Disabled Athletes and Mind Power

Today almost all sports are available to disabled individuals. Those disabilities from spinal cord injuries, amputation, cerebral palsy, blindness, and deafness can now participate and no longer just for rehab treatment. Now, there are similar reasons between the able-bodied and the disabled when they partake a particular sport. That is for physical benefits and the thrill of competition.

To date, there is a lack of research on the psychological well-being of disabled athletes. Based on what we experienced, the disabled athletes are very much similar, psychologically, to their able-bodied counterparts. Specifically true in sports such as basketball, track & field, swimming, weightlifting and tennis. Even wheelchair marathon athletes have been found to have the same level of commitment as the highly motivated able-bodied fitness junkie, which says a lot.

But what about the obstacles that the able-bodied athletes won’t have to face? Is there something extra or some inner conviction that makes these “other-abled” more determined to excel despite their handicap? At the Paralympics games, we have seen and heard of swimmers with no arms, sprinters with one or no legs at all and basketball players who made the 3 pointers hoop from an average 8 out of the 10 tries. What is this drive that could lift an amputee from the anguish of a hospital bed to the supreme heights of athletic achievement?

Special Needs?

It has always been a goal to maintain the same level of challenges in any sports discipline between the able-bodied and the disabled. But clearly, the disabled athletes have needs specific to their sporting endeavors. Moreover, these needs are not limited to their physical aspects but also psychological well-being.

The First Hurdle

For both abled and disabled major competition respectively, determining the winner can be as close as one-tenth of a second in sports such as sprinting and swimming. At this point, the mental components would suggest the difference between a gold and a silver.

Researchers have found that athletic performance has three parts: physical preparation, technical skill, and psychological readiness. This model suggests that if any of the above areas are neglected, athletic performance will decline. Therefore, it is likely that there will be a need to implement psychological performance enhancement strategies that tailors to the disabled athlete.

However, the first hurdle many disabled athletes face would likely be their mental state. Imagine an amputee who recently lost a limb. The feeling of “incomplete” would cloud his/her mind. In this case, sports training can help to build the much-needed confidence beginning with “baby steps” and progressing gradually to a point where the athlete can compare his/her success with other elite Paralympic athletes. And what about those who has born disable? Like everyone else, the answer lies from the support the budding competitor receives at home, school and in the competition arena. Through denial at first, sports training can turn around and make even the impossible, possible.

Performance Strategies

Just like their “abled” counterparts, disabled athletes can make use of performance-enhancing sport psychology tools including anxiety control, focusing strategies, thought stopping, confidence building, and goal setting. However, these tools and strategies may need to be gradually adapt. For example, a blind athlete may not benefit from traditional imagery techniques and may need to rely more on kinetics – the physical sensation of movement. Similarly, paralyzed athletes will probably not benefit from progressive muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety but may need to rely more on diaphragmatic breathing.

In general, a sports psychologist working with disabled athletes should evaluate alternative considerations, including:

  • The physical and psychological trauma that the athletes may have experienced
  • Motivations for competition, (i.e., is it for the challenge, fitness, or denial of the disability?)
  • Performance problems (like anxiety) due to a limitation caused by the disability
  • Physical considerations that can influence future injury and performance
  • Socialization issues which may include both physical and social barriers
  • Varied organizational structures of sports for persons with disabilities


The clear message is that mentally, there are only a few differences in how able or disabled athletes get their motivation for training and competition. However, in these few differences are very strong nuances that need to be addressed specifically to the athlete and the level of physical disability – and how they have been affected in their everyday life as a result. With these considerations in mind, we can expect to see an increase not only in sports participation by the disabled but also in the level of competition . . . providing spectator enjoyment and deep personal satisfaction for many years to come.

Author: Miguel Humara, PhD (Flatiron Psych Group) and R.L. Willard