CrossFit classes level playing field for disabled

Personal trainer Peter Shaw volunteers his time to the Adaptive Athlete class each week. Photo: Supplied
Personal trainer Peter Shaw volunteers his time to the Adaptive Athlete class each week. Photo: Supplied

People of all sorts can be found at Les Mills in Auckland.

Huge muscle men, sporty, toned women, high school students, new mums, even fathers popping in on their lunch breaks. It seems like a decent variety of people, but in fact, they all have something in common. They’re all mentally and physically able.

They can pick up weights with ease. They have the coordination to run on a treadmill. They’ve known how to do sit ups and press ups since they can remember. Tasks like this are simple and second nature.

However, three times a week, on a Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, while all of these physically and mentally able people are working through their fitness programmes, another group of people are also working theirs. What’s different about this group is that they are mentally and physically challenged. Or as Michael Hynard calls them, “Adaptive Athletes”.

Hynard is a personal trainer at Les Mills and the head coach of the Adaptive Athlete programme. He set up the programme nearly two years ago when Sunnydene School contacted the gym with an interest in bringing students along to CrossFit classes for fitness.

As an ex-war vet with a passion for working with those with physical impairment and mental illness, Hynard took it a step further and has tailored a unique programme just for them.

“It’s a demographic that isn’t cared for enough in New Zealand,” says Hynard.

Sunnydene School specialises in equipping their special needs students with ‘real life’ skills. Once they leave school, they don’t have the ‘hand-holding’ they get through their years of study. Things, like catching a bus and making a sandwich, may be difficult for their students, but if shown how to do it correctly, it actually gives them much more independence and freedom. It enables their students to do the basic things that others take for granted.

Likewise, the Adaptive Athlete programme aims to enable the students physically.

Hynard, along with a team of volunteer trainers, runs the group through a specially-designed training programme with a four-week cycle that covers push, pull, squat and core.

Because these students are mentally and/or physically impaired they don’t necessarily have the opportunity to be as active as they might like to be. But given the right environment and support, the capability of the athletes is usually a lot higher than even their own parents are aware of.

Peter Shaw, a personal trainer at Les Mills and one of the volunteer trainers for the programme got involved back when the class first started. His nephew attended Sunnydene School and Peter encouraged him to join the Adaptive Athlete programme. He now enjoys watching his nephew grow as an athlete and as a person.

“Small successes are a big thing for him,” says Shaw. “He struggles physically because he’s so mentally disengaged that coordination becomes a difficult task. Small things like catching a ball are hard, even just simply taking instruction.”

But Shaw says that the smile on his nephew’s face when he realises that he’s accomplished something is well worth it all. The job of an Adaptive Athlete trainer is full of similar rewards, but like most things, it does come with a few challenges.

“It’s not a job for everyone,” says Shaw. “Some people are great trainers but just don’t have the personality to train these athletes. It takes a type of person to care enough to do it and to feel comfortable.

“It brings me down to earth as a trainer; you’re spending most of your time with physically able people. Then when you train with these kids, you have to stop in your tracks. You need to really break down the basics like press ups.”

Shaw says it really challenges him as a person and has taught him not to take anything for granted.

“The trick is that you have to adapt to how THEY learn. It takes 100 percent focus and lots of repetition, and it’s about those small wins. You may be back to square one the next week, but it all counts because they get to try again, and this gives them the opportunity to succeed again.”

Success is something all their athletes see. They send photos of the athletes training to their families and update them on their accomplishments.

“It’s cool when a parent sees a photo of their child doing something that they can’t even do themselves, let alone the fact that their child has more struggles than them,” says Shaw.

He goes on to recount one of the highlights of the job being when a parent received a video of their child training. The mother of the child burst into tears because she didn’t think her son would ever have been able to do what he was doing.

“It’s about always being that kid that’s not included, always getting left out because its too hard to get moving,” says Shaw. “We provide these athletes with a place they can come to learn and be around people who care. People who can challenge them to do things they can’t see themselves doing and do things they perhaps have never tried.”

“It’s a place for them to come that evens the playing field. It’s ‘their’ environment. There’s no comparison, no judgement. They’re able to try their hardest while being encouraged to just do the best that they can.”

Click here to follow Michael Hynard and his Adaptive Athlete programme on Facebook.

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