Today’s comprehensive soccer clubs offer opportunities for a wide range of individuals. Programs are designed for children, youth and adult players as both the recreational and competitive levels. Many clubs also offer programs for individuals with physical and mental disabilities. In fact, the goal of the TopSoccer program offered by US Youth Soccer is to provide young athletes with disabilities an opportunity to become valued and successful members of the soccer community. Other programs like Special Olympics attempt to provide year-round sports training for children and adults with intellectual disabilities to develop physical fitness, enhance social skills, and foster friendships. Are these programs effective? In a collaborative effort between researchers in Israel and Turkey showed that a soccer training program improved fitness and psycho-social attribute of the intellectually challenged participants. In non-disabled partners, the program also affected fitness and improved their attitudes towards individuals with disabilities.
This study focused on male children (12-15 years old) with diagnosed intellectual disabilities (ID). To be included in the study, the children needed to be physically healthy without secondary disabilities such as visual impairment, psychiatric disease, brain injury or Downs Syndrome. They were selected from a regional special education school in a large urban community located in Turkey. The partners (non-ID) were selected from a pool of 7th and 8th graders who attended the regular school. After selection, the ID and non-ID subjects were placed, at random in an 8-week soccer training group or a control group. Before and after the 8-week period, researchers measured height, weight and body fat and administered various fitness and soccer skills tests to both groups.
The soccer training program was called the Special Olympics Unified Sport soccer program. It was progressive in nature and included stretching, coordination, strengthening, running and tactical exercises performed with and without the ball. All sessions were conducted by coaches who were qualified in working with ID children. Partners also trained alongside of the ID children. Training was held after school, three times per week for 90 minutes each day. After eight weeks, a 2-week soccer tournament was held and participants were awarded ribbons based on their team’s outcome.
At the end of the program, researchers found that the participants improved their fitness and soccer skills more so than the control group. This was the case for both the ID and non-ID partners, although the non-ID subjects’ gains were more modest. In particular, trunk and lower limb strength was improved as was dribbling, shooting and passing. The control groups also showed some changes but these were considered quite minor. The training program did not result in significant weight loss. This may be because the participants were considered to fairly lean before the study began (average body mass index was around 20).
Earlier, this research group published the effects of their program on psychological and sociological attributes of the ID and non-Id participants. They reported that the unified soccer training program improved the social competence and friendships of the ID subjects. Problem behaviors were also reduced with training. In addition, the non-ID subjects showed improved attitudes towards children with disabilities, particularly towards those intellectual disabilities.
Based on their results, the investigators concluded that an after-school soccer training program can benefit the health status of children with intellectual disabilities by improving fitness, soccer skills as well as psycho-social attributes. In addition, this program benefits non-ID partners as well, in terms of both fitness and attitudes towards children with disabilities. The researchers further suggest that coaches, teachers and administrators consider a unified soccer training program that involves children with and without intellectual disabilities.
This study clearly supports the efforts of the US Youth Soccer TopSocer program as well as the Special Olympics programs. Soccer training can improve the health and well-being of ID children. As an added bonus, such programs can improve the fitness and attitudes of the non-ID helpers.
Baran F, Aktop A, Özer D, Nalbant S, Ağlamış E, Barak S, Hutzler Y (2013) The effects of a Special Olympics Unified Sports Soccer training program on anthropometry, physical fitness and skilled performance in Special Olympics soccer athletes and non-disabled partners. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34: 695-709.
Özer D, Baran F, Aktop A, Nalbant S, Ağlamış E, Hutzler Y (2012) Effects of a Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer program on psycho-social attributes of youth with and without intellectual disability. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33: 229-239.