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Sport Is For Everyone

When the French-American tennis professional Marc Massad brought his US-based sport coaching company to the Emirates three years ago, he found a specific section of society being excluded from structured physical activity – children with special needs. In the United States, programmes for the disabled and those with cognitive disorders are commonplace. Massad’s company, Healthy Fit Habit Group, joined the movement there with wheelchair tennis in 2001. Now the 42-year-old tennis pro, who served as a coach for the Lebanese Tennis Federation and Junior Davis Cup and has experience coaching underprivileged children during the US Open, wants to recreate a similar culture of physical activity and sport for children with special needs in the UAE. Along with the intensive health programme for children that his company’s Dubai-based arm New York Sports Services runs at five schools and seven nurseries, individual coaching in tennis and swimming is also offered to children of varying abilities. “I want to create an awareness and realisation that sports is important and children with special needs shouldn’t be excluded from such physical activity,” says Massad, who wrote the book Discover the Wonderful World of Tennis in 23 Lessons, which is used by the tennis federations he has worked with. “Along with combating obesity, sport helps develop motor skills and self-confidence. Parents need to advocate a healthy lifestyle for their children.” A study cited in a paper by AbilityPath, an online special-needs community in the US, found that 86 per cent of teenagers with Down Syndrome were either overweight or obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US notes that children with disabilities are 38 per cent more likely to be obese than their counterparts. Massad says integrating children with special needs by modifying sport activities such as swimming, bicycling, football, gymnastics and yoga assists development. Massad began coaching at the age of 22 while still playing tournaments in Europe and the US. He teaches cardio tennis, a technique borrowed from a trend that began in 2000 that makes the sport more accessible.
“Tennis is no longer an elite sport where you have to be fit to get in. You can participate to lose weight and have fun,” he says. “So I give the students the basics of the game, the rules and regulations, but at no point do they remain static. I set individual goals and they are moving constantly during the game. The aim is to lose a minimum of 200 to 300 calories in an hour.” “I have a 7-year-old child who is on the autism spectrum,” says Massad. “When his parents came to me last year, they wanted me to get him to float. He does not only float now, but can swim half of a full-length swimming pool.” Massad says the boy, whose motor skills were underdeveloped when he first arrived, has made remarkable progress. “He had difficulty moving his fingers and arms before, but can now play the piano. This is a great achievement.” Massad says swimming therapy builds physical endurance. “It increases flexibility, stamina and also impacts behaviour,” he says. “Over a period of time, children, when working with a coach and with other children, begin to feel less threatened and come out of their shell.” The positive outcome has encouraged Massad to introduce more aqua fitness and different swimming styles for the child this year. He has also helped a 3-year-old suffering from partial paralysis by strengthening his working limbs.“You have to start slow so as not to agitate them, and ease them into a routine they are comfortable in and can evolve with,” says Massad. “I did a lot of rehabilitation in terms of movement, where I was trying to reinforce the body parts that are functioning to overcome those that are not.” For the most effective therapy, Massad requests complete medical records and designs a programme with the help of the child’s physiotherapist. “The safety of the child and people around him is very important. These children can easily hurt themselves and we have to work with the parents to handle them in a way that it does not happen.” In his book, he details his teaching methods for children between the ages of 3 and 5, and suggests role-playing to teach the game. “Young kids are receptive if you create scenarios. You can do that with characters such as Spider-Man or Iron Man and develop the game around that.” Massad believes getting children involved in sport from a young age teaches important life lessons. “Whatever happens on the tennis court or in a sports arena and how you deal with it is a reflection of real life,” he says.

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