4 Lessons from Special Olympics

Xperience Growthblogposts

I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Special Olympics basketball tournament in our area.

I’ve been a volunteer for well over 10 years and because of COVID restrictions, it’s been 3 years since the basketball tournament last took place.

It was SO good to get back in the gym, feel the energy, hear the sounds, even smell that gym smell. I grew-up playing basketball in similar gyms and that environment feels good.

And, I learned some great lessons from running aspects of the tournament and from the incredible athletes that resonate beyond the gym.

#1 Have the courage to do your best

The structure of Special Olympic competitions is wonderful. A big goal is to pair similar skilled athletes together for an equitable competition.

There’s some impressively competitive 5-on-5 games. There’s also equally impressive simple skill games.

My main role in the event was to lead the Team Skills competition. In this modified basketball game, 5 athletes stand at designated spots roughly 10 feet apart in a big square with one athlete in the middle. To play, players pass the ball to each other around the square, ending with the person in the middle. The middle person would shoot an uncontested shot 5 feet away. The ball would then go to the opposing team on the opposite side of the court for them to do the same passing, catching & take a shot. The winning team is the team who get the most points based on every “good pass,” “good catch” and a made shot.

The skill set of these players is on the lower end of the basketball spectrum. That’s where the beauty in this event lies.

These athletes do the best. You can tell they have practiced passing, catching, shooting and rotating from spot-to-spot around the court. They used every ounce of concentration and physical skill they had to do what you and I might consider simple skills – passing, catching, shooting.

They teach us that we should only focus on what we can do, not what we can’t. If these athletes focused on what they couldn’t do – i.e. play a “real basketball game” they wouldn’t compete. They had the courage to come out and do their best – regardless of what their best is.

#2 It’s a competition, not a charity

In the Special Olympics, there is no “participation trophy.” Everyone and every team earns a place (1st, 2nd, 3rd, ect.) in each event.

Nothing is given to these athletes. They practiced for competition day. They compete as best they can that day. Some days they get gold. Other days not so much.

The volunteers, whose hearts are in the right place, can sometimes want to give them a break or “just let them ______” (fill in the blank with whatever).

Yet, charity is not what the games are about. If we give something because “feel bad for them” that actually does not allow them the dignity of competing to the best of their capabilities.

We must watch our well-meaning selves so that we don’t give too much to those around us, robbing them of the chance to compete, earn & learn.

#3 Plug in where you’re needed most

I’m usually a “Key Volunteer” at Special Olympic events I attend. Key Volunteers are experienced and help run the event and often have advanced training in running Special Olympics events.

For my Team Skills event, I helped prep & run the event. I made sure we had all the necessary equipment, set-up the gym for the event, ensured we had enough volunteers to run the event, trained all the volunteers and made sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.

This leadership position requires me to unload and load trucks full of equipment, set-up & give out snacks and water, answer questions from athletes’ coaches & family and cleaning-up the gym after the event so that we leave it as clean or cleaner than we found it.

I plug in where it’s needed most. From the high level event execution strategy to cleaning up trash left over from specters, I plugged in.

After the event I lead in the morning, I plug in other games at the tournament. I simply ask “where do you need me most?” That question over the years has introduced me to literally every volunteer role at the basketball event – referee, scoreboard operator, game monitor, scorekeeper, etc.

I find the variety fun and it makes me all the more valuable that I can do almost literally anything and everything in that event.

#4 Life happens in the present, not the past

I am motivated to be involved in the Special Olympics because of my Aunt Janet. She lived with Downs Syndrome. She was a kind and gentle soul, whom the whole family and her community adored.

Janet competed at Special Olympics events for the better part of 4 decades. Often she would show you or even wear recent medals she won at various competitions. It was a sense of pride for her!

I don’t recall ever going to support her at an event. As an adult, I felt remorse for not going to see her. Then I gave myself grace. I was a kid and didn’t have the awareness to ask (likely) and even had I, I was either in school or playing sports of my own weeks from 6 years old on. My parents probably suggested it and I’m sure they went from time-to-time. Regardless, there was nothing I could do about it as an adult.

What occurred to me, though, is that over those 4 decades, Janet interacted with hundreds if not thousands of volunteers that made each event possible for her and the competitors.

I can’t go back and see Janet compete. I can be that current volunteer that helps someone else’s “Aunt Janet” come to their Sunday dinners with a medal around their neck and the sense of earned pride that comes with it.

If I focus on what I missed, I’ll be stagnant and ruminate over events now out of my control. If I focus on what I can do now, I will show-up with high energy & focus to put on an event worthy of all the athletes and specifically my Aunt Janet.

I’ll close with the Special Olympics oath, which is delivered aloud by an athlete before each event. I love its message. We should all take this to heart.

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” – Special Olympics Oath