Special Olympics athletes have led the global organization's evolution from participation to completion.

At the core of every change is a driving force that challenges conventions, alters expectations and spurs innovation to create something entirely new. For Special Olympics coaches, the driving force for evolving coaching philosophy to increase competition has been — who else? — the athletes themselves.

The organization has embraced the desire for increased competition from its athletes, seeing the call for change as an opportunity for improvement, not a threat to what makes Special Olympics stand apart. Similarly, many coaches believe that focus on real sport and real achievement is essential to progress and growing a culture of inclusion in communities across the world.

As official sponsor of Special Olympics Sport and Coach programming, Gallagher is proud to support the evolution of the organization and champion its mission to help people with intellectual disabilities (ID) face the future with confidence and express their talents and abilities.

Five decades of empowerment

Sport has the power to instill confidence, improve health and inspire a sense of competition, which has always served as the rock-solid foundation of Special Olympics.

The beginnings of Special Olympics centered on participation as a path to enhance socialization, change attitudes and support athletes.

"Like with all intellectual disability programs, 20 years ago there was a different approach to the needs of athletes with ID," says Ken Kavanagh, a 25-year veteran of the Special Olympics Ireland coaching community, "Quite a lot of what Special Olympics did worldwide was simply getting athletes involved and playing. That in itself was a great thing to do."

The shift from involvement to on-field competition

Veteran coaches have accepted the challenge to increase competitive play.

Today, coach education has increased, and with it, the demands on coaches to deliver the best possible level of coaching to each athlete while growing competition.

"There has always been a pendulum swing with coaching education and competition," says Annette Lynch, 33-year veteran coach and former D-1 basketball player, "When I started in Special Olympics in 1989, coaching was paramount. Now the swing is focusing more on competition."

Enhancing competition through the evolution of coaching philosophy means taking the most valuable lessons coaches have learned from their experience to improve the instruction provided to athletes. This process would not be possible without the responsive relationship the organization has always had to the needs of its athletes.

Coach Christin Santiago, from the Massachusetts Special Olympics, points to the ever-present support from the organization at every level to foster the mentality of competition as a means to improving personal growth for all athletes.

The future of Special Olympics coaching

Identifying successful coaching strategies is the first step to replicating success from one-on-one lessons to a global scale.

Increasing competition as a goal set by athletes presents challenges to coaches who, like their athletes, are unique.

"I believe completely in the fact that every athlete is unique. How they learn, how they develop and how they interact," says Kavanagh, "Because of this, I have always operated on a belief of having to learn many ways to coach the same thing to ensure that no matter what athlete of any ability level comes to me, I can coach them in a way that works best for them."

While coaches bring their own personal experience, background and perspective to their coaching philosophy, commonalities bridge every member of the Special Olympics coaching organization that impact their ability to bring out the best in their athletes.

"Creativity helps in discovering new ways to meet each athlete where they are and what to do to help them achieve," says Lynch. "The ability to break things down, determine the biggest thing that affects others, make concepts concrete and provide progressions of increasing challenges that are game related."

In many ways, the challenge for Special Olympics coaches lies in the person-centric nature of working with athletes with ID, forcing each coach to be completely present to respond to challenges as they come up at practice or in games.

Another way the organization has continued to evolve is by integrating Special Olympics athletes into coaches. New York Special Olympics athlete and coach Will Smith explains how his past experience serves as constant reminder of the fundamental attributes of strong coaches: "Seeing the experience from both sides has given me a constant reminder to train hard, study, be diligent and always come in with an open mind. Always remember to have as much fun coaching as if you were playing."

Special Olympics and Gallagher: Building confidence for the future

Community is the meeting place where competition takes place, but more importantly where camaraderie and confidence grows between athletes.

Increasing the competitive nature of Special Olympics coaching philosophy focuses on more than simply improving sport; it's also meant to enhance the relationships between teammates with the overall goal of improving socialization through inclusion.

"It's a team sport where friends and teammates are important," says Lynch, "Recognizing athletes' accomplishments, getting outside themselves and celebrating what athletes have been able to do, including going to competition together, staying together at the competition and cheering for each other."

Properly structured sports programs provide athletes with so many tools to help them in life in general. Whether that's confidence, skills development, team ethics and participation or many other skills, says Kavanagh, "All of these are transferable to life outside sport so effective and focused coaching for individual athletes can lead to so much more."

Gallagher has taken a proactive approach to supporting coaching through a multitude of programs, including the Mentorship Series — videos in which Gallagher employees with professional or collegiate sports backgrounds share their love of sport with a Special Olympics athlete with similar passions and on-field experiences. The resulting video series has been rewarding for all involved, and included veterans from the PGA Tour, NFL and NCAA soccer.

"My conversations with Tess [Tess Trojan, Special Olympics medalist from Ontario, Canada] for The Mentorship Series reinforced my appreciation for this partnership," explains Charles Warren, professional golfer and Gallagher area vice president. "Her approach to the game from a tactical standpoint was on-point, and I feel like we both learned a few things from each other about the game we love."

As community leaders, coaches use sport as a vehicle for social change and a springboard into socialization for athletes — both on and off the field — while simultaneously reaping personal rewards from their own participation. "There is nothing like it in the world," explains Lynch. "It can be a totally positive experience for both athletes and coaches. Things might be difficult at work, but when I got to practice, I saw the athletes and coaches, worked through practice, saw their improvements and smiles. Come forward, join the team, and enrich your life."

With a rich history of excellence and enthusiastic, qualified coaches at the helm, Special Olympics is dedicated to taking sport for their athletes into the future.