'Unified' is the future: The experiences of Special Olympics unified sport coaches at the Youth Games


Special Olympics (SO) is an international organization dedicated to enhancing inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities. SO's Unified Sports provides an inclusive sporting experience where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities compete together. This study explored the experiences of coaches leading Unified Sports teams within schools (grades 7-12). All coaches self-identified as teachers of academic classes, with few identifying physical education as their primary course. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 Unified Sports coaches (71% females; 3 provinces) at the May 2019 Invitational Youth Games held in Toronto, Canada. Coaches from three of five sports were interviewed: basketball (6), bocce (5), and floor hockey (3). Data were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis. Three main themes with various subthemes were interpreted from the interview data. The Novelty of the Unified Sports Program was a negative and positive concept seen in the subthemes Not Yet a Priority and Unified is the Future, respectively. The theme of Requiring Specialized Education reflected the lack of experience many coaches described. Third, the Unique and Shared Coaching Strategies theme was explored through the subthemes They Can't Take the Lead and They're No Different. Coaches emphasized the need to use alternative coaching strategies for some SO athletes, whereas others highlighted the use of the same coaching strategies being used regardless of the athletes' abilities. Ultimately, this study highlights the need for further teacher education for those involved in SO Unified Sports, especially given the expressed buy-in of coaches to prioritize Unified Sports in the future.