Sunday, October 26, 2014

Special needs interscholastic mountain bike racing

NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, has been expanding into Minnesota. This year #1’s high school participated in the mountain biking program, and he joined the team. He started riding with them this past summer.

Special needs and mountain biking are not an obvious combination, but despite his autism-spectrum cognitive disability #1 has been a pretty good recreational athlete. He’s played mainstream rec baseball, hockey, and soccer, learned swimming (mean butterfly), XC skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, road biking [1] and more. High school wrestling didn’t go too well, but I thought that one was seriously crazy.

So mountain biking wasn’t out of the question. He joined the team, did well on practices when I was able to join as a ride leader, and … 

… he completed two NICA mountain bike races - riding challenging courses for about 2 hours. He’s done some impressive things in his almost 18 years, but this was the toughest challenge he’s taken on.

It wasn’t easy for me either. Over the past two years, perhaps as #1 becomes more aware of the gulf between him and his neurotypical peers, he’s tended to make a good start on his sports teams but then get discouraged and anxious — and finally drop out [2]. This hits me on a tender spot - I’m not good with quitting. It doesn’t help that he usually wants me to be an active parent — so when I follow him out the door I leave his team short a parent volunteer.

I had to struggle to remember lessons from a year ago, but I was also inspired by a May 2014 NYT article on interventions that help low confidence college students…

Who Gets to Graduate? - NYTimes.com

Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed…

…  The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies….

… Every college freshman — rich or poor, white or minority, first-generation or legacy — experiences academic setbacks and awkward moments when they feel they don’t belong. But white students and wealthy students and students with college-graduate parents tend not to take those moments too seriously or too personally. Sure, they still feel bad when they fail a test or get in a fight with a roommate or are turned down for a date. But in general, they don’t interpret those setbacks as a sign that they don’t belong in college or that they’re not going to succeed there…

It is only students facing the particular fears and anxieties and experiences of exclusion that come with being a minority — whether by race or by class — who are susceptible to this problem. Those students often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication that they can’t succeed or don’t belong [3]

#1 isn’t going to college, but I think there’s a broad lesson hear for special needs students as well.

So, my part in this project was to keep it positive. I’d grind my teeth when he skipped practice, but I’d grind quietly. I backed off, didn’t get wound up [4], stayed positive. This only worked because his coaches were pretty laid back — something that may be more common in mountain bikers than baseball coaches. I kept the bribery to small things offered when he was obviously looking for something to boost his confidence.

It worked. We could play it again and it might work better or it might not work at all. We were right on the edge. 

Knowing he can do this though — that’s a confidence booster that was worth the wear and tear on the both of us.

- fn -

[1] The road biking has become his first self-discovered anxiety/stress control behavior. He does 10-15 miles a day, tracked using Find Friends.app

[2] My interpretation. It’s very hard to to judge his emotional states, I’m not sure they map onto common models.

[3] Not directly related to this post, but I grew up poor and ended up, by chance, at Caltech. I definitely felt like a fraud, I think I only succeeded because I had no other choice.

[4] Much. Except when the low end bike he started with reached end of life. I bought a decent race-quality (entry level) mountain bike, at which point he stopped mountain biking altogether. That cost me some enamel; I think he found it hard to make the transition to a new bike. Change.

See also

2 comments:

Steven Palmer said...

I'd like to talk with the author. My special needs son was the manager this year for the Corner Canyon High School Mountain Bike team (largest in the country). Last night we went to the final banquet of the year and the Executive Director of the Utah Mountain Biking association pulled us aside and wants him to ride next year. Something we never really considered before now. I just spoke with the owner of a local bike shop who's son also has special needs and we are strategizing about modified bikes and a special needs division for competitions.

JGF said...

Steven, love to talk. I sent you an email.