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WVU School of Sport Sciences helps launch martial arts program for individuals with disabilities

West Virginia University’s Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology program has partnered with local organizations to launch a martial arts program for individuals with intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities. (FULL PHOTO GALLERY)

Jeanette Garcia joined WVU’s College of Applied Human Sciences in the School of Sport Sciences in August 2023. Prior to coming to Morgantown, she was at the University of Central Florida where her research focused on developing community-based for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, primarily those with autism.

At UCF, she modified a judo program for youth autism and gathered feedback from participants, parents, and instructors to refine the program over the years. Garcia saw positive results from participants in the program, including increased confidence and physical activity, improved social skills, and better sleep quality.

Upon arrival in Morgantown, Garcia wanted to gauge interest in implementing a similar program in the area. She reached out to SteppingStones, a non-profit organization that provides year-round recreation for children and adults with disabilities, and Renzo Gracie, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym. Both organizations enthusiastically agreed. At the request of SteppingStones, Garcia agreed to expand the program to include all types of intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities, and then helped recruit participants. Renzo Gracie assisted in ordering the gis and modifying the curriculum for the students.

The six-week trial program began on January 22 and the students are enthusiastically embracing this new activity.

“I love everything about jiu-jitsu,” says Travis Martin. “I love the instructors, the classes, and the takedowns!”

Joining the participants and instructors for each class is a team of seven undergraduate students and three doctoral students to assist with support and data collection.

“I love working with this group,” says Candace Brink, a third-year doctoral student at WVU. “I have had the opportunity to work with many of these athletes in prior coaching venues, and now I get to learn a new skill alongside them. It has been a great experience to work with so many WVU students, to form new partnerships with Renzo Gracie, and to continue partnering with SteppingStones.”

Garcia already has sights on publishing results from the program and applying for funding to continue the program in the future.

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