Most people know the saying: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
This disparaging adage about teachers and coaches doesn’t give people who dedicate their lives to educate and empower others enough credit. Special Olympics coaches are appreciated not just because of the dedication to their craft, but also for their willingness and patience to work with another forgotten and disparaged community — people with intellectual disabilities.
Obviously, the athletes are the blood of Special Olympics Missouri — the reason for the program — but the coaches are the arteries; they are the reason it is able to serve more than 16,700 athletes around the state of Missouri on a yearly basis.
SOMO simply couldn’t function without its coaches.
Two coaches who are really making a difference in mid-Missouri are Terri Hilt and Laura Wacker.
Different paths, same destination
Hilt and Wacker have been coaching or assisting with SOMO for 13 and 8 years respectively. While they’re now both coaching alongside each other on the Mid-Missouri Tiger Sharks swim team, they took different paths to get where they are today.
Hilt’s brother has been a Special Olympics athlete for more than 20 years. After seeing how much fun her brother had, Hilt wanted in on the action and has been doing it for the past 13 years.
“The athletes are my reason to keep doing it,” Hilt said. “If you’re having a bad day they can brighten you up. They’re always happy to see you. It’s like one huge family.”
Wacker has been a swimming coach for more than 30 years at high schools around Columbia and Stephens College, which is where she first started helping with SOMO athletes eight years ago.
After the Stephens College pool closed a few years ago, Wacker said SOMO was in need of another coach for the team.
“My (swimming team members) would work with some of the Special Olympics athletes as part of a giving project they did,” Wacker said. “That was just the beginning and I just kept working with them.
“There are these really great instances of joy while coaching. That’s not the kind of thing you have with every swim team. I have done it for two winters now and it’s been an awesome experience,” she said with a smile from ear to ear.
“I like working with athletes that are really willing to work. I like that the athletes are willing to be the best they can be and are very dedicated. They are very appreciative of the success they do have and really enjoy participating.”
Patience, not expertise, is key
With 21 Olympic-type sports offered by SOMO, there is something for everyone — athletes and coaches alike.
Both Wacker and Hilt agreed it doesn’t matter how much or little you know about a sport when you agree to become a SOMO coach. The SOMO coaching department has plenty of resources available to help new coaches understand a sport and its rules.
“I don’t really know all of the fundamentals, but I had wonderful assistants to help me with the things I don’t know and then I help them tweak that to apply it to the athletes,” Hilt said.
Having patience and the ability to quickly change lessons and adapt them to athletes’ needs are both more important to coaching than knowing the sport itself, according to Wacker and Hilt.
“You have to think outside of the box,” Hilt said. “You can’t be straight forward. If something isn’t working, you have to be willing to adapt.”
Wacker said, “I’ve been a coach of swimming for 30 years now, so I’m used to the scenario of coaching, but Special Olympics added another element. Not all of your instructions are going to be understood the first time. You might tell an athlete to do something and … they’ll take off and do whatever they think it is.
“You have to understand that each athlete is different and needs to be able to understand what you’re trying to convey — for each person, that’s going to be different. You might have to give instructions 10 different ways for everybody to understand what it is.”
A great way to help some of the athletes is leading with someone who has comprehended the instructions to show the others just how it is done, she said.
Hilt stressed the importance of really pushing the athletes past where they, and so many others, even thought they could go.
“A lot of coaches think (the athletes) are so cute — and that they can get away with anything,” Hilt said. “The athletes know that and will walk all over you if you let them, but I tell coaches to push the athletes. Because if you push them, they will (succeed).”
All in all, incoming coaches aren’t expected to know everything about their sport or even coaching in general; all of that can be taught to the coaches.
“It’s a real learning experience,” Hilt said. “I knew a lot because I grew up with my brother, but I didn’t know everything. I didn’t know how Special Olympics worked. Just getting involved doing volunteer work and at fundraisers … the more you get involved the more you benefit.”
Whether you’re a coach, an athlete or a family, being involved with Special Olympics Missouri is like being a part of one big family. You aren’t alone in any of this.
In order for this kind of relationship to thrive, trust and communication are important at every level.
“There’s a lot of communication that goes on between parents and coaches and athletes…,” Wacker said. “A lot of times athletes aren’t able to convey what they’d like to achieve with you as much as they are with their parents. So you work with the athlete and the parent to kind of figure out their goals.”
“The parents are great resources in your coaching.”
Leanna Krogman, 29, has been a SOMO athlete since 2004; her mother Connie Dewey attributes most of the positive changes in her daughter’s life to SOMO and its coaches.
“She is much more outgoing and has developed social skills due to her involvement in Special Olympics,” Dewey said of her daughter.
“The experience offered by the activities has given her joy and happiness, providing endless opportunities to stay active and involved.”
As for the coaches, Dewey said Leanna, who swims for Wacker and Hilt, hangs on their every word.
“She truly looks up to them and thrives when she sees that they believe in her abilities,” she said.
“I appreciate their individual attention toward Leanna helping her to see her full potential. They can get her to do things a parent could never get their child to do!”
Why they do what they do
In all of her years of coaching swimming, Wacker said she has never been around a group of athletes who are just as happy cheering on their teammates as they are if they won themselves.
“They’re just very supportive of each other at practice and at meets,” Wacker said. “I coached high school swimming too and a lot of times we had to really tell the other athletes to cheer for the other people in the water and remind them they have teammates that need cheering.
“You don’t ever have to remind Special Olympics athletes to cheer for anyone else. They’re constantly cheering for their teammates. It’s one of their sources of joy as well as winning. They like to be cheered for, but they really like to cheer for other people.”
Looking back and seeing how far some of the athletes have come even in only a couple of years is what Hilt said keeps her coming back week after week to every practice and competition.
“I have an athlete in swimming right now — he started (two years ago) and was a real rope hugger,” Hilt said. “And now he’s 10 and swimming (100 meters consistently). The first time he got in the pool and swam a 25-meter, I cried. It was so hard to get him to swim and do all of the strokes that I cried the first time I saw him fly down the pool.
“To see them accomplish what most doctors told them they wouldn’t be able to do … it’s just awesome.”
To find out more information on becoming a Special Olympics coach, go to www.SOMO.org/coach.