The role of a Special Olympics coach goes far beyond teaching the rules of the playing field. Coaches in the movement wear many hats – mentors, cheerleaders and most importantly, friends to the athletes. The guidance of these coaches allows athletes to develop strength and skill, friendships and a deep sense of belonging.
Once a year, Special Olympics Massachusetts invites the coaches of the movement to come together for an overnight leadership conference where they can expand their education, interact with other coaches, and be celebrated by the organization.
Matt Ruxton, Vice President of Sports and Operations at Special Olympics MA and organizer of the conference, said that in addition to the education piece, it is a great way for the organization to show appreciation for their coaches. “We give them swag, the hotel room, meals,” Ruxton said. “It’s a way of us saying thank you. And I think they all really enjoy it too.”
The leadership conference kicked off on the evening of Thursday, October 12th with a tasty Tex-Mex dinner. After dinner, all attendees were assigned to a table where they discussed volunteer recruitment and retention with their peers. The table assignments allowed everyone to meet and connect with new people that they may not have before. The night continued with a social hour where coaches could mingle and get to know one another.
“It’s a great networking tool” said John Ford, a coach with Special Olympics MA for 37 years. “To me it shows just how far SOMA has come. It’s good to get together with other folks and see what their program is doing and a lot of great discussions and team building so it’s excellent.”
On Friday, the fun continued. After an early breakfast, Special Olympics MA’s President and CEO, Mary Beth McMahon addressed the group. The educational trainings continued throughout the day with a session about Special Olympics MA’s innovation project and new website, a floorball presentation, lunch, and multiple breakout sessions in the afternoon.
Ruxton believes that coaches come back year after year because they live and breathe the mission and they want to bring things back that are going to improve the lives of their athletes.
“They learn so much from each other,” Ruxton said. “Just by talking to people who have similar experiences and sharing those experiences with one another – the frustrations, the successes – they enjoy it, and they are all friends.”
One of the newest coaches in attendance, Jared Fein, has an older brother that competes in a Special Olympics program in Upstate New York. Jared has been involved with the movement since he was a little boy and after living abroad for a few years, felt that piece of his life was missing. He recently moved to Massachusetts and immediately reached out to get involved. To him, the leadership conference was the perfect way to learn the ropes.
“I got an email about the coaches conference, and I was glad,” Fein said. “Everyone here has such a great story—hearing all of their journeys and what they do and where. Being new to Mass, learning the geography and how the programs work, it’s all new information and this is a great way to figure it all out.”
The conference is a change of pace from the day-to-day responsibilities most coaches have. It is a chance for them all to connect with one another, have important conversations and simply have some fun.
“Anytime we can get everyone together and have the networking and bonding experiences,” Ruxton said. “I think it improves the mission and the program overall.”