“How did you get them to do that?” Certainly not an uncommon phrase heard from parents when watching what their children, teens, and adults are capable of during an IF fitness session. The secret is our coaches don’t “get” athletes to do anything. Instead, we set a foundation based on the PAC Profile™ Method to address the most important areas of ability as they relate to fitness.

Fitness is often a fill-in-the-blank phrase, where we say it and expect the listener/reader to interpret it the way we are interpreting it or as a vague catch-all for anything exercise-related. From our perspective, fitness equates to developing physical skills that transcend the gym; having a clear effect on activities of daily living and quality of life. For these goals to be attained, we practice in the short term what will be valuable long-term.

We start with respecting the athlete in each of the three areas of ability: physical, adaptive, and cognitive. Physically, we have a human being who can perform, to some level of mastery, fundamental exercises. Adaptively, finding the motivating factor, or factors for one of our athletes is essential. We have a rule; “You can’t force fitness,” and for both short- and long-term success we continue to include choice and autonomy in programming.

Cognitively, respecting an individual’s ability to learn, to understand, and to generalize both kinesthetic and situational awareness is the key to our coaching model. Rather than designate individuals as “high” or “low” functioning, taking the time to discover their specific levels of ability and motivation enables not only an enriched experience, but one that prevents “overlooking” less obvious capabilities.

For those of you unfamiliar with our program model, we have four phases of exercises that we use in most sessions:

  1. Warm-up/Mobility
  2. Power
  3. Strength/Stability
  4. Games and Preferred Activities

In designing each program, we first consider each phase of exercise, then each of the primary exercises we use in that category.  Rather than have dozens (or even a dozen) different exercises in each phase, we concentrate on the 4-5 that will not only have the most immediate benefit but will serve as a prerequisite for building other skills. There are myriad variations of hurdle steps, and variation is appropriate once the initial skill is mastered. If our athlete demonstrates independent mastery over the exercise, not only is there a higher likelihood that the skill will generalize to other areas of life, but it gives us as coaches the “go-ahead” to progress with one or more challenging variations.

Taking a systematic approach gives us certainty about which exercises require continued support, and which are ready for advancement. It gives us specificity and a clear decision-making path.

Adaptive functioning refers to how motivated our athlete is going to be with a particular exercise or activity. sometimes we’ll have an athlete who is happy to just go along with instruction, and sometimes we’ll have an athlete who experiences a high level of anxiety or aversion to instruction, so we always have to have a plan for this. And so much of this comes from respecting our athlete and starting where they are at. A contingency-based approach is instrumental in conveying respect. We know the athlete is capable, and we work together to establish both understanding and routine. As coaches, we have our exercise selection and programming expertise, which will mean little if our athlete is not participating.

Cognitive functioning in our fitness realm can be summed as “Effective Reciprocal Communication.” When talking about Neuro Adaptive athletes, we need to discover both expressive communication and receptive skills. Cognitive functioning is going to tell us as coaches how we can best address this particular exercise for this specific athlete. At what point will they need the least support and have the greatest amount of focus and ownership? Passive participation looks quite different from active participation.

For family and professionals dedicated to bringing high quality fitness programs into the lives of neurodivergent individuals, here are the fundamental rules:

First:  Start where the individual is at. We know that there are often going to be significant motor and strength deficits, a regressed (or simpler) variation of an exercise is often the best choice. It is fine if we’re starting with only one or two repetitions of an exercise when we consider the adaptive functioning of an athlete who might not yet be ready for a full set of eight or 10 repetitions of an exercise. That will come with time.

Second: Contingencies build motivation. Use choice as an opportunity to build trust and engagement.

Third: Coach towards the current level of understanding. Limit excessive language and use a lot of demonstration.

The PAC Profile™ is our guiding light for assessing skills and delivering programs that meet our athlete’s needs and provide them with not only the strength and movement skills they need, but a more active life that they deserve.