Heart over talent, and how to coach those struggling most

As much of humanity continues various ongoing debates, people with developmental disabilities fight to live a normal life each day. Their passion and desire to succeed in life can only be described as inspirational, and they have fun each step of the way. 

Each day, thousands of people devote their time to helping others realize their potential each day through sports.

One person who knows this well is Nathan Glusman. He began coaching at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta for his bar mitzvah project in 2012. Continuing to coach basketball, among other sports, brought him joy while developing skills to last lifetimes.

“Probably the biggest lesson I learned is just how to talk to people, how to communicate,” Glusman said. “Learning these allow for the building of relationships, connections and friendships.”

He built relationships with people at the MJCCA and watched his team build chemistry together. Their games would often draw large crowds of people walking by the gyms. The players trash-talk, and it makes the games that much more exciting. 

“The people who I coach know how competitive these games can be,” Glusman said. “But if it’s a family or friends first time coming, or if it’s a passerby just stopping by to see what’s going on, they probably don’t know.” 

But everyone sitting in the bleachers knew exactly what their eyes were pegged to. Some members went inside to catch up with old friends but usually stayed for exceptional teamwork on display. 

“They put each other in the best positions to shoot the ball. If a player is best five feet away [from the basket], the team will make sure that’s where the player will shoot the ball from,” Glusman said. 

It also helps that most of the players are friends off the court as well. Everyone who plays knows their teammates, but also their opponents as well. 

“They know who might need some extra space to dribble, and they know who can make the shot from half-court and needs to be guarded super closely,” Glusman said. 

Of course, the task of coaching those with developmental disabilities requires patience. Rachel Normand, an ice skating instructor at The Cooler in Alpharetta, began practicing the sport in 2018 and coaching in 2019. Over the last year, she has interacted with those who take a little more time than others during lessons on several occasions.

As a newer coach and ice skater, Normand quickly learned the challenges of such a demanding sport.

“I’d say the biggest challenge is communication,” Normand said. “Ice skating is already a very hard sport to grasp and adding a disability, whether physical or mental, on top of that makes it exponentially difficult.”

Ice skating comes with several tasks, but Normand continues to be patient as she develops into an exceptional communicator. She coaches students of various ages.

“It’s by no means impossible, but I’d say it makes progress happen a little slower,” Normand said. “Trying to explain difficult or even basic skills to anyone, is tricky, so coaching students with disabilities is even trickier.”

Throughout her time at The Cooler, Normand has learned to appreciate the little things her students do. Many people would never even have the courage to put on a pair of skates and will themselves onto the ice. Generating breakthroughs with her intrepid students draws a beaming smile on her face and makes her proud.

“It wasn’t even that this child achieved a specific skill or goal, but that I could see they were starting to understand how to achieve that goal,” Normand said about her proudest moments as a coach. “When I know a student doesn’t need me anymore is the best feeling, especially for a student with a disability.”

As Glusman leaves behind the chapter of his coaching those with developmental disabilities, he will always carry one memorable moment from his time coaching. When his team went undefeated for three seasons, the thrill of an excellent finish was the icing on the cake for him.

“I don’t think anything compares to a game-winning buzzer-beating three,” Glusman said. “When the shot goes in, the amount of excitement that the players [and fans] feel – I mean everybody is jumping up and down – is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced.”

Normand, a recent graduate of Georgia State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, will begin her journey next semester as a graduate student. Following grad school, she looks forward to building a career in the pediatric occupational therapy field.

Glusman, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., will graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in business and entertainment. He is a lifelong avid sports fan, now on the business side of the industry.

Whatever path Normand and Glusman take, they will always bring their students with developmental disabilities along for the journey. After all, someone will have to teach the coaches about life’s biggest obstacles.