The Public Honors College

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Special Olympics Benefits both Athletes and Parents


March 14, 2011
Press Release #11-058

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Participating in the Special Olympics benefits both the athletes and their parents, according to a study by Laraine Glidden, distinguished professor of psychology and human development at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and three associates. The research was published in the February 2011 issue of the journal Intellectual and Development Disabilities.

Glidden; Katharine Bamberger ’10, now a Pennsylvania State University graduate student; Angela Draheim ’03, the St. Mary’s psychology department assistant; and Joanne Kersh, senior research associate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, interviewed 34 Special Olympics sailing and kayaking athletes and their parents and contacted them again a year later to assess the long-term stability of their perceptions.

Their research confirms previous studies that show the perceived value of sports participation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Benefits are physical and psychosocial, such as self-esteem. And the athletes’ parents also report that they benefit from the expanded social networks and pride in their children’s accomplishments. In fact, sometimes parents are even more positive about benefits for their sons and daughters than the athletes themselves.

One caution arising from the findings: Because parents tended to overestimate the benefits when compared to their children’s perceptions, researchers and service providers should try, if possible, to consult with the person with special needs rather than only their parents.

Special Olympic athlete Corey Vallender first competed in Special Olympics nine years ago when he was 13. “He used to say, ‘It’s too hard’ all the time,” said his father, Earl Vallender. Today, Corey has new athletic skills, but more importantly his self confidence has improved; also the competition provided the family with opportunities to do things together, and to meet other families with similar interests and concerns.

Glidden is excited about this research because she thinks the findings are important, but also because two St. Mary’s College alumnae are co-authors and the research was done at St. Mary’s. The Mid-Summer Classic, hosted by the college since 2000, brings more than 240 Special Olympic athletes to the campus every summer to compete in sailing and kayaking.

 “It demonstrates that liberal arts colleges can foster active faculty-student collaborative engagement in research,” said Glidden. “There are opportunities close to home as well as far away. We were able to complete this study because of the support of college staff, Special Olympics of Maryland, our University of Massachusetts collaborator, and, of course, the participating athletes and their families.”

Alumna Angie Draheim was also delighted with the experience: “I truly enjoyed talking to parents about their children's Special Olympics experiences, and am very grateful Laraine invited me to collaborate on this research. It provided me with the experience of both my first conference presentation and my first co-authored publication.”

St. Mary's College of Maryland, designated the Maryland state honors college in 1992, is ranked one of the best public liberal arts schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. More than 2,000 students attend the college, nestled on the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland.