Strategies for Coaching Competitive Athletes With Autism

Recently, a community basketball club reached out to us for assistance with a situation that they felt ill-equipped to handle. Their story is a common one, which is normally handled by “soft exclusion” of the athlete in question. In this case, they reached out for support and for that, we are grateful.
We asked a basketball coach who has dealt with this to provide suggestions. We were so impressed that we knew we needed to share.
The Situation
A ten-year-old with autism is a member of a competitive basketball team. Coaches and parents are complaining to the Club administrators about the boy’s behaviour at practices and during games. The parents of his teammates do not know that the boy is on the autism spectrum.
Club Response So Far
The competitive director spoke to the coach and the parent, in order to better communicate expectations and learn about potential triggers.
The dad has agreed to be team manager and be present at all times. Coaches will advise referees of athlete’s needs before games for greater understanding of behavioural quirks, and to look to bench for support when required.
1. Clear Expectations
  • Always check in with the player before each practice or game to go over game or practice plan and individual expectations
  • Make sure the coach praises and rewards positive behaviour; you will see the positive behaviour increase over time (but it takes time)

2. Model Acceptance

  • Above all, never punish the child.
  • If child is very competitive, let his teammates know that this is a good thing. Consistently and frequently have the coach tell him that is a massive positive to bring to the team.
  • Let all the players know that competitive players need to take breaks to ‘reset’. Going to the end of the bench to do some deep diaphragm breathing techniques often helps all players to reset.
  • There will be some nights where it will just be a struggle in practice. Have the player work on the side but not alone. Have him do some work on the side with 1 or 2 teammates. Don’t isolate him.

3. Practice Issues of Fairness

  • Practice situations of small struggles during practice to get all players used to small, manageable frustrations, like when the referee makes a bad call. Make fun “bad call” scrimmages a part of some practices. It will help all players deal with moving on from unfair situations.
  • Letting the refs know in advance is a great strategy. 99% of refs will be understanding, especially at younger ages.

What About The Other Parents and Players?

  • In dealing with the parents, you can let them know that the coaches are getting some support from the club. You may get some parents that are less understanding but don’t feel the need to satisfy their every concern.
  • If the player is having issues with any teammates, just make sure they are not covering them in practice or kept far away as possible to minimize conflicts.

It’s All Worth It

It takes time. My player had frequent meltdowns and was not able to finish shifts from U11-U13. Now, he is a leader on his team and is probably the calmest player under pressure on his teams.
At Ausome, we offer training that helps coaches learn strategies like those above as well as many other simple tools that will help coaches, players and parents feel supported, safe and included in any sport setting. Find out more.