27 January 2023

“Everybody can be part of a Taekwondo team”: How Reza Hassani supports NDIS athletes 

Australian Taekwondo’s 2022 Community Coach of the Year, Reza Hassani, is one of the busiest people in the sport. 

Hassani is not only the Head Instructor of South Australian Club, Total Taekwondo Academy, he’s also a nurse who has spent many years providing care to people with disabilities. 

Over the years, Hassani has seen how vital it is for people with disabilities to avoid isolation and find a physical and social outlet. That’s why he began offering free trials to four NDIS clients, encouraging them to jump on the mats and give Taekwondo a try. 

“I was [originally] a care worker supporting different facilities for aged care, disabilities and childcare,” Hassani says. 

“When I became a nurse, I saw clients through my work in the NDIS and felt there were ways I could manage and support them through Taekwondo. Two of them are from my [home] country of Afghanistan, and two from Australia.

“These clients also had relatives or friends who were doing Taekwondo and they thought ‘yeah, why not give it a try’.” 

Hassani’s NDIS athletes are on the Autism spectrum, with varying challenges around learning, communication and social interaction. 

Research shows that people with autism have elevated levels of anxiety, which can lead to excessive isolation and many other challenges in their everyday lives. 

Reza Hassani with his 2022 Club of the Year Award

Hassani saw Taekwondo as the perfect way for them to tackle these challenges in a safe and welcoming environment. He’d read numerous studies about the ways physical activity can help people Autistic people of all ages to improve key motor skills as well as their social and communication skills. 

“It’s a strange sport for them, and most of them have never tried it, but when we give them a better picture and a free trial, they understand it better. Taekwondo is all about socialising and movement. 

“It’s important because most of the time, they end up sitting around, often doing very sedentary things. In the gym, they’re doing important movements.” 

Studies in Korea have shown that Taekwondo’s kicking movements significantly increase the single-leg and double-leg balance of people with autism, particularly youth with developing bodies. Researchers have also found that it improves their postural control as well as their coordination and turning ability. 

Hassani says the key is to pay close attention to each athlete’s physical and mental capabilities. For example, the NDIS athletes had trouble focusing in classes at the beginning. However, once they got used to the structure of his’s classes, they began to feel more comfortable, and better concentration followed. 

“Sometimes they’re distracted or noisy at the start, but if you just make them feel happy [and included], the next session comes along and they listen to you better than the last one.

“When I see those improvements, it’s the best sign, and then with that connection, they slowly build trust with me.” 

Hassani has also been careful to ensure that he gives these athletes tasks that are physically and mentally challenging, but achievable. 

“It’s not easy because everyone feels a bit scared… they need more support and care while they train and you have to keep an eye on every single movement – what they’re doing and taking responsibility for the things you’re teaching. 

“I’m always communicating with everybody about each of their plans [and progress]… with my caring and nursing background, I can easily figure out what each person needs and how I can assist them… But every coach can do it if you understand every person’s background, how they can move, and how they can react.

Reza Hassani with members of his club. Image credit: Total Taekwondo Academy.

“That’s more important to me than having lots of clients, and then instead of keeping them, after one or two weeks, they’re gone because they’re not really interested or weren’t treated properly.” 

Taekwondo has given these athletes a great opportunity to learn how to interact with others. Many people on the spectrum struggle to establish social connections, but the gym provides them with a chance to do so in an inclusive environment. 

“As soon as they wear the uniform, it’s a big thing for them… they feel part of something and they’re making friends. 

“As all of the students get to know each other more, you’ll find that if one person needs a hand or support, basically everybody tries to help.” 

Total Taekwondo Academy is no stranger to success at the very highest levels of the sport, having claimed 5 gold medals, 5 silver medals and four bronze medals at the 2022 National Championships. 

Hassani is also a World Taekwondo Hanmadang Champion himself, but medals are not the only measure of achievement at the club. 

Self-growth has always been the priority, and every athlete is encouraged to improve their personal skills, flexibility, strength and stamina. But there’s no pressure on them to compete against their peers, according to Hassani. 

“We have good athletes who can represent Australia, and at the same time, we have other athletes with varying abilities who are just trying to get the best out of themselves and be part of the team.

“If they believe in themselves, of course, they can push to become better… They just need to be shown the way and given some guidance on how to be successful. You’ve got to give them hope so they understand [that anything is possible].”

“But these clients are not looking to be a champion, and that’s ok, they just want to enjoy a better lifestyle, be happy and do some activities.”

For these reasons, Hassani also makes sure that he’s not pushing his clients too hard and allows them to take time between lessons when needed. 

“They’re coming in, sometimes on and off. It really depends and sometimes they say after a half-session, I’m really tired now and I say ‘that’s fine, you can go and rest’.

“Some come in weekly, some come in one or two days a month. Their carers usually bring them down. But they are happy and they keep calling me asking ‘Reza, when does the club start again?’”

Whether they come in regularly or periodically, Hassani has seen, first-hand, the benefits Taekwondo can provide to people of all ages and abilities, from elite athletes to people with disabilities who just want to get out and move. 

“Everybody can be part of a Taekwondo team, sometimes they just need help getting started. As soon as they find a club and coach that understand them and their background, I think it makes life a lot easier for them.” 

“As soon as we give them a hub, they can achieve a lot.” 

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