Working Wonders with Tai Chi for Special Olympics Athletes
by Jim Starshak, the First Place winner in the Teacher Group of
ATCQA 2012 Writing Contest
As with most Tai Chi
instructors, I am inspired when my students practice between classes and move
through their forms with grace and balance. Although I have taught many classes,
the students in my most rewarding class never really attained the grace and
balance that some say is critical for "proper" Tai Chi.
It was several years ago when I was asked
to start a Tai Chi class for local Special Olympics athletes. I was a little
apprehensive—especially when the staff mentioned that the athletes might forget
what I taught from one week to the next and there may be inadvertent disruptions
Jim (in the middle on the front row) and his Special Olympics athletes students doing Tai Chi on the 2011 World Tai Chi & Qigong Day
I must admit, I never would have taught
Tai Chi to these wonderful students had it not been for my Tai Chi friends and
the following Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: "Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful
engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your
whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic,
and faithful; and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever
achieved without enthusiasm."
Before agreeing to teach, I reflected on
Emerson's words. Only then did I enthusiastically turn to my Tai Chi friends for
advice. I first called Jef, a friend in Miami who had been teaching Tai Chi to
people with Multiple Sclerosis for several years. We talked for an hour
discussing teaching and doing Tai Chi. Jef did not tell me how to teach the
class, but together we bounced ideas off each other on ways that could help my
class run smoother. Jef demonstrated how he puts his whole soul into his
Feeling a bit better, I emailed Pam, a Tai
Chi friend and mentor in Colorado. As with Jef, Pam was very encouraging and
gave me pro-active suggestions on teaching, safety, and modifications for this
population. Pam also recommended that I contact Charlie, who has been teaching
Tai Chi for several years to people with disabilities in Rhode Island. Pam
illustrated how to be active, energetic, and faithful with students.
Even though we had never met, I called
Charlie and he eagerly gave me dozens of proven tips from his teaching
experiences. During a couple of lengthy phone calls we shared ideas on how to
have my students help lead warm ups and focus on what is coming next, using
certificates of achievement, limiting class size, and occasionally bringing
treats like cookies. Charlie did not just want my class to work; he wanted it to
excel! Charlie definitely stamps each class with his own personality.
Then it was time for me to put my soul
into this class and to energetically stamp it with my own personality. I spent
the first class on fun introductions and Tai Chi warm ups. As I taught them Tai
Chi, I related how their postural alignment, breathing, and controlled weight
shifts would help their sports performance. After showing them how the Tai Chi
principles relate to their daily activities, many started incorporating these
principles into their work, practices, and events.
There were challenges. Tracy, one of the
female athletes, had to be very close to me during every move. So I modified one
Tai Chi form just for her, which I call the "Single Whip to High 5!" Amazingly,
by permitting this one special "High 5" touch, I effortlessly met her tactile
needs and she kept her space throughout our future classes.
As I am sure it is with many special
populations, their Tai Chi may never be as graceful as you may see in other
classes, but the calming and healing effects are more beautiful than I can truly
express with words. For instance, before starting Tai Chi, Dan would get mad at
basketball practice and cuss, yell, and kick the ball off the court. After 3
months of Tai Chi, he was more focused, found his inner strength, and that
season his coach never saw him lose his temper. Sure Dan got frustrated, but Tai
Chi helped him deal with it in a more positive way. Dan now says that Tai Chi
helps him relax before he competes in all his sports: basketball, softball,
bowling, and track & field.
George is a big and strong man who reminds
me of a football offensive lineman. At a Christmas party, someone made an
inadvertent, yet harsh, comment to George. He promptly threw down his food,
knocked over his chair, and stormed out of the room. Jerry, a staff member,
checked on him in the dimly lit hall and there was George standing quietly doing
repetitions of Sun-style "Open and Close Hands". Jerry realized he was doing his
Tai Chi and let him be. Several minutes later, George returned to the party and
was calm and sociable the rest of the evening.
I could go on with more examples, but none
of them are about how well they do Tai Chi. For this group, I found it was not
really important if their hands were aligned or their steps were in the right
place. As a Tai Chi teacher, it was truly enlightening to see how Tai Chi
provided them with tools to help them relax, find their inner self, build their
self-confidence, and succeed in their own way.
As a teacher, I have witnessed Tai Chi
work wonders for Special Olympics athletes and I know it will help other special
populations as well. I challenge you to reflect on Emerson's quote and then find
a way to bring Tai Chi into the lives of a special group of people near you.
Perhaps Jennifer, a 25-year veteran as a Special Olympics athlete, summarized
Tai Chi best when she simply said, "It's been a lot of fun!" .