The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

To increase the number of individuals with disabilities participating in adapted sport it is relevant to determine the motivations and athletic development of those who do participate in sport through to the high performance level. Despite a number of research studies examining motivations, facilitators, and barriers to sport for persons with a disability, the research on those competing at an elite level is lacking. Learning about what motivates successful athletes with physical disabilities (AWPD) at an elite level will help inform athlete development to the elite level and encourage others to begin sport. Therefore the purpose of this study was “to identify the motivations, facilitators, and barriers to participation in sport for elite AWPD” using self-determination theory (SDT) as a guiding framework, specifically understanding the motivations of elite AWPDs “to engage at the elite level and to examine their perceptions of the barriers and facilitators that impact participation”.

For this study SDT has been used as the framework to understand athlete motivations and behavior with a focus on intrinsic motivation due to its linkages to athletic performance. Semi-structured, open-ended interviews were conducted with 23 elite athletes from the United States. SDT and the social model of disability served as the framework, with thematic analysis applied to the content. Age range was 19 to 58 and competed in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track/road racing, and swimming, and physical disabilities were varied.

SIRC Highlights of the findings:

Six themes and multiple subthemes were extrapolated from the data analysis of the interviews addressing “how AWPDs became engaged in and committed to adapted sport and elite athletes”.

1) Early bird gets the worm (Subthemes: Early start in recreational activities; Early recruiting by coaches; Playing sports with able-bodied peers)

2) Negotiating barriers (Subthemes: Overuse injuries; Cost; Location; Time management; Lack of awareness)

3) Lean on me: Support networks (Subthemes: Support networks; Coach impact)

4) Empowerment and advocacy (Subthemes: Paying it forward; Perks; Transition from nondisabled to disabled)

5)Physical and mental motivations (Subthemes: Being active and loving it; Love of competition)

6)Staying the course :Achieving Goals (Subthemes: Goals as facilitators; Training)

Data shows that there is a high level of motivation to train and compete among these athletes and they started early in their recreational participation prior to advancing to the elite level. Barriers and facilitators identified included support systems, traveling, and recruitment. Empowerment, advocacy, and giving back to others were also in evidence. Positive health outcomes and the joy achieved through competitive involvement were shown as facilitators of elite sport participation as well. Long term and short term goal setting was also discussed extensively.


  • Passion for learning new skills and new strategies in their sport
  • Coaches helped provide opportunities for athletes to realize their capabilities and perceived competence to learn new skills
  • Feeling of satisfaction in reaching goals
  • Feeling of satisfaction being active and being able to overcome “the constraints of their disability when working with others”
  • Love of competition


  • Most study participants were “introduced to recreation at an early age and had participated in multiple activities prior to deciding to specialize in a specific sport as an elite athlete”
  • Experience in sport prior to injury
  • Individuals as facilitators:
    • coaches were seen as recruiters, mentors, role models, and personal supports
    • teammates who were also seen as extended family, supportive friends, transportation, and emotional support
    • significant others as social support
  • Fun and enjoyment
  • Empowerment in the form of the importance of giving back to their community (which the authors identify as a theme needing further research: “how AWPDs make connections in the community and serve as role models to others with a physical disability”)
  • Health benefits of sport. The empowerment by perceived quality of life


  • Time manage was the most commonly discussed barrier: balancing intensive training with work, school, and other personal commitments
  • Cost: common to both elite and recreational athletes, however there did seem to be an ability to overcome this

Future research areas:

  • AWPDs connection to the community as role models
  • Successful coaching behaviour with athletes with a disability (seen as a facilitator of persevering with sport
  • Impact on race and ethnicity within the AWPD context
  • Increasing the participation of female AWPDs in the elite-adapted sport community
  • Extrapolate findings to other age groups, sports, and geographical locations

Practical implications

  • Early age sport participation builds skills and appreciation for sport
  • Participation in sport at an early age for those acquiring a physical disability later in life encouraged continued involvement in sport post onset of disability
  • AWPS expressed frustration with not being treated similarly to elite athletes without a physical disability and a lack of awareness of adapted sport. This emphasized their feelings of duty in giving time to advocacy and awareness building
  • Those who experienced success at an elite level tended to be recruited early, leading to greater opportunities for financial support (scholarships, equipment, etc.), therefore it is important to create more opportunities for children with physical disabilities to participate in sport.