Building Mental Health Muscles in Special Olympians and Bridging Learning Opportunities for Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Trainees

April 13, 2020

A Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (TN IDDRC, UCEDD, LEND) partnership with Special Olympics Tennessee and the Strong Minds program teaches athletes coping strategies to reduce stress while providing trainees with hands-on learning opportunities.

Strong Minds is the latest of eight disciplines to be offered through Healthy Athletes, a Special Olympics program designed to address the unmet health needs of its athletes by providing free health screenings. To date, the program has provided more than 2 million free examinations to athletes worldwide and with the addition of the Strong Minds program, has expanded its repertoire, bridging physical and mental health to attend to the whole person.

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) social worker Carol Rabideau, LCSW, is a clinical director for Strong Minds. Rabideau was trained through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on learning at the Arizona State Games in May 2019, and now coordinates Strong Minds programming with Special Olympics Tennessee.

"Strong Minds is a wonderful addition to the Healthy Athletes program," said Rabideau. "It's important to be sure that the athletes are recognizing and managing their stress, training both their bodies and their minds. Special Olympics has shared some data that many competing athletes feel stress daily, but most of them do not have healthy ways of coping with that stress. So, through the Strong Minds program, we are trying to introduce tools they like and will use."

Strong Minds includes a series of 5-minute stations that athletes can cycle through to learn different coping strategies:


  • Stress & You helps athletes recognize where stress is stored in their bodies and teaches techniques for muscle relaxation;
  • Strong Messages brings awareness to how the athletes talk to themselves when they are stressed, and how to turn negative messages into positive messages;
  • Strong Breathing introduces deep breathing techniques for relaxation;
  • Strong Stretching introduces basic stretches and aims to bring awareness to the parts of the body that are tight and holding stress; and
  • Strong Supporting focuses on the act of asking for support when needed and how supporting other people can make a difference in building connections and releasing stress.


"Athletes move through the stations and experiment with the strategies we provide to see what they like best," said Rabideau. "Once they're finished and pick their favorites, we give them visual reminders and objects they can use to continue to practice. These are life skills that can improve their well-being and that ultimately can improve their athletic performance. It's a fantastic opportunity for the athletes, and it's also a fantastic opportunity for the volunteers who get to interact and learn with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in an exciting and engaging environment."

Rabideau, along with Elise McMillan, J.D., led a student group project this year that connected both Vanderbilt Consortium LEND and VKC UCEDD trainees with the Strong Minds program. The project was designed to give trainees more direct experiences with adolescents and adults with IDD and experience in event planning alongside a community agency.

Trainees assisted with planning and logistics, training volunteers, and staffing the various Strong Minds stations during the Special Olympics Tennessee Statewide Flag Football Tournament and the 2020 State Winter Games in Gatlinburg. Next up are the Summer Games that will take place May 15-16 at Lipscomb University.

"The trainees have been fabulous and true partners in the planning and implementation of Strong Minds in Tennessee," said Rabideau. "It's a win-win, as Special Olympics depends on volunteers and trainees are eager to participate to have fun and to gain valuable experiences that they can take back to their professional lives. It's heartening when we can all pull together with the goal of improving lives."