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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 during class.

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 teaching.

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!" .




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