Roping in the Fun Using Fitness Ropes with Special Needs Athletes
One of the reasons Autism Fitness programming works for my athletes is the selection of equipment that we use. Any tool is only as good as the coach using it and the programming methods he/she employs. When the method is sound and the approach appropriate, a variety of nifty gear creates new opportunities for developing physical skills and having the fun. One of my go-to items are long, 1-1.5” diameter ropes commonly called “Battling” or “Fitness” ropes. Here’s what you can do with them and what they can do for your athletes.
Might I add, before I get on with this rope thing that I use the term “athlete” to mean any person, of any skill level, that is regularly active and improving his/her abilities over time, is engaged with physical activity, and enjoys some aspect of movement. We have far too narrow a definition right now, as athlete usually refers to someone who plays one of a few sports. Anyhow, rope time.
With rope swings we can develop power, strength, endurance, coordination, and stability. Not a yawn-inducing list for something that has an ever-so-slight learning curve and is probably the safest fitness activity I know. Ropes are naturally accommodating. An athlete with very low muscle tone can perform them to the best of their ability, as can a highly skilled elite-level one. In group settings, rope swings can be immediately regressed or progressed depending on the individual. I’ve also used them as a partner activity.
When I introduce my athletes to the ropes I usually employ only two verbal cues; “Pick up the ropes” and “Swing.” Then I stand back to see how they interpret this. Sometimes they get it right away, vigorously moving their arms up and down. Occasionally, they need a visual cue, either my swinging the ropes in demonstration mode or my standing next to them and mirroring the swinging movement. At most I may have to provide a hand-over-hand (my hands on theirs) prompt for them to get a feel for the activity. Once they get a good ten to twenty swings in, the motor pattern imprints remarkably quick, even for athletes who tend towards lower cognitive functioning.
I teach four basic rope swinging patterns to my athletes:
1) Double Swings: Both arms swinging the ropes at the same time
2) Alternating Swings: Right/Left, Left/Right
3) Single Arm Swings: Right arm with Left arm down Left arm with Right arm down
4) Jumping Swings: Jump up and swing at the same time or jump up then land and swing
Each type of swing has a particular rhythm, and coordination is a built-in dynamic of the activity. It also promotes counting. Some of my athletes working on counting up (or down), or simply needing increased verbal communication opportunities, seem to find counting easier when swinging a rope up and down. Interesting side note: When toddlers begin to babble there is most often a movement along with the sound; typically a “bouncing” or arms moving up and down. Because rope swings can be repetition-based, or time-based, they also serve as an outstanding activity for increasing tolerance to demand or task-based situations. An individual who may demonstrate a lot of difficulty standing in one place to perform medicine ball throws (or anything else, really), may hang around a little longer when swinging a rope up and down at an intense pace.
Ropes should always be anchored securely to a post or pole. I highly recommend getting a Fitness Anchor from www.FitnessAnchor.com they can be used indoors, though I prefer them as an outside activity in a park (or in my driveway). To start with programming, try having the athlete perform 10-15 repetitions of Double swings, and progress to 25 or 30. Time-based programming can begin at about 5 seconds for athletes who have either low physical and/or low adaptive functioning. The rope swings can be used as part of a circuit station setup as well. For a partner activity, I have athletes try to perform single arm or jumping rope swings in tandem, this adds an extra coordination challenge and often some laughter.
The Double swing is best for developing basic stability (feet stay planted on the floor) and strength endurance for the shoulders. Alternating swings provide these benefits as well, though with less of a reactive “oomph” because both ropes are not landing at the same time. Alternating swings do, however, provide that extra coordination and timing benefit. Single arm swings are slightly more advanced, and require the athlete to stabilize (isometrically activate the muscles) on the non-working side. Jumping rope swings are all about power and timing.
Rope swinging is a valuable addition to a fitness or Adaptive PE program and should be as fun for you as it is…or will be, for your athletes. Onnit.com carries some nifty-colored ropes if you feel the urge to put this information to use. In addition to the pictures here, I’ll soon have a few rope swinging videos up on my blog: EricChessen.com. You can sign up for my free newsletter at AutismFitness.com to get updates on new videos and articles.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS, is the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox (www.Autismfitness.com), PAC Profile Workshop series, and consults with special needs programs around the world. Available on www.Autismfitness.com