November 15, 2021 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

4 Tips to Starting a Unified Sports Program

For as long as they’ve been around, sports have brought people together. It’s inclusive by nature. And the Special Olympics, with the help of academic institutions across the country, is working to ensure sports stay inclusive for everyone of all physical and intellectual levels through the adoption of Unified Sports. 

It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability. Having sport in common is just one more way that preconceptions and false ideas are swept away. 

unifiedTo date, 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competitive experiences. In the U.S., more than 4,500 elementary, middle, and high schools partake in Unified Sports while 215 colleges offer Special Olympics College Clubs on campus. 

Below are just four tips offered up by the Special Olympics and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) on how to start up a unified sports program at your school. 

Get the Unified Sports Knowledge

This is the most important concept of Unified Sports that the coach and all of the players must understand and implement. Fundamentally, the principle of meaningful involvement ensures that every player is given an opportunity to contribute to the success of his or her team through their unique skills and qualities.

Special Olympics has teamed up with the NFHS to bring you 90-minute interactive online training at no cost! Simply log on to to take this course.

There are three models schools can adopt in their program — competitive, recreational, and player development models — depending on the student-athletes level of involvement.

Find & Work with Your Adult Allies

Schedule a meeting or phone call with Special Olympics staff in your state to discuss your vision and discover what local resources are available to support your new Unified Sports program. They can help you identify adult coaches if you cannot find someone at your school.

Schedule a meeting with the school administration to share your vision. If possible, try to include a Special Olympics Staff member and/or a key adult who has been involved with Special Olympics in your area or within your school district. When sharing your vision, focus on the impact it will have on school climate/culture. For example, Unified Sports will include students with disabilities in new meaningful ways, it will educate general education students on people with disabilities through interactions and education tools. It will help with anti-bullying initiatives!

You want to ensure all your bases are covered when it comes to funding and costs, as that may be a concern of school administration. Your new Special Olympics allies will be able to help you prepare for this conversation. Talk with them about possible fundraising opportunities or seed money available to start your program. It will be important to get the school supporting Unified Sports as much as possible from the start, which may include: uniforms, transportation, facilities, and coach stipends as necessary.

Find & Work with Your Student Leadership Team

Team up with an existing inclusive club in your school, such as a Unified Club. A Unified Club includes students of all abilities through sports activities and/or social and recreational opportunities and is officially recognized by the school administration.

Create your own Youth Activation Committee (YAC) or club with the help of your adult allies. A YAC is students with and without disabilities working together to lead Special Olympics and plan inclusive activities. Youth Activation is about mobilizing youth to promote school communities where all young people are agents of change – fostering respect, dignity, and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities. Pair up students with and without disabilities, delegate certain responsibilities to the pairs based on your plan.

Work with your student leadership team and adult allies to create a one-page overview of your school’s Unified Sports program based on your plan. This will be used to educate students, parents, and teachers.

Have Fun!

Remember…Things don’t happen overnight. Great things like this take time. You may only have a few students involved at first and that’s okay, before you know it your program will grow! 

Find fun and innovative ways to fundraise for the Special Olympics, invite other students and clubs to participate. Get fans in the stands at your school by gathering a group of friends, designing big posters, and cheering like crazy for your school’s Unified Sports team! As Unified Sports positively impacts more and more students, it will become part of the school culture, which increases sustainability.