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Hayley Kavanagh (pictured above, middle)

Young Athletes Research and Development Coordinator, Special Olympics Ireland

Children with intellectual disabilities in Ireland are being offered a unique opportunity to achieve proficiency in fundamental movement skills and compete.

The Young Athletes programme, part of Special Olympics Ireland, is aimed at children aged 4–12 and could ultimately see them compete at the highest levels. Alongside it, new initiatives to enable coaches to better deliver fundamental skills are being introduced. 

Sports for children with intellectual disabilities 

Hayley Kavanagh, Young Athletes Research and Development Coordinator for the national governing body of sport for people with intellectual disabilities, says: “Through the programme, we strive to improve all of the basic skills associated with being able to participate in sport and physical activity. 

“The aim is to provide children with the fundamental movement skills to enable them to move into one or more of the sports that Special Olympics Ireland offers once they reach 12 years of age.” Some examples of the sports available include football, basketball, golf, swimming, athletics, bocce and floorball. 

We want these children to stay involved in
sport for life and Special Olympics is a
vehicle in which to achieve this goal.

Improving health and competitiveness 

Kavanagh says there is evidence of low levels of fundamental movement skill proficiency in children, potentially down to increases in sedentary behaviour and screen time. She warns that if young children do not develop these skills, the likelihood of them staying involved in sport and physical activity into adulthood decreases. The effort is now on to change that culture and close the skills gap between typically developing children and children with intellectual disabilities. 

Driven to see more children join the Young Athletes programme, Kavanagh says: “We had a team of 73 athletes participate in the World Games in Berlin, so we want to give these children the best opportunity to participate at this high level. The key is for them to stay involved in sport because we see an increased risk of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease and obesity among people with intellectual disabilities.”  

Specialised coaching and parental support  

Research also highlights gaps in providing sports coaches with relevant training and qualifications to deliver these skills. As a result, a new Young Athletes-specific course is being developed for coaches. 

Parents also have a role to play in sessions as some children need additional support

“That means the coach can focus solely on improving the fundamental movement skills,” she says. “It also builds the relationship between child and parent, and their perceptions of children change because they see the ability and competitiveness.”  

Across Ireland, there are currently 22 Young Athletes clubs and a further 189 community clubs for these children to progress into any sports. “We want these children to stay involved in sport for life, and Special Olympics is a vehicle in which to achieve this goal,” says Kavanagh. 

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