I recently had the pleasure of talking with Michael Shipper founder of Empowered Sports and Fitness in NYC. I was introduced to “Coach Mike” through a client’s parent, and after speaking with him knew I needed to share his mission and work! Coach Mike’s philosophy is “One of Inclusion not Exclusion” when it comes to learning and playing.
As a new mom (hence the very long blog hiatus!) I find myself thinking more and more about how I want to surround my daughter with POSITIVE people, teachers, and experiences. Coach Mike’s interview highlights how important it is to teach children through their strengths, and how to EMPOWER them!
One on One with Coach Mike
1. What inspired you to start Empowered Sports and Fitness?
I created Empowered Sports and Fitness based on my own personal experiences. At the age of four, I was diagnosed with a learning disability that was both retrieval- and language-based. The diagnosis opened the floodgates to a series of judgments – from teachers, peers, and even relatives – as to what I could or could not accomplish in life. Despite my challenges with academics, there was one area that made all of that disappear: sports and fitness. All of my insecurities and self-esteem issues became an afterthought when I was out on the fields and courts. This was possible as a result of a special set of programs that I was fortunate to be a part of while attending a school for students with learning disabilities. I participated in sports programs that emphasized play, inclusiveness, and a level playing field. It didn’t matter if you were a fast runner or fast math problem solver; it didn’t matter if you could score 20 points in a game or process 20 words at a time; it didn’t matter if you struck out or hit a homer by acing your exam. Everyone had their moment to shine.
I have since learned that this opportunity was quite unique. Sports and fitness can be intimidating to many children depending on their ability; I believe they should be used to promote inclusion. Sports and fitness can be a gateway to building self-esteem and confidence. With that in mind, I’ve created a unique approach to youth fitness by getting my clients to play and move prior to my injecting technique and development into the session. I consider myself to be both a teacher and a coach. As a teacher, my goal is to plant seeds; as a coach, my goal is to get results. Overall, my main objective is to provide kids, especially those who have been challenged just as I was, with opportunities similar to those I had growing up.
2. Exercise is beneficial in more ways than just physical. What are some positive impacts the children you work with experience?
In addition to the physical benefits, the children I have worked with have shown improvement in the way they learn (academics), how they relate and communicate with others, and how they feel about themselves. I constantly strive to help my clients pursue excellence on and off the field. The most important aspect a coach must consider when working with kids and adolescents is to remain positive; be positive about their skills and efforts. By showing appreciation for their physical activity you are reinforcing the foundation of lifelong habits. Overall, it has become more than just the physical – it’s also about the quality of life.
3. If you could give parents two pieces of advice for making physical activity a positive part of their child’s life, what would it be?
“My child doesn’t like organized sports or hates the idea of ‘exercise.'”
Sometimes it’s more about what parents want than what the child wants. Parents tend to have their own agenda when it comes to their children. Playing organized sports, attending classes and/or other structured activities does not have to be the ONLY method of physical activity. In fact, less structured activities can be a great start for kids who dislike the organized approach. When I’m not there to train, I teach the families I work with to create activities that are fun (that aren’t typical gym routines), and those activities should include input from the child. In other words, the family should be helping their child find activities he or she enjoys and can do on their own. Lastly, these activities should be creative, imaginative, and engaging. There’s a great saying about life: “Find what you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This same concept applies to kids and exercise. If they find something they love to do, they won’t think of it as exercise.
“My child is self-conscious playing sports or trying new activities.”
A child who is a reluctant athlete might feel extra nervous when a coach barks out orders or the focus is on winning. This can be powerfully de-motivating. However, all of this can be overlooked because society tells us our children must learn to play with others and develop certain skills in a timely fashion. What if your child doesn’t fit this cookie-cutter lifestyle? Do we want to discourage them even more? Instead, shouldn’t we be trying to optimally motivate kids through purposeful direction? I have found that kids who are self-conscious, do not enjoy being singled out, or don’t like to try new activities, respond well to personal communication. By directing questions, suggestions, and tasks to the child privately, rather than publicly, we can make them feel safe and not “on display.” Some kids may be motivated by competitive play, but what about the kids who are not? Those kids need a trainer who understands how to create a safe, fun, and engaging environment, and, within a reasonable amount of time, understands how to gradually introduce competitive activities.
4. You will be starting social groups in the fall with an Occupational Therapist. What will these groups focus on?
Can you relate to the following story…
“Coach Mike, my child doesn’t have many friends. I find it extremely hard to say it to myself, let alone out loud to you. I get a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart when I talk about this with anyone. My child is rarely invited to a birthday party, sleepover, or playdate. In most cases, we only get invites from close friends or family. What hurts me most is that my child loves to be around other kids, but he either sits on the sideline watching and smiling or, the other extreme, he becomes over-stimulated and overzealous while interacting and typically ends up having to be removed (kicking and screaming) from the other kids. It’s no secret my child struggles socially to build and maintain friendships. I want him to be able to enjoy being around other kids without being isolated or about to star in a UFC cage fight.”
