, working with others, setting goals, the relationship between hard work and success, and coping with failure were all attributes gained by participating in the Special Olympics program.[5] Many parents see an increase in their children's peer relationships after they join teams and get involved in the Special Olympics. Many parents appreciate the program for themselves as well; the program becomes a welcoming environment for parents, and they are able to feel connected and understood by the other parents involved in the program.[5] Many parents felt pressured in community-based programs to take responsibility and pull their kids out of the activity if anything went wrong. These kids were then looked at as jeopardizing the integrity of the program they were involved in.[5]

Physical benefits[edit]

Getting involved in the Special Olympics is also a way to have these athletes engage in physical activity. A study done shows that there is a very noticeable disconnect between the importance of exercise in adults with special needs and the willingness to complete these daily exercises. Studies like these have also shown children and adults with special needs respond to physical exercise differently. This directly relates to the high levels of Cardiovascular disease, obesity, and low muscle capacity in adults with intellectual disabilities.[6] By not having the muscle capacity adults with intellectual disabilities also do not have what is considered average endurance. This along with producing health risks puts a hindrance on the ability for these adults to perform at work.[6] Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death for the United States population; there is no exception for adults with intellectual disabilities. Cardiovascular disease is actually more prevalent in adults with intellectual disabilities. It accounts for up to fifty percent of deaths in certain populations.[7]

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) states that regular physical activity greatly reduces risk for morbidity and mortality associated with chronic diseases, diabetes, certain cancers and obesity.[8] The physical activity recommendations stay consistent throughout special needs youth. The recommendations say that a child should participate in sixty minutes or more of age and developmentally appropriate physical activity every day of the week.[8] These aforementioned diseases or illnesses start to come about when these kids are not meeting this recommendation.

Psychological benefits[edit]

Many athletes that participate in the Special Olympics gain much more than just physical fitness. Athletes that join the Special Olympics organization have been shown to have an increased self-worth and social competence. Generally, competence comes from a positive self-worth and positive motivation.[9] Many studies have been produced to find out how big of an impact Special Olympics has been on the lives of its participants. A study done at York University has shown that participants gain self-esteem, confidence, and independence. These athletes have also been able to promote community understanding of people with disabilities.[9] These studies have also shown these changes to take place after an eight- to ten-week training period, but with some athletes it only took one–two days.[9] Family support, understanding and involvement also increases with the participants confidence; once the athlete is more invested, then the family becomes invested as well.[9]

The United States Department of Health and Human Services states that by meeting the physical recommendations on a daily basis, it will lead to positive behavior, happiness, and intellectual and social outcomes in youth.[8]

Many children with developmental disabilities have an abundance of friends throughout their youth. Children during the elementary years are accepting of disabilities and went out of their way to make children with disabilities feel included in school. However, as kids grow up and mature socially, the children with developmental or intellectual disabilities were left isolated and deemed socially awkward. The Special Olympics becomes a safe haven for these kids and brings balance back into the athletes' lives. The relationships that the athletes form with one another are different from the ones they are able to form in schools because participants understand each other and are able to bond over a mutual interest and goal. The relationships started in the Special Olympics turn into great friendships that carry over into the everyday lives of these athletes. The idea of isolation or sitting at home with their parents is completely lost.[5]


There are some views that discourage members to join the Special Olympics. Some feel that the Special Olympics in itself are a form of segregation. This is because of the necessity to have a disability to participate. Some studies have shown that Special Olympic events do not lead to the reduction of prejudice and also reinforces negative stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities.[10][11] One of the main arguments against the Special Olympics organization is that there is a lack of normalization and promotion of negative images.[10] The lack of normalization comes from the differences in reaction to events. For example in previous years the Special Olympics would find people to stand at the finish line to hug the athletes once they've completed a race. Also, the Special Olympics do not announce anyone who's lost a race.[10]

There are many other documented reasons that people show disdain such as promotion of Handicapism, promotion of corporations, paternalism, athletic ability.[10] The promotion of Handicappism is a theory that when a set of practice is put in place to promote unequal treatment of people because of assumed mental disability it creates two classes of people "normal" and "disabled".[10] The integration of Corporations within the Special Olympics does help with fundraising and creates a large sum of donations to make these games possible. Yet, most of the promotions are more Public Relations related than promoting their hiring practices for people with intellectual disabilities. The term Paternalism is used to describe how the Special Olympics Organization is run. The board of directors have recognized only two of their board to have developmental disabilities. Therefore, the people doing the decision making and have the power of running this program are the people without disabilities. This is a negative image on the Disability rights movement where people with disabilities control the service delivery system rather than relying on people without disabilities.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Special Olympics 2010 USA National Games". Retrieved 15 October 2011. 
  2. ^ "Self Determination Theory: An Approach to Human Motivation & Personality". Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d Siperstein, Gary; Harada, Coreen; Parker, Robin; Hardman, Michael; McGuire, Jayne. "A Comprehensive National Study of Special Olympics Programs in the United States" (PDF). Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Lavallee, David (2005). "The Digest" (PDF). Sport & Exercise Psychology. 27 (2): 261–265. Retrieved 19 October 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Goodwin, Donna; Fitzpatrick, David (2006). "The Decision to Join Special Olympics: Parents' Perspectives". Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly. 23: 163–183. Retrieved 28 November 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Fernhall, Bo (April 1993). "Physical fitness and exercise training of individuals with mental retardation". Medicine & Science in Sports & Medicine. 25: 442–450. Retrieved 20 October 2011. 
  7. ^ Horwitz, Sarah (15 September 2000). "The health status and needs of individuals with mental retardation" (PDF). Retrieved 20 October 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c Pan, Chien-Yu; Frey, Georgia C. (May 2, 2006). "Physical Activity Patterns in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disordres". Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 36 (5): 597–606. doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0101-6. Retrieved 7 November 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c d Weiss, Jonathan; Diamon, Terry; Denmark, Jerry; Lavold Benedicte (July–August 2003). "Involvement in Special Olympics and its relations to self-concept and actual competency in participants with developmental disabilities". Research in Developmental Disabilities. 24 (4): 281–305. doi:10.1016/S0891-4222(03)00043-X. Retrieved 21 October 2011. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f Storey, Keith (2004). "The Case Against the Special Olympics" (PDF). Journal of Disability Policy Studies. 15 (1): 35–42. doi:10.1177/10442073040150010601. Retrieved 9 November 2011.