As coaches, we often find our creativity and skill set challenged by the limitations and strengths of our athletes. These scenarios force us to grow and expand our tool box to accommodate the needs of a given situation. Usually, this comes in the form of some common outliers – unusually strong/weak athletes, athletes undergoing rehabilitation, youth athletes, older athletes, etc.
However, when confronted with adaptive athletes, oftentimes coaches find themselves at a loss. There is very little information and resources for catering training to these special populations but when I came across adaptive athlete, coach, and author Travis Pollen, I knew I had struck gold.
In my interview with Travis, I ask the obvious and not so obvious questions about training individuals with paralysis, amputations, and other physical barriers. The answers were above and beyond what I expected. In Part 1, Travis helps empower coaches through knowledge and understanding of adaptive athletes, while in Part 2 we will dive into the physical training approach. The process starts by recognizing that we are all, in our own way, adaptive athletes.
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Can you define “adaptive athletes” and examples of who may fall into that category?
In truth, we are all “adaptive,” whether it’s a bum shoulder, high blood pressure, or excess bodyweight. That is to say, just about everyone has to adapt their training to suit their unique bodies and needs. Strictly speaking, though, some examples of adaptive athletes you might see participating in, say, an adaptive CrossFit competition are individuals with amputation, paralysis, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury.
Travis Pollen pictured above.
Can you provide us with a brief history about yourself and how you came to train and coach?
I was born with a rare birth defect called proximal femoral focal deficiency. In simpler terms, I’m a congenital above-knee amputee. Despite my physical difference, I was always athletic. (My mom likes to tell the story of how I was hopping around the living room pitching balls at 9 months old.) On a whim my sophomore year of high school, I joined my high school swim team and never looked back. I trained year round for the next seven years and fell just short of qualifying for the 2012 Paralympic Games.
To aid my performance in the pool, I began weight training and fell in love with it – perhaps even more so than swimming itself. Thus, when I graduated college in 2012 and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my physics degree, I decided to obtain my diploma in personal training from the National Personal Training Institute of Philadelphia. Lo and behold, I absolutely loved training and don’t ever plan to stop. I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in biomechanics at the University of Delaware for additional credentials.
As an adaptive athlete yourself, what are some of the unique challenges you faced in strength and conditioning?
I can’t perform traditional squats and deadlifts due to mobility restrictions, so the biggest challenge for me has been finding the lower body exercises that best suit my unique anatomy. When I was just starting out in the gym in high school, I was only worried about improving my swimming performance, so I focused entirely on strengthening my unaffected leg since my short leg didn’t provide much propulsion. Over the years, though, all the unilateral squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts have taken their toll on my lower back. Nowadays, I focus on strengthening my legs with exercises that I can perform bilaterally like stiff-legged deadlifts, glute bridging, and back extensions.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about training adaptive athletes?
The biggest misconception is that there are limitations to what they can do. For instance, if you have an athlete with one arm, you might assume that pull-ups are out of the question. Look no further than videos of one-armed CrossFitter Krystal Cantu to discover that pull-ups are absolutely doable with the help of a couple of cleverly placed bands. With some creativity, just about anything is possible, and just because no one has done it before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Are the common goals of adaptive athletes dissimilar from those of other athletes?
The general population is after weight loss, fitness, etc. Then gradually, their goals evolve to encompass strength and power and skill. I would venture to say that the goals of adaptive athletes may be a bit loftier than those of other athletes. We’re starting at a disadvantage – with more “barriers to entry” – so we have to dream big. Thus, in our training, I think we tend to supercompensate (work even harder than the typical athlete) in order to prove to others that we’re not damaged goods.
Do you feel strength and conditioning is an important element physically and mentally and why?
To me, strength and conditioning (and fitness in general) are everything. If I don’t get to the gym for a few days, I don’t feel right. I’m more tired and irritable; I don’t eat and sleep as well. I really think everyone in the world should resistance train, or at least engage in some form of exercise they enjoy almost every day of the week. Frankly, if we don’t have our health, we can’t live our lives. Being strong and conditioned equates to being self-sufficient, especially as we age. Good training habits from a young age make deposits on our future bodies and set us up for healthy habits later in life. This is especially true for adaptive athletes, who might be at even greater risk than normal if, say, they’re in a wheelchair all day.
In Part 2 of Training Adaptive Athletes, Travis will educate on how best to assess capabilities and build upon strong foundations. As he’ll explain, it’s not about purely making modifications, it’s about choosing movements that make sense for that athlete.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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