Having heard many stories like this, I came to the realization that I needed to create change for the families with whom I was already working. With the help of Emily Kline, a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, we came up with the idea of combining our skills and creating a fun fitness – social group. We want to give the families and kids we work with a safe environment to practice and improve their social skills, and have them learn these skills through sports and fitness. This way, when they’re not working with us, i.e., when they’re out in the real world, parents and kids can feel more confident in any given environment. Society has a lot of catching up to do in regards to awareness for children with special needs. However, rather than waiting for society to catch up, Emily and I decided to create a paradigm shift and give the families and kids we work with additional skills and the support they need now. With that in mind, we came up with the concept, CORE, which focuses on the following:
Cognitive – The benefits of physical fitness go beyond health and wellness of the body. Besides strengthening the cardiovascular and muscular systems, research suggests that physical activity also positively impacts the brain and improves cognition, mood, attention, and academic achievement in students. So, to support positive outcomes for both health and learning, we have incorporated movement into our social skills groups.
Open Communication – There are a broad range of communication and learning styles because we all process information differently. The learning styles are: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (hands-on), or a combination of all three. Knowing how your child learns helps us leverage cognitive and movement skills and explore barriers to help guide them.
Responsibility – We teach personal and social responsibility through physical activity. In fact, physical activity is a great way to teach kids valuable life skills such as respect for others, cooperation, and leadership. We enjoy helping shape and develop the character of the kids with whom we work.
Establish Life Long Habits – We are constantly striving to help the children and families we work with to pursue excellence on and off the field. The most important aspects to consider when working with kids and adolescents is to be positive about their skills and efforts. By showing appreciation for their physical activity, the foundation of lifelong habits is reinforced.
We understand that life choices and interactions can be difficult for the kids we work with because of sensory difficulties, motor planning difficulties, and social skills difficulties. Because the kids we work with already have so much on their plates, we decided to focus on the CORE (literally – as this is where all movement stems from) through physical activity and theory of mind (providing our kids with the CORE skills to be socially interactive). We felt that if we could give the kids and parents a model (the CORE Four), they would be able to reference and utilize these strategies in any given situation.
5. How could teachers and therapists like myself incorporate games and physical activities into our teaching and therapy to benefit those we work with?
My philosophy is one of INclusion, not EXclusion. The best way to include a child or adolescent in an activity is to find out what he/she loves, such as a favorite television series or character, a video or computer game, or even a movie, and use that as motivation. In other words, I would encourage teachers/therapists to become mad scientists. Cook up the craziest, whackiest, and most creative game possible that is based on your kiddos passion and you will have them engaged for hours!
6. As a mom and professional I get so busy that self-care (especially exercise) can be hard to commit to. What are some ways the whole family can get active together and encourage each other?
“My child’s schedule is jam-packed with school, homework, after-school activities, and there is not enough time to squeeze physical activity into an already crowded schedule.”
There is no doubt that kids and families today are in a time crunch. Free time has declined and kids are spending more time than ever in sedentary activities. In fact, a lot of free time kids have is spent in front of some sort of screen (TV, Computer, iPhone, iPad). Technology is not bad, but it’s an easy distraction that takes time away from things that are truly important. Being busy is the new norm. Therefore, it’s important to find balance. Too much or too little of something is never good. We need to find a happy medium. The one common denominator we all share is good health. Without our health it’s hard to be busy with anything. Therefore, my recommendation is to make everything into a game. For example, if you need your kids to clean their room, turn it into a Mission Impossible game. Their mission is to clean their room in one minute. However, many items are left on the floor (toys/dirty laundry) at the end of the one minute is how many jumping jacks they have to do. Another idea is before your kiddos engage in any screen time turn the screen time into an activity first. For example, if their favorite show is Peppa Pig, before they can watch Peppa Pig they must go on a scavenger hunt and find all the piggies (print and cut out some piggies). On each of the pigs write a small game (5 jumping jacks, 5 push-ups, 10 seconds of running in place), and once they find all the pigs they can watch their show.
7. Your company and coaching is all about Empowerment. Can you leave readers with any advice or words that empower you?
Having been diagnosed with a learning disability since the age of four, I have mastered the ability to understand how I learn best. But, I was not able to accomplish this on my own. I had the help of family, teachers, mentors, tutors, and friends. We all face challenges in our life. It’s never a sign of weakness to ask for help, but a sign of strength. We all learn differently and process information differently. Everyone deserves the same equal opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest. My life’s purpose is to create greater awareness in the community of special needs and show the community that with the right set of tools and guidance great things can happen.
If you are a parent looking to involve your child in social groups or empowerment through fitness visit Coach Mike’s website