How Team Sports Benefit Students With Special Needs



Many students with special needs have had a hard time throughout their schooling when it comes to physical education, especially organized team sports. This negative feeling towards sports and physical activity can carry over through adulthood.

As we now all know, data has consistently proven the importance of developing an exercise routine as a way to improve one’s health and overall self-esteem throughout life. “People of all ages can improve the quality of their lives and reduce the risks of developing coronary heart disease, hypertension, some cancers and type 2 diabetes with ongoing participation in moderate physical activity and exercise. Daily exercise will also enhance one’s mental well-being and promote healthy musculoskeletal function throughout life.” (Len Kravitz, PhD – The 25 Most Significant Health Benefits of Physical Activity and Exercise). So how can we encourage and/or motivate special needs students, especially those on the autism spectrum to make some type of exercise or physical activity part of their weekly routine?


One way to motivate autistic students to increase their level of physical activity may be to draw upon their love and comfort with electronics. By definition, social skills are a deficit of their disorder. According to the DSM V (American Psychiatric Publishing 2013), “People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age.” Participating in a team sport, therefore, which often involves being the last one chosen for the team and then requires them to understand the social nuances and cues required to get along with their team members, can be a very stressful situation for autistic individuals. For this reason, many children and adults with autism are much more comfortable in the “virtual world.”

The advent of game systems such as Wii has helped these individuals to increase their physical activity while still allowing them the comfort of utilizing electronics. Most of these games can be played individually or with extra players. Encouraging the individual to play a Wii game with another person will not only improve their level of physical activity, but will also provide them with an opportunity to improve their social skills. Pairing electronics with sports can be a great way to  decrease the anxiety and frustration for these individuals while, at the same time giving them a fun and comfortable outlet in which to increase their physical activity.

As stated so perfectly by Rozella Stewart from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (1996), “tasks and activities which learners associate with past success tend to stimulate interest.” Therefore, another advantage of utilizing electronics to motivate autistic students to exercise would be to start these students off in a place of confidence as opposed to fear. As mentioned earlier, team sports throughout ones school career can be very stressful (especially for a student with special needs). If a student is afforded the opportunity to learn and play these games within a video game setting such as Wii where they are still expected to be active, they will be pairing sports with a positive experience.The hope would be for the student to no longer feel frustrated and anxious about sports/exercise but positive and excited about it. Quite simply, “Success begets success” – Anonymous

The hope would be that this, in turn, will improve not only the students’ physical heath but their overall mental and emotional health as well.


Another effective way to motivate way to students on the spectrum to increase their level of physical activity can be to offer them choices. More “traditional” games such as baseball and football are great, and many students may jump at the chance to participate in them. However, in our many years working with special needs students, we have seen students “thrive” when given a choice. A choice can allow the student to feel the freedom to do what they want, thereby allowing them to feel like they have some control in their lives. When you think back to gym class in high school, you showed up to class and the teacher told you what you were going to play for the day. If you hated it, you probably did it anyway but were not motivated to try your best or to ever do that sport again. You might have even tried to use an excuse to get out of the class for that day. However, if you were given a choice between at least two activities/sports, you may have felt differently and looked at gym class in a more positive light.

Choices are not always possible in life. However, when these opportunities present themselves, benefits can be reaped. For example, NYIT’s Vocational Independence Program, “Fitness Friday” involves the students choosing between a myriad of activities for the afternoon. These activities
include yoga, basketball, walking, video fit, swimming, and circuit training. What is great about these choices is that they range from team sports to individual sports. The team sports “elective” allows the student to learn the rules of the game in a more supportive environment while also learning how to be a good teammate, a good winner, and a good loser. The individual fitness electives allow the student to get some good exercise without the stress of social interactions. The hope is that each student leaves their chosen elective for the day (whatever it may be) with a positive feeling about their activity and a greater desire to make fitness a part of their lives.



There are so many benefits of enrolling your student into a team sport. For those on the shy side and that need the encouragement to find their voice, a team sport can offer them self-confidence and support from the team to come “out of their shell.” For those that have an abundance of energy, a team sport can offer them a positive avenue to get their energy out. And for those that are social and enjoy being around others, team sports can provide them the opportunity to showcase their social and leadership skills.

Ross Morrison, a sports expert with the NSW Department of Education and Communities, has said, “When you play a team sport you learn that it doesn’t come down to the best player.” Team sports allow each individual player to bring their own abilities and strengths to the team to make to make it more strong and efficient. Teaching our students that while we cannot always control how the game is going to end, they learn that they can always try their best and put in effort to support their  teammates.

According to team sports give kids the opportunity to:
• be less selfish and to think of other people;
• deal with losing as well as winning. They learn that things are not going to go their way, or the team’s way, all the time;
• overcome shyness by putting them into situations where they need to communicate with others;
• become more sociable in different environments.

They have to deal with different people, who may or may not be their friends.


While our students attend school, they have to learn how to navigate a variety of social  environments. When they are a part of a team sport, they can learn effective communication skills that can transfer to their everyday lives. Being part of a team is much more than just being a player. They have to learn how to communicate with the other members of the team, whether they are loud and overbearing or shy and passive. Better communication skills can lead to stronger peer relationships and advocacy skills. At Discover Soccer, they have summed it up perfectly: “Social success is built on our ability to communicate correctly and appropriately.”


Many students that we have worked with “on the spectrum” have had definitive interests that many may not consider to be “usual.” They may have preoccupations and fascinations that may be considered “bizarre” or strange. (Stewart, 1996). Why not use these “fascinations” as a strength
that can be tied into a physical activity? For example, if a student has a fascination with trains, travelling, and reading maps, you can utilize this interest to get them interested in bike riding. Using a stationary bike, the student can be challenged to map out and then complete a route that can take them from point A to Point B. Another example could be to turn a student’s interest in all things “Hunger Games” to an introduction to archery.

Most important of all, you need to get to know your student. With this knowledge, their idiosyncrasies that may have led to negative experiences throughout much of their lives can be utilized to their advantage – not only physically, but emotionally as well.•

Helene Schorr is a social counselor and instructor for the NYIT Vocational Independence Program.
She has a Master’s degree in school counseling from CW Post.
Erin Vlasak is the Director of Student Services for NYIT VIP. Erin oversees the social counseling, residential life, medical and fitness programs. She has a Master’s degree in College Student Development from Long Island University.



